Sunglasses and cycling go hand-in-hand but sunnies do more than just shade your eyes. Choose the right eyewear and you’ll get better clarity and vision while riding, choose the wrong ones and you risk impaired eyesight. Lens colour plays an important role, so what is the best colour for cycling? It depends… in this article I explore different lens colours (tints), identify how they each affect visibility and outline which lens colours are best suited to which cycling conditions.
Eight sets of sunglasses were included in this test and in combination there were 14 lenses. Each of the lenses were evaluated in both shade and bright sun. Clear lenses were tested and later excluded from the test results as they offered no substantial change (in respect to colours). For the final results, the lenses have been grouped into six colours; Amber, Blue, Green, Red/Pink, Orange and Grey.
Special thanks to visiondirect.com.au , the online retailer with over 180 brands of sunglasses. VisionDirect Australia loaned five sets of cycling sunglasses for testing and also shared recommendations for tint selection for different sports.
Stop the press!
When you buy your next pair of cycling sunnies, lens colour is important however it just one of a number of considerations. As this test is focussed upon lens colour alone, let’s highlight a few of the other important aspects for choosing cycling eyewear:
• UV (UVA & UVB) protection should be a no-brainer… but double-check.
• Photochromatic and transitions lenses react to light; the lenses darken in brighter light conditions and lighten in darker conditions so better accommodate changing light conditions.
• Mirrored and superficial lens coatings don’t necessarily provide a coloured tint but may just make you look like the 1980’s.
• Prescription lenses for sports glasses are often available with tints or colours though tend have a more limited range of options.
• Colours and tints come in different grades, these can differ substantially between brands.
• Fit and style that are crucial for making you feel good and look good.
Now the scope has been narrowed, we can look at the colour and tint of each lens and identify the best ones based on colour alone. So what exactly should our coloured lens do?
Coloured lenses…. cool or effective?
Depending on location, time of day and weather, your requirements for cycling sunnies will change so for this test, each lens was evaluated in the bright sunny conditions and in overcast, shaded conditions.
A coloured lens can affect the colours transmitted to your retina and can shift, dull or intensify various colours across the colour spectrum. The result is that contrast, definition, clarity and depth perception is affected and your overall vision can be enhanced or weakened.
As an example, for road cycling the road surface is usually grey and enhancing the yellow colour spectrum usually improves definition – you can see more detail and contours. This is similar for off-road riding and mountain biking however the browns and red colour tones become more important for earthy and leaf-littered trails. In contrast, it is rarely important to enhance green as it is uncommon to ride on green surfaces (yes, we need more bike lanes!)
To make lens colour select even more interest, a specific coloured lens such as blue doesn’t automatically mean that the same colour is enhanced or richer. For a blue lens, the multiplication effect (blue on blue) darkens the blue plus the light conditions (sun or shade) can also influence whether a single colour is are tinted or enhanced.
Contrast and definition have been separated for testing, a lens with high contrast but poor definition is suboptimal for cycling. For simplicity, ‘definition’ also couples the positive attributes of clarity and depth perception. Whether you are a road rider, gravel grinder, tourer or mountain biker, increased definition is a benefit and the right lens colour can deliver this enhancement.
Cycling Lens Colour: Video
Amber is not a trendy colour however it makes-up by being a comfortable all-rounder. Amber provides shade but is softer and more versatile than grey so can still provide good visibility in lower light conditions. This is a good lens colour for road cyclists and off-road riders who will appreciate reduced eye-strain and want a single pair of glasses to get them through almost any condition.
Not just pretty colour, blue also shifts and enhances the colour perception. The biggest benefit of the blue lens is versatility, particularly for rapidly changing light conditions such as through forests with intermittent tree cover. It offers more shade than an orange or yellow lens with enough colour enhancement to help with depth perception. The blue lens however quickly reaches its limits in bright conditions.
While green can look good, it feels out of place for cycling. During lower light conditions it lends shade, like grey lenses. During bright conditions the shade disappears and although definition is good, as a package the other colour lenses provide more benefits.
Red / Pink Lens
Red and Pink lenses are a wild-card, the little old ladies with their rose-tinted spectacles are definitely onto something. Transitioning from sun to shade brings a big change in colour handling but with positive results. As with a Photochromatic lens (which changes tint depending on the amount of light), the Red / Pink lens is great in low light while for sunny conditions was far better suited than anticipated as the definition and shade also increased.
Orange and yellow lenses are an all-time favourite for athletes and well known for improving depth perception in low light conditions. The yellow lens helps you to identify the contours and details of the road and trails. It contrast with other lenses, the orange also provides more shading than anticipated however as it allows a lot of light through, it is less suitable for bright conditions.
Classic shades are grey and the focus is shading the eyes from bright light. Tinting is usually graded from Category 0 (which allows all light through) to Category 4 (which is extremely dark). Based upon Visible Light Transmission (VLT), for cycling, the most common are Category 2 (18-45% VLT) and Category 3 (8-17% VLT) lenses.
Although the grey tinting helps the eyes to better see in bright conditions, it also affect the definition and details can be harder to distinguish. Photochromatic and transitions (prescription) lenses which adjust the level of tinted depending on the brightness provide increased versatility for cyclists.
Clear lenses are best for night time riding or low light conditions. Cyclists benefit from eye protection; wind, dust and UVA and UVB rays.
To select the right sunglasses for cycling, lens colour and tint will affect the amount of shade, the definition and vision enhancement so needs to be appropriate for the locations you ride and the typical light conditions.
Many brands and models of sunglasses for cyclists typically have a range of different lenses on offer and commonly supply two lenses. If you have one set of sunglasses, typically you should chose a grey tinted or photochromatic lens for bright conditions and a tinted lens such as orange, blue or pink/red for low light conditions. Big brands can often supply lenses only though if the eyewear is supplied with two lenses which you can chose, this if often better value.
Lens colour isn’t purely scientific, if you feel peachy slipping on a pair of tangerine shades and just love peering into a <insert colour preference> tinted world, then factor this in as well when deciding on your next pair of cycling sunglasses.
Sunglasses in test
Bloc Titan X632 (Amber)
Smith PIVLOCK ARENA-TF6/6Q (Ignitor – Amber, Pink/Red, Clear)
Salice 006 RW (Blue Polycarbonate Blue Mirror Cat 3 +, Clear)
Salice 011 ITA (Polarized Green Mirror Plastic cat 3+, Orange)
Wiley x WX Saint CHSAI06 (Polycarbonate Grey, ‘Light Rust’ Orange, Clear)
Oakley RadarLock Path (Grey, G30 Iridium Orange)
CTRL XC Eyewear (Electronic Tinting)
Oakley Racing Jacket ICE Iridium Vented (Orange, Clear)