Everyone who has ridden a bike any real distance in the cold has likely noticed a few things. Due to the speed to effort ratio of the bicycle, certain thermal realities have different relationships than they do on foot.

For example; a cyclist who is going up a hill can easily become hot and sweaty in clothing that would not sufficiently protect a sedentary person from the cold. If, however, they were to go down a hill shortly thereafter, they might find themselves facing an improbable gust of wind... with increasingly wet clothing from the prior effort.

To say nothing of if such a poorly protected cyclist were to start by coasting downhill in clothing insufficient to... either way welcome to my commute.

Now, there seems to be a vast array of, well, fiber technology meant to protect someone in just this scenario. I found that even wearing a $10 jogging undershirt made a huge difference over cotton. ("Cotton kills" as the boy scouts say.)

But that segue into my question: what exactly were people doing BEFORE spandex (aka lycra) and other synthetic fibers?

If you believe the industry, you'd think you HAVE to have the more advanced stuff, but I doubt that people just stopped riding in the winter before it was invented... or did they?

(And can I avoid buying any kit by imitating them?)

  • 1
    Wool was certainly worn. But what sort of riding are you thinking of? When getting about by bike, people could slow down, and would tolerate some discomfort (including getting sweaty and starting that way, as many people used to in their jobs). Competition has its own history, but in general that means working hard all the time so the change due to hills isn't as significant. I tend to find in commuting that I'll warm up soon enough, so long as I keep pedalling (even downhill) so start it underdressef
    – Chris H
    Oct 1, 2017 at 7:43
  • For people who rode bikes to get places, they would wear wool with wind/waterproof outer layers, and slow down or open a closing to let the wind in while getting hot, speeding up (and/or closing the windproof layer) when getting too cold, just like many commuters who do not wear lycra do these days as well.
    – Willeke
    Oct 1, 2017 at 13:07
  • There are some companies that produce quite nice vintage-style wool cycling clothes. The items are not cheap and protect well against heat and cold. But as @Rider X states more careful treatment is needed when compared to modern textiles. I would not use wool gear for every day riding because of that.
    – Carel
    Oct 5, 2017 at 10:04
  • Just because something was done a certain way back in the day, does not mean its the best-available way now. Wool clothes need a heap of care, wear out faster, and cost a lot more. Modern clothes are cheaper/faster/lighter/more-aero etc and can be machine washed.
    – Criggie
    Oct 1, 2018 at 0:27

2 Answers 2


Wool, wool, and wool. Wool undergarments. Wool over garments. (Maybe tweed as well.) Wool is a amazing material. It tends to perform better than synthetics (although the gap is closing) for keeping you warm when it is wet and cold outside.

On descents people also used to just either tough it out or did life hacks such as putting newspaper down the front of the jersey rather than rely on fancy rain shells.

Now here is the caveat about wool and the old world approach. Real wool garments are often much more expensive than equivalent synthetic garments. So from this perspective synthetics are a much better choice than killer cotton if you cannot afford wool. Synthetics also tend to wear a bit harder and typically don't need to be hand washed, so wool is more care. You typically only had a few garments which you washed by hand at night before the next day of riding. You also had to learn how to darn wool, so you could fix damage that can happen to wool over time.

Synthetics dominate today because of the cost, reduced care and good enough performance.

  • I remember watching highlights of this year's Giro d'Italia (2017), and being totally surprised at some of the pros taking newspapers from their helpers at the top of climbs and stuffing inside their jerseys for the long descents
    – Mike
    Oct 2, 2017 at 11:06
  • @Mike I have resorted to the newspaper trick when climbing one of the local ski mountains in spring and encountering colder than expected weather on top. Sweating during the lower half plus cold conditions on top makes it the worst of both worlds. Given that the lodge is often still open in spring makes it easy to find newspapers or flyers... the trick really works quite well, just recycle when you reach the bottom!
    – Rider_X
    Oct 2, 2017 at 20:25
  • You can find the newspaper stuffed under the jersey scenes in old-days pictures (1930s) of Tour de France riders on top of the Galibier pass where by-standers hand out newspapers to the riders
    – Carel
    Oct 5, 2017 at 9:56
  • 1
    Tweed is in face made of wool, but it's tightly woven rather than knitted to make it wind-proof. Apr 24, 2019 at 23:10

Regarding cyclists' cold-weather clothing "back in the day," an interesting anecdote can be found in Max Hirschberg's account of cycling over 1000 miles on the frozen Yukon River from Dawson City, Yukon to Nome, Alaska:

"The day I left Dawson, March 2, 1900 was clear and crisp, 30 degrees below zero. I was dressed in a flannel shirt, heavy fleece-lined overalls, a heavy mackinaw coat, a drill parka, two pairs of heavy woolen socks and felt high-top shoes, a fur cap that I pulled down over my ears, a fur nosepiece, plus fur gauntlet gloves. On the handlebars of the bicycle I strapped a large fur robe. Fastened to the springs, back of the seat, was a canvas sack containing a heavy shirt, socks, underwear, a diary in waterproof covering, pencils and several blocks of sulfur matches." - from http://tubulocity.com/?p=66

You can certainly avoid buying fancy gear just by layering. If you start to get sweaty, remove a layer and stash it in a pack. If you get cold, add a layer. Stacking up a few cheap (e.g., thrift store) synthetic layers can be very warm and very light, in my personal winter riding experience.

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