Competitive cyclists have many choices about what to wear when they’re on their bikes. Cycling skinsuits are just one type of clothing they can choose from. Some prefer to wear cycling jerseys paired with cycling shorts while others prefer those skinsuits for some very specific reasons. First and foremost is raw speed.
Designed For Nothing But Speed – The Cycling Speed Suit
A huge amount of money is spent every year by pro cycling teams on every aspect they can imagine, in order to squeeze the last ounce of speed out of their riders. Nothing is left to chance; the bikes are light and stiff for maximum power transfer. The frames are designed to enable the rider to attain flatter, more aerodynamics positions. Even the front brakes are often positioned behind the front fork, so they do not disrupt airflow and affect the aerodynamics.
Then there is the rider and two things are important: firstly, rider position, and only then the apparel. A badly designed bike or a rider unable to minimize their position for least air resistance will both mean slower times – a speed suit (just another name for a racing skinsuit) will not rectify this situation by itself.
However, assuming the bike is right, and the rider can adopt a great aerodynamic position, then a series of small but additive effects can provide tangible results in terms of higher speeds. A skin-tight fit means less drag through the air. The types of materials used even have an effect, and these are the kinds of things measured extensively by cycling clothing manufacturers who work for the pros. They’ll even use wind tunnels to test their designs and materials. Here’s a clip of Team BMC veteran George Hincapie in the wind tunnel:
So with speed being the critical factor, who’s supposed to wear speedsuits? Are they suitable for everyone all the time? The answer is that it depends what kind of riding you do. If you are a track cyclist, speed is your reason to be there! So a skinsuit is best. If you do a lot of all out time trials, again, wearing one is a great idea. Time trials are usually fairly short distances, for example anything up to around 50km. However, if you are doing long distance races – think Tour de France stages, for example – then continual high speed is less necessary. You will be riding in a paceline with your team, or with other riders, so you can get more speed for less energy by drafting. And of course, you will want pockets to hold food and energy gels and other stuff if you are going for 200km or more. A standard jersey and bibs are fine in these cases.
Cycling Skinsuit Comfort
Another reason for wearing this type of racing gear is pure comfort. If you have no idea what a skinsuit looks like you can guess by the name that it’s very snug. These suits do fit like a second skin so there’s nothing loose on the body. That means no seams digging into your skin and no wrinkles or bunching to irritate you. There are no pockets that can contain things to dig in to your skin, and because a skinsuit is one piece, there’s also no waistband required to keep the bottoms up or to keep the top from rising up. The lack of the waistband means there’s nothing cutting you in half and nothing to pinch or dig into your skin when you bend over to cycle. Many cyclists find that lack of a waistband much more comfortable and is why even when wearing regular gear for long rides, tend to use bibs rather than shorts. Because the suit is one piece and fits snugly you have more freedom of movement and you’re not restricted by your clothing. Despite the tight fit, cycling skin suits are flexible enough that they move with you easily.
Drawbacks of the Cycling Skin Suit
If this type of cycling wear is so wonderful you might wonder why everyone doesn’t wear them. But the drawbacks of wearing such a skinsuit are actually the same as some of the advantages, and it all comes down to personal preference. Cycling skinsuits aren’t as quick and easy to put on as a jersey and shorts. Also, when it comes time to relieve yourself you have to pull down the entire suit because there is no waistband and no fly. Many people prefer a jersey and shorts because it’s much easier to use the restroom or take “natural breaks” at the side of the road during endurance events.
And while some people like that their top can’t slide up and show their skin when they wear a skinsuit, others prefer a jersey and shorts because it feels less revealing. Cycling skinsuits do cling to every curve so the person wearing them must be comfortable with his or her body – the pro cyclists are seriously fit and lean and can therefore get away with this stuff without scaring spectators at the roadside! While many athletes are comfortable, some still prefer shorts and a jersey, and will opt to wear bib shorts that stay up easily because of the straps, and that are a little bit less revealing than a skinsuit.
Where To Buy Speed Suits For Time Trialling
These garments are better suited to time trial riders – who are pure cyclists – rather than triathletes. The chamois will be larger for riding comfort, and this would put triathletes at a disadvantage during the swim and run phases of a triathlon. Thankfully there are one-piece trisuits with less imposing chamois which can be used by the multisport folks!
For cycling, you’ll find the big name brands will offer skinsuits at reasonable prices to the general public; you won’t need to get measured up and sit in the wind tunnel. Look out for Pearl Izumi as usual, as well as the Louis Garneau Vorttice suit. Among some of the best offerings are by Castelli including their Sanremo (showcased in the video clip below) and the acclaimed Castelli Bodypaint 2 speedsuit, worn by the Garmin-Cervelo team during their team time trial win during the 2011 Tour de France:
If you want to check out the Sanremo suit for yourself, you can see it in standard colors at Amazon. Just make sure to lose any flab around the butt and belly first!