Best cycling base layers: A buyer's guide

Our guide to cycling base layers, including long sleeve, short sleeve and sleeveless base layers, as well as what you should look for in terms of fit and materials

Included in this guide:

Best cycling base layers
(Image credit: mike prior)

Cycling base layers are a fundamental member of any rider’s wardrobe and we all wear them, but are we getting the most out of them?

There’s more to this commonplace garment than initially meets the eye, so here’s our pick of the best that we've tested. Below our recommendations is our buyer's guide telling you what you need to know to choose the optimum base layer whatever the weather conditions you'll be riding in.

We've broken our product listing into winter weight base layers and summer base layers. There are important differences between the two categories, which we've explained in the buyer's guide section.

Cycling base layers: Our pick of the best

Winter weight base layers

Specifications
Fabric: 91% Polyester, 9% Elastane
Weight: 103g
Reasons to buy
+Fit-and-forget comfort+Warm enough for winter and slim enough for spring/autumn+Anti-stink genuinely works+Excellent fit
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-Short sleeved, so you may need extra arm protection

MAAP SEAMLESS BASE LAYER TEE

(Image credit: MAAP)

Warm enough for winter, slim enough for summer and it packs a big technical punch. It's safe to say we're big fans of MAAP's Seamless Base Layer tee, although without sleeves (it is designed by Aussies after all) you may need to wear arm warmers to feel comfortable.

There's a huge amount of stretch, so although it looks small out of the box, fit and length provide plenty of coverage to keep you warm.

CAFÉ DU CYCLISTE COSETTE CERAMIC BASE LAYER

(Image credit: CAFÉ DU CYCLISTE)

Specifications
Fabric: 42% merino, 23% polyamide, 35% polypropylene
Reasons to buy
+Comfortable+Very warm+Merino is an excellent insulator and doesn't smell+High neck+Fits long arms
Reasons to avoid
-A little baggier than the 'race fit' would suggest

This is probably one of the most comfortable base layers we've worn. It sits a little looser but it's super soft, plus it has a high neck to keep the wind out and you super snug.

The Merino blend and thick material mean that the Cosette is super-warm and low odour too, while the long arms make it comfortable and ensure no gaps at the wrists when you're stretched out while riding.

BAM Reflex base layer

(Image credit: Future)

Specifications
Fabric: 68% Bamboo Viscose, 28% Organic Cotton, 4% Elastane.
Weight: 285g
Reasons to buy
+Made from sustainable bamboo+Odour resistant+High bulk+Good value
Reasons to avoid
-Thumb loops aren't useful

Eco friendly and more absorbent than cotton, bamboo is high bulk and odour resistant and the elastane content gives the Reflex top stretch. BAM's clothing is not cycling-specific but it's a good option for riding nevertheless, although we'd prefer it if the sleeves didn't have thumb loops.

Weight-wise the bamboo fabric is somewhere between synthetics and cotton, so the Reflex weighs a bit more than many cycling base layers. This does mean that you can usually dispense with one of your other layers and still stay warm though. There's good stretch, although the sizing is a bit less skin-tight than most cycling kit.

Megmeister Drynamo

(Image credit: Future)

Specifications
Fabric: 44% polypropylene Dryarn, 44% nylon 6.6, 12% elastane
Reasons to buy
+Warm enough for cold weather riding+Plenty of stretch+Good wicking performance
Reasons to avoid
-Pricey

Designed specifically for cycling, the Dyrnamo base layer is body mapped so it's warm where it needs to be with more vented areas out of the wind at the rear and under the armpits to keep you comfortable. 

There's loads of stretch, so it's a close fit but there's good length to the body, so you won't get any cold spots at the lower back. The design is seamless, so there's nothing to rub or itch. Odour control and breathability are good. Although the Megmeister top can feel damp it doesn't get cold but it is an expensive option.

PEARL IZUMI TRANSFER WOOL BASE LAYER

(Image credit: PEARL IZUMI)

Specifications
Fabric: front 86% Merino wool 14% nylon; back 62% polyester 38% Merino wool
Reasons to buy
+Thumb loops+Great fit+Anti odour+Comfortable+Great wicking
Reasons to avoid
-None

First and foremost, the Pearl Izumi Transfer Wool base layer has a great fit. It's cut specific to riding a bike, with features like rotated arms and, although it's not fully merino, it does a really good job of keeping you warm.

It's also jammed packed with test-winning, technical features, including anti-odour and great wicking capabilities. We really liked the thumb loops on this base layer, which helped keep the sleeves in place, so there were no cold gaps between them and our winter gloves.

Summer weight base layers

B'TWIN 700 WARM WEATHER MESH BASE LAYER

(Image credit: B'TWIN)

Specifications
Fabric: 83% Polyester, 17% Elasthane
Reasons to buy
+Cheap and cheerful+Does the job
Reasons to avoid
-One size fits all won't suit everyone-Not as comfortable as some more expensive brands

This base layer from Decathlon is a lightweight option that's mostly designed to provide comfort and minor insulation on warm rides. It comes in a single size. Happily, the fabric has a decent stretch to it and and it's soft – although fit may still be an issue if you're at the extreme end of riders' size range and it's perhaps not as soft as options from more premium brands. That said, it's really the price that's drawing people to this product.

Craft Cool Mesh Superlight

(Image credit: Future)

Specifications
Fabric: 95% Polyester 5% Elastane
Weight: 52g
Reasons to buy
+Ultra-lightweight+Effective and comfortable+Good value
Reasons to avoid
-Can build up odour

A perennial classic, the Craft Superlight is an ideal weight for hot summer rides and works really well, although it can accumulate body odour. It's really durable and should last for years, washing up well and resisting staining.

The six channel fabric wicks sweat away well and stays comfortably dry however hot the weather gets. It's so lightweight that it doesn't impede airflow and the couple of seams are flatlocked, so they don't rub.

Odlo performance light baselayer

(Image credit: Odlo)

Specifications
Fabric: 63% Polyester, 33% Polyamide, 4% Elastane
Reasons to buy
+Body mapped +Good weight for UK summers
Reasons to avoid
-Not as lightweight as some summer base layers

With high breathability and body mapped fabric, the Odlo Performance Light base layer is comfortable for summer riding - or, since it's not cycling-specific, it can be worn for other higher intensity sports. 

There's good length to the body and the design is practically seam-free, with no seams in the body and just a couple over the shoulders of the raglan sleeves. There's extra fabric density over the belly to help keep your core warmer if there's a cooler breeze and enough length to keep your lower back covered as you ride.

Buyer's guide to cycling base layers

Cycling base layers: Fit

Like everything for road riding, a performance cycling base layer should sit close to the skin. Its tight fitting properties make it far more comfortable when you're working hard and sweating lots, as it will wick sweat away from your body effectively.

 Should you have the misfortune of falling off, it plays a part in preventing road rash as well, sliding between your jersey and your skin and adding an extra layer of protection.

cycling base layers should be tight fitting

However, if you’re commuting or a more casual rider, you can probably get away with a looser fit.

A tight fit will also make the product more comfortable and less prone to rubbing or chafing as it should sit tight to the skin and not move.

Necklines are particular important, too. Some will have a low cut neck to avoid discomfort and rubbing. Some heavy-duty thermals will come a high neck, which will add warmth when cycling in the winter, obviating the need for a buff and helping fill any gaps at the collar of your winter jacket.

cycling base layers for winter should provide lots of coverage

Checking the length of both the arms and the torso is also important and a base layer should be generous in both areas. This should mean that your wrists are covered and there are no gaps between your base layer and your gloves or your base layer and your bib shorts.

Cycling base layers: Long sleeves, short sleeves… no sleeves?

This is a big question for base layer lovers and the answer is largely dictated by the season.

In the winter months, you’re definitely going to want to prioritise long sleeves, purely for the additional coverage and extra warmth that they offer - out in the wind, your arms and hands are the first part of you which is likely to get cold, and cold hands can make it difficult to use your controls.

If you like the added comfort offered by base layers then short sleeved, or even no sleeved options, are great for the warmer months, helping to wick sweat away from your body. Plus they can be useful if the mornings are chilly.

Cycling base layers: Materials

This is one of the more important questions to ask when buying a base layer. The material will affect a product's comfort, how much it smells and, more importantly, how warm it will keep you.

Basically, there are two kinds of material that a baselayer can be made off – either man made or natural.

If you’d rather go au naturelle then you’ll be looking to get a product made of Merino wool, primarily coming from New Zealand or Australia. Look out for Merino labelled as non-mulesed. Mulesing is a process which stops flies laying eggs around the sheep's rear end, but it's uncomfortable for the sheep and considered poor welfare practice.

Icebreaker Oasis long sleeve

(Image credit: Cycling Studio)

Merino wool has heaps of great attributes, which makes it an awesome fabric for base layers. For starters, it’s largely stink-free, meaning you’ll get more rides out of it for each wash. This obviously has benefits if you’re riding lots, or more than once each day.

It’s also fast drying, which is great because unlike man made products, it doesn’t wick sweat away particularly well and can become very damp, very quickly. Happily, it’s a great insulator, though, even if it is wet.

Man-made materials are typically the opposite. They wick sweat away well, but tend to be smellier and need washing more. They're often not quite as warm as the thicker Merino alternatives.

Both Merino and man-made base layers have different grades of thickness so you can get the right one for you. If you tend to get very warm when riding then naturally it makes sense to get a thinner layer and vice versa.

With so many options available, it makes sense to have several layers that you can circulate, depending on the weather. It's worth investing in a good quality base layer too, as it should serve you well over many rides.