written by: Laura Brown
photo: Axel Brunst
Race car drivers wear gloves to maintain a firm grip on their steering wheels. Golfers, weightlifters and baseball batters also wear gloves, because they know that a secure grip on equipment translates to better performance. Likewise, mountain bikers and cyclists appreciate the numerous advantages that gloves provide when riding. Of the three points of contact a rider has with the bike, the hands are the most important. Sure, our legs do all the hard work, but hands are responsible for a multitude of functions, as well as overall control. Gloves are much more than just a cycling accessory: they optimize performance and safety. Gloves can enhance efficiency, provide crucial hand protection, and add comfort and enjoyment to every ride.
In the early days of European road cycling, some handlebars were covered in leather strips, but most bars were just bare metal. Gloves were necessary to maintain a grip, so their use became widely adopted. Although modern bikes now come with bar-tape, the glove tradition endures for several good reasons.
Grip is everything. Since a rider has only three points of contact on the bike, good hand grip is vital. Good grip means greater safety at high speed, downhill, and over bumps. Good grip assures precision in shifting. Sometimes, grip can even be a matter of life and death. However, mountain biking and cycling are inherently sweaty sports, so grip may become compromised. Damp fingers can be hazardous when the trail or road becomes bumpy and control is a challenge. Slippery fingers can also prove frustrating when shifting or braking, too. Whether wet from perspiration or from rain, gloves can help hands maintain a secure hold.The highly absorbent materials that gloves are sewn from keep hands noticeably drier and more comfortable on hot or hard rides and humid days.
After a while, sweaty, sticky palm prints make bar tape appear grubby. And some riders notice that an accumulation of acidic, salty sweat can cause the rubber on the hoods to deteriorate over time. Perspiration combined with friction from contact can cause blisters, so gloves are the best way to prevent them. Silicone “gripper dots” add yet another anti-slip feature that helps keep hands in firm control of the equipment.
AVOIDING HAND FATIGUE
Road bumps, cracks, gravel and trail ruts transfer vibration and shock waves up through the bike frame to the hands. Over the miles, all that jarring can cause hand-fatigue. Just like our padded bike shorts make our hard seats more forgiving, padding across the palm can absorb or dampen much of that vibration. These small pads are embedded in the glove palms at strategic pressure points. Some padding comes in the form of extra fabric. Gel pads are a newer shock absorption innovation. The liquid gel is excellent for absorbing more of that “road noise”. Gloved riders will notice a benefit in both comfort and fatigue-reduction, especially on more rugged trails or on longer rides.
Have you ever experienced tingling or numbness in your hands as you ride? As a rider leans forward on the handlebars, upper body weight PLUS the road bumps put stress on hands, causing pinching of the medial and ulnar nerves that run down the arm into the hand. Chronic compression of these nerves can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, a more serious and painful chronic condition which is harder to treat. So, gloves with padding can help prevent repetitive injury. Of course, a professional bike fit can address best positioning issues, but glove padding can also help alleviate some pressure and help prevent long-term nerve damage to these crucial contact points.
Some riders, however, prefer a more natural, “close to the handle bars” feel, or they may not experience much hand fatigue, so gloves without padding are available, too.
A LITTLE ACCIDENT INSURANCE
Perhaps the most important health benefit of wearing gloves is how they can minimize trauma. Nobody plans to have an accident, but gloves can offer a measure of safety in case you go down. During a fall, our natural reflex is to stick our hands out to break the fall, but that asphalt or gravel is unforgiving and can shred the skin on the heels of hands. The sturdy, synthetic material on the glove’s underside can help in a skid by protecting the palms from road rash and minimize nasty abrasions.
PROTECTION FROM the ELEMENTS
Gloves offer hand protection in other ways, too. On the bike, hands are positioned up front, leaving them very exposed to the elements. Cyclists are a hardy bunch, and most try to ride all year long, even during winter. However, heat loss is most pronounced in our extremities: head, feet and hands. Cold weather quickly causes fingers to become stiff, making shifting more cumbersome. Hands remain nearly motionless while riding, and blood-flow is restricted with the necessarily tight grip. Full fingered and insulated gloves can help protect hands from low temperatures and chilly wind, keeping fingers comfortably warm and flexible.
The sun is another harsh element to protect hands from. The skin on the backside of hands is very thin and vulnerable, prone to premature aging, freckling and damage from ultraviolet rays. On a long ride, fingers can get sunburned, which is painful. So, gloves offer UV protection from the beating sun. This explains the funny-looking tan lines commonplace among cyclists: two-toned fingers, white hands and darker wrists. But, just like crisp mid-thigh tanlines, they are an odd point of pride, visual proof of lots of time in the saddle. Sunscreen applied to exposed fingertips and forearms can easily help keep skin tones even.
Now that you know all the benefits of wearing gloves, here are some things to consider when shopping for the right pairs.
TYPES of GLOVES
There are generally two types of gloves; full finger and half finger (or “fingerless”). Full finger gloves are recommended for mountain bikers because they protect the backs of hands and knuckles from thorns and scratchy underbrush as a rider swoops through overgrown trails. On a mountain bike, hands are positioned at the widest point, leaving them particularly vulnerable to scratching from passing shrubbery. (PR’s are awesome souvenirs of a ride: band-aids are not.) Mountain bike gloves have extra texture on the palms to help hold tightly on fast, bumpy descents. Silicone patterns along the finger help maintain a secure grip for confident shifting on even the most dusty, rugged trails. Some gloves even feature a special conductive thread on the fingertip to allow phone-screen tapping without needing to remove the glove. This is a handy feature to have when the perfect photo opportunity pops up mid-ride.
Half finger gloves are ideal for road cyclists because they allow a rider’s fingertips to freely push the shifting levers and apply brakes while still providing ample surface area to maintain a secure grip on the bars. With a thin, stretchy topside, these gloves are light-weight and aero.
Gloves are designed for breathability, to keep hands comfortable and dry. Ventilation is enhanced by tiny perforations on the topside fabric. Meshing between fingers increases airflow. One convenient feature to look for are finger-pulls which aid in quick removal with a two-finger tug, or tabs at the wrist. Velcro strap closures and stretchy top-side fabric keep them sleek and secure. Many brands feature a microfiber or french terry cloth thumb-wipe, handy for a quick swipe at a runny nose. Reflective elements stamped on the topsides add a bit of visibility in traffic.
Just as short sleeve and long sleeve jerseys have their seasons, so do finger lengths. Full-fingered and insulated gloves provide added warmth in winter or chilly morning rides. Both of these cold weather styles are available for roadies, too. On chillier mornings, some cyclists may start their rides wearing full gloves, but stash shorter ones in their jersey pockets to switch into when the temperature rises a bit.
Have fun with colors, too. While black is the classic standard, gloves come in a variety of colors to match different kits and moods. Owning a variety of gloves means that you can always look good and feel comfortable under different weather conditions.
Proper fit is important. As the old saying goes, gloves should “fit like a glove”, conforming comfortably to your anatomy. Poorly fitting gloves can cause problems. Webbing between the fingers is a good indicator of fit. Too baggy means potential for chafing: blisters could form. Too tight means they could restrict blood flow, limit movement, cause numbness, or dig into the skin.
One good fit test is to fully extend your fingers outward and then make a fist to determine if the padding fits the unique contours of your palm. Try giving a practice wave to imaginary passing cyclists. Pay special attention to the ease between index finger and thumb. Are they comfortable and flexible? Snug but not tight?
Typically, glove sizes run from women’s small to men’s XXL, with European brands tending to run a bit smaller than American brands. Use the manufacturers guides to help you determine your hand measurements and sizing when ordering on websites.
Fortunately, quality gloves do not need to cost a fortune. A good selection available in the $25-35 range. With proper care, gloves can last a few seasons, which brings us to our next topic.
Sweat and snot are unavoidable biological realities in cycling. Trail dust mixed with salty perspiration can leave gloves stiff and stinky. After an hour or two of wiping wet brows and drippy noses, gloves will need proper care to keep them sanitized and supple. Bacteria thrives in damp, dark places, so immediate post-ride maintenance is key. After every ride, we recommend tossing gloves into a cold water washload along with your kit. Use a small mesh laundry bag to keep the velcro closures from snagging your lycra as everything swishes clean. Periodically turn them inside out for an even more thorough cleaning. Hang them dry with a clip-hanger to promote air circulation overnight to keep them fresh and prolong life.
Of course, choosing to wear gloves is a personal preference. Some riders like to emulate a few of the Tour de France pros who ride without them. This minimalism is known as “riding naked”. Going without hints at an edgier look. And yes, direct contact with shifters gives a more natural “feel”. But riding naked can also add risk to an already risky sport.
There are compelling reasons in favor of including gloves as part of your basic ride equipment, just like goggles and a helmet. Health and safety are prime considerations. Injury prevention and a firm grip are important to every cyclist. Hands need to be ready at any moment to smoothly shift for that climb, for that tactical attack, or even to slam on the brakes in case of emergency. But wet fingers or a slippery grip can impede any of those maneuvers. Since hands are central to controlling a bike, wearing gloves just makes good sense. The proper gloves optimize performance and add safety and comfort, advantages that benefit every rider.