The best cycling caps can do many things: they can shield you from the sun and stop sweat and rain from getting in your eyes. You can also use them to make a statement, whether that’s ‘I love Rapha’ or ‘I love Lug the Dog’.
But do they still have a place in today’s world? Marginal gains define the landscape of today’s modern cycling products. Helmets are almost universally worn and those helmets are a high-tech marvel. The technology packed in the best road bike helmets of today is unlike anything in the previous history of cycling. Not only does it protect your brain, but it actually makes you faster as well.
Paired with these helmets are the best cycling sunglasses that are aerodynamic and hydrophobic. They help make you faster and keep your vision clear. These are another modern engineering marvel packed with technology and designed for marginal gains.
What’s funny is how many cyclists today will take all of that design, engineering, and technology, and throw a relic from the 1950s into the mix. If that’s you, then you know. If it’s not you, then maybe consider it.
From the very beginning of racing bikes, there’s been a need for cycling caps. Gravel cycling might seem like a recent entry into the cycling lexicon but it’s actually a revisiting of the early days. Before miles of pristine tarmac, cyclists took to the mountains and they needed protection from the elements. Hats helped keep the sun out the rider’s eyes and off their heads. They protected the head from the grime of the roads and helped keep sweat, or rain, out of the rider’s eyes.
By the ’50s and ’60s, the modern cycling cap had taken shape. The brim is short enough to see past when low on the drops and the whole cap fits in a jersey pocket without issue. The bright colours and distinct designs of modern caps morphed from the sponsored caps of the past. It’s a form that follows function. Even though technology has passed the cap by, for many situations, there is still a utility and style that dictates a space in your collection. Let’s take a look at some of the best.
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Covering the miles indoors with limited ventilation is a hot, sweaty, affair. Castelli introduced the A/C for hot summer rides but it’s a great option for indoor rides also. Any cap that helps keep sweat from dripping into your eyes is a win, and the quick drying design of the A/C is especially helpful. The amount of sweat generated will quickly destroy a cotton cap, so the synthetic construction of the Castelli A/C helps give it a fighting chance for a longer life.
Cycling caps are at least as much about style as function at this point. If you like the idea of something kind of fun then Primal has you covered. The Comic Book design has a strategically placed bit of onomatopoeia that should get a laugh or two.
Besides the style, Primal also packs plenty of technology in. The fabric of choice is a 100 per cent polyester fabric called Speedpro. Speedpro is a double-knit design with plaits that help increase the surface area and the moisture-wicking speed. There’s an SPF rating of 35 and the brim is crushable if you shove it into your jersey.
You can’t always take yourself too seriously. When I head out with some of the fastest hill climbers I know I sometimes like to grab my polka dot socks. It’s a bit of a joke we can laugh about no matter who gets to the top first. None of us are world champions but it’s a good laugh at whatever speed you ride at. You might also enjoy honouring the achievement of Mads Pedersen. Whatever the motivation, this cap from Trek and Santini is a very traditional style. It’s exactly what you picture if you picture cycling caps of days past.
I’m not sure I could put a finer point on what Rapha is all about than to show someone wearing this cap. It’s got a traditional silhouette but it’s about as far from traditional as a cycling cap could realistically be. The fabric is a cotton blend that is water-resistant, fast-drying and highly breathable. The sweat band features an anti-bacterial treatment but retains a traditional elastic design in the back. The blend of old and new combines with the unmistakable Rapha style for a cap that’s both high performing on the bike and a fashion statement.
I’d like to think I’ve made a good argument for cycling caps in whatever weather you ride in. Still, the reality is that for many people, cycling caps are reserved for bad weather days. If that’s you then the Sportful Fiandre NoRain Cap is a good choice for rainy rides. There’s a degree of insulation from the extra layer, but this is really a rain-focused cap, not a cold-weather solution. Sportful has taped the seams and the fabric carries a waterproof, not water-resistant, rating.
The Gore Windstopper solution isn’t waterproof, it’s water-resistant. It’s also totally windproof, extremely breathable and offers a very specific solution for a very specific problem.
If you haven’t used windproof products before, the difference it makes is astounding. You can tolerate substantially cooler temperatures when there’s no wind chill. Without the challenge of being waterproof, there’s more breathability and the fold-down flaps add even more warmth when you need it.
One of the negatives listed is that this isn’t a particularly warm hat, but that’s because the Pearl Izumi Merino Wool Cycling Cap isn’t meant for the coldest winter rides.
Instead, it’s more of an all-round option that leverages the natural strengths of merino wool. Merino is excellent at temperature regulation in both cold and warm weather and that’s the idea here. The design is extremely thin for a comfortable fit and can be worn in a wide range of temperatures for most of the year.
The Seasonal Wool Cap from Giro is incredibly soft. It’s the kind of hat that feels like pulling on a warm hug. When heading out in mild but chilly weather, putting it on feels reassuring and comfortable. Seriously, it’s a joy to wear and it provides just that little bit of extra warmth. Don’t expect this piece to be the warmest thing in your arsenal but also don’t expect to wear it on a hot weather ride. It’s a perfect match to arm warmers and a summer kit all the way down to lightweight bib tights and a jacket.
Should you wear a cycling cap with an aero helmet?
With all the modern technology of aerodynamic helmets the question arises, does it make sense to wear a cap with an aero helmet? Bottom line, no one can dictate what you do. If you want to wear an aero helmet and a cap, go for it. The question still lingers though. Aero helmets generally cost more so maybe you should save money if you like wearing a cap?
I’d suggest that an aero helmet gives you greater flexibility. For the fastest days, or a race, you might choose to leave the cap at home and go for whatever marginal gains you can. When average speed matters less, grab your favourite cap. If you choose not to buy an aero helmet from the start you lose out on the flexibility to make that choice.
How to wear a cycling cap
This is a big one. Cyclists are an opinionated bunch and how you wear your cap is a big deal. Friendships may have ended because of this question. Or no one cares, but it’s fun anyway. In the heyday of cycling caps, there was a specific way to wear them. Even then different people had different interpretations but if you fall on the side of tradition then there’s a specific way to wear them. The tradition will dictate brim down and the back of the cap a little high on the head so as to create some space above the top of your head.
Some people would argue that traditions only survive if they adapt over time. A tradition that’s frozen in time is a dead tradition on its way to obsolescence. In the ’90s the cycling cap entered the realm of general fashion. It was a street fashion trend rocked by Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, Spike Lee in She’s Gotta Have It, as well as seemingly every urban bike messenger. In this incarnation, the correct way of wearing a cycling cap was tight on the head with the brim flipped up. It was also somewhat divorced from cycling and just as likely to be found on an actual cyclist as not.
Given that most people think cyclists look ridiculous anyway, I say don’t worry too much. I have a saying that goes something like, “socks should be tall, legs should be smooth, and collars should be stiff.” Lots of people disagree with me but it’s what I like. Do what makes you happy and create your own style. Always make sure you have your cap straight though. There’s definitely no leeway for lop-sidedness.