Part of getting the most out of any activity is wearing the proper clothing. For a ride around the block with the family, you don’t need any special clothing. Wear your jeans and a t-shirt. But if you’re riding your bike for longer periods, for fitness, for longish commutes, or when it’s really hot or cold, there are benefits to cycling clothing that jeans and cotton t-shirts can’t touch.
Most importantly, bike shorts and jerseys are made from synthetic materials (and sometimes wool) which are designed to wick moisture off your skin and quickly evaporate it off the material. This has a couple of effects. It keeps you dry and helps prevent chafing. It keeps you warm when it’s cool, and cool when it’s hot. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it works. Sweating is one of the amazing properties we’ve evolved for temperature regulation. But it’s not the sweat which directly cools you; it’s the result of the evaporation of sweat off your skin. That’s why alcohol feels colder on your skin than water; it evaporates more quickly. Pulling moisture away from your skin and getting it to where it can evaporate quickly is like having your own personal built in air-conditioner. But wouldn’t that make you cold in cool weather? Not if you’re insulated properly. A wicking base layer gets moisture off your skin and to the outer materials so that it can evaporate, but it stays more or less dry. A cotton t-shirt absorbs moisture and tends to retain it, which chills you. Don’t believe me? Go outside on a cold windy day in a cotton shirt and dump a bucket of water over your head. You’re going to chill more quickly than if you were dry. Wet cotton sucks the warmth from your core and is clingy and uncomfortable. So: synthetic good; cotton bad. Technically anything that you would go for a run in is fine for biking, from this perspective.
So why not just ride in your gym clothes? Cycling shorts are a no-brainer. They have padding built in in the right places to keep you and your personal bits as comfortable as possible. And if you don’t like the fitted tight shorts look, there are baggy styles that have the padding but look like a pair of cargo shorts. If you like your junk, get some bike shorts. Duh.
Cycling jerseys have a few special features that make them better than a basic workout tee. They’re cut for the position cycling puts your body in, a little longer in the back so that you’re not showing the world your plumber’s impression. Many also have a grippy material on the inside hem at the bottom to help keep them in place. Pockets: jerseys have pockets, usually 3 of them across the lower back, where you can stash your keys, wallet, phone, nutrition, a spare water bottle, tube, flat kit, gun, flask, whatever you carry with you when you ride. Zippers: there are full zip, ¾ zip, and ¼ zip jerseys that help ventilate and get in/out of them. Visibility: jerseys are typically made of bright colors and often have 3M reflective touches for increased visibility.
There are three basic types of fit or style. Pro fit AKA Euro fit is tight and fitted. Club fit is slightly loose, but not baggy. There are also more relaxed fit jerseys that are essentially a technical tee cut for cycling, usually with a small zipper pocket (I actually prefer these when mountain biking). Finally, when you are comfortable and look good, you’re going to feel good and ride better. And you’ll want to ride your bike more, which means you can drink more beer and eat more chocolate, and who doesn’t want to do that?!