Cyclists are notorious for obsessing over what they wear, and finding that goldilocks clothing combination (not too hot, not too cold) can often be a tricky task.
The key is having a wardrobe full of versatile pieces of clothing, and surely there are few garments more flexible than the gilet.
Different types of gilet
Fundamentally there are two different types of gilets: lightweight packable gilets and heavier insulating winter gilets, the first being suitable for spring and autumn riding, while the second making itself useful in colder conditions where the temperature is unlikely to change over the course of your ride.
Lightweight gilets are probably the most common genre. These are designed to provide an extra layer of protection for your torso on chilly mornings and nippy descents, before being stuffed in your jersey pocket once the (hopefully) rising temperature makes it surplus to requirements.
Thermal gilets are slightly less common, mainly because they largely overlap with the sort of protection offered by your normal winter jacket. Generally not designed to be packed down into a rear pocket, these gilets offer more insulation to protect your torso from wintry conditions and are normally kept on for a whole ride.
Our pick of the best cycling gilets
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B’Twin Ultralight gilet
The B’Twin Ultralight gilet provides light protection form wind and rain and packs down small, all for a very good price.
Endura Windchill II gilet
The excellent-quality Windchill II features three deep, open pockets and a fourth smaller zipped pocket on the rear. A fifth zipped pocket on the front has a headphone port and a little cloth for wiping sunglasses sewn into it — all nice touches.
Madison Road Race gilet
Developed in conjunction with pro team Madison-Genesis, it’s no surprise that the Madison Road Race gilet is a great piece of kit.
Bontrager RXL Windshell gilet
A good choice for colder spring and autumn ride, the Bontrager RXL Windshell is both windproof and water-resistant.
Madison Road Race Softshell thermal gilet
It offers good insulation, though it is small enough that it can be stuffed in a jersey pocket too — just don’t expect to be able to put anything else in with it as it’s quite a bulky package.
Endura Equipe Race gilet
The Endura Equipe Race gilet held up well in changeable weather, offering a good degree of wind protection on the chest, but at a competitive price.
Your full guide to dressing for spring rides
What to look for
When buying any gilet, protection against the wind should be top of your agenda. The insulation should take care of this on thermal gilets, but for lighter weight offerings, things are not always so simple, with only a thin layer of material, most commonly some form of nylon or polyester, to keep the chill off your chest.
However it’s not just the material that’s important, it’s what you do with it. A high neck with a close fit will prevent cold air from rushing down your front, while it’s also key that the holes for your arms are not overly generous to prevent air from getting in at the sides.
Good quality gilets will also offer some sort of design feature to prevent cold air getting through the zip. This usually comes in the form of either a taped zip or a storm flap, essentially a strip of material which covers over the back of the zip.
As pieces of clothing designed to be worn in spring and autumn, plenty of gilets will also give you some sort of protection against the unexpected April shower.
While some gilets are completely waterproof, but this is obviously of limited use seeing as even if your torso is dry, your arms are still going to get soaked. Instead you’re more likely to find water-resistant gilets, designed to protect you from light showers and road spray, without sacrificing breathability.
Although not as much of a problem as with waterproof jackets, the boil-in-the-bag effect is not something we want to see from a gilet at any price-point. This can be a particular issue with gilets which attempt to offer higher levels of protection, with windproof and waterproof fabrics doing a good job of keeping the elements out, but also, unfortunately, keeping body heat in.
To this end, many manufacturers include mesh panels in their gilets, occasionally constructing the entire rear panel from a more breathable material in order to let hot air escape without compromising windproofing.
Obviously this doesn’t apply to thermal gilets, but seeing as you’re hopefully only going to be wearing your lightweight gilet for the first hour of a ride, while the temperature starts to rise, or for the duration of an Alpine descent, it’s important that you choose one that can be easily stowed away for the rest of your ride.
It’s really a case of the smaller the better when it comes to packability, and ideally you should be looking for a gilet that packs down small enough not to take up an entire jersey pocket. Unfortunately, choosing a more feature-packed gilet offering things like pockets and water-resistance often comes at the cost of packability.
Finally, some gilets come with their own stuff-sack, which although useful when packing your gilet in luggage, often doesn’t keep it as small as if you really stuffed it down into the bottom of a jersey pocket.
Of course you can just flip up the rear of your gilet to access what’s in your jersey pockets, but this risks knocking items out of your pockets in the process. To mitigate against this, most gilets offer a hole or two in the rear so you can get at your bars and gels.
Many gilets also offer pockets for a little extra storage, although these are less useful on lightweight gilets as you don’t want to be emptying out your pockets at the side of the road when it’s time to shed the outer layer
As with any piece of cycling kits, it’s possible to add countless extra features onto the humble gilet. Plenty of brands offer either high viz gilets or gilets with reflective elements for added safety after dark.
If you’re after a little extra protection, some gilets also offer a bum flap to keep your backside warm and dry, while others come with a drawstring or elasticated hem to stop cold air entering from below.
Should I buy one?
As with any piece of cycling kit, this depends a lot on what sort of riding you’re doing. Lightweight gilets are particularly useful for chilly mornings, so if you’re the sort to start your weekend ride while the dew is still on the ground, they can be a very worthwhile investment.
Also if you’re lucky enough to be planning a summer getaway to the Alps or Pyrenees, then a lightweight gilet will be worth it’s weight (or perhaps more) in gold. Even at the height of summer you’re going to feel the chill on descents that will often last more than half an hour, so sticking one in your back pocket is a must.
How much should I pay?
On average, we’d say that you should be looking at something just south of 50 quid for a good-quality lightweight windproof gilet, although extra features such as rain protection might add a little more to the price-tag
However as with most things, the brand name is almost as important as the product itself when determining the cost, so expect to pay more if you’re looking to buy from some of the more fashionable names in the cycling market.
Of course cheaper options are available, and there are quite a selection that come in at less than 20 quid, but be careful to look for one with a decent fit, as less expensive gilets can be liable to flapping in the wind. In addition a lack of breathability in some cheaper gilets can make things pretty sweaty.