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by Dave Rome
October 28, 2019
Photography by Dave Rome, James Huang
Socks and cycling. Cycling socks. The obsession is something only cyclists understand.
There are few items in cycling that allow quite as much individual style as socks, and better yet, at a low-cost investment. However, while style may be the most obvious factor when buying cycling socks, they still need to be comfortable, breathable and durable. A good cycling sock is easily forgotten, while a bad one will have you pulling it out of your shoe, dreading the seams and that manky feeling.
In this edition of CT Recommends the team reveals where they put their own money when it comes to buying new foot gloves.
Want to skip straight to our recommendations? Click the links below:
Best summer cycling socks:
Best winter cycling socks:
– Handlebar Mustache
– Pearl Izumi
It’s easy to overthink cycling socks. That’s not to say you can’t go wrong, you certainly can, but a sock’s function is also pretty simple.
Common business or tennis-style cotton socks will often retain moisture and swell, promoting clammy feet, blisters and general icky yuckiness. Even running or gym socks are likely to have excess bulk and padding that can be a disadvantage on the bike. We reached out to a number of sock companies to find out what they feel makes a good cycling sock. Most were in agreeance about what to look for.
According to Stevan Musulin of Australian brand Attaquer, cycling socks should be “thin to avoid pressure points or hot spots; moisture-wicking and breathable to keep your feet comfortable, dry and feeling fresh; anti-bacterial so they don’t stink; durable so they last; and [have] a good fitting tube so they stay in place and don’t fall down while you’re riding.”
Adding to that, you want your socks to have as few seams as possible. In my experience, if the seam is at the front of the toe and minimal, it’s typically OK, while you’ll typically feel seams that are anywhere else. Durability is worth re-emphasising too, and as someone who’s poked holes in socks within a single ride, I certainly favour the brands that last (and durability is a key element in our recommendations).
Easily the most important rule about cycling socks is one enforced by the UCI: that socks must not go past the halfway point between your ankle and knee. Of course, I’m joking – do whatever you want, and unless you’re fighting for a title, you should probably do whatever suits you. In general, longer socks will give the illusion of larger calves, provide lower leg protection, and may offer some compression benefit (but the jury is out on this one).
.@UCI_cycling sock-height-measuring device at @LeTour pic.twitter.com/6IgH1OYakc
— Jakub Zimoch (@kubawinter) July 7, 2019
.@UCI_cycling sock-height-measuring device at @LeTour pic.twitter.com/6IgH1OYakc
— Jakub Zimoch (@kubawinter) July 7, 2019
Branding, colour, style and graphics are all personal preference. Most of the CT team prefers simpler and more subtly branded socks that can be worn with any kit. There are many fashion “rules” in this area, but honestly, you can ignore them.
Just like jerseys, socks can vary based on climate and conditions. Summer socks are designed to be thin and breathable, winter socks are designed with thermal properties, while waterproof socks are typically designed to keep your feet dry and warm. And of course, many people just happily wear summer socks year-round and adjust to the weather with external layers (i.e. shoe covers).
And while the science behind the effectiveness of compression in socks is a little wishy-washy, you simply can’t deny that socks with better compression are less likely to slip out of place. And clearly, given the UCI’s sock length rule, the governing body believes there’s a performance advantage to be had from wearing longer, more compressive socks, like those given to patients on bed rest.
Now, on with our picks.
Based in America, DeFeet is as iconic to cycling socks as Vegemite is to growing up in Australia. The company is so prolific in the sock game that you might actually be wearing a pair without even knowing it.
And that’s exactly the case with our global tech editor, James Huang. “I’m not especially picky when it comes to summer cycling socks, but when I really think about what ends up with a (semi-) permanent place in my sock basket and what goes into the donation box, most of them have one thing in common: they’re made by DeFeet,” he said. “Of all the brands DeFeet quietly manufactures for, one of my favourites is a local company, Handlebar Mustache.”
Defeet makes socks for a number of companies. If a cycling company claims its socks are made in North Carolina, or are produced in USA from recycled polyester, there’s a high chance they’re from DeFeet.
Local to James in Boulder, CO, Handlebar Mustache (US$16-$18 / AU$TBC.) has long been known for its wide variety of patterns and colours, all in James’ preferred medium-tall cuff height.
“[They’re] perfectly snug and airy, and the company donates a pair of socks to homeless shelters for every two that are purchased through its web site.”
James isn’t alone in loving DeFeet socks — senior editor Iain Treloar and roving reporter Dave Everett do too.
Despite its relatively limited colour range, Dave is a big fan of the DeFeet Levitator lite (US$14 / AU$TBC). “I’ve never had a problem with hot feet in them,” he said. “If you want mad colours, the standard Levitator is the one to go for. It’s comfy, lasts forever and seems a better all-year-round sock.”
We’ll get to Iain’s absolute favourite socks in a moment, but he did give a nod to the Aireator model from DeFeet (US$13 / AU$15-$20), something he suggests is the base of most re-branded DeFeet socks. He really likes these socks, but his preference lies in something with a softer feel.
My vote goes to the Swiftwick Aspire Seven (US$19 / AU$35), a sock with a features list so long it has to be good. Of course, I’m kidding, but these wonderfully thought-out socks easily overcome the relative lack of design options by being comfortable, durable, breathable, and dependable.
I’m typically a sock killer, and it doesn’t take me long to poke holes in the front of many good (and expensive) socks. But Swiftwicks stand up admirably and do so without ever feeling overbuilt. In the three years since I gave them a Most Loved award, they still remain my favourite pick.
Our VeloClub community manager (and the man behind Everesting), Andy van Bergen, is another who picks Swiftwick. “I loved them so much I bought half a dozen pairs,” he said. “[They’re] super minimal and so comfortable.”
Andy also prefers the Seven mid-calf size. “It’s soft underfoot, really breathable, the arch band feels so right, and the tube has enough compression that they sit exactly where you put them. The minimal branding means with a black pair and a white pair you can match almost any kit. I also think they look pretty baller worn casually.”
Iain has Swiftwick in a close second place (DeFeet was third in his list), simply stating “ditto to what Andy said”. And with that, it’s on to Iain’s top pick and a sock I only learned about while writing this article.
Hailing from the UK, Vertex (US$14-$21 / AU$TBC) is a small kit-maker whose socks have impressed both Iain and CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace.
Like Swiftwick and DeFeet, Vertex uses specific materials to achieve a sock that’s somewhat compressive, anti-bacterial, fast wicking, and without noticeable seams at the toes. And fairly uniquely, many Vertex models feature reflective or even glow-in-the-dark designs.
Iain describes them as being “light, [with] unobtrusive seams, supportive without being strangling, and pretty durable.” Wade backs Iain’s thoughts, stating that “[they] have a firm fit, perfect thickness of the material, [they’re] soft, last a long time, and feel new for a long time.”
Aussie label MAAP (US$20.50 / AU$30) gets the nod from a number on our team, but is only the outright favourite of our managing editor, Matt de Neef. “I’ve particularly enjoyed wearing MAAP socks,” he said. “Nice length, softy and comfy, sweet designs.”
MAAP also earned mentions from Dave Everett, Andy and Iain, but the general sentiment is that the fabric is on the coarser side, and that durability isn’t quite on par with other top brands. Andy particularly rates MAAP for casual use, too.
The sock market is (toe)jam-packed full of good options, and here’s a few more we’ve had great success with.
Prior to finding Swiftwick, I always found Capo socks to offer a brilliant fit and unmatched durability. It’s tough to say whether the latest from Capo have that same legendary durability, but they’re still a solid choice if you can find them. In recent times I’ve also had good experiences with Attaquer, Shimano’s S-Phyre socks which are designed to match the ventilation of the companion shoes, and Sox Footwear from South Africa.
All the previously mentioned socks are rather pricey, but there are certainly some good value options out there. Our video manager Phil Golston says his favourites are from Caratti, simply because of the price.
Dave Everett and editor-in-chief Caley Fretz, meanwhile, travelled all the way to Italy to find themselves a sock deal. “If people don’t mind spending the cash for heading to Italy while the Giro is on, the four-pairs-for-€10 socks Caley and I got from some bloke selling them at the finish of the stages are superb,” Dave said. “One of my favourites.
“They’re called ApeCompress but finding them on Google is tough. There seems to be some Facebook shop in Belgium and a place in Poland flogging them. But I think it’s a perfect excuse for heading to the Giro.”
Best known for its jackets, Gore offers a full suite of cycling clothing, and the company’s socks are the favourite of a few staff members.
In fact, Neal Rogers points to Gore as the only brand of sock that actually stands out to him. “I’ll be honest, I generally don’t get too excited about cycling socks,” he said. “I have some heavier-weight socks I prefer for winter rides, and some lightweight socks for summer rides, but generally so long as they match each other, and the rest of what I’m wearing, that’s about as far as it goes. The exception to this policy, however, is the one pair of Gore Fiber Bike Socks I own, which stand out above the rest.
“Made using a combination of Merino wool and synthetic fibers, they’re a bit thicker than your average summer socks, but not as thick as most winter socks, and they transfer moisture so well your feet never really get hot or sweaty. They also have an impressive construction, anatomically designed with a metatarsal belt, compressive arch support, and cushioning for the heel and toes.
“There’s a lot going on in these socks, which is why they retailed at USD$26. I use the past tense because they appear to have been discontinued; they no longer show up on Gore’s website, and retailers are out of stock — which just makes me appreciate them even more.”
Andy also rates Gore socks, but for a different reason. When it’s raining and “you know you’re going to get nailed,“ Andy’s favourites are a pair of Goretex waterproof socks (US$70 / AU$TBC) that he wears over a pair of regular summer socks.
For James, his favourite winter socks are also a product of Handlebar Mustache (US$23 / AU$TBC), manufactured by DeFeet. “The company founders are dedicated vegans so instead of wool, these are made of Thermolite hollow-fiber polyester,” he said. “I adore Merino wool socks, and was quite sceptical of these, but I’ve found them to be insanely warm, extremely tough, as well as easier to care for.”
James Huang actually selected the Handlebar Mustache winter socks as one of his most loved products in 2018.
While unconfirmed, it’s quite likely these socks are the same as the DeFeet Thermeator, just in case you were seeking additional design options.
I’ll admit I have poor circulation — I suffer badly from cold feet and yet am stubborn when it comes to using shoe covers. Each winter I find myself happily reaching for the Pearl Izumi Elite Thermal Wool socks (US$19 / AU$35). These feature more than 50% Merino wool, offer a longer than usual cuff height, and a soft feel. Despite being on the thicker side, for me they offer a noticeable amount of insulation without ever feeling hot or sweaty.
Now it’s your turn. If you could only have one pair of cycling socks (I know, blasphemy), what would you pick? Or are you all new age and too cool for socks?