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Socks over or under: the great leg warmer debate

Leg warmers
(Image credit: Rapha)

Cyclists and comic book fans have a lot in common. We idolize people, places, and things that the vast majority of the population has never heard of and spend hours debating hypothetical situations, and minuscule details about equipment and clothing.

Whether it is the rim or disc brakes, tubed or tubeless tires, or if gravel bikes are just hardtail mountain bikes from the 1990s; debates like these will rage on for as long as we continue to exercise in stretchy pants — which is also a subject of discussion. With winter settling in for the next few months and riders prepping their cold-weather gear, the latest seasonal debate of whether your socks go over or under your leg warmers has once again picked up steam - thanks in part to Wout van Aert, who stirred up the debate with a recent Instagram story. 

For something so inconsequential, large swaths of the cycling community have strong opinions on this topic, myself included, and there is a correct answer to the question — hint, it's socks underneath. 

Before we go any further, I love cycling socks. I have spent more than I am proud to admit on bright and colourful party socks, socks with grippers, aero socks and some with compressions panel and built-in arch support (but never full compression socks), and the like. I am also someone who will opt for function over style. 

This love of socks, and practical mindset is one of the many reasons I wear them under my leg warmers — and you should too. When it's cold enough to wear leg warmers, in my experience having lived and ridden for many years in Colorado and then Australia, it usually means it's also wet. Whether it's currently raining, has recently rained, or in the case of Colorado, there is snow on the ground which is now melting, it means the road is wet. Most socks are made from nylon/poly/cotton blend, which is a moisture magnet. 

It's this sponge-like quality of typical cycling socks that creates a two-fold reason to wear your socks beneath your leg warmers. First, with six-inches of sock hanging out above your shoe, it's going to be in the firing line of the water that is kicked up from the road. The sock will absorb the water and then gravity will funnel it straight down into your shoe, making your feet cold. If they are under your leg warmers, there is only a small sliver of sock exposed to the elements and with most leggings and tights now being DWR treated, the moisture that would have soaked into that exposed cuff will bead and be blown away by the wind as you ride.

Reason number two; those colourful socks we all love to wear aren't cheap. No matter what 'oxy this,' or 'colour saver that' you wash them with, after a few rides covered in road grime, they lose a bit of their lustre. Multiply this process over an entire winter, and you have a pair of dull, boring socks come Springtime. Given you may have spent $30 (or more) on that pair of socks, wouldn't you want to keep them bright as long as possible?

Then there is the state of your ankles. Most leg warmers have zippers at the bottom to make the install and removal process less of a wrestling match. If you wear your socks on top of your warmers, that zipper will spend hours rubbing away at your skin, aided by a silicon gripper, which also isn't the most pleasant material to have directly against your skin. 

From saddle sores to road rash and sore muscles, there are many things that can leave you uncomfortable post-ride; why add another to the list for the sake of style? Your socks create the perfect barrier between zippers and grippers to prevent them from rubbing a hole in your skin.

Regardless of where you fall on everything above, there is a straightforward question to ask when debating the order of socks and leg warmers. Do you tuck your trousers (pants, for our American readers) into your socks when you get dressed in the morning?

If you're out on a hike through and trying to protect yourself from ticks, sure; you absolutely would want to tuck your trouser legs into your socks because nobody is out there trying to get Lyme disease. For that matter, technical hiking gear isn't known for being at the cutting edge of fashion.

Yes, I am well aware of all the Belgian pro's who wear white socks over the top of their leg warmers in the worst the Flemish climate has to offer and that some leg warmers don't have zippers — but that still doesn't make wearing your socks on the outside of your leg warmers right.

The overarching theme in all of this is adherence to some unwritten rule that bears no real consequence, and rules — especially rules like these — are made to be broken. So if you're one of the hooligans who wear their socks on the outside of their legwarmers, let us know in the comments the big thing I'm missing here. Or, if you're one of the enlightened individuals who choose to layer their socks and leg warmers correctly, chime in for a virtual fist bump. 

And if you don't wear leg warmers at all, I might turn your attention towards our guide on the best winter bib tights — there is no reason to be cold this winter.