Cycling gloves sit somewhere in between “must have” and “can do without”. Probably somewhere much closer to “must have”, but I don’t always wear them. Sometimes I just can’t be bothered, but that’s hardly a good reason.
This is a fairly general guide to what to look for in a glove if you are somewhat new to cycling, or gloves, or just aren’t sure what you’re looking for.
There are a few functions that gloves provide. Added comfort usually comes to mind first, but protection in the instance of a crash is probably the most important. Road rash on your palms is a pretty bad thing, whereas you can do without the comfort that gloves can provide reasonably easily.
Pretty much any glove will provide adequate protection for that, but the comfort/usability aspect can be a little more difficult to perfect. Three things determine this:
- The fit. The glove needs to be neither too big, nor too small. Too small hardly needs explaining, but I find it particularly annoying when gloves dig in between your fingers when your hands are pressed into the handlebars when the gloves are too short in the palm. I don’t like them being too short at the wrist either – the end creeping onto the palm of your hand. Conversely, if they are too big and your hand squirms around inside, it makes it quite a lot more difficult to keep a good grip on the bars. Some hands are long and thin, some are short and wide, and it is the same with gloves. Like anything else, the only way to know is to try them on at your local shop (and then actually buy them there).
- Padding. This too can be a case of too much or too little. Too much has the same effect as gloves that are too large – difficult to grip the bars well. Too little depends on what you want out of a glove, with some people preferring minimal padding. Padding can either be some type of foam, or a gel, which is meant to maintain it’s cushioning effect longer.
- Padding location. Road gloves are different from gloves intended for mountain biking or flat-bar bikes in general. Your hands rest on different areas when you are on the top of the bars as opposed to the hoods or drops, and the pad location reflects this. They will mostly have padding in the same general area, if the MTB gloves have paddign at all, but road gloves will have more focus on the side of the hand for when you are on the hoods. Each glove will have a slightly different take on the pad arrangement, but in general terms, most gloves cover a similar area of the hand.
Gloves will either have a Velcro strap to fasten at the wrist (this is either on the back of the wrist or the inside), or they will simply slip on and the elasticized wrist will take care of the snug fit. Gloves with a Velcro opening will be easier to put on and remove, and elastic wrists can have a tendency to get a little loose over time. They can make for a cleaner look and fit, however.
Fingerless cycling gloves will sometimes provide some mechanism for easier removal, as this can be a chore. This is often in the form of a couple of loops between the fingers, or on them, which you use to pull the gloves off from the finger openings. Otherwise you will either have to inch them off slowly by each finger, or push them off from the wrist, putting a thumb or a few fingers into the palm and wedging them off from there.
If you are mountain biking, you want three things: a good snug fit, an adequate amount of armor on the outside, and good bar-feel. And robustness. Four things. You want four things. Loose gloves are bad for any type of cycling, but as you are working the bars constantly on a mountain bike, all the moreso. The armor will protect you from branches if you are cross-country riding, while the more you are pointing your bike downhill and letting go of the brakes, the more armor you will want for both the fingers and back of the hand. Padding is usually not incorporated into mountain bike gloves to give you more bar-feel, so you can get the most out of carving through trees and over rocks. If you get padding, it is usually quite minimal. Usually mountain bike gloves will have a grippy material incorporated onto the first and second fingertips to improve grip on the brake levers.
If you are road riding, you will generally want a light-weight glove with a good fit and adequate padding. Beyond that, it is completely subjective to one’s preferences. Some people like a lot of padding while some like very little. I tend to suggest that the harder you want to ride, the less padding you will want. Taking as much road-buzz out of the bars is good for long days in the saddle, but if you are hammering up a hill or sprinting your brains out, then a glove with generous padding may have your hands squirming all over the bars, causing you to hang on tighter than you need to and therefore making your hands more tired than they would be if you didn’t have quite so plush a glove on to begin with. If you are getting sore hands, this is often a sign that your bike-fit isn’t quite right, and more padding won’t be a solution if this is the case.
There isn’t a convenient place to slip this in here, so I’ll just throw it in randomly: most gloves will have a terry-cloth like material on the side of the thumbs, which is basically a snot rag. It’s really common and you’ll certainly use it, but I wouldn’t say that it makes or breaks a glove…
The more expensive the glove, generally speaking, the better the materials used – no surprises here. Cheap cycling gloves won’t usually be finished all that well, loose their shape (elasticity) sooner, use a cheaper foam for the padding, and won’t have as much of an ergonomic fit. As you move through the different price-points, you will start to get better quality synthetic materials or even leather, and either a better grade of foam or gel, which will not loose it’s cushioning effect as quickly from compression. The stitching will also usually be of higher quality (it’s not all that uncommon for the loops at the ends of the fingers to detach when pulling off cheaper gloves).
For warmer temperatures the materials used for the back of the hand and sometimes even the palm will be either a lighter, thinner synthetic material, or a mesh of some kind. Concerns here are for staying cool, but also sun protection. I find that with lighter, meshier gloves, there tends to be less compression, making the rest of the glove give too much and causes the gloves to wander around when you are wringing the handlebars out for all they’re worth.
More popular these days are gloves that are designed for speed, or if not speed, then performance, at least. These gloves are often pared down to a minimum, being made from light materials, light padding, and usually with no strap or nose wipe, preferring instead a form-fitting glove that just pulls on and disappears once there, much like the skin-suits that time-trialists or track riders use. These are usually quite comfortable, but look pretty “pro”, so if you’re not into that…
Finally, high-vis something that more brands have been getting on-board with over the last year or two. Most brands will have a brightly coloured glove in the offering, which, if you are one to use hand-signals when getting around town, is actually quite useful.
I’ve had some good gloves and some bad, but I’m not going to make any recommendations. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is different. If you need some new gloves, here’s what I recommend you do: go try a few out, pick the one that fits best, and get them. It’s not complicated, and gloves aren’t expensive (usually). You don’t need to spend months researching them, finding the “best” gloves out there, and even if they’re not the best, they’ll still work well enough. You’ll probably want to change them every year anyway, if you do a lot of riding, or at least every 2-3 years if not.
Oh, and, do everyone a favour and wash them, preferrably after every ride or two. If you stop to think about it, there is a lot of filthy stuff that gets into, and onto, your gloves.