Winter Riding Essentials & Favorites

Even though winter hasn’t officially started, much of North America has already experienced some very winter-like conditions. For many riders, winter officially spells the end of their riding season, and bikes get relegated to the basement or garage. There are other options, though. You can drive to the gym and ride a stationary or spin bike, or maybe set up a trainer in your own personal pain cave. Then there’s the third option–actually riding your bike outside in the cold and dark.

While the concept may seem novel, winter cycling is as old as the bicycle itself. Riding a bike in bad weather ain’t rocket science, but it does take a little extra preparation and planning. Living in Colorado for over fifteen years has taught me a thing or two about riding in harsh weather. Because I detest being cold when I ride, I usually err on the side of caution when it comes to choosing winter cycling gear. As such, I’ve learned to take clothing companies’ recommended temperature ranges with a grain of salt. In other words, what works for me might end up being too warm for more cold-tolerant riders. That said, the following items have served me well for utility and recreational riding.

Head & Face
The myth that we lose most of our body heat through our head is just that, a myth. Studies have shown that the head’s heat loss is proportional to its size, meaning we only lose about ten percent of our body heat by not covering our head. But If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded ice cream headache that accompanies a high-speed descent in cold weather, you know just painful that supposedly minor heat loss can feel.

  • Smartwool PhD® HyFi beanie ($32) — Despite being thin enough to fit under nearly any helmet, the Smartwool beanie is a major improvement over do-rags or cycling caps. With its extended ear and neck coverage, the HyFi can be worn by itself in milder conditions or combined with other headwear for additional insulation.
  • Pandana neck gaiter ($16) — If a cap isn’t warm enough by itself, I like to add a Pandana neck gaiter to the mix. Weighing next to nothing, these versatile accessories are the perfect insurance for Colorado’s constantly changing weather (and they can double as handkerchiefs or eyeglass cleaners).
  • Sugoi Midzero balaclava ($30) — When it’s too chilly for the beanie and neck gaiter combo, I’ll grab my Sugoi balaclava. It’s great by itself, but not so bulky that I can’t layer it with a beanie or skull cap–and in extreme conditions, a neck gaiter–too.
  • Pearl Izumi Barrier balaclava ($35) — Is your helmet is too snug for multiple layers? Do you prefer the convenience of a single garment? Then PI’s Barrier is for you. The adjustable face panel is great for regulating your temperature, and the P.R.O. Barrier fabric panel on the forehead protects against wind and rain.

Whether you choose a layers or an all-in-one approach, make sure you don’t compromise proper helmet fit. For extreme conditions, you may want to consider a helmet with fewer vents, or one that can accommodate a winter liner such as those from Bern, Lazer, or Nutcase.

One of the biggest challenges of cold-weather riding is keeping your upper body warm and dry. A properly insulated torso is absolutely crucial for comfort and safety. Cold hands and feet are signs that your body can’t keep vital organs warm, so it diverts blood from those pesky appendages in order to maintain a healthy core temperature. Layering is generally accepted as the preferred method of dressing for winter activities, but finding the right combination of layers is often hit or miss. When choosing a garment for layering, it needs to fulfill one of three requirements: moisture management (base), insulation (middle), or protection from wind/rain (outer). In my experience, the base and outer layers are the most crucial, and when those are dialed-in, the middle layers usually fall into place.

  • DeFeet base layers ($29.99-$54.99) — DeFeet’s UnD Shurt has long been a staple in my winter wardrobe. Although recommended for 40° to 80° weather, I’ve worn them comfortably in below-freezing temps. If you’re a moderate to heavy sweater, there’s no better choice for staying dry and comfortable.
  • Thunderbolt Baseline Marly longsleeve tee ($85) — A relatively new addition to my collection, this lightweight wool base layer has become one of my favorite garments. The whispery-thin Merino wool is insanely soft, provides added warmth without bulk, and maintains its shape after repeated use and laundering.
  • Pearl Izumi ELITE Escape Softshell jacket ($180) — It may look more like a winter jersey, but PI’s ELITE Escape jacket is no lightweight. The softshell fabric does an outstanding job of blocking wind, and the thermal panels provide breathable insulation. Strategically placed chest pockets offer convenient storage, and the heavy-duty zippers are easy to use with winter gloves.
  • Sugoi RSE Alpha jacket ($230) — Want the warmth of your favorite puffy jacket but in a cycling-specific cut? Then Sugoi’s RSE Alpha jacket is for you. It’s deceptively light, but ideal for high-intensity winter activities. The jacket’s Polartec Alpha insulation helps regulate temperature without the need to add or shed layers, so you can spend your time riding instead of swapping clothing.

Why no mention of middle or insulating layers? Simple–it varies depending on the weather, distance, terrain, etc. I’ve found that a mid-weight long sleeve jersey or lightweight fleece jacket usually provides plenty of insulation. And as I mentioned above, the inner and outer layers tend to be more critical than the middle layer. Just make sure that you avoid cotton, and stick with wool or synthetic materials when choosing insulating layers.

Finding the right pair of gloves for winter cycling seems like a never-ending quest. In six years of bicycle commuting I’ve managed to accumulate no less than twelve pairs of cool/cold weather gloves. Truth be told, only four or five of them see regular use, but it goes to show you how selecting the right glove is essentially a trial-and-error process.

  • Sealskinz Stretch Fleece gloves ($40) & Ultra Grip gloves ($55) — These lightweight fleece gloves are my first choice when it’s too chilly for fingerless gloves (and they won’t leave you feeling clammy when the sun comes out). If the forecast calls for rain, I’ll stash Sealskinz’s Ultra Grip gloves in my backpack or panniers. The heavy-duty knit gloves come with a lifetime guarantee, and mine show virtually no wear after several years’ use.
  • Bontrager RXL Softshell gloves ($54.99) — Bontrager may be known primarily for their hardgoods and accessories, but the RXL Softshell gloves perform well above their price point. With 100 grams of Thinsulate™ insulation, the RXLs are comfortable down to the mid-30s, but they aren’t so bulky that you can’t operate your bike’s controls.
  • Pearl Izumi P.R.O. AmFIB Super Gloves ($120) — I’ll be the first to admit that Pearl Izumi’s half-lobster/half-finger design looks a bit odd, but give me warm hands over fashion any day. The P.R.O. AmFIB gloves have kept my digits toasty in temps down to the low-20s, and extending their comfort zone is easy with the addition of chemical hand warmers. And that hybrid lobster/finger design? It works great with both drop and flat handlebars.

Although I prefer MTB-style shorts for warm weather, it’s hard to beat traditional cycling tights for winter riding. Bib tights’ additional coverage provides draft-free protection, and tights are easily layered over road-style cycling shorts for even more warmth and support (just be sure to choose a tight that doesn’t have a built-in chamois/pad). I generally divide tights into one of two categories: above 40° and below 35° (yes, I realize there’s a small gap between those two temperatures).

  • Pearl Izumi ELITE Thermal Bib Tight ($135) & ELITE AmFIB Bib Tight ($150) — Pearl Izumi’s ELITE Thermal tights are perfect when it’s too cold for shorts and leg/knee warmers (approx. 55°-40°). The bibs’ wide mesh straps are extremely comfortable, and the 8″ leg zippers easily accommodate shoe covers or bulky socks. With their wind- and water-resistant fabric, PI’s AmFIB tights will keep you both warm and dry (approx. 45°-30°). Nature breaks are made easier thanks to the opening at the top of the waist. Internal stirrups and gaskets divert rain over shoe covers, which help keep your feed drier.
  • Chamois Butt’r Embrocation ($20) — If you’re planning on riding in really crappy weather, treat your legs to some extra protection. Besides keeping your muscles warm, this easy-to-apply embrocation acts as a barrier between your skin and rain or snow. Available in warm and hot formulas, the embro features a very mild scent and is easily removed with plain ol’ soap and water.

After years of experimenting with what seemed like an endless combination of clipless shoes, socks, shoe covers, and even plastic bags, I decided to give flat pedals a try for winter riding. The result? All I can say is, I wish I’d done this sooner. It’s amazing how much warmer your feet stay when you don’t have a chunk of metal bolted to your shoe (physics FTW). Factor in urban- and MTB-style shoes’ improved walkability and comfort and it’s easy to see why flat pedals/shoes are so popular. When selecting shoes for winter riding, choose a size that will accommodate socks of various thickness and avoid the temptation to cram several pairs of socks into your shoes. Despite your good intentions, you’ll end up restricting movement and bloodflow, both of which are necessary for staying warm.

  • Swiftwick wool ($15.99-$21.99) socks — I’m a big fan of wool socks for year-round use, and Swiftwick’s woolies are my favorites. Made from US-sourced Merino wool, Swiftwicks are soft, durable, and offer just the right amount of compression. Thanks to wool’s superior moisture management capabilities, your feet remain warm if you get caught in an unexpected rain storm (without shoe covers or fenders).
  • Five Ten Freerider Contact ($150) and Freerider EPS ($140-$150) shoes — These two models (along with Five Ten’s original Freerider) now comprise my entire bike shoe quiver. Their skate-inspired appearance notwithstanding, the Five Tens are plenty stiff for all-day rides (but don’t look out-of-place off the bike). The shoes’ sticky Stealth rubber soles offer phenomenal traction with even the most basic pedals, and walking doesn’t require ninja-like balance. And with their PrimaLoft insulation and heat-reflective footbards, the Freerider EPS are comfortable down to temperatures in the mid- to low-twenties.

Disclosure: The above companies provided review samples for this article, but offered no other forms of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.

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