Cyclopedia: Winter Cycling
Winter Cycling Tips From Bicycle South.
Here in the South it can be surprisingly cold (unless you live far South). While you won’t generally be pedaling in the snow, there may be days that the air temperature hovers near freezing and the additional wind-chill from a good breeze can be a little more than bracing. Clothing for Winter riding is not just a matter of layering the clothing on until you look like the Michelin man on two wheels. Winter cycling clothing insulates the body and blocks wind, breathes (you still perspire when you ride even when it is 26 degrees out) and allows you to move freely. How the clothing fits is critical too - insulating clothing is most effective when it keeps a nice layer of body heated air between you and the elements. This is why the big city bicycle messengers use plastic bags between their socks and shoes. The plastic bag keeps heat in and water out. Those plastic bags don’t breath very well though and sweaty feet are the result. This is why a shoe cover is more effective. The best way to think about cycling clothing is from the top down. Also, keep in mind, what one person thinks is terribly cold, another person might find pleasant. So it’s not entirely reasonable to give a temperature range for each article of clothing, just what it is designed for and what you can generally expect from it.
A thin skull cap under a helmet is the first degree of protection from the cold. Fabrics should be sporting orientated and wick moisture from your skin as opposed to just being sweaty, like a t shirt. As the temperature drops, you’ll find that a cap that goes over the ears (ears can get painfully cold, even when the rest of you is toasty) or an insulated earband by itself is adequate. In very cold weather you may want to extend the protection you gave to your ears to your nose and mouth. Balaclavas are tightly fitting hoods with an oval hole for your eyes and are usually a thin fabric layer that covers the ears and extends over the nose and mouth. As you heat up while you ride, you will find yourself pulling a balaclava or Headgator (a fabric tube that can be worn many ways) away from your mouth and nose, but it sure is nice to start with. Beware though, full face coverage can cause your eye protection to steam up! Goggles or glasses with ventilation or anti-fog protection are necessary here.
Keeping your upper body insulated from the cold and protected from the wind will go a long ways towards keeping the rest of your body warm. Since your chest and the fronts of your legs are exposed to the most wind-chill, concentrate your wind protection here. Remember, layering like the Michelin man is not as efficient as starting with thin layers of fabrics designed both insulate and wick, and finishing with breathable wind blocking fabrics. You may just wear one thin moisture wicking layer under wind protection, some add a jersey on top of that first layer. The next layer can consist of a wind breaker with armpit and back ventilation (or not), a fleece vest, arm warmers, or a cycling specific jacket that blocks the wind and is breathable. Again, how much you need depends on your own personal tolerance of cold, the air temperature and how much both you and the climate will warm or cool during your ride. Keep up with the weather forecast when planning a winter ride. Legs
With the exception of keeping knee joints insulated to prevent injury, you may find that your torso requires more protection than your legs. Most cyclists where the winter is short and not extremely cold, wear tights of different thickness and wind blocking properties over shorts or leg warmers. Having tights with a chamois built in is nice, but not an essential. Basically, tights with a chamois won’t do you much good on days that start chilly and warm up and tights are sauna-like in the summer, so they’d sit idle then. Shorts are functional year round, even under tights or over legwarmers and you always have the option of removing that outer layer of tights or leg warmers on a nice day. Knickers and kneewarmers provide that most minimal of leg protection by covering just the knees, leg warmers come in many different thicknesses - as do tights.
We’ve already covered ears and noses in the section on head protection, but a good rule to keep in mind, is, if it sticks out from your body and it doesn’t get a lot of blood flow, its going to get cold. When cycling, your body is being efficient and keeping that blood flow in your legs where it is needed, not in your fingers and toes, therefore they get colder than the rest of you. Gloves that allow you to grip the bars, shift and brake comfortably, block the wind and possibly have some water resistant properties are the best. Many cycling Glove can accommodate a thin liner without being bulky and are especially useful because you can layer up as the weather requires. The liners wick moisture and provide insulation, can be worn separately, or added in on the coldest days. Serious winter cycling shoes are available, but like tights with chamois, nice to have, but not an essential here in the South. We don’t recommend cycling shoes that fit so tightly they cut off the blood flow in the first place, but if you have an older pair that is a bit looser, you can wear thick socks with them. For socks, wear wool, which stays warm whether you’re dry or wet. Most cycling shoes are designed with vents for normal conditions, but vents let in the cold in winter. You’ve got a couple of different ways to handle this. If it’s not too terribly cold, pulling out the shoe insole and blocking the vent holes in the sole with electrical tape can keep the breeze from blowing in every time your pedal comes up. That fix doesn’t address the mesh over the toes on a lot of cycling shoes though, and the best bet then is to wear booties or toe covers. Like most winter cycling clothing, you’ll find a variety of shoe covers that vary from Iditi-bike level of protection (like the Iditarod, but you ride a bike instead of having a dog pull you through the snow), to little neoprene covers that go over just the toes of your shoes. Some are waterproof and not insulated, some are just insulation.
Remember, wind, rain, snow and altitude changes affect your temperature drastically. Wind-chill worsens as the temperature drops. For example, riding 20mph into a 10mph breeze makes you feel 12 degrees colder at 40 degrees and 19 degrees colder at 20 degrees. The ability to remove or vent layers as you ride is very helpful. For example, if you are going up hill, you aren’t as exposed to the possibility of wind-chill making you cold and you are perspiring as you climb. Downhill, you’d want to be much warmer while you aren’t pedaling and are face first in the wind. We hope the tips help you ride year round. Cycling through the winter allows you to keep your fitness as opposed to trying to regain it in the spring. Plus, it’ll help you stave off that dreaded cabin-fever feeling. We would love to help you enjoy these benefits. Stop by Bicycle South and ask us about winter cycling. We’re here to help!