I’ve been a cyclists for more than 14 years and I still make mistakes. Here’s one that I make every Fall. I “forget” how to dress for cold weather. You’d think I would remember the lessons learned from previous years, but the mind can be lulled into a state of complacency that requires a good, hard cold snap to bring it to an awakening. My seasonal awakening happened yesterday when I suffered with a cold head and feet.
Many blogs are written about how to dress for cycling in cold, windy, wet weather. Personally, I recommend creating a personal layering journal; a record of what works and what does not, to be your guide. Everyone is different and experimenting is nearly the only way to find the proper combinations for you.
Here are some guidelines that work for me:
- Check the weather forecast and recognize that wind has a big impact on how you will feel on the bike. Yesterday, it was 41 degrees with a 15mph wind – very cold. Today, the same temp with no wind, and it feels balmy in comparison.
- Layers that can be added and shed easily while on the bike give you the most flexibility. I prefer choosing layers that can be used for multiple purposes like running, hiking, walking the dog…instead of choosing extremely specific cycling gear. This helps keep some green in my wallet.
- Record your experience – keep a journal of the weather conditions, specifically what you wore, what worked, what did you wish you had, what should have been left at home, etc. Soon you’ll know what works for you in each situation.
Now let’s take tour of your body, and how to keep each part warm…
Try a snugly fitting, thin-fabric head cover (sometimes called a skull cap) under your helmet. If this seems too warm, try a headband designed to keep your ears warm. My skull cap was made by Pearl Izumi and David has an Icebreaker brand.
If it gets really cold, consider a helmet cover. Since the skull cap works for me, I haven’t used one of these. But consider experimenting.
I like to use a buff around my neck because it keeps my neck warm and can be pulled up to cover my nose, mouth and cheeks on the descents.
For very cold days, you can use a balaclava which is designed to serve as a head and neck cover. A balaclava can feel restrictive to movement and vision, so be sure to try it on before you buy.
If the weather forecast tells me that the ride will start out cold and warm up along the route, I will chose to wear a mid-weight short-sleeve jersey with arm warmers and a light-weight vest. Arm warmers can easily be pushed down around your wrists while you climb and quickly pulled up again for the descent. A light vest can be stowed in your jersey pocket if the day warms enough to shed. When choosing a vest, look for one that provides a good wind barrier in the front and is vented in the back. Pockets in vest are hard to come by, but nice to have, since the vest prevents easy access to the pockets of your jersey.
If the temps are not predicted to rise much during my ride (in other words, I expect it to stay cold) then I will use a thin base layer made of performance material or wool, along with a heavy, long-sleeved jersey (rather than arm warmers). For me, this combination works well at temps below 40 and on cold, windy days.
Of all the body parts, legs seem to be the most resilient when it comes to cold weather riding. I use a combination of my normal cycling shorts covered with snugly fitting tights. I like the combination because I can use the tights for running as well as cycling. My tights have a thermal fabric and zippers at the ankles. They do not have a chamois (since there is chamois already in the shorts). Today’s equivalent is the Pearl Izumi W Sugar Thermal Tight.
David is experimenting with leg warmers because he does not like the extra bulk of wearing tights over his cycling shorts. Jeff Sawdy advises that you should seek leg warmers that have a silicone gripper to ensure that the warmer stays in place without pulling your leg hair — or shave…your choice. Some models offer gripper material on the outside of the top of the warmer, so that the warmer can be positioned under the shorts… and the gripper grabs the shorts rather than your leg.
The leg warmers should have zippers or some other method of providing a snug fit at the ankle, just as tights will offer. Some leg warmers and some tights are fleece lined, and may also use a wind-resistant front material. Note that lightweight, medium-weight and heavy versions are offered by some manufacturers… in other words, you could be too warm.
Jeff also uses knee warmers (these don’t extend all the way to the ankle, leaving some of the leg exposed) any time it is colder than 68 degrees, and opts for leg warmers when it gets colder.
In any case, be careful about fit. If the leg warmer is too loose, they’ll fall below your knees the first time you stand to pedal. Experiment!
If legs are low maintenance, then the feet (and hands) are the divas of the ride. First: switch to cuffed wool socks during colder weather. Layer the cuff under your tights to eliminate gaps that allow air flow. I haven’t found a better material for cold weather socks than wool; there are many options to choose from, but we’ve enjoyed the thick SmartWool brand.
Next, keep in mind that most road cycling shoes offer plenty of ventilation to keep you comfortable when the temps are hot, and the pavement radiates heat. So you will need to find a solution for covering the vents on your shoes to have any chance of keeping your feet warm (good socks won’t be enough).
There are two options for using your “summer” shoes in colder conditions: full “shoe covers” (also called “booties”) and partial “toe covers”. The “Bootie” full coverage type not only goes over the shoe, but extends up the ankle. The toe cover type takes the brunt of the weather in the front, but leaves the rest of the shoe (from about the halfway point) unprotected.
One winter, I tried my brother’s low tech option of applying duct tape to cover the gaps in my shoes and it worked! The only drawback was that it left a sticky residue that attracted dirt when I removed my home made ‘shoe covers’ in the spring. Once I experimented with a bootie style cover. It was hard to put on my shoe and, although my cleat fit through the opening on the bottom of the bootie, the rubber material on the bottom would sometimes snag on my pedal giving me the feeling that I could not get the cleat out of the pedal quickly. I didn’t like this feeling. This year, I plan to experiment with a fabric-style toe cover. I will let you know how the experiment goes.
Keeping my hands warm is a constant battle. When the glove is too light weight, my hands feel like blocks of ice. When the glove is too heavy, my hands sweat and pulling the glove off is difficult.
The bulkier the glove, the more impossible it becomes to do anything other than grip the handlebars….like open a snack bar, take a photo, answer a phone call, change settings on your computer, or even zip down your jacket… Once I experimented with a double-glove method. I used a full-fingered, lightweight glove covered by a cheap pair of brown cotton gloves. As I warmed up, I shed the cotton gloves. No solution seems ideal for me so I am still considering my options.
David’s approach is to use full-fingered but thin gloves on 50-60 degree days, which allow him to manipulate zippers, radios and computer controls — and then switch to heavy gloves in below-50 degree weather. He’s been known to wear the heavy gloves for descents, and take them off ride bare-handed for the climbs.
Outer Layer aka “Shell”
I love my ten year old Pearl Izumi screamin’ green shell jacket because the arms zip off to form a vest and it has great pockets. My jacket was a demo used by the Pearl Izumi sales rep to test interest in this woman-specific jacket. He sold it to me for $20 because I shrieked with delight when he pulled it out of his bag.
If I didn’t have my fabulous shell, I would be considering one of the new products that are extremely lightweight, bundle up into nothing. Patti More loves her (relatively) new Showers Pass jacket, and yes for us ladies they offer a variety of women-specific models.
Your shell jacket should allow room for layers underneath, but should fit close to your body. If it is too loose, it will flap as you ride which could drive you (and others) crazy.
A new class of shells have emerged in the last couple of years, also in use for mountaineering and skiing, the so-called “soft shell”. While I haven’t made the investment (they are very expensive), the concept is a (nearly) waterproof but breathable insulating layer (traditionally the outer shell is for wind and/or water, but does not insulate). Of course, since this type of shell looks and feels more like fleece than a “hard” outer layer, it doesn’t make any noise or flap as you ride. See Kitsbow for an example of the best.
Putting It All Together
The weather conditions, especially as they evolve throughout the length of the ride, will determine the selection of layers. I personally like to be able to shed, or add the layer back on, with minimum delay — preferably while riding. Your experimentation will help you learn what works best for you.
YOUR SHOPPING LIST
Assuming you already have the clothes for summer riding (shorts with chamois, short-sleeve jersey, thin socks, and fingerless gloves), here are potential items to consider for riding through the winter:
- Skull cap, headband, and/or helmet cover
- Buff, neck cover, and/or balaclava
- Thin base layer — long sleeve and/or tank style
- Medium layer — long sleeve jersey
- Heavy layer — long sleeve jersey
- Wind vest (vented at back)
- Tights or leg warmers (and for some, knee warmers) – light/medium/heavy
- Wool socks
- Shoe Covers and/or Toe Covers
- Full-Fingered Gloves — thin/heavy
- Outer shell — hard or soft style
Please share your comments. I would love to hear what works for you, and perhaps your experience will help someone else.