No, I’m not a Stark – just stating fact. And, with winter, as we all know, comes cold weather…
Cold weather doesn’t mean you have to stop riding, it just means you have to dress a little smarter to combat the elements so that your riding experience is just as enjoyable as it is durning the warm months.
Here are a few tips, learned over the years, that will help you enjoy your bike deep into the winter months and when the mercury hits even below zero.
All bundled up and enjoying some winter cycling…
Over the years I’ve found that if I set out on a winter ride and I’m warm or hot before I even start a single pedal stroke, the experience will be a miserable one. As a rule of thumb you want to be a little bit cold before you begin. Once you start pedaling your body will provide the necessary heat to keep you comfortable.
You’ll definitely need to cover the basics; You’ll surely already have a good set of cycling shorts with adequate padding, these will provide the staring point for the rest of your gear and the foundation of your core layer.
Dressing in “layers” is essential for winter cycling. In general your attire will consist of three layers and some other essential accessories:
- The Base/Core layer
- The Middle Layer
- The Shell/Outer Layer
- Additional items
The Base Layer
The purpose of the “core” layer, or base layer, is to wick moisture away from your body so that you remain dry and warm throughout the ride. This layer should be snug to your body and consist of a fabric that can move that perspiration away from your skin. Avoid cotton at all costs for this layer since cotton will retain moisture close to your body and ultimately make you colder. High-tech synthetic fibers like polypropylene will serve you well here. Wool (particularly the Merino variety) is a great fabric to consider for your base layer.
For my base layer I generally wear the same cycling unders I use in the summer months, a thin Merino wool or polypro top, and a thin set of calf-high Merino wool socks. I generally stick to my regular full-finger cycling gloves and regular cycling shoes. Not until the weather gets really cold (below 40°) will I start wearing my winter specific cycling gloves or shoes. On cold days when I’m not entirely sure what gloves to wear I’ll pack an extra pair (heavy or lighter than what I set out with) on my jersey pockets.
The Middle Layer
Next you need to focus on your middle layer. This layer will supplement your base/core layer and also provide some moisture wicking capabilities. Your middle layer will provide air circulation above your base layer and for that reason should be somewhat looser than your base layer. This layer, in general, will be the one that varies the most and will be highly dependent on the temperature and the level of activity you engage in. This will undoubtedly be the layer you will experiment with the most. In time you’ll learn exactly what suits you best.
Depending on the temperature I’ll generally wear a regular long sleeve cycling jersey or a short or long sleeve wool jersey or a long sleeve fleece sweatshirt. My favorite top has become a long sleeve Merino wool jersey. Even when damp the jersey retains heat and keeps me warm and comfortable. For my bottoms I’ll either wear a pair of knickers or cycling tights over my padded unders to cover my legs.
Riding in the mid 30s in November 2012; Head band to cover my ears, knickers with knee-high wool socks, Lake winter shoes, wool long-sleeve jersey over long sleeve polypro base, winter riding gloves and neck warmer; Nice and toasty…
The Shell/Outer Layer
Finally it’s time to address your shell or outer layer. The primary purpose of this “top” layer is to keep the outside elements away from your body. The shell layer will act as a wind breaker and moisture “barrier”. It, however, needs to be breathable so that it allows for the moisture from within to escape.
I generally use a light Gore-Tex jacket with adjustable vents in the armpit area that keeps both wind and water away from my body but also let’s perspiration escape. When the weather gets really cold (30° and below) I’ll add a pair of Gore-Tex pant shells and replace the light jacket with a heavier jacket with a lined inner – effectively doubling up my middle layer.
In addition to the above I highly suggest you invest in a high quality pair of cycling shoes and gloves and some “head” gear.
I have made a considerable investment in shoes and gloves. Personally, if my digits are cold, no amount of warmth in my core body will keep me riding. I set out on an early morning ride last week and completely underestimated how cold it was; my fingers were numb within 3 miles and I was forced to turn around and finish earlier than I expected. By the time I made it back to the starting point my fingers were frozen and all desire to keep riding was gone.
For mild temperatures I use a set of Gore-Tex shoe covers and mild winter gloves. But once the temperatures drops below 40° I wear my winter specific Lake shoes and Pearl Izumi winter gloves. Gloves are critical, find a pair of specifically designed cycling winter gloves that fit your hands – nothing too tight. These gloves are built specifically to provide you with the adequate movement and flexibility you need to manage and use your bike’s cockpit controls.
Other accessories I have in my winter cycling drawer are smartwool arm warmers and smartwool leg warmers, neck liners, a winter head band, and a full head hoodie that protects my face, ears and skull on really cold days.
An interesting discussion emerged on Facebook’s Patapsco Mountain Bikers group related to this very topic and much of what I covered above has been brought up. To help, here is a more detailed breakdown of the items that are in my wardrobe and that I recommend for those really cold winter days…
Head and neck
I generally wear a Halo Band for as long as the temperatures permit just to keep sweat off my eyes. But once the temperature hits below the mid 40s I’ll swap it for a Halo skull cap that covers my ears and provides a little warmth and protection from the wind. When the temps go below the mid 30s I’ll use a Gordini Baclava full head cover that protects my head and neck and covers my ears, nose, and mouth.
Even when it is “relatively” warm (45° – 59°) I wear a thin wool neck wrap (actually a Smartwool head band) around my neck. When the temperature starts dipping really low I’ll swap that with a thicker, larger, and warmer neck gaiter; The neck gaiter and some good ear covers will serve much the same purpose as the full face Baclava, which I reserve for really cold days.
I’ll pretty much wear only two layers until it gets really cold – below the mid 40s; If I’m on the road I’ll add a third (top layer) “wind breaker.” My base layer is always a long sleeve polypro undershirt (I’ve had the same REI shirt for over 6 years – really) or an Underarmour base layer shirt (there are factory stores in Potomac Mills and Leesburg that have great deals; if you are veteran – thank you btw – they’ll even discount things more). Above that I always wear a long sleeve wool jersey; these aren’t cheap, but with proper care (delicate wash and hang dry) they’ll last you for years. As the temperatures go down I’ll add a thin windbreaker or a lined windbreaker depending on how cold it gets.
My arms are generally covered by what I define in the torso section above. But if the temperatures are mild/cold when I start and I know they’ll warm up as the ride progresses I’ll generally wear a short sleeve base layer (underarmour) and a short sleeve wool jersey. In addition I’ll wear either my Pearl Izumi arm warmers or Smartwool arm warmers. The Pearl Izumi arm warmers I own are better for road riding because they have some “wind-breaking” capabilities. The Smartwool arm warmers are better suited for Off-road cycling where “wind-breaking” is not as relevant (at least not when you are in the woods.)
My hands have to be warm. period. So this is one of the places I put the most emphasis in. I own three different sets of winter gloves. My first go-to set are my Sugoi Toaster Gloves. Unfortunately Sugoi no longer makes this model but they have some comparable new ones; These are great gloves, but once the temperature drop down to the 30s they don’t cut it. From there I move on to my Pearl Izumi Elite gloves. These are a little heavier/bulkier than my Sugoi gloves and keep my hands warm even in the coldest days and still provide some flexibility and mobility. When it gets really cold I go with my Pearl Izumi “lobster” style gloves. The biggest issue I have as I move to the colder weather gloves is that they get bulkier and you begin to lose some “dexterity.” I’ve never tried pogies (bar mitts), but I’m considering them since they will allow me to bulk down my gloves so. Fat-Bike.com has a comprehensive list of pogies to “keep your digits warm.”
When Mountain biking I hardly wear tights unless it gets really cold – below mid 30s. I always wear long (skiing) Smartwool socks with a pair of Endura 3/4 single track pants. Once the temps go below the mid 30s I’ll add a pair of thermal Pearl Izumi tights; Coupled with the long socks they keep me super warm. After the temps really start dipping I’ll add the Enduro 3/4 pants to the mix for some “wind braking.” Endura makes full length pants I’m hoping to get my hands on in the future.
For road biking I throw a pair of light weight tights above those long socks. Only after the temps go down below 40 will I wear the thermal tights. Beyond that I honestly don’t ride out on the road much.
Like my arms, I also will sometimes head out with either a pair of Pearl Izumi knee warmers, or a pair of Smartwool leg warmers. Again – I use the Izumi knee warmers on the road for their wind breaking capabilities and the wool ones when mountain biking. As the temps rise these are easy to shed.
Like my hands, my feet HAVE to be warm. I have invested in a high quality pair of winter cycling Lake boots. If you care for them properly they should last you for many seasons. 45 North also makes several high quality boots. I use my Lake shoes both on and off-road. I stick with the long thin Smartwool skiing socks and always carry toe warmers with me in case my feet start getting too cold. I seldom, if ever, double up on socks because they will just make your shoes tighter and restrict circulation, making them get colder quicker.
Many have mentioned (in the Facebook Patapsco Group) that you don’t need cycling specific apparel to stay warm; That’s true; You can find lots of gear out at Target, K-Mart, Walmart, and other box retailers that will help keep you warm. Ultimately you want to outfit yourself with gear meant for and designed for the task at hand. Quality gear is an investment, and once you do get it you should treat it as such. Care for it like the manufacturer recommends and it will stay with you for season after season. I’ve been riding for over 20 years and in all honesty a lot of my gear has seen more than 5 seasons.
Cycling gear is so expensive that when I actually go out and get a quality piece of cycling clothing I make sure to care for it as best as possible so that I can enjoy it over the years. My wool jerseys are nearly 5 years old and still have plenty of life in them. My tights have been with me for nearly 8 years – I just recently, last season, purchased my thermal pair.
I also try to purchase my gear during the off-season and recommend you do the same. You’ll notice I link to REI a lot; I’m a member and often get some cash back at the end of the year (to shed on more cycling gear). Plus, they have great outlet sales for members only a couple of times a year. I’ve also found a few products (brands) that I remain loyal to because they work; Smartwool and Pearl Izumi are two of them.
I hope that this overview helps you outfit yourself with the necessary gear to ride all year long.
Too stupid to go outside? nope – just well dressed; The temperatures read 8° on this ride with my buddy Tom Jackson back in January 17, 2009.
My buddy Pete Beers has written a great post about staying warm AND dry on the bike; You can find, “Baby it’s cold outside… and wet” on his blog, I Love My Commute. You’ll notice a “pattern” between what I wrote here and the gear he itemizes in his post; One of the items I failed to mention in my post (and which I honestly don’t own – but will soon get) is a pair of Outdoor Research Gaiters. These will help keep any moisture out of your boots, keeping your feet warm and dry.