Two years ago I stopped hibernating in winter. No more hanging up my bike for a cycling hiatus and no more losing ground in my fitness level from months of inactivity. Not only is riding year round a great way to stay in great bikey shape, but riding in the fall and winter is invigorating and oh-so-beautiful. Yes, even here in Portland, Oregon, where there are plenty of dry days for us bicycling enthusiasts to enjoy.
There was a time I would have thought that anyone who rode in temperatures less than 70 degrees was simply nuts. I hate being cold, but I have also come to discover there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Thirty-seven degrees outside? No problem. The sun is shining, it is not raining (saving that for another post), friends are waiting. Let’s ride!
So let’s kick off a conversation about how to stay warm in the winter. With my husband’s help, I recorded this video to share how I recently geared up to ride on a sunny but crisp, 40-degree day.
Do I dress like this every time I ride in cold weather? No. There are many factors I consider:
- What is the temperature? Is it expected to rise/fall? I prepare for the worst, making sure I can remove and store layers in a light-weight knapsack.
- Am I climbing hills or riding flats? I get warm when I climb hills but immediately chill on the descent. Layers are a smart choice and a wind-proof jacket is critical.
- Is it a casual ride at a slower pace or a speed-fest with my maniac friends? For less intense efforts I wear more clothing because I do not generate as much body heat. Conversely, I might wear less when I anticipate a more vigorous ride.
My girlfriend, Diana, runs warmer than me so my gear choices would likely suffocate her. It’s a personal decision and you may have to experiment to find the right combination.
Paul Johnston, leader of Northwest Butts on Bikes meetup group (aka, “BoB”), says “Different temperatures need different clothes. Every ten degrees or so makes a complete difference. If you’re climbing and descending you need to remove, then add clothes. If you’re not sure, take extra stuff in a backpack. It’s better to bring too much than freeze.”
I reached out to a few BoB friends for advice and together we came up with a list of what works for us and a few product recommendations. Note that what works for one person doesn’t work for another, so I encourage you to also consult with your favorite neighborhood bike shop, online blogs and other cycling friends.
- Base layer + Thermal layer + Shell. The base layer helps to manage warmth and moisture. It is designed to trap warm air against the body and draw perspiration away from the skin, which is known as ‘wicking’. Some people wear base layers in all seasons but they are especially helpful in cold weather. A thermal layer is for retaining heat and there are many options from multiple thin layers to more hearty fabrics. I love Gore Bike Wear thermal jackets, I bought two! Be sure to read reviews before buying online! Lastly, a shell (outer layer) should be wind-proof (and waterproof is always good). Paul B. points out, “Wind causes evaporation which will suck heat out of your body”, so invest in a good jacket.
- Layers, layers, layers! This was mentioned over and again by many “BoB’ers”, with merino wool being a favorite for offering both warmth and breathability.
- Being a little cold at the start is okay (according to Paul B.) because you will warm up once you start rolling. The key is to dress warm enough to feel comfortable on the ride but without getting so hot that your clothes get wet with sweat. Don’t be afraid to try different combinations until you find what works best for you.
- Einer suggests “A thermal vest (or jacket) plus a wind shell… multiple thin layers drape and trap air better than a few thick layers, and the wind stopper layer on the very outside keeps cold air from blowing right thru the insulating layers.”
- The magic combo for Stephen is: A base layer, short or long sleeve jersey, wind proof jacket with pit zips (zippers) in front; helpful for quick ventilation if you begin to feel too warm.
Portland’s own, Showers Pass, has a sweet jacket on the market: Women’s Elite 2.1 (shown right). I received a hot tip that it is “a breathable, waterproof, windproof, go-to jacket for whatever the weather throws at you.” Let’s see if Santa Claus remembers that I wear Medium and like pink.
- My favorite pants for frigid days are the fleece-lined Shebeest, WeatherPro Tight. They are wind resistant on the front, breathable and flexible on the back.
- JoAnn’s choice is winter tights with rain pants.
- Einer suggests a layering strategy: “Regular bike shorts (with a chamois) plus knee length tights over the shorts. …and full length tights (or wind pants).”
- Rohith reminds us to leave undergarments at home, “Bike shorts should be worn ‘butt naked’, and any thermal clothing over them!!” (Just be sure those shorts have a chamois pad.)
- For men Paul J. admits that wind-resistant bibs can be expensive, “…but they last forever. Because they have no pad, they don’t need so much washing.” He recommends Craft Elite Bike Bib Long Tights.
Head, Neck & Face:
- Skull cap (beanie) to keep your head warm. Some are designed to cover your ears, but I often add a headband to ensure my ears stay covered.
Neck warmer or buff to keep the cold from chilling your neck and drafting inside the back of your jacket. A buff is a multi-functional, long-ish neck warmer that can also serve as a hat, headband and scarf. Jonathan suggests a layering combination: “Cover your neck and chin with buff, cover back of the buff with the skull cap.
- Trouble with your glasses or goggles fogging up? Rohith suggests using an anti-fog coating to improve visibility. You can find this at a bike shop or sporting goods store.
- Wear glove liners under thermal gloves, per Paul B.
- Jesselyn likes “thick gloves!”
- JoAnn likes to wear two pair of gloves with hand warmers inserted between them.
- I especially like Paul J.’s suggestion to “Bring a spare pair of gloves so you have a dry pair when your first get wet.”
- Jonathan says he has never had cold hands using Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Barrier WXB gloves. The “lobster variety” look pretty toasty too: Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Softshell Lobster Gloves
- Wool socks: Merino is once again favored and Jonathan adds, ” Silk socks under merino wool socks.”
- Winter cycling shoes: Paul J. just invested in thermal winter cycling shoes, ” They are the best ever and will keep me riding more since now my feet don’t get cold.”
Shoe covers: An alternative to thermal shoes is shoe covers. There are many choices that offer an array of benefits, protecting your shoes (and feet) from the cold, wind and rain. Important: When you purchase your first pair, bring your shoes with you. One brand I selected worked best when I chose the next size above what I normally use.
Chemical warmers: While I have never used them, there were several BoB mentions of chemical warmers.
- Paul B. says, “Stick a hand warmer under the Velcro strap(s) of your shoes.”
- Joe uses “chemical toe warmers on top of my feet, then second pair of wool socks over that.”
- Jonathan’s routine: “chemical toe warmers stuck on the top of the boots with shoe covers over the top.”
Are you Desperate?
Here are a few cheaper and en-route options that can help in a pinch!
- Laytex (or Nitrile) gloves can rescue chilly hands by wearing them underneath your gloves. I always carry a pair of these in my saddle bag. They are great for other uses, such as keeping your hands clean when fixing a flat tire.
- Plastic can be a friend. To mitigate the chill from wind and cold I have seen people wear a plastic bag underneath their jacket (or place a plastic bag between their chest and jacket).
- Rohith says, “Tour De France riders have been known to put newspaper inside the front of their jerseys just before a descent on a cold day.”
Paul J. and Shilpa each recommend a change of clothes for when you get back and suggest placing them in a sunny place in the car (front seat). This minimizes the post-ride chill and gives you dry clothes for the drive home or the post-ride refueling session at the nearest cafe.
- Warm water (in your water bottle) takes longer to turn to ice than cold water. Consider a thermal bottle over the standard plastic one. I saw that tip when looking to validate the “vodka prevents freezing” claim. Hmmm, not sure I would recommend this one, but it was mentioned – twice.
- “Vaseline or similar [Chapstick] on lips and cheeks to prevent windburn.” Thanks, Joe.
Online Articles About Dressing for the Cold:
- REI has a great article, Layering Basics.
- Nashbar’s blog, “The Sprocket, posted this: Six Cold Weather Essentials
- Performance Bike online article: Five Ways To Stay Warm On Cold Rides
Links for shopping:
- REI at http://www.REI.com.
- Team Estrogen at http://www.TeamEstrogen.com Tip: If you’re a Portlander, save the shipping cost by selecting “Pick up at Will Call” and then pick up at their Hillsboro location. Note that they do not have a storefront or fitting room, but that hasn’t stopped me from ordering two sizes and then returning one.
- Western Bikeworks at http://www.WesternBikeworks.com. Tip: Locals can benefit from the storefront location (with fitting rooms) or order online with option for in-store pickup.
Do you have any other great ideas? Post a comment and share with us.