For such a seemingly insignificant piece of kit, cyclists have a strange affinity for finding the best cycling socks, and riders stress over every detail, from the material, cuff height and colour scheme.
The market for cycling socks is ever-expanding, with super-techy cycling socks that offer compression, carbon-fibre construction and aero benefit, to socks that turn the saturation up to 11. Beyond just being a fashion faux pas, running or ankle socks are designed around footsteps rather than pedal strokes, often having extra padding in the wrong place, which can wrinkle and cause hotspots over the course of a ride. Some of the best cycling socks also provide a small layer of protection for your ankle bone, so it doesn't get shredded by the tarmac should you hit the deck.
Socks have been quite a source of controversy over the past few years within cycling, with the UCI enacting, scrapping and then re-instating its rules regarding height. When done correctly, socks can offer an aero advantage, although it's marginal at best and dependant on variables, some of which can be controlled, like fabric texture, and some that can't, like leg speed and size.
The UCI is intent on smoking out the #sockdopers and officials are now present at WorldTour races with a purpose-built measuring device to ensure socks don't "rise above the height defined by half the distance between the middle of the lateral malleolus and the middle of the fibula head" – their words – deemed by some as a farcical priority considering other battles currently facing the sport of cycling.
For the rest of us, socks just need to feel comfortable and look good. Socks with a four-to-seven-inch cuff seem to be the sweet spot for length, and while some tend to gravitate towards bright and colourful socks, others will argue there's no classier look than a pair of new white socks.
There is more to bright socks than just fashion
While the fashionistas among us have long accented kits with tall bright socks, they were improving their visibility on the road whether they knew it or not.
A 2013 study conducted by the University of Queensland found the best place for reflective detailing to help drivers identify riders in low light situations more quickly is moving parts like the knees and ankles.
Studies conducted by Clemson University and Trek Bikes into visible perception found through a phenomenon called sensitivity bio-motion (humans are really good at seeing other humans) that we are especially good at picking out human movement against cluttered backgrounds. The studies concluded with this acuity for human motion, drawing attention to major movable joints with reflective accents or bright and contrasting colours (during the day) helps drivers see us.
So by slipping into a colourful pair of socks, you're also increasing your visibility on the road.
Cuff height: 4-7in
The most comfortable
When we first read the technical claims that Swiftwick makes about its fibres and knitting process, we thought it was typical over-hyped marketing. They are just socks, after all. Then we tried them.
The Aspire socks are available in a number of cuff lengths and have a thin profile with minimal cushioning, seamless construction, and the Olefin fibre is lightweight, highly breathable, and quick-drying. Over the years the Brentwood, Tennessee-based outfit has cultivated a fervent following, so much so that one of our former colleagues even travelled to the US so that he could replenish his supply before they were available in the UK.
Cuff height: 6in
Used as a base-model for other brands, the Aireator is the original DeFeet sock. It really is the gold standard.
Besides performance and comfort benefits, which we'll get to in a moment, the Aireator socks are manufactured in North Carolina, USA, from recycled water bottles.
Comfort is unparalleled, and the Aireator mesh that adorns the forefoot increases breathability to prevent overheating. You can get Aireator socks in a range of styles, from classy white with a simple Defeet logo, or more extravagant designs including one called Moon Doggo, which is literally a dog on the moon.
Cuff height: 6in
With mesh ventilation zones that align with Shimano shoes, the Original Tall socks are great for owners of the Japanese brand's footwear. A tall cuff is in keeping with cycling's high sock fashion trend, and the subtle colours will match with just about any kit.
There is integrated cushioning throughout at various contact points, meaning they not only look great, they feel comfortable too.
Cuff height: 6in
Bright and tight
Compressprint as a name is quite self explanatory. 'Compress' eludes to the compressive, well-fitting nature of the socks. 'Print' is a nod to the obvious fact that these socks take bright colours and design seriously - there are no plain white socks here.
Made from 100% Nylon and spandex, the socks have high elasticity to prevent bunching or chafing. For your money, you're getting four pairs, so value for money is the order of the day.
Castelli Fast Feet
Cuff height: ~7in
A pair of socks designed with aerodynamic efficiency in mind. Made using 83% nylon and 17% elastane, the Castelli Fast Feet socks were developed with input from Team Sky.
The sock is split into two halves. The foot portion is made for comfort, based around the brand's Rosso Corsa race socks, the upper portion uses Lycra with engineered grooves which decrease drag.
Only two colours - black or white - and a single cuff height of around seven inches is available