Sunglasses are essential training and racing equipment for cycling. I refuse to ride without them, not because I’m a spoiled brat, but because there are real safety concerns with unprotected eyes. Imagine riding down a hill at 30mph (48kph) and a bug hitting your eyeball, or worse, a piece of gravel picked up from the rider in front of you. Sunglasses effectively reduce the risk of eye injury from blunt impact with bugs, gravel, debris, or any other obstacle that might come flying at your face. A sudden blast of dust or pollen can cause a rider to lose sight of the road ahead of them and distract them; sunglasses prevent this. On top of that, proper cycling glasses can help cut through the glare to make the road and any obstacles more visible in changing light conditions. Let’s have a look at what to consider when purchasing cycling glasses.
Characteristics of Effective Cycling Glasses
What are we looking for in a pair of glasses?
Firstly, cycling glasses should be used for cycling and be designed for cycling. The specific demands of riding a bike are different from other sports that use glasses. Baseball and golf are low speed sports and wind is not as big of an issue. Shooting/hunting glasses are impact resistant to prevent bullets piercing the eye. Others such as football or hockey helmets are placed further from the eyes and are connected directly to the helmet. For cycling specifically, the goal is to find glasses with these characteristics:
- sits close to the eyes to prevent wind and dust from flowing around the lenses
- wraps along the face for aerodynamics and to reduce airflow
- anti-fogging or low fog lenses/geometry because cycling is a high intensity sport and the heat produced from the efforts may cause fogging
- lenses that are designed for full sun with accommodations for times when sunlight is split by tree cover
- frames that sit on the ears snugly but don’t cause pain over long periods (4+ hours) – the glasses should not slip down or cause pain
These are quite high demands and purchasing a proper pair of sunglasses is no cheap feat. Some areas where manufacturers skimp on features include:
- Almost no scratch resistance – dropping them on the ground often or crashing hard with them on usually calls for a new pair.
- They are usually lightweight to cause less fatigue on the ears over time, but this can make them fragile, with the frame feeling flimsy
- Limitations in prescription glasses opportunities – only dual lens frames are available for prescription glasses
When purchasing new sunglasses, it’s important to consider trade-offs in your own use as well. Do you drop your glasses often? Do you lose track of your equipment often? Do you crash often? Answering these questions honestly can help you find the right price point for your needs. The best way to take care of sunglasses is to keep them either on your face or in your helmet. When you are riding, keep them on or put one arm down the back of your collar when climbing. When the event is over, take off your helmet and, placing it upside down, put your glasses folded up inside of it. The helmet cocoon will keep your glasses safe as long as you care about not damaging your helmet.
I don’t plan on finishing the day with these
Potato glasses come in the range of $10-30 and offer simple lenses that usually tint (darken) the light passing through, but otherwise provide no use for cyclists. Sometimes these glasses actually make it more difficult to see objects at speed because the tinting reduces the dynamic range of light. The frames will be flimsy and made of poor quality plastic. They will rarely sit in place or be flush to the eyes, allowing wind and dust to pass around the outsides. They may have an aesthetic component with some cheap glasses having a nice look for college students or geared towards tourist-like styles. Overall, glasses like these don’t achieve any of the needs for cycling glasses and their only use is to ditch on the side of the road once the event really starts.
Some characteristics of good cycling sunglasses
Low quality glasses can be found in the range of $30-60 and will provide some benefits for cycling specific use. Usually in this price range you’ll receive polarized lenses, a special coating that reduces glare by only allowing vertical light through the lenses. The frames will generally be poor plastic still and aesthetics will be the main focus. Comfort will increase slightly from potato quality, but over time wearing these glasses will be noticeable and may start to become uncomfortable. These types of glasses rarely wrap around the eyes and leave significant space for debris to get around the lenses. They will feel flimsy and likely break easily under light to moderate loads. There is a place for glasses like this: an affordable polarized lens option that is great of going to the beach or hiking with friends. In terms of functional glasses that meet the high demands of sport, there will be areas that are lacking.
Good Enough Quality
Fulfill the needs of cycling glasses
There are many cycling brands in the $70+ range that offer ‘good enough’ glasses. These are a great starting option for a hobbyist or starting racer who rides 5+ hours a week. They will meet the demands of the sport, having polarized lenses and sometimes multiple lenses to accommodate sun/clouds and ‘clears’, lenses that are completely see-through with no filter. Clears are great for evening rides/races or rainy conditions because they block debris/wind/rain, but do not interfere with sight. These lenses will wrap around the eyes and it’s best to find glasses with shields (big wide lenses) or smaller lenses that tuck comfortable into the eye wells and leave only a few millimeters of space above the cheeks.
Good enough quality glasses are the most common glasses found in bike shops and that is a good place to start searching. Most will be in the $70-80 range and are specifically designed for cycling. One tip is to ask to stand in front of a fan. Typically the mechanics in the shop will have a fan in the mechanic’s area for airflow. If you are able to, stand in front of the fan and see if you can feel the air on or around your eyes. If you can, then you will get dust in your eyes when you ride. Not every design fits every type of face, so experiment and find the one right for you. In my experience, the best ‘good enough’ brand is Tifosi who provide multi-lens options with easy to replace parts. Their lenses don’t feature the same quality as the high end glasses, but their cost on your pocket isn’t so high either.
These are nice glasses
Fancy cycling glasses are in a league of their own. Prices can range from $120 to $500+. Why pay for lenses above the ones that are simply ‘good enough’? Well, if you ride more than 10-12 hours a week, there is enough justification to purchase nice cycling glasses and they can really ramp up the experience. The lenses have specific filters in addition to the polarization that helps the road stand out from the background. These photochromatic filters also make objects stand out from each other more, making it easier to see rough road, potholes, and other road debris. The filters can also help in situations where the road changes from light to dark and back to light, allowing the rider to continue to see the road even under changing light conditions.
The build quality will also be higher and fancy glasses feel like they won’t snap in your fingers. They also tend to come with more comfortable rubber and will be comfortable for hours and hours as long as you purchased a pair that fits your face. A few brands to look at include: Oakley, Smith Optics, and Rudy Project, among others. Remember to purchase cycling specific glasses! I ride Oakley’s but in reality almost all Oakley glasses are not designed with cyclists in mind. Their product line is largely for other sports. Make sure you try the glasses on before purchasing and evaluate their effectiveness at fulfilling the needs from our list above.
Prescription Cycling Glasses
If you need or want prescription on your cycling glasses, get ready to pay for them with your first born child. Unless you have good vision insurance, it’s going to be in the $700+ range to get the lenses you need. On top of that, shield lenses which are common in cycling are not available for prescriptions. Only separated lenses, which tend to be smaller and block less wind/debris, are able to be manufactured with a prescription curve. When deciding to get prescription lenses, the number one thing is safety; then consider how often you crash or drop them on the ground.
What glasses do you wear for cycling and why do you like them? Let me know in the comments!