System of Dress – A Recipe For Riding In All Conditions

Have you ever felt like you’re putting a puzzle together, getting ready for a ride when the temperature and moisture in the air are outside of that beautifully perfect day? Maybe it’s 50 degrees, and the humidity is higher than usual for your area. Or it’s in the lower 40s with a slight breeze, but you’re doing a coffee ride. Many of us have struggled to win the balancing act of being comfortable based on the amount of effort you’re going to put into the pedals. The challenge gets compounded more as the temps shift with the changing seasons. This post will hopefully give you a reliable approach to what pieces to pull out of the kit drawer for a great ride — no matter what Mother Nature decides to do.

The System of Dress is a process of evaluation based on variables that each rider has to take into consideration before kitting up. Is it cool or cold? What’s the humidity like out there? What about precipitation? How hard will I ride today? What’s the real temperature out there?

Taking a thoughtful approach to these questions and leveraging layers of various materials is a recipe for success. This strategy might be a little different than you have been picking layers, so hear me out on this. The brief overview is: First, you need to decide on is how humid is it for the cool or cold. Next, what are the conditions as far as precipitation or wind? Lastly, how hard will you be pushing pedals and what’s the amount of insulation you need once you get going? This will determine your innermost layer against the skin, what kind of protection from an outermost layer you need or not, and any additional thermal insulation.

Sounds simple right? Once you get the full understanding of how each layer works independently and in concert with the others, then it’s almost like that pie at the halfway point of your ride. Easy. All right, let’s dig into some details.

A mountain biker in fresh snow on the trail.
With the right approach to layering and materials, you can ride even in the harshest weather.

1. INNERMOST LAYER

For the majority of our rides, we’re going to have a Two-Plus layer system with an innermost, outermost and potential middle layer.

Just like a steadfast athlete, you have to have a solid base to build upon. This innermost layer is quite often a baselayer. There are several types of baselayers out there of varying weights and materials, but the materials are the key ingredients in this prescription. As we talked in-depth on our previous post about baselayers, transfer of heat and moisture from the skin is our primary focus.

Knowing the properties of how polyester, Merino wool, and blended fibers work, we can choose the best option for the situation to maintain comfort. In our first step, consider how cool or cold it is, paired with the amount of relative humidity in the air we’ll be riding in.

If it’s just lovely and cool but dry outside, we would probably want to use a polyester-based Transfer Baselayer to wick moisture away from our skin, so that it can evaporate into the dry air from an outer layer. Another situation for a synthetic baselayer is a high effort, sweat-inducing workloads. This will allow the fabric to transfer that moisture away from the body efficiently. Additionally, polyester gives us a little insulation from the cool temps with a buffered microclimate near the skin.

However, let’s say it’s cool and humid outside. The increased moisture in the air is going to really limit the ability of your sweat shifted away from the body to evaporate. So in this instance, a Merino wool baselayer will pull the moisture away from the skin but maintain warmth and provide a buffer from the external temperatures. Merino wool provides insulation when wet because of its natural properties. Sure, it does dry slower, but this is why we’re using it in the higher humidity because it has less evaporative heat loss. You stay warmer but won’t overheat. We did some homework on this to make sure.

Another situation of benefit for Merino is variable workloads. You know those rides where nothing is constant except the variety? When your workload often changes on rolling hills or, who’d been on those slow then fast then slow again rides? The wool will maintain a more consistent buffer to keep you comfortable.

If you say to me, “It’s cold as you know what out there!” and still want to ride, then we’re definitely looking to use Merino wool. Again, Merino wool naturally stays warm when wet, and that’s important when you’re wet in the cold. The cooling of your sweat in the cold is just going to make you, well, cold. So if you tend to run cold, to begin with, maybe level up to a bit thicker Merino Thermal Baselayer for additional insulation.

Still with me? Let’s review. The three main lanes to choose for your baselayer are:

  • Cool / Dry / High Workload dry → Transfer Baselayer
  • Cool / Humid / Variable Workload → Merino Baselayer
  • COLD → Merino Thermal Baselayer
cyclists putting jackets on as the sun sets behind a mountain range
When you get to the top of the climb and need protection from the wind of a fast descent.
a mountain biker riding through the fall colors of Kenosha Pass
The Summit Shell Jacket packs up small enough to go with you on any ride.
It can certainly be dry and cold in the winter.

2. OUTERMOST LAYER

The outermost layer’s focus is on the elements and conditions outside, and it’s essential to evaluate whether or not you need protection from cold, wind, precipitation, or even nada. If nada, your outermost layer can obviously be a jersey.

When you’re deciding which jacket to grab or not grab when heading out, consider the precipitation and actual wind speed. The wind speed will undoubtedly increase with your ride effort, which generates more body heat and potentially sweat; so let’s focus on the existing conditions first. All in all, this layer is pretty cut and dry. Or at least that’s the goal, right? You either have requirements you need to account for, or you don’t. Choosing the outer layer depends on what the weather conditions are presenting you.

If it’s mild to cool outside with a bit of wind, reaching for your Summit Shell or Barrier jacket will probably be your best option. It’s a highly breathable material and packable if you get too warm. Alternatively, regulate your core with two-way zippers to keep those stationary, wind-catching, arms well protected. Plus, our Barrier fabric has water repellency if you do get caught out in a light bout of precipitation.

When the clouds are sharing their bounty in the form of rain, a WxB Jacket, and even pants or shorts, are going to be your ideal outer layer. WxB is our waterproof breathable fabric with fully taped seams to keep you dry from the external forces of nature. You get total protection from rain and wind with enough breathability to allow vapor your body is creating to escape. Keeping you from feeling like you’re riding in a garbage bag.

Then there are times when you plan to ride, and it’s just flat out cold or potentially snowing. This is where our AmFIB softshell material comes into play so you can play. With windproof and water-resistant multi-layer protection, via breathable membrane, you’re protected from those chilly to cold temps out on the bike. Our AmFIB technology is our material of choice for protection across a wide range of cold to colder and drier conditions. Most of our SELECT and ELITE level AmFIB jackets incorporate a level of thermal insulation in addition to the weather protection. Let’s make a note here, that while AmFIB has water resistance treatments and membranes to keep you dry, they are not waterproof. A garment needs to be fully taped at the seams to win waterproof approval. Thus, snowy conditions are more of a dry condition than a wet one in terms of our riding apparel, because snow might melt on parts of your kit but won’t soak you as much as all-out raindrops.

A mountain biker riding through moss covered rocks in the rain.
Riding in the rain in the Pacific Northwest wearing the Summit WxB Jacket and WxB Shell Short.
A detail photo of rain beading up on a jacket.
Taking a break during a soggy road ride in the ELITE WxB Jacket.
The sun coming out after a rain storm in the mountains.
Even a wet road can be a beautiful thing.

Our newest PRO AmFIB Shell is changing the game when it comes to an outer layer. This triple-layer, four-way stretch jacket is completely windproof and highly water-resistant. It’s a three-season foul weather piece that protects like an insulated rain jacket but fits like a long-sleeve jersey. This shell is a very technical piece of gear that can be worn almost every day. It’s a lightly insulated shell that can be worn over a baselayer in cool weather, or layered with a thermal jersey for winter riding.

Review time. Here are your lanes for outermost protection layers:

  • Cold → Thermal Softshell (SELECT & ELITE Levels)
  • Wind → Barrier
  • Rain → WxB
  • Variable Conditions → PRO AmFIB
  • Nothing in particular → Thermal Jersey
two cyclists riding in a light snowfall in Colorado
The PRO AmFIB Shell is our most technical outer layer and also our most versatile. If you're going to invest in one garment, make sure this is it.
A woman riding her bike through fall colors in a light rain.
The Women's PRO AmFIB shell is a three-season foul weather piece that we consider weatherproof, thanks to our proprietary PI DRY® treatment.

2. MID-LAYER

Finally, let’s move on to our mid-layer or layers, depending on a couple of factors. Here we have to consider the temperature to a better degree (zing!) and the effort in which we will be working on the bike. If the temperature is not super cold, rocking the proper baselayer with an AmFIB softshell might be all you need, but not always.

Let’s say it’s a bit colder, and you’re not supposed to be riding all-out in Zone 4, you’re going to want to incorporate some insulation to stay comfortable. Adding a “summer weight” long sleeve jersey over that baselayer might do the trick to keep you comfy, but if you tend to run a little colder than some, adding a full-fledged thermal jersey is going to be your ticket to comfort. A thermal jersey provides highly breathable and quick-drying fabrics while retaining a Goldielocks amount of warmth for your ride.

Other considerations could be that you are going out for some tempo or interval work, and it’s a bit chilly out. In this instance, you may have to temporarily endure a chilly start with a “summer weight” to no additional layer until you get going so that you don’t over-insulate or heat up, leading to too much sweat that in turn freezes you. If it’s cold out and you’re looking to ride hard, going with a PRO level thermal jersey might be your best bet. We’ve designed them for harder efforts with an optimal amount of thermal material to keep you from overheating and with less bulk. You could even leverage the benefits of Merino wool on this layer too with a PRO Merino Thermal jersey to stay warm when you start to crank it up and sweat.

If it’s flat out cold, maybe there’s some snow flying, and you need all the warmth you can get. Going with a PRO Merino Thermal jersey for those higher humidity days or our warmest thermal jersey on those dry but cold days is going to keep you pleasantly warm. Again, the secret here is to make sure you’re matching the materials to the riding situation. The higher humidity will be much more enjoyable when using the Merino wool to maintain warmth while wet. And the thermal fleece will be the fastest wicking for those colder rides with low humidity when your perspiration can gas-off through your outerwear.

Review time in the lanes:

  • COLD with precipitation → Thermal layer under outermost layer
  • Cool without precipitation → Possibly a thermal as outermost layer.
Three women chatting on the side of the road during a bike ride.
If it's cool, but not cold, and dry a thermal jersey will work very well with a baselayer.
A cyclist riding by a lake with red and yellow leaves on the trees in autumn.
When it comes to riding in cool and damp conditions, it's hard to beat the thermal regulation properties of natural Merino wool.

It’s a lot to digest, but once you think it all through, it will make more sense, and I’m betting you have already started to think about kit pairings for the consistent conditions you’ve ridden in before.

Again, keep in mind that this is a recipe. So some cooks use ingredients differently than others. This process of matching the baselayer to the general weather paired with an outer layer to protect from external conditions and building warmth with thermal layers based on your effort and actual temperature is our recipe for great rides. In some cases, you might not need an outer layer because all of the conditions and effort align in a manner to only require a baselayer and a thermal jersey. Or maybe you only need an ideal baselayer and a thermal-based on the humidity, temperature, and lack of precipitation.

New fabric technologies come along and change the game from time to time, but if you’re not always upgrading the kit drawer, this process can help you pull what pieces you already own into a killer setup. Sometimes, all you need to invest in is a couple of new pieces to solve the puzzle of riding comfortably to whether the weather.

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Josh is a storyteller with a donut addiction that is only kept in check by cycling and trail running. He is amped daily with the ability to be a part of the industry that encourages a passion for riding bikes. He is also an advocate for his trail running wife and others recovering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI). #rideallthesurfaces #becausebikes and #traillife are dirty good fun.

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7 thoughts on “System of Dress – A Recipe For Riding In All Conditions

  1. Geat writeup Joshua! I really appreciate the thought that went into this. Here in the upper Midwest we love to ride all year. Temperatures are often well below zero (F) with very little moisture in the air. Layering is key to success, and as you point out, once you get the formula figured out you can comfortably ride in any temperature! Pedal on!

  2. I have been riding for a long time and no one had ever explained intended use of each material. I just went out there and gritted it out. No more of that! Thank you for sharing this information. Helps a lot.

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