Choosing the Right Cycling Socks
Who doesn’t love cycling socks? We get them free with race entries, they make wonderful gifts, they let you wear your heart on your… ankle, and, they’re just plain fun. But seriously, what makes a good sock worth its weight in foot sweat or mole skin?
You can spend a ton of time and money on pedals and shoes, not to mention your bike, bike fit and other clothing. Why not spend a moment considering what makes your socks perform. Socks protect your feet from the weather, chafing, hot spots and blisters, absorb sweat, protect your valuable shoes from skin oils, and so much more.
Here are a few things to think about before ordering a six-pack of your favorite socks or trying something new.
Consider more than just color!
I have a pair of lucky race socks. Why do I always seem to do better when I wear them?
There is more to it than just luck: your lucky race socks work because they work! Maybe the color matches your kit… maybe ironically it doesn’t. But they probably fit. The seams don’t itch or rub your toes raw. They’re the perfect height. And, they hug your feet. These are effective race socks because you don’t have to think about them, so you do well while wearing them. The luck part of it is they made it to your sock drawer in the first place.
If you have a pair like that, research who made them, what they’re made out of, what size they are, and consider buying more! A lot more, no matter the price.
I got a pair of socks with my race entry. Can I wear them right away? Never wear a new pair of socks on race day. Or use anything brand new on race day for that matter. Even if they’re the same brand and size you always wear – manufacturing defects occur or things get mislabeled. During a race you have plenty to worry about besides a surprising fit issue or annoying seam.
Wear new socks around the house before taking them out for a ride. Then test them on a short ride. If they’re annoying you for any reason, give them away immediately so you won’t be tempted to try them again later. Wash new socks before wearing. Manufacturing processes sometimes leave residue that can irritate your skin. And fibers sometimes shrink and can affect the fit! A sock that fits perfectly new might be slightly too short after you wash them, causing pressure on your toenails. Ouch. Best to learn this before approaching the start line of a four hour race!
Can I put my nice socks in the dryer? Hang socks to air dry if you want to preserve them. Hot temperatures break down synthetic fibers including spandex (or elastane), and causes wool to shrink.
What causes holes? Rough toenails, usually! Keep your toenails trimmed, and use a file to smooth the edges. Toenails can act like little sawblades. Rubbing against parts of your shoes can also cause holes. Little holes become big holes, usually in the middle of a race or long ride. Fun.
Yes you can sew up the hole, but this will automatically relegate these socks from race duty since the bunched fabric can cause discomfort or hot spots.
What is the perfect sock height? There is none! A 4 inch height might be great for some and not for others. Knee socks? No-show? Why not so long as the edge doesn’t rub! It’s completely up to you, the wearer and what you find comfortable and not what any observer thinks. They’re not riding in your shoes.
For many women (and some men), men’s socks are often too tight around the ankle, so shorter heights work well. Or, if you don’t mind obscuring the logos, fold or push the cuff down to the perfect height for you.
Wool or synthetic? It depends! Have an arsenal of different types of socks, and test them out in different conditions and for different types of riding and with different shoes. You’ll quickly learn which works best for you under different conditions. There is no such thing as one sock to rule them all.
- Heavier wool socks keep your feet warm in cold, dry weather, and when your feet are wet, but can be too warm under rain booties, making your feet more wet, by sweat. However, a heavy wool sock is wonderful when it’s really wet or muddy and you can’t wear booties, such as during cyclocross or mountain biking.
- Thin wool socks might be better in a wider range of temperatures or with booties. Wool blended with synthetic fibers often fit better than 100 percent wool socks. Wool is more expensive than synthetics, and wool has natural antimicrobial properties so may stink less on hot days.
- Merino wool is very expensive, very soft and comfortable but might stretch out or get holes quicker than other types of wool. Some people who are bothered by regular wool might tolerate Merino wool.
- Socks made of synthetic fibers are usually acrylic, nylon, polyester or a combination, along with spandex or other fibers. CoolMax is a brand name for a polyester fiber, and Lycra is a brand name of spandex, there are many other branded products. Synthetic socks are generally less expensive than wool but not always. They’re quite durable depending on the manufacturing process. Synthetics wick sweat away from your feet and can help regulate temperature.
What about cotton? Around the house, yes. Riding, no. Cotton is soft when it’s dry but stays wet, doesn’t wick sweat and can make your feet feel cold. They may bunch up in weird places causing discomfort. Cotton becomes sticky when wet (think about pulling up cotton underwear after a shower) and can cause blisters. The cuff might not stay up. Even if it’s blended with a synthetic fiber, cotton socks won’t perform as well as socks made of synthetics or wool.
Can I wear my favorite hiking or running socks on the bike? Possibly. Try them on a short ride first… these socks often have cushioning built into the sole or midfoot which might affect the fit of your cycling shoes. Hiking socks may be heavier than necessary for cycling, and if you’re a weight weenie this is rotational mass. ; )
Socks for hot days: On hotter days your feet will swell on long rides so shoes that are snug can become uncomfortably tight. As the mercury rises, choose thinner socks.
So… what socks should I wear? Start with the free ones first, if these suit you, yay! If not, shop the sales, ask your friends, try as many as you can. Eventually you’ll find your lucky favorites.
Associate Coach Elaine Bothe’s favorite socks are usually found in little muddy heaps on the floor of her laundry room. She excels in teaching technical mountain bike skills to clients of all levels, along with advanced courses in how to bring home half the mountain on socks and gear.