The Best Affordable Cycling Apparel
A technical kit is worth the investment—but you don’t have to spend a boatload
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It’s no secret that cycling can be an expensive sport. The bikes themselves can run well into the five figures. And then you’ve got to dress yourself. Clothing for road and mountain riding is rife with price inflation: $250 jerseys, $500 pairs of shoes. Maybe the craziest example is Assos’s new $725 JohDah winter jacket.
All clothing is cycling clothing. You can—and should—ride in whatever makes you comfortable. But technical riding apparel exists for a reason. Shorts with chamois pads reduce chafing, especially on long outings. Lightweight jackets provide a measure of protection against wind and rain but stow easily in jersey pockets when not needed. Those same jerseys, with their said pockets, also offer storage and are designed with full-length zippers for temperature management.
That does not mean you need to spend top dollar for a quality cycling kit. There’s a large range of apparel that boasts a more reasonable price tag, and the sacrifices to features and performance are marginal. Here are some of the best bargains in cycling apparel—items that are affordable and work well regardless of price.
The Black Bibs ($40)
Bib shorts are the foundation of any kit. I use them for road and mountain biking, alone or layered under shell shorts or pants. Good ones tend to be expensive, though, which makes the Black Bibs even more impressive. I’ve endured chafing from plenty of cheap bibs over the years. But I have not heard a single person—from former pro racers to new cyclists—utter a bad word about these. They’re made by the retail arm of Starlight Custom Cycling Apparel, which designs clothing for cycling teams, and feature the same gender-specific, dual-density CoolMax chamois pad as the brand’s Alpha bibs. They also boast a high-compression Lycra for proper, bunch-free fit and muscle support. What I’m most impressed by is the range of offerings across an inclusive size range: XS to 3XL for women and XXS to 4XL for men.
Bontrager Circuit and Anara ($75)
There are a few less expensive jerseys out there: Pearl Izumi’s ageless Quest ($55) or the dirt-cheap Decathlon Triban Essential ($10). But I like the slightly pricier Circuit (for men) and Anara (for women), which boast light, fast-drying fabrics that won’t pill in the wash, a slim (but not race-tight) fit that won’t flap like a sail, and thoughtful features like a security zip pocket. Often jerseys come in just a few colors, but the Circuit comes in ten, and the Anara comes in eight. All styles feature minimal Trek/Bontrager branding, so you can avoid the rolling-billboard look.
Castelli Pro Seamless ($30)
Castelli is known for its premium (and often pricey) apparel, but it wins the affordable award in this category. The Pro Seamless is a knit warmer (for the arms or knees) made from a stretchy, socklike polyester-Lycra fabric that is slightly lighter than conventional thermal fleece fabrics. Still, it’s surprisingly warm, and the price is hard to beat. The seamless construction means no points of irritation or chafing, and the curved cut on the knee warmer won’t bunch up behind your joints when pedaling. This product lacks an elastic gripper but comes in two sizes that offer reasonable coverage.
Buy Arm Warmer Buy Knee Warmer
Endura Pakajak ($70)
Scotland-based Endura is renowned for its foul-weather gear but also for its simple, durable designs. The fan-favorite Pakajak is all that and one of the most affordable wind shells you can find. There’s no magic to it. Endura just gets the basics right: a lightweight ripstop fabric treated with a PFC-free DWR finish, a full zipper, a long-cut tail to protect you from rear-tire spray, and mesh vents under the arms. It’s windproof and water-resistant, so it’ll stand up to showers (though not downpours). It also packs down tight to fit in a jersey pocket, enabling you to take it on any ride.
Giro Trixter ($20)
I ride in full-finger gloves all summer, even on the road. I like the extra grip on brake levers, and I don’t like palm padding, which almost all half-finger gloves have. So don’t think of the Trixter as “just” a mountain-bike glove. It slips on with no bulky wrist closure, the fabric back is lightweight and vents well, and the microfiber palm has good grip and a touchscreen-compatible thumb and forefinger. Bonus: it comes in five colors and six sizes, so you can find one that fits your style and needs.
Shimano RC300 ($120)
Road shoes are subject to some of the worst price inflation in cycling gear (looking at you, Lake and Sidi). That’s why I like Shimano’s RC300, which is often listed as the RC3. The fiberglass-reinforced nylon sole isn’t as stiff as carbon fiber, but some research suggests that sole stiffness on its own is not a major performance factor, even in maximal sprint efforts. The RC300 offers several advantages to boot. Unlike numerous shoes at this price, it features fore-aft cleat adjustability to accommodate the midfoot cleat position that many riders find more comfortable. It’s also available in standard, women’s, and wide lasts, in sizes 36 to 52, which means it’ll fit a lot of people. Inexpensive road shoes sometimes sacrifice comfort, in part due to cheaper closure systems. But the RC300’s Boa L6 covers the entire midfoot with a single micro-adjustable dial that doesn’t lead to hot spots. The synthetic leather upper lacks adequate ventilation, so if you tend to ride in hot weather, consider the white version—it’ll show more dirt but won’t absorb as much heat as the black.
Specialized Rime 1.0 ($110)
The Rime 1.0 is built for versatility on and off the bike. Its nylon composite midsole is stiff enough to keep your foot from wrapping around small mountain-bike pedals (a large-cage pedal helps even more), but it’s not so stiff that hike-a-bike sections are painful, and the street-shoe style won’t scream “bike nerd” in more casual situations. There’s a chunky outsole for grip and a rubberized toe to protect against rock strikes. Specialized didn’t overthink the closure system: it’s just laces and one midfoot strap. And while the shoe fits all two-bolt clipless pedal systems, it comes with a treaded cleat insert so you can start riding it with flat pedals and upgrade to clip-ins later.
Specialized Align II ($50) and Lazer Chiru MIPS ($65)
These are two of the most affordable helmets to get a five-star rating from Virginia Tech’s well-regarded helmet-testing lab, the only independent entity in the U.S. that tests for both linear impact and rotational energy management. The road-ish Align II and mountain-bike-oriented Chiru MIPS both feature MIPS liners and one-hand quick-adjust fit systems. They’re also available in three sizes and a bunch of colors.
All helmets sold in this country have to meet the same pass-fail Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, and the Align and Chiru test out as well as or better than helmets that cost hundred of dollars more. So what’s the catch? These are heavier than high-end versions, the fit systems aren’t as elegant, and they have fewer vents. But that’s pretty much it. If you like the look and fit, you can save a ton of cash.
Tifosi Dolomite 2.0 ($70)
Every pair of shades I’ve had from this underappreciated company has been durable, comfortable, and offered clear, distortion-free optics for a lot less than you’ll pay for fancy brands. The Dolomite 2.0 comes with three sets of polycarbonate lenses—one for sunny days, one for overcast conditions, and a clear one for night riding. The full-wrap design provides great wind protection for fast road or mountain descents. But the aesthetic isn’t so racer boy that they look weird off the bike. And if full-wrap bothers you, the classic-looking Swick (from $25) may be more your speed. Both are also available with prescription lenses (the upcharge varies) through Tifosi’s Rx program.