“Are you not freezing?”
“How do you stand riding when it is this cold?”
“You are crazy!”
I get these comments all the time once the days get short and cold and I keep saddling up on my bike. People don’t realize that riding really isn’t so bad when it gets cold. It’s actually really fun. Much like any other outdoor pursuit, getting out in less than ideal weather is a matter of proper clothing. As they say, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Of course, there is biking gear made just for cycling in the winter. You can certainly use winter gear you already have—fleece, wind proof jackets, hats, ski gloves and goggles, even, but if you invest in some layers that are cut for the position that you are in while riding, you will be all the more comfortable for it.
The first step to layering up for winter riding is a base layer. Non-cotton base layers help move moisture away from the skin. Moving the moisture away will keep you drier, which helps with temperature swings when you switch from climbing to descending or during stops. I personally like wool base layers but synthetics work just as well.
Next comes the mid layer or insulating layer. This varies from day to day. I prefer thin wool or synthetic shirts that don’t fit too tight on my upper body. The extra fabric helps trap a little more of that heat you’re giving off. Lightweight and low bulk layers also make shedding this layer easy if things warm up. My lower body gets a pair of lightly insulated cycling tights. I have several pairs for varied temperatures but I find that lightly insulated ones over shorts or knickers work better then the heavy ones. They also work for a wider range of temperature so you get more bang for your buck.
Once you are insulated from the cold, next comes a shell. Shells that keep the wind off help you stay warm with less. Hard shells, or jackets made from slick-feeling raincoat material, are nice but it is important they breathe, or let some moisture out (your sweat). Many don’t. Modern “soft shell” fabrics, which have a softer feel than a raincoat, repel rain and are incredibly versatile. Most soft shells also offer some insulation and they breathe way better then the best hard shells I have tried. Don’t expect a soft shells outer layer to keep heavy rain out; however, they will keep you comfy in light rain, mist, snow, freezing fog, and all the other awesome precipitation we encounter in Appalachia. For my lower body outer layer, I like a pair of proper waterproof hard shell shorts or knickers. These help keep the wind and water off. Without them I am soaked at the first wet spot and freezing on the next downhill section.
Take Care of Your Hands
Cold hands while riding seems to be the biggest issue for folks. Your hands take the brunt of the winter wind and wetness. Ski gloves or mittens will keep them warm, but you do sacrifice a good feel of the bars, and your shifters and brakes can become hard to operate. Full fingered winter cycling gloves are available. Most of these gloves work pretty well for me down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit.. They are not too bulky and they keep my hands warm. Once it gets below 20, I switch to something called bar mitts. Kayakers will recognize them, as they work much like pogies used on paddles, but are made to fit over your hands and your bicycle’s handlebars. These are what I turn to when the weather gets really nasty. Underneath, I wear my summer weight gloves or no gloves at all.
Upgrade Your Shoes
Winter usually means wet so standard cycling shoes don’t cut it. The most high performance option is a pair of winter cycling shoes that are waterproof, windproof, and insulated a little. With a pair of these, I can forgo heavy winter socks and opt for a light pair (non-cotton) that allow my toes wiggle room. Resist the urge to buy a size bigger when it comes to winter shoes. Shoes that are too big are inefficient for cycling. If shoes are out of your budget, then consider shoe covers which work well as long as you don’t hop off and walk much.
Don’t Forget Your Head
The final piece for comfortable winter riding is a way to keep your head warm. Much like gloves, 20 degrees is the threshold for me. Above 20, I wear a wool cycling cap with earflaps under my normal helmet and I’m good to go. Any thin non-cotton hat that fits comfortably under your helmet will do, although the earflaps are nice to have. Below 20, I break out the winter helmet, which keeps the wind off and the heat in down to 0 degrees.
Other add-ons I take with me: A tin of Dermatone to rub into exposed skin protects it from the weather. A thermos full of a hot drink that fits in the water bottle cage of my bike. I like a buff to keep my neck warm. I usually take it off once I get warmed up but it is nice when it gets really cold. And I always carry a spare pair of gloves, a hard shell, and some hand warmers incase the weather decides it needs to add some challenge.
Once you get your layers dialed, the coldest days here are not too bad. Rides may be a little shorter, but it sure beats pedaling inside on the trainer!
Andrew Forron rides in the New River Gorge and owns New River Bikes in Fayetteville, West Virginia.