Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Winter Cycling

Winter is just around the corner, and the cold weather is no excuse to stop riding your bike! Hopefully I can offer some advice that will keep you pedaling year round through all but the nastiest of conditions. Safety is a consideration, and ice and snow can make things quite tricky, but still manageable often times! I've commuted through heavy snow, and when the bike path was covered in 4" of hard packed snow with a sheet of ice covering it. Yeah, I slipped around a bunch, and wrecked a few times, but it usually doesn't hurt too much since I don't go super fast and more often than not I fell in to softer snow. I find it fun!

I hate the cold. I get cold very easy, notably in my hands and feet, especially when cycling. Until three or four winters ago, I pretty much gave up with winter riding once the temperature dipped to around 40F. I started commuting year round by bike and gradually became comfortable with the shorter rides at very cold temperatures. I then decided I was ready to brave the elements, and go for longer rides. Now, I think I'm capable of riding in any temperature the Northeast can throw my way. This year I did a 200km brevet where the temperature never went above freezing - far from it, and at the 7am start time it was 5F not considering the very cold wind.

How well do you handle the cold?

Everybody is different, and you’ll have to find what gear works at what temperatures. I’ve always preferred being overdressed since I abhor being cold, and over the winters I've gradually slimmed down and fine tuned my gear to what I truly need for each particular condition.

The following is a list of what I own and when and why I use it.

From the top down!


Everyone should have a balaclava for winter riding. They are relatively cheap for what they achieve - a happy, warm head, neck and face, and are one of the most important pieces of gear to help keep you warm. The balaclava should be form-fitting and go all the way down over your neck. A balaclava transitions nicely to nearly every other outdoor winter sport. I often use it for cross country and downhill skiing. The particular version I use is thin but blocks the wind. Pay attention to the thickness. To fit under a helmet comfortably you will need it to be reasonably thin. Mine has a very light fleece lining which does a nice job of retaining body heat, and it also breathes very well so I’m not dumping buckets of sweat in below freezing temperatures. Mine is all black, with no bells or whistles, and I removed the tag, but I think I bought it at Performance Bike online. They don’t have the exact same version I own anymore otherwise I’d provide a link.


On less cold days, you can get away with a headband that covers the ears. There are a few different types that I’ve seen ranging from thick and fleecy to very thin and windproof. Mines sort of in between and seems to work quite well although I must admit I don’t particularly like wearing it. It does keep the ears warm which can make the difference from a miserable to a happy, comfortable ride. The brand I have is Pearl Izumi, and this brand is generally readily available at most bike shops across the country.


On days that don’t call for the balaclava a simple hat suffices. Mine is a Power Stretch fleece hat I picked up on sale at EMS. It works wonderfully, is super comfortable, and breathes very well. It’s also pretty warm. It does not block any wind. On really cold days I double up with the balaclava underneath the hat. Both fit under the helmet with a strap adjustment. Again, you can’t use grandma’s knit wool hat and still wear a helmet, so pay attention to thickness. Also, make sure the hat covers your ears! Some bicycling brand ones are pretty minimalist, and at least with my head, did not go down low enough to fully cover the ears.

Eye Protection

Cold weather and eyes don’t see, uh, eye to eye. You need some sort of full coverage sunglasses for those bright, sunny days and hopefully a pair which you can change the lenses out for when it’s gloomy or dark. Most cyclists have too many pairs of sunglasses. I’m definitely guilty. I have around 6 or 7 pairs, but one pair shines above the rest, but also looks the lamest. Oakley M Frames. They cost a lot, they look ridiculous on most people, but they perform very well. The lens is big and wraps around, meaning even when in the drops you will not have a plastic bar obstructing your line of site, or worse, have no coverage at all. It’s easy to change the lenses, and they have a very wide variety to choose from. I have the persimmon, clear, and gold iridium lenses. I use persimmon for the gray days, clear for night, and gold iridium for the sunny days. There are numerous alternative brands that might cost a whole heck of a lot less, and might work just as well, I just have not used them so can’t offer any recommendations. I recently got some Oakley Radar sunglasses, and they are advertised as being superior to the M Frames, and essentially their replacement. They have a tiny bit more style to them. The lenses have a coating that is supposed to shed away water and sweat, and it does seem to work somewhat, but not amazingly well. The lens is not as big so there is a tiny bit of obstruction when in the drops. I’m not impressed and regret the purchase and would recommend the M Frames over them still.

For the brave ones out there that will never back down against any snow or obscenely low temperature, you need a pair of ski goggles. I wear mine whenever it’s snowing. I don’t really like wearing them, but they definitely work and will keep the bitter cold and snow away from the eyes.

Upper Body

The upper body gear market is ridiculously large, and many, many items will work equally as well with a huge variance in cost. Since I’m a gear head I tend to look for the companies that obsess over the smallest details to distinguish themselves from the multitudes of mass manufacturing outdoor brands. I’ll offer the exact brands I use and a description of them and why I think they are good, but, like I said before, there are plenty of other brands that offer very similar products, and in most cases they will be cheaper since I tend to go for the top end.

One thing I’ve learned through experience is you really don’t need that much insulation for the upper body even on the coldest of days as long as you have a proper shell. This, of course, is assuming you are actually riding hard to maintain adequate body heat. If you are tooling around town you should probably just wear what you would if you were going on a stroll.

For the coldest of days when no precipitation is likely I wear an Arc’Teryx soft shell for my outer shell. The model is Gamma SV. This is not a bike specific product. Retail cost is roughly around $350.

It has a nice hood which is easily large enough to put over a helmet if I really need it. The front zips up over the chin up to my mouth, and has a nice, soft patch sewn in to keep the zipper and abrasive seams off of the face. The bottom rear side of the jacket is cut lower than the front so riding up and exposing skin or thinner layers is never an issue and it protects from the occasional road spray. The front is cut even with my waist so it does not bunch up when leaning over on the bars. I can tighten the waist easily with one hand using a cinch cord so it’s nice and snug which offers a few benefits: It keeps the jacket from flapping around, eliminates drafts, and it helps hold warm air in. The jacket has two large chest pockets and one internal pocket so I can usually carry what I would typically carry in a bike jersey’s three rear pockets. I now also have the option of wearing a jersey underneath and having three more pockets to use. Another great feature are the pit zips. They are very long on this particular jacket offering excellent ventilation.

The soft shell is windproof and highly water resistant. It also breathes a bit better, in my opinion, than a fully waterproof hard shell – something with Gore-Tex XCR, for example.

I use the above jacket almost exclusively for my cold weather riding roughly 50F and below. To compensate for temperature variances I simply wear different layers underneath.

For really cold temperatures, below freezing, I usually wear a mid-weight long sleeved non-cotton long underwear shirt, and then over it a cycling specific long sleeved form fitting jersey that is half zip in the front made by Sugoi. The entire front of the jersey, including the front facing part of the sleeves, is windproof and fleece lined similar to the soft shell of the Arc’Teryx jacket. The rear of the jersey is a thin, fleece-like material which is stretchy, wicking, and highly breathable. It has no pockets. Being windproof and a half zip the jersey allows me to modulate my body temperature better in combination with the jacket than if I only had the windproof jacket.

The above mentioned jersey, alone, or with a jersey underneath so you have pockets, works fantastic in temperatures in the 40s and 50s.

With temps above freezing, I leave the Sugoi jersey at home, and just wear the long underwear shirt with the Arc-Teryx soft shell. If the temps are nearing 40F, or slightly over I’ll simply wear a jersey or a non-cotton shirt.

For jaunts where rain or other types of precipitation are likely I substitute the Arc’Teryx soft shell with its brother, the Arc’Teryx Theta AR hard shell. I have to admit it is total overkill for cycling. This jacket is the bees knee, in my opinion, and the price shows it at ~ $450 retail. It is amazingly crafted, very light, extremely durable, and it does its job better than any other waterproof jacket I’ve worn. Gore-Tex XCR (now they use gore-tex pro I think) keeps you dry, and it has the same pockets as the soft shell minus the inner pocket. The hood goes over the helmet, and it’s also cut the same as the soft shell in the front and rear. I find it gets warmer than the soft shell especially if I wear any sort of insulation beyond the long sleeved underwear shirt.

For days when the weather starts off cool, and I know I will not need a jacket later on, I wear a regular cycling jersey with a windproof vest over it. This vest is made by Bellweather and is basically a nylon shell in the front and mesh in the rear. Pretty much every cycling company makes a vest like I just described. It’s very light, and highly packable. It also zips up to protect the neck. On my arms I wear arm warmers which go a bit under the jersey sleeve and all the way down to the wrist. These should be snug, and there are numerous weights of fabric to pick from. I have Pearl Izumi’s warmest model and think they are perfect.


The legs are a bit easier to take care of than the upper body. I’ve three different setups depending on the temperatures which have worked very well for me.

For the coldest days, I wear Descente’s warmest full length tights. They are totally wind proof in the front and have a heavy fleece lining under the windproof front. The backside of the tight is thinner and breathable. I wear the tights over my normal cycling bibs. I also own a pair of Pearl Izumi’s heaviest weight tights called AmFib, but think they are not as nice as the Descente’s. They don’t fit as well and feel stiff when pedaling. They are, however, very warm and waterproof on the front and butt. I use them mostly for commuting, and save the Descentes for the long rides.

For cooler days I wear a pair of mid-weight cycling tights. Sugoi happen to be ones I use. They are reasonably warm and comfortable to around 45F. They are not windproof. They are far more comfortable to ride in all day compared to the Descentes or PI’s. Underneath the tights are my normal cycling bibs.

For those cool starts, just like I mentioned with the upper body, there are leg warmers available that go under the cycling shorts about mid-thigh and cover all the way down over the calf. They work fantastic. They help keep the knees warm.


The precious feet…Nothing ruins a ride faster than numb, cold feet. Luckily, there are solutions out there which should keep even the coldest of feet happy in all but the most miserable temperatures. My feet get cold easy so you may find some of this is a bit too much!

I wear Northwave Aerator 3 cycling shoes for my long rides. They have more room in the toe box than other shoes I’ve owned in the past. The extra toe room allows me to have more wiggle room, and to wear thicker wool socks. I also have room for toe warmers – the chemical bags - for the coldest days. They work fantastic and keep my feet happy. I’ve discovered the hand warmers are actually warmer than the toe warmers, and recommend trying them instead even though the toe warmers have a sticky side to help keep them in place.

On those coldest days, over the cycling shoes I wear a bootie that goes up and over the ankle. I use Sugoi’s second warmest model. They are supposedly waterproof (they aren’t) and windproof (they are) and they have a heavy fleece lining underneath. They work excellent in conjunction with the hand warmers inside the shoe. I’ve been quite comfortable down to 5F with this setup.

On cooler days, most companies make half-booties that cover only the end of the shoe to keep the cool wind off the toes. They work very well, and are a lot more comfortable than the full booties to wear all day.


And, finally, the last part to worry about, the hands. The hands fall in to the category of misery when cold, just like the feet. I hate cold hands, and mine tend to get colder, faster, than the average person.

For the coldest temperatures, I simply wear ski gloves. I always bring hand warmers with me in case they still decide to go numb on me. I rarely have to use them though. The ski gloves are gore-tex and have prima loft insulation and are quite warm. I don’t wear these unless it’s near freezing the entire ride.

For most all other cold weather riding I have some soft shell gloves similar to the Arc-Teryx shell made by Gore BikeWear. They have mid-weight fleece insulation and are windproof. Again, I always bring hand warmers if I’m flirting with cold temperatures. I’ve ridden with them in extremely cold conditions (5F to 15F all day) with hand warmers and survived, but I would’ve been much happier with the ski gloves.

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