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Jackets for Fall Biking

October is here and the weather in Minneapolis is now as crisp as the dried leaves lining our streets (I’m loving the “crunch” they make as I pedal by). I’m still riding my bike, but I’m thinking about what I wear differently than I did in the summer. Outfits are now constructed around layers instead of just trying to wear as little clothing as is socially acceptable.

What I wear to ride my bike

Here’s a look at my jackets. None of them are bike specific. In some cases, I would be better served if they were. In all cases, I would specifically consider bike-ability if I were buying new ones. However, I recently paid for fancy tires on my bike, so I’m using what I’ve got for now, and they work pretty well. I’m betting you’ve got some things already in your closet that will also serve you well in the coming months.

On the left is a non-windproof, very light fleece pullover. It’s representing a wide range of lightweight fleece and wool sweaters that I use as top layers for warmer fall days and mid-layers when it gets really cold. On less-windy days, I like riding in non-windproof clothes. They might be a bit chilly at first, but once I start climbing hills, the airflow keeps me from getting too sweaty. The nicer-looking sweaters can be worn in the office, too, which is great.

The bright pink and white shell was originally designed for skiing, but I was thinking about biking when I bought it on deep discount at a local store last spring. I wanted something brighter than my usual black to add to my urban cycling wardrobe. Bright cherry pink isn’t usually my color; that’s the compromise I make for the sake of visibility. I often wear a mish-mash of various neon-colored accessories with it, and imagine that I look like an 80’s throwback rolling down the bike path. The pink jacket is completely unlined, so I think of it as my spring/fall riding jacket. It’s a great for cycling because it’s windproof, bright, and has reflective details. It’s not so great because it doesn’t have the long tail in back that many biking jackets have, and the sleeves are a bit short for riding. Next time I might look for something biking-specific for those reasons, but right now this jacket does what I need it to do. Any thin, lightweight, wind-breaking shell can be employed for fall biking.

My rain jacket was purchased three years ago with hiking and general wet days in mind. Like the ski shell, it would be better for cycling if the back were a bit longer. Some rain jackets are designed so that the hood can fit over a helmet. This one doesn’t fall into that category, but it does have velcro in back of the hood that lets me adjust it enough that I can wear it under a helmet without obscuring my peripheral vision. Unfortunately, apparel that is both waterproof and breathable is the Bigfoot of active wear – plenty of people (or companies) may claim to have the answer, but I’m not convinced it exists. Still, the jacket generally keeps me dry when it’s raining and has (arm) pit zips for ventilation. I don’t wear it much, but for days that are both cold and drizzly, rain gear saves my life (or at least my mood).

Last but not least is a windproof, water-resistant, fleece-lined softshell jacket. It replaced an identical version I wore out in college. Again, I bought it before I thought I would ever get into winter biking. Black is the least visible color, and not one I would choose again. I make up for it with lights, reflectors, and bright helmets and scarves. Other than the color, this jacket was perfect for winter riding last year. People think that winter biking in Minnesota must be really cold. It can be if you aren’t dressed right, but my core warms up faster when I’m biking than when I’m stuck in traffic, hoping the tiny engine in my tiny car will produce real heat. My heavier winter jackets end up being way too warm after about a mile of pedaling, so I wear this jacket. From near freezing to about 10 below (Fahrenheit), it’s fine with only a long-sleeved, sweat-wicking base layer. Less than 10 below, I break out the fleece mid layers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, since I haven’t even seen frost yet. Other common wardrobe items I don’t currently own that could be easily converted into great fall biking layers include wool coats and lightweight, synthetic insulation puffy-style jackets.

I have a wool coat, but it’s a long dressy style. I don’t wear it on my bike because it would get caught in my spokes or worse, since I don’t have a skirt guard or chain guard. Anything of the shorter variety would work – from a boiled wool blazer to the ubiquitous pea coat of the mid-2000’s. Wool is great because it wicks and insulated even when it gets damp. Felted wool would provide some wind-blocking. If your jacket is insulated, it might be too warm for riding. The best way to find out is to try it and see!

I love down coats, but not for cycling. First, my down winter coat is way to warm for aerobic winter activity. Second, down’s insulating ability is based on it’s loft, which deflates immediately once it gets damp. Whether from precipitation or my own sweat, this is a real possibility, so I stay away from clothing with real feathers inside. Synthetic alternatives, such as Patagonia’s Nano Puff Jacket, avoid this problem and would make good bike wear. If you’re not sure what’s lining your puffy jacket, check the tag.

There are a lot of great bike-specific outerwear options on the market, with the long tails, long sleeves, and pit zips that almost everything in my current wardrobe lacks. And yet, with longer gloves, longer sweaters, and the right layers underneath, I am able to be comfortable and cozy riding in Minneapolis all fall (which I imagine feels a lot like that thing other areas of the country call “winter.”) Try out what’s already in your closet before you buy something new!

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One comment on “Jackets for Fall Biking

  1. Another great post! Thanks for sharing your fall layers.
    I wanted to add a little something…
    Bike-specific outerwear is the BEST for biking! I have accumulated a few pieces that I really love, including long tails, long sleeves, and vents/ pit zips. However, bike-specific is not necessary to bike, which you did a nice job of showing in your post. There are a few features that you can look for in your non-bike-specific wardrobe that can help you bridge the gap.

    WRISTS: If you’ve worn too much clothing, roll up your sleeves to vent. You’ll cool down in a jiff. If you stretch out on your bike and your sweater doesn’t cover your wrists, leaving you too cool, get some nice wrist-warmers! (DIY: The “tube” part of wool tube socks work well, or knit or crochet or felt your own!)
    NECK: A draft down your sweater or jacket is the easiest way to get an unpleasant chill. I noticed all of your examples in the photo above have zippers. Great for venting! Start zipped, start to warm up and unzip a bit. Scarves are a great way to start out warm and wrapped up, and as you heat up while biking you can loosen and vent.

    This isn’t earth-shattering information, but I wanted to share what I do to make my regular clothes a little more versatile.

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