Although living in the mountains of Central Utah at 6,000 feet is not as cold as Wisconsin, it still is a constant battle when trying to road cycle during the winter months. I have heard it said on other blog posts that “if you don’t feel a little cold before starting, you are overdressed.” For backcountry skiing & running I would agree with this statement, but for cycling, I disagree. I want to feel comfortable before I clip in — this is because of the wind chilling affect once you get moving.
I found the following pieces of clothing or equipment enable me to “comfortably survive” an all day ride during these cold winter days.
I use a medium-weight merino wool/synthetic blended running sock and chemical toe warmers. Sometimes I use a taller calf-length sock instead. Originally I started out using the Planet Bike Comet Shoe covers (aka neoprene booties), but found them to be much too large and bulky, catching on my crank arm — a very poor fit and design. I have since then switched to a Pearl Izumi ELITE Softshell MTB Shoe Cover and found they work very well. I like the back Velcro closure, instead of a zipper as found in other models.
Tip #1. Don’t wear socks that are too thick as they will impede your circulation. Chemical toe warmers work great, at least for about four or so hours. Try them — use them. Consider getting a larger ”winter only” pair of cycling shoes.
In February of 2016 I purchased a pair of 45Nrth Japanther cold weather shoes. They are designed for temps of 25-45F but I bet they would perform fine in lower temps. They are totally sealed on the bottom and would be perfect for wet-weather rides when a shoe cover is not enough (after prolonger time, water can penetrate through the holes where the cleats are on conventional MTB shoes).
In the winter, due to bulkier footwear, my heel rubs against my crank arms or chain stays. Also, due to a problem with my left ankle, this is exacerbated. I have started using the iSSi-brand SPD mountain bike pedals (instead of my Shimano A520s, which use the same cleat) because they offer it with a longer spindle. I prefer the +6mm model. The +12mm model is a bit overkill.
Tip #2. If necessary try a pedal with a longer spindle so you have more clearance so your foot doesn’t rub or so that your bulky winter clothing doesn’t catch on your chain.
As one that does or has done a lot of cold weather sports like mountaineering and randonnée skiing (i.e. skimo or ski mountaineering), I have an assortment of gloves and mittens. I wrote a separate post on gloves, so visit that page for more info. Essentially, I use insulated mountaineering gloves with an inner liner that is made from fleece and/or neoprene.
I have a pair of the well-designed Bar Mitts, but for me they don’t work as I switch back and forth between my hoods, drops and particularly my aerobars.
Tip #3. Layer your gloves, so when the weather gets warmer, later in the day, you can jettison the outer pair, while only wearing the inside pair.
As is standard practice with cycling bibs or shorts with a built-in chamois, wear no undies. I like the Craft Storm Bib-Tights made with their proprietary Vent-Air fabric. This bib has a windproof fabric in the front with a more breathable and stretchy soft fabric in the back. On super cold days (15-25F) I will also layer on top of them a heavy pair of leg warmers.
Tip #6. Many times one “windproof” layer over your crotch is sometimes just not enough. Use a lightweight pair of running shorts (blue product in the photo) and slip them over your bibs. Sure, it looks dorky, but it gets the job done. Later in the day, when it is warmer and/or when my body starts putting out more heat, remove them, stashing them in an eoGEAR seat bag. This extra layer should keep your “parts” from freezing.
Tip #7. Rather than wearing long underwear, which can cause chafing, consider putting on full-length leg warmers over your tights instead for that “extra” lower extremity layer.
I think I have nearly every style of head covering made. This is unlike water bottles (not just for cycling, but for skimo & SUP) — I’m anal about the details and keep trying new ones till I find one that is “the one.” Because of the circumference and “over the top” measurement of my head, I’m truly a fat-head. I find it difficult to find a hat that stays down over my ears. And going 20-30 MPH on a bicycle, my ears have gotta be covered in temps lower then 50F.
Currently, my favored models are from the brand Outdoor Designs from the U.K. My (for eoGEAR) primary outdoor distributor sells this brand and they are comparable to The North Face or Outdoor Research in the U.S. The cap I use is the Power Stretch Scoop with Polartec Powerstretch. Is has a stretch panel in the back providing as snug fit, yet big enough for my huge head. I then overlap it with an Outdoor Designs Power Tube neck gatior, made from the same material. I have used some hats that were simply not breathable enough (which used Polartec Windbloc) and my ears and side of my face got all wet from perspiration, which creates a whole another problem.
Sometimes, underneath my hat, I have also used a thin, but very windproof ear covering called the Halo Anti-Freeze Headband, (not shown in above photos) which is made from Dryline fabric. It is very windproof, but doesn’t cause my whole head to overheat and sweat.
Years ago, I originally started trying out various synthetic balaclavas but found they did not provide the same sung fit as this two- or three-piece arrangement — this is important with the higher moving speeds in road cycling, compared to MTB or gravel grinding. Besides, if it does get warmer, later in the day, I can loose a few of these layers.
I prefer synthetic head products as they are thinner compare to wool, and I need to still have enough space to put on my helmet!
Tip #4. In moderate temperatures of about 50-60F wearing your glasses under your headwear is OK. They just stay put better that way, but in colder temps, it is much warmer to put them on the outside (per the above photo), so the wind doesn’t seep into your cap and freeze your ears.
Tip #5. Choose head coverings that are ergonomically designed, instead of an “ordinary looking” beanie, which hikes up and off your ears, when you look up, i.e. when you are in the drops or on aerobars. Be careful of the thickness build-up so that your helmet will still sit down properly to give you safe coverage. For that last reason, I prefer synthetic hats.
I generally wear a short-sleeve thin polyester base layer next to my skin (green in the photo). I don’t own any wool base-layer products, but should consider them because some synthetics can get stinky after a whole day of hard pedaling — at least the old polypro products did that. The newer polyesters are better. Over my base t-shirt I wear a mid-weight long sleeve mock turtle. Over that goes my jersey. My next layer is a skimo vest from Dynafit. It is insulated from Primaloft and has stretch side panels providing a nice tight, aerodynamic fit.
Over all that goes my “go-to” soft shell cycling jacket from Craft (neon yellow in photo). Craft, from Sweden, not only supplies apparel to cyclists, but also to nordic skiers — they know a thing or two about cold weather sports! This jacket uses their Vent-Air fabric and has just the right blend of windproofness and breathability.
There are four types of shells or jackets:
- Hard shells are typically made from a thin nylon fabric with a waterproof/breathable laminate like the original GoreTex. The outside is treated is usually DWR treated to prevent water from soaking into the nylon fabric. They are designed for use in heavy or continuous rain. The best models are seam taped, meaning the sewn seams are fused together with an overlapping clear tape on the inside, so moisture doesn’t penetrate through the holes made from the sewing machine needle holes.
- Soft shells, on the other hand, are designed for cold, mostly dry weather, with the possibility of a light rain. They provide a layer of insulation, unlike a hardshell which primarily just blocks the wind. Soft shells are very bulky compared to most hard shells, so if I am going to wear one, I use it on a day where I can wear it all day long and then remove layers underneath it. The big advantage of a soft shell is that it is stretchy, thus being more comfortable, especially when I am hunched over in my aerobars. I have found I can wear a soft shell with the front zip open up to temps of about 55-60F.
- Hybrids are typically found on non-cycling apparel and have a hard shell waterproof/breathable fabric on the shoulders, while putting a stretchy softshell fabric elsewhere.
- On more temperate days, where there is no forecast of precipitation, I will wear just a wind shell only. A wind shell is usually a jacket made from thin uncoated nylon or polyester fabric. The outer layer typically has a DWR treatment which will handle a light mist but not good in a real rainstorm. Some of the newer models use 40- or 70-denier fabric this is very lightweight and can stuff into it’s own rear pocket the size of an orange.
I also may pack a pair of arm warmers and use them when I remove my long sleeve mock turtle-neck shirt. The Pearl Izumi ELITE Thermal Arm Warmer is a good model and is thicker than other brands I have tried. I don’t care for the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Softshell Arm Warmer — it is too thick and bulky. It is about as thick as my softshell jacket.
Tip #8. Understand the difference between different kinds of jackets, i.e. soft shell, hard shell etc. Pick the best one for your ride rather than taking two of them. The big advantage of a soft shell is that it is stretchy, thus being more comfortable, especially when one is hunched over in the drops or when using aerobars. On more temperate days, where there is no forecast of precipitation, consider using only a lightweight wind shell.
Tip #9. Consider the use of aerobars. It is much warmer when you are in this tucked position as the air literally pushes out and around your body, instead of hitting your chest and face which will cool your core.
Tip #10. Cycle with a friend or group. Drafting behind someone will increase your warmth.
Cold and Rainy Conditions
The coldest conditions I have ridden in are those nasty spring rides with lots of rain. If the low temperatures are around 35-45F and it is raining heavily for multiple hours…it can be game-over for me. I have not found the perfect solution for keeping my hands and feet warm in such conditions. I use a waterproof/breathable helmet cover, with a tail down the back to protect my neck and wear a hat that covers my ears. I suppose a pair of BarMitts would work for my hands, assuming I spent most of my time upright and not in the aerobars. But my feet? I have used thin “rain only” waterproof booties and it seems that over time, the rain will seep through, near the sole, despite a tight fit. My best solution has been using a thin (1.5-2mm) pair of neoprene socks. Maybe a pair of the insulated cycling shoes/boots might help, along with a pair of gaitors to prevent the water from entering from the top. I don’t own full length fenders for my long distance bike and I’m sure that would help.
As a randonneur, I have a goal of riding at one 200 km ride each month of the year. This generally takes all of the daylight which is available on any given day in December, so I have to move quickly to avoid any cold night riding. The rides in December, January and February are of course the roughest and necessitate the clothing and equipment mentioned above. The coldest I have ridden, with the above gear, is on day that started out at 17F and later to rose to 40F. If the forecast is colder than that, I drive 2-1/2 hours to southern Utah (or further to Las Vegas) where the elevation is lower and the temps are 20-30 degrees warmer. My biggest problem, as might suspect, is keeping my toes, hands and ears warm. I suppose I could purchase some of the winter-specific cycling shoes, but I have not yet investigated the useful temperature range of them. Keeping my fingers warm is another issue and the use of lobster-style gloves or electric-battery heated gloves would be necessary.