Winter Cycling - Part 1
Most of this was first published in the Red Dirt Pedaler's newsletter, Wheel Issues, where I write a column titled Lanterne Rouge and it was first posted here in CycleDog in 2005. Since then, I've added material and done some editing.
I'll ride through the winter, but realize that in northeast Oklahoma, our average low temperature in January is 22F. If you need advice and information regarding more extreme winter temperatures, I suggest the Icebike site.
One thing that was emphasized in the League of American Bicyclists instructor’s class was that it’s not necessary for an LCI candidate to know absolutely everything about cycling, as if that were possible. Instead, the instructors were looking for the ability to teach the subject at hand, not necessarily an all-encompassing knowledge of it. So in saying that, I’m admitting that I cannot possibly know all there is to know about winter cycling, but I’m certainly willing to share what I’ve learned. In fact, that would be a good caveat for all of the material in CycleDog. (And yes, I’m feeling humble today. Don’t worry. It won’t last long!)
Winter cycling clothes
Winter riding helps us to maintain some hard-won fitness. It’s preferable to being forced to re-build it in the spring. It's not terribly expensive and it's certainly more fun than being in the gym. You probably have most of the necessary clothing, but a couple of additional items make the difference between a chilly ride and a comfortable one.
Layers, layers, layers.
The key to winter cycling comfort is layers. Multiple thin layers are better than a single thick one because they offer versatility and allow you to deal with changing conditions. Have a bag for extra clothing or a long strap on a seat bag if you need to shed a layer.
The first layer against your skin should be a synthetic with good wicking capabilities. Polypropylene, silk, or wool are all good choices. Discount stores sell some poly stuff that's inexpensive in the $10-12 range, if I remember right. Even cotton longs will help, provided you don't get wet from rain or perspiration. Cotton doesn't insulate when wet. (As an aside: there's a website for the single-bag traveler that recommends packing long underwear as a viable alternative to a thick sweater or heavy coat. It makes sense. Your body doesn't care how thick that layer of warm, dry air is. It just wants that layer next to the skin.)
The mid-layer provides most of the insulation, and in general it should be a synthetic too. Vests, synthetic sweaters, and even cotton sweatshirts (within limitations) will work here. My wife gave me a wind blocking fleece jacket for Christmas a few years ago, and it's one of my best pieces of winter cycling gear. Synthetics will keep you warm even if they're wet, and given the extremely changeable weather here in Oklahoma, it's a good idea to be prepared.
The outer layer provides wind and rain protection. Gore-tex is nice, but it's pricey and frankly I've never used it. I stick with simple windbreakers. I always think about the possibility of taking a fall, and if I'm going to rip up a jacket, I'd prefer to destroy a cheap one. A bargain-bin anorak that costs ten bucks is almost a throw away item. These cheap jackets are not waterproof, so I carry a rain jacket too.
The humble cotton bandana is a useful item to have along on any winter ride. You can tie one as a doo-rag to give another layer under a helmet. It can be used around the neck to block cold air between your neck and collar, trapping more warm air under a jacket. You can clean your hands after changing a tire. And in a pinch, they work as bandages. You could probably even blow your nose on one, but why anyone would do that is beyond me. Shooting snot rockets is infinitely more fun!
OK, here's my kit at temperatures in the 60s: Shorts, jersey, long-sleeved poly shirt, arm warmers, and the ever-present doo-rag. It offers some versatility. If there's a strong headwind, the arm warmers stay on. If there's a strong tail wind, they come off and the long sleeves get rolled up. Think of the arms as your radiators, 'cause I'll be coming back to this. Socks are almost always CoolMax cheapies. I tend to destroy socks.
With a 10-degree temperature drop, I'll add tights, full gloves and a windbreaker. Again, windbreaker and gloves are optional depending on the wind. Also, I'm partial to the double-fronted, bib type tights. They're more expensive, but they last a long time, and they provide more warmth. The tights are the only expensive items I have for winter rides.
In the 40s, I add a skullcap under my helmet and a vest or light sweater, and sometimes a neck gator, depending on the wind.
Below 40, I substitute a wind-blocking balaclava for the skullcap, substitute a heavier sweater for the vest, and wear ski gloves rather than thin cycling gloves or work gloves. And I switch to thick wool socks. Last winter, I started wearing goggles rather than glasses. They’re more comfortable, but they tend to fog when I stop at intersections.
Cycling shoes can be a problem in winter. If you ride in the wet, stuff them with newspaper after your ride to help dry them quickly. You may need to change the newspaper once or twice to speed things up. Be certain that your shoes are large enough! Tight shoes can be painfully cold because they restrict circulation. I’ve never tried shoe covers, but I know some people who swear by them. A cheap alternative is to wear thin overshoes over your cycling shoes, with cutouts for your cleats.
My temperature limit is a little below freezing, though I've ridden to work when it was in the teens. The cold is hard on my knees. But remember, I commute to work before dawn, and it seems so much colder when it's dark outside!
There's an old climber's adage that it's easier to stay warm than it is to get warm. Think of your torso as the furnace, and your limbs and head as the radiators. If you keep your torso warm, your body responds by moving more blood to the extremities, keeping your hands and feet warmer. Likewise, since so much of your blood supply circulates through your head, keeping it warm with a skullcap or balaclava will force more blood and heat out to the other extremities. Maybe Mom was right to make us wear hats in the winter. It seems counter-intuitive, but if your hands and feet are cold, wear a hat.
It takes some experience and judgment to figure out just what you'll need on a cold day. My kit choices are not definitive. In fact, I have a friend who routinely rides in the 40s with only shorts, t-shirt, and a cotton sweatshirt. He's tougher than me. But one rule of thumb is that if you leave the garage feeling warm and toasty, you're probably over-dressed. The trick is to figure out what you'll need after you've warmed up. I usually err on the warm side though, so I take along a seat bag that can hold some of the extra clothing if I get too warm.