Guide to Winter Cycling
Winter cycling can be a lot of fun and a refreshing change, but it can also be quite frustrating at times. When you’re freezing outside and your bike isn’t working properly, it’s incredibly easy to want to quit. Having lived my whole life just a few hour drive away from the arctic circle, I felt like I could give people some advice. So here’s my take on the topic.
Everyone is different
We all have different tolerances to cold. Some people simply cannot handle cold very well and need to dress up much more than others. It’s just how it is and that’s why I recommend taking this kind of guides with a grain of salt. This and any other guide online offers a starting point, but it’s up to you to make it work for you. Just because you need a different amount of clothing doesn’t mean you need to change something. As long as you are comfortable you should be good to go.
Let’s start with the basics. Ask advice for cold winter cycling online, and you’re guaranteed to be told to wear layers. What does that even mean? In simple words, it’s a matter of wearing multiple layers with different attributes on top of each other to get the best of both worlds. The layer right on top of your skin should be made out of sweat-wicking material. This ensures that the sweat gets transferred off your skin into the second layer. The reason you don’t want the sweat to evaporate off your skin is simple, it requires heat and that makes you feel cold.
The second layer is usually the main “thermal” layer that keeps you warm. For extreme cold, you may need it to be made out of fleece or other cushy material that traps air well. For not so cold weather, a thinner material should be sufficient. This depends on the jacket you are wearing though.
The outermost layer is usually your jacket. Its main purpose is to protect you from the elements such as wind and rain. There are multiple types of jackets made out of different materials, the main ones being hardshell jackets and softshell jackets. Hardshell jackets alone don’t offer much insulation from cold, but they are often 100% wind and waterproof. Softshell jackets, on the other hand, are much warmer and far more breathable but often lack complete wind and waterproofing. Whether you should get a hard or softshell jacket depends on the environment you’re living in, more about jackets further down.
What to wear
This chart is just a starting point. It works for me, but you may find that it doesn’t work for you. Experiment lots and you’ll eventually learn to judge the weather and get the clothing right.
This chart is for you fellow budget conscious riders. Winter cycling clothing can be ridiculously expensive at times, but luckily you don’t need to fill up your wardrobe with all kinds of winter cycling gear. You may lose some functionality and versatility, but it will be cheaper to buy only the necessary items rather than all of them. Furthermore, don’t be fooled into thinking you need cycling specific clothing. For example, Cross Country skiing clothing tends to work quite well for winter cycling, and the difference in functionality is minimal. The chart above shows what worked for me before I started investing in cycling specific clothing.
What to look for when buying clothing for winter cycling
Here’s a breakdown of things to consider when buying clothing for winter cycling (or any other winter sport).
Windproofing is the key here. Nothing stops you from wearing a regular toque that fits underneath the helmet, although cycling specific headwear usually has a slightly different shape that gives your ears more protection. Don’t forget to protect your neck too! A good thin or thicker fleece neck tube (depending on the temperature) will keep your neck from freezing. Those two should get you far, but if you feel like you need some extra warmth then look for a balaclava.
Tip: Try blocking the vents on your helmet if you need extra windproofing.
Ideally, you’d like to have a wind- and waterproof jacket that is also fairly breathable. That’s a tricky goal to achieve even with modern materials, and it certainly won’t be cheap. Luckily for us, good softshell jackets can achieve decent breathability while maintaining good wind- and waterproofing. Whereas hardshell jackets offer better protection from the elements but lack the breathability. Granted, there are some hardshell jackets that breathe very well thanks to the use of different fabrics and vents in critical areas.
One of the main reasons why I like softshell jackets over hardshell jackets is that you don’t always need to wear a second layer underneath them. They are made out a material which doesn’t feel cold even against your bare skin. On the other hand, basic hardshell jackets tend to be more affordable.
Underneath the jacket, you need a good base layer. You don’t want to cheap out on this one because a bad base layer will certainly make you feel cold if it fails to wick that sweat away from your skin. If it gets cold enough, you may need a second layer on top of the base layer. Usually, the second layer is made out of fleece (or some other cushy material) because it traps air well and thus keeps you warm. Nothing stops you from wearing more layers but the more layers you have on, the higher the chance of chafing and discomfort.
Thermal Jerseys (or wind vest, summer jersey, and arm warmers) excel at temperatures where a jacket is simply too much. There are too many types of thermal jerseys to cover in one paragraph, so as a general rule of thumb; get something windproof.
Your fingers are often the first part of your body that gets cold. Therefore, investing in a good pair of winter gloves will certainly pay off. Lobster style gloves can feel quite alien and are quite restricting, but they are very warm. Much warmer than regular gloves. On the other hand, you could try bar mitts which are essentially like large mitts that fit at the ends of the handlebars. While they can take a while to get used to, they do allow you to wear very thin gloves even in freezing temperatures. I think bar mitts would be the cheapest option, as long as you can get used to them (I couldn’t).
Your legs are home to the muscles that propel you forward while cycling, which means they are going to generate a lot of heat. This is the reason why you usually have to wear more clothes on your upper body than on your legs. Although it depends on the type of riding you do. For leisure riding, you may need just as much clothing as on your torso, which, on the other hand, would be far too much for training rides. Leg warmers are great when it’s above zero, but once the temperatures drop it’s worth investing in a good pair of bib tights/winter cycling pants. Like with every other piece of winter clothing, you’ll want something that’s windproof yet breathable.
I prefer tights without the pad because that allows me to wear my favorite cycling shorts underneath. As an added benefit; you can often use them for a few rides before a wash.
It is so easy to freeze your toes while biking in Winter. It’s also painful and can lead to a frostbite. Sticking to clipless means buying very expensive winter cycling shoes. Sadly, many of those “winter” cycling shoes were designed for mild winters where temperatures rarely drop below freezing. Nothing stops you from using your summer shoes with shoe covers, but you’ll quickly find out that clipless pedals and cleats are great heatsinks. They effectively transfer cold right underneath your feet. That’s a big problem with clipless winter cycling shoes and the only solution is to design a shoe with better insulation. Which leads to a hefty price tag.
Another option is to switch to regular pedals and use hiking/winter boots instead. You’ll sacrifice some of the sole stiffness and power transfer, but the upside is a much bigger selection of shoes to choose from. If you are struggling with cold feet, thermal boots meant for snowmobiling are very, very warm.
How about your bike? Do I need to do some special maintenance on it? How should I store it?
Winter cycling can be pretty tough on your bike. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to do basic maintenance and re-lube everything on your bicycle, especially the drivetrain and suspension components, before the winter sets in. Don’t forget to use grease that can handle freezing temperatures without stiffening for the best performance. The better you have maintained the bike, the better it will work in freezing temperatures.
The reason why I mentioned drivetrain and suspension components earlier is simple: those two are usually the ones that give up first as the temperatures drop. Gear shifter cable can freeze quite easily and turn your bike into a single speed in no time. It’s a similar story with poorly maintained suspension components, as they often stop functioning altogether at colder temperatures.
When it comes to storing your bike, I have always liked to keep my bike indoors in winters. It simply cannot be good for the seals in suspension components to be under high pressure at constant freezing temperatures. Storing the bike indoors has its own problems, though. For example, if you pump your tires to a certain pressure at room temperature, the pressure will not be the same in freezing temperatures but slightly lower. The change is not dramatic, but it’s good to keep in mind especially if you like running the tires at the absolute minimum pressure. Similarly, you may need to alter the air pressure and settings in suspension components for optimal performance. I usually run 5-10 psi higher pressure and faster rebound. That may not work for you, so I recommend trying out different suspension settings and tire pressures to find the sweet spot for both.
Other useful things to remember
- It’s recommended to ride with a friend, or at least let somebody know where you are heading. Crashing and losing consciousness in freezing temperatures is dangerous.
- It’s good to have extra clothing, e.g a thin windbreaker with you in case the weather cools down suddenly.
- Learn to recognize the symptoms of a frostbite. Also, the colder it gets the shorter your rides should be.
- Fill water bottles/hydration pack with warm or even hot water to keep it from freezing quickly.
- Get good lights and keep the batteries charged.
- Have fun!
If you feel like I missed something or you disagree with my points, don’t hesitate to leave a comment down below. Any feedback is appreciated! Thanks for reading!