Winter cycling opens up a whole new world of challenges and benefits for those who participate. Whether you decide to commute to work, ride hard-packed trails or outfit your existing rig to put on some winter miles, there are all sorts of benefits to discover. In order to get you better prepared, here are a few things to consider before you get started. The most obvious issue when cycling in the cold is, well, not being cold. Your first priority during these colder months is staying warm and dry. The weather of the day will determine what you wear, but a few well-chosen pieces of clothing/equipment will go a long way. At the end of each section there are product examples to give the reader an idea of what to look for when selecting gear.
A good rule of thumb when preparing for winter cycling is to start off just a little cold, because after about ten minutes of pedaling, you’ll warm up quite nicely. If you overdress, overheating can be uncomfortable, so you may want to experiment a little before you get it right.
Let’s start at the top
First off, always wear a helmet, especially when winter cycling. Your risk of sliding and falling in winter is slightly higher, so you need to keep your head protected. Your regular helmet may fit your needs at the start, but many riders opt to ‘beef-up’ their headgear, which also allows for a bit more room under the hood, in order to accommodate additional items like a headband, ear-muffs, skull cap, buff, or balaclava.
As body heat can be lost through the head, it’s important to keep things covered. On the other hand, it’s also a quick and easy way to shed excess heat. In any case, with the core temperature properly regulated during winter cycling, the head is easiest of all to manage. The biggest challenge here is protecting everything up front: your eyes, nose and ears. When riding in the winter, frostbite is an ever-present threat, so face protection is important. A balaclava is a good place to start. Look for one thin and flexible enough to fit under your helmet, and make sure it allows for good air flow for breathing, to help prevent fogging up your eyewear.
While summer cycling is all about protecting your eyes from the sun and flying dirt and debris, winter eye protection should focus on snow glare and keeping icy wind off the eyeballs. For moderately cold rides, if everything else is properly regulated, a decent pair of riding sunglasses will do just fine. For extreme cold, though, the obvious choice is to go with full goggles. Ski goggles work great; they are designed to handle snow glare already, and will enhance facial coverage as well. Exercise caution though, as wearing ski goggles can cut down your peripheral vision somewhat.
Your Upper Body
To ensure your clothing ‘system’ works properly when winter cycling, it is very important to remember to dress in layers. The primary goal of a base layer is to keep you dry. Look for clothing made from merino wool or any synthetic wicking fiber (such as polyester or nylon/spandex). For those with wool sensitivities, polar fleece is a synthetic with similar insulating properties to wool. For those adverse to synthetics, silk also has nice insulating properties and works well as a base layer.
“When you’re cycling in winter, it’s essential to keep your upper body warm and dry. Your upper body isn’t moving as much as your legs, so the potential is there for getting cold quickly.”
Avoid cotton as it soaks up sweat and holds it next to your skin. For winter cycling, it’s essential to keep your upper body warm and dry. Your upper body (core) isn’t moving as much as your legs, so the potential is there for getting cold quickly. Yet your upper body is where you sweat the most, so you need a base layer that wicks the sweat from your skin. our next layer should be a micro-fleece pullover, with a heavier (thicker fleece or down filled vest) layer as well, in the event you need more warmth.
In most cases, you would not wear everything right away, so it would be wise to bring along something (backpack or pannier) in which to stow the extras. Your outer shell is last. This layer is where you do not want to skimp, as it’s basically your last line of defense. Most cycling outerwear will come equipped with good wind protection, bright (high visibility) colors with reflective strips, and good venting capabilities (so you don’t keep much heat or moisture close to your body). Sleeves and torso lengths on these jackets and shirts tend to be longer as well, so it won’t ride up or allow for lower back exposure.
There is no special need to buy cycling specific gloves: regular gloves, ski gloves or mitts work just as well. Before you head out to spend your hard-earned money, check to see what you already have in your closet. If you do end up heading out and shopping for gloves, look for brands with good insulation and wind blocking material on the top. Gloves that keep your hands warm are obviously a priority, but keep in mind they need to do that while allowing you the movement and dexterity required to steer, stop and shift gears. You should also ask about the store’s return policy, in the event you’re not satisfied with the product you purchased.
For extreme cold, there are products referred to as “pogies” or “bar mitts.” These are oversized, insulated mitts that mount on the handlebars and cover everything: brake levers, shifters, grips, etc. You simply slip your whole forearm into the mitt, with or without a thinner pair of gloves, and you’re on your way – with warm hands!
Your Lower Body
Since the legs are doing most, if not all of the work here, keeping them warm isn’t too difficult. The two main goals are to keep the knees warm, and to keep stray clothing out of the chainrings. Similar to the upper body, start with a thermal, wicking base layer. The obvious choice is to just get the complete set of what was picked for your upper body. Over the base layer, go with non-insulated GORE-TEX® or similar shell pants. Models designed for downhill skiing will tend to have articulated knees, with reinforced fabric over the knees and inside the calves and will have Velcro or elastic to cinch up the cuffs. This setup translates directly to cycling needs, so go with whatever is comfortable and within your budget.
Our feet are the other challenging body part to keep warm. Effective winter footwear requires a balancing act between insulation, venting/wicking capabilities, and space. There is less blood flow in your feet, plus blood takes longer to reach your feet, to keep good circulation. Your winter cycling shoes should run roughly a half to full-size larger than your summer cycling shoes. Socks that are both comfortable and warm should not be overlooked either; DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks (6-inches tall) are a perfect example of what can help keep your feet nice and toasty – whether you’re commuting or mountain biking on back-country trails. In addition, wool insoles can provide additional support and warmth – particularly if your shoes are equipped with a SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) type system. Small inexpensive hand/footwarmers can also be utilized if additional warmth is needed. Place them inside your boots while wearing socks, and outside the inner lining of your gloves, to protect yourself from burns.
Fortunately, the advent of fat bike cycling has given rise to a whole new category of winter footwear that didn’t exist just a couple of years ago. If fat bike cycling in the backcountry is on your ‘to-do’ list, gaiters (lightweight protective layer from ankle to just below knee) are certainly worthy of consideration. In the event you have mechanical issues and end up having to do some walking in deeper snow, your feet will be grateful you had these.
Your Bike Gear – Important Accessories
- Fenders– Front and rear fenders are an important addition to your winter bike. They are generally inexpensive, fairly easy to install, and will minimize the salt wear on your bike while also saving your back and shoes from road grime. If you are considering installing fenders, you will want to ensure your tires can accommodate fenders. If you’re not comfortable installing new fenders on your own, your local bike shop can assist you. Here is an example of a winter bike equipped with fenders.
- Tires– Deciding to use non-studded vs. studded tires is a personal preference. As with most winter cycling gear, some experimentation is required. Studded winter tires and a wide tread pattern substantially increase grip when riding in very snowy or icy conditions. The majority of grip is achieved by the front tire. If you opt for just one studded tire, put it on the front. In moderate conditions, regular knobby tires inflated to a lower PSI (pounds per square inch) provide good traction. If you are close to or within the city, there is a good chance your local volunteer-run community bike shop will offer low-cost classes for studding your winter tires. This option will not only save you money, it will teach you more about your bike.
Yes, winter is here, and that means fewer daylight hours. Commuting to work at 7 a.m. can seem like it’s the middle of the night – and by the time you leave work to go home, it’s completely dark again. When you’re riding in low-light conditions, having an efficient lighting system is one of the best ways to keep both yourself and the road ahead of you well-lit. Using a blinking rear light makes it easier for drivers to spot you, and can make you more visible to other cyclists with limited reaction time.
In order to see the ground ahead of you, choose a light that is at least 150 – 200 lumens; this should be sufficient for most rides, where street lighting is absent. A 400+ lumen light will provide greater visibility, especially if you’re on winding trails or descents.
Rear lightingis a bit more straightforward and affordable. A simple seat post or rack mounted light, either solid or blinking, should suffice. Having more than one rear light is a great idea, as they periodically break, fall off, or stop working altogether. Powering your lights is also something to consider. Batteries do not last as long in winter so it would be wise to carry spares or choose a lighting system that is easily rechargeable, such as the one that plugs into a USB port. That way, you can be assured of having a strong light every day.
You might not feel warm on winter rides, but you’re still sweating and will need to hydrate. Get warm from the inside out by bringing hot coffee or soup along. A double-insulated thermos will keep your liquids hot – and in turn, keep you warm – even in freezing conditions. Bringing water along is also important, but you’ll have to find a way to keep the water from freezing. Some riders simply tuck the water bottle inside their back jersey pocket, while others will keep the bottle insulated by wrapping it with other pieces of clothing inside their backpack or pannier.
Due to different body types and heat thresholds, dressing for the cold is by no means an exact science. Use this guide as a starting point, and experiment with different combinations on shorter riders around your neighbourhood, until you find what works for you. Learn to adjust based on current weather and the type of riding you’ll be doing.
Remember to bring a basic tool kit along, in the event you experience problems. A mobile device is also recommended – especially if you find yourself with mechanical difficulties beyond your expertise, or if you have to call the boss to tell him/her that you’ll be a little late.
Have fun and ride safe!
If you have comments or questions regarding winter cycling, you can contact the author directly by leaving a comment below.