Winter can be painful. Upon walking out the door, you subconsciously cringe in bitter anticipation of the cold air stinging your warm cheeks. There have been days where I want to close the door and go back inside. But we are cyclists and at least some of us don’t let weather stop us. Sure, I spend time on the trainer when it’s not safe for me to be outdoors (mostly due to unsafe roads). However, I get outside as much as I can, even when it’s cold.
I’ve spent many winters testing different types of winter gear to avoid the prickly goosebumps, jaw shattering shivers, and ice cold pain. There has been the odd ride where my husband had to pick me up because I was suffering from hypothermia or a coffee shop I ducked in to never to come out again. But for the most part, I have winter gear dialed. Everyone has their own personal thermostat, so dressing for winter is specific to each person.
Here is how I layer for winter and some of the key pieces of clothing I use. If you have a tip for me, leave a comment at the bottom of this post. (Undoubtedly some of you live in much colder climates than I do.) Bottom line, it’s all about proper layering, so let’s start with the basics: the intimate layer that cozies up to your bare skin.
I always start with a merino wool long sleeve base layer. Merino wool is highly breathable active fiber that reacts to changes in body temperature. The fiber also holds up to 30% of its own weight in moisture. I also have short sleeve base layers if it’s not quite cold enough to warrant a long sleeve. Ladies – I like wool sports bras as well!
For the bottoms, you can get thermal tights with a built in chamois, or wear chamois shorts with leg warmers. I prefer thermal tights because they are warmer than the short/leg warmer combo because the shorts themselves are usually just a thin layer of Lycra (though some manufacturers do offer heavier weight bib shorts). If it is really cold, I put another pair of thermal tights (without a chamois) on top. If you are going with leg warmers or knee warmers, get a pair with a brushed fleece lining.
Next I slip on a windproof, long sleeve jersey. I look for the actual technology “windstopper” when I buy winter gear. I also look for water resistance and breathability. Some jerseys are treated to keep water out, but don’t have taped seams for breathability. Castelli (Gabba) and GORE both offer windstopper products that have some waterproofing.
If it’s a dry day, I opt for an outer layer that’s thicker with wind proofing and a soft liner. I also look for clothing that is a little bit longer in the back to accommodate the bent over riding position. A lot of outerwear has a special membrane to allow breathability (airflow out), but not let cold air in. Primal Wear and Endura both make great winter jackets.
If it’s wet out, I opt for a waterproof shell that is light and packable. I prefer to go outside the cycling apparel world on this one. I have spent countless hours riding and racing in the rain. There are some great ones out there by Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Marmot. I look for taped seams, pit zips, and a hood. It’s also worth noting that I use waterproof pants as a shell if it’s wet, as well as fenders, even on the mountain bike.
For my feet, I love the DeFeet Woolie Boolies and Thermeators. The Thermeators are less bulky non-wool option, but still warm and cozy. I like getting knee high wool socks for added warmth.
Over my socks I use a winter boot. Lake and 45NRTH both have good options. I have been riding in the Lake MXZ400. I look for a winter boot that is well-insulated, compatible with clipless pedals, has a good sole for hiking in the snow, and a cycling specific shoe design (like an arch, heel, and instep designed for riding) instead of a hiking boot.
My hands are the most challenging part. I still think heated, battery-powered gloves would be awesome. Gloves are tricky because you need several pairs for all different weather conditions. I don’t like lobster-claw gloves because I always ride my mountain bike, and lobsters force you to do two fingered braking which feels weird to me. But riders I know swear by them for road biking. In my personal repertoire are leather ski gloves, heli-skiing gloves, and different weights of cycling gloves. Here are some of my favorites: Hestra Army Leather ski (index finger + mitten), Scott Ultimate ski glove, any of the GORE windstopper gloves, and the Castelli DiLuvio Gloves (full neoprene for the rain). I also like pogies such as those made by Bar Mitts for extreme weather. They basically are giant insulated handlebar covers. I also wear warm gloves underneath them.
Finally, on my head, I wear a thin wool beanie (or if you’re in Canada, they call it a tuque, pronounced toook). If you have extra cash, buying an extra helmet that is one size bigger is nice way to fit a thicker beanie under your helmet in the winter. I also love Buff head covers because they make them in all different weights including wool. You can fold them to cover just your ears or your entire head. You can also use them as a neck gaiter.
On really cold day I sometimes wear silk or surgical gloves as a first layer underneath my gloves. But I only do that if it’s really cold or wet. (The hand warmers some skiers use have not worked great for me. They just don’t seem to be hot enough.)
I always bring a backpack with extra layers. It’s also a good trick if you are overdressed because you have somewhere to store your layers to prevent getting sweaty and cold. I also sometimes bring a very lightweight packable 800-fill down jacket. You can also sneak in a non-spill insulated stainless steel bottle with coffee, hot water, or even your favorite winter cocktail.
Now you know my tricks. How do you stay warm during your wintertime rides?
Check out more How To posts from Sonya Looney.