We have a small crisis at our house any time one of my biking socks comes out of the laundry without a match. “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” I rant over the lost stocking, often once a week. “Those are my favorite socks!” After years noticing that I panic like this about a lot of different socks, my wife, Jen, suggested I was being melodramatic (especially since the matches generally turn up). But the truth is, I have probably eight or ten pairs I can’t do without.
Socks are among the most overlooked and underappreciated pieces of cycling equipment. For many riders, they are at best adornment (don’t get me going on those novelty brands) and at worst an afterthought (whatever’s in the drawer from an aunt three Christmases ago). That’s a pity because a well-made pair matched to the task at hand can mean the difference between a pleasurable day on the bike and one plagued by excruciating foot pain.
I’ve written in the past about how custom insoles cured a host of problems I struggled with during endurance races, from searing foot pain to knee and hip alignment problems. But even with custom insoles in the finest shoes money can buy, a bad pair of socks can lead to stabbing pain, hot feet, and blisters. Here are the high-quality models I use most.
Giro HRC Team ($20)
All synthetic and very thin, this is one of my top choices on the road, especially when I’m wearing tight-fitting, high-performance shoes. The bump-pattern stitching on the front and top—tiny dots of thinner weave—offers superior breathability, and the slight extra padding in the toe and heel is welcome in stiff shoes. The only thing that holds these back from being cry-worthy if they get lost is a seam in the toe, which can be annoying, although with careful kitting up, it’s a non-issue. And there are seven solid colors, too. Giro sells them in three-packs for a bit of a discount.
Mint ($20 or $50 for three)
I don’t generally buy socks for fashion, but Mint has combined a quality Italian-made, mid-rise synthetic cycling sock with a subscription model that’s hard to resist. For $50, you get three pairs of exclusive single-runs delivered to your door every three months, meaning you get some style with the assurance that pretty much no one will ever show you up. The socks are roadie-thin yet comfy too. My wife and I split the subscription and get to wrestle for our favorite prints. Mint also sells its patterns individually, so you can try before committing.
Sole Lightweight Sport Crew ($15)
These have been my go-to road-cycling socks for nigh on a decade. I like the structure that the Tactel-Coolmax-Lycra blend gives without adding any bulk. The trim fit comes largely from all the body mapping: thinnest over the toes for cooling and flex, thin across the arch with a stretchy band for fit and support, and thicker on the bottom for padding, with a doubled-over cuff that doesn’t slip. Yep, they come only in white and black. Get over the looks. These have lasted me almost ten years.
Swiftwick Flite XT Five ($24)
If I could have socks from only one brand, I would choose Swiftwick. Yes, I appreciate its Made in the USA commitment. But mostly I love every Swiftwick sock I’ve ever worn. Even the company’s most basic cycling model, the Performance Seven, rates on my favorites list, and the Vision Seven Tread is maybe the best do-it-all riding sock on the market. The new Flite XT Five, however, is an interesting specialty sock, with grippy padding in the heel and toe meant to keep your foot from sliding, a super-thin upper across the bridge, and an ankle tube that never droops. These are thicker than my normal preference, so I wear them mainly for mountain biking, especially on my singlespeed, where foot slippage could diminish power transfer.
Smartwool PhD Cycle Ultra Light Crew ($20)
This sock redefines merino with a fit and feel that’s so diaphanous and stretchy that you won’t believe it’s wool until it gets wet and your feet don’t freeze. The company has dubbed the fabric it uses here Indestructawool, and my pair looks brand-new after six months of probably three-times-per-week abuse. The six-inch collar keeps out dirt and brush on the trails, and the block print pairs with almost anything. These are a very close second to the Swiftwick Vision Seven Tread for single best cycling sock.
Long Days and Sloppy Conditions
Capo Active Compression 15cm ($20)
The tallest member of my cycling-sock stable (up to the bottom of the bulge of my soleus), this is the one I pull out for long days on the bike and multi-day adventures because my feet feel pretty good in them no matter how long I ride. (The compression supposedly improves circulation and aids recovery.) The synthetic olefin yarn, which is also used in the Swiftwick’s grippy bits, is both highly structured and wildly durable over time, though it doesn’t seem to breathe quite as well as, say, the Smartwool Flites. These socks come in ten colors, meaning you can match them to almost any kit.
Gore Fiber Bikes ($26)
Leave it to fabric maven Gore to come up with a sock material that’s different from and better than the rest. Built from ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene) combined with merino wool, these low-mid socks are some of the warmest and best-wicking I’ve found for wet, sloppy conditions. They are relatively thin for wool (though not as thin as the Smartwools), with a trim stretch band around the arch and extra padding in the heel and toe. They are my top choice for alpine mountain-bike adventures, as well as trail running and backcountry hiking and hunting. The only trouble: they were a short run and are a bit hard to find (buy ’em if you can; and please, Gore, bring them back), though there’s a walking model that uses the same yarn but is woven thicker and comes in taller cuts.