Winter Riding Essentials
While winter has brought with it warmer than usual temperatures for much of the country, it is bound to snow, or at least get cold, a few times in 2016. And, when it does, if you wish to ride off the doldrums and get some fresh air, you’ll need to be dressed properly to ward off winter.
The two basics you need to look for when deciding what to wear are flexibility and permeability. First, beyond the obvious need to be able to bend your knees to pedal, you’ll also need to turn your head and even your torso to see what is happening around you. Second, because you’re moving, you get a double dose of the already frigid winds.
You have two enemies when riding in the cold: wind and sweat. Regardless of the temperature, you will sweat under the layers of clothing to help regulate body temperature. If your core remains moist from the sweat, you will get chilled from the wind. While the obvious solution would seem to be to wear fewer layers and therefore limit sweating, it doesn’t quite work out that way, and you’ll be cold regardless. The better solution is to wear layers that move moisture away from your skin while providing insulating properties to keep your core warm.
The number of layers you need will vary as to your personal preference and the weather. For cool days, you may only need to cover your exposed skin, while for blustery days, you’ll need quite a bit more insulation. I will mention the layers that I use and you may pick and choose those that are ideal for you. I’ll begin with your core and move outward to your extremities.
In days of yore, cyclists wore layers of wool. Today, I advocate wearing wool as a base layer, as long as you are not allergic. Wool is magic. While many synthetic fabrics claim to “wick” moisture from your skin, I find wool to be quite superior in accomplishing this. It also dries quickly and does not retain odors. If you are female, a non-itch wool sports bra is a gift. Whereas many bras get damp and pool droplets of sweat, a wool sports bra will keep you dry. If you are allergic to wool, look for a bra with mesh inserts to help wick moisture.
Layering with warm and wicking fabrics is the key to comfortable winter wonderland riding.
As a base layer under your jersey, you’ll want a wool or synthetic top. Again, while I prefer wool, if you opt for synthetic, look for a fabric that has mesh inserts and is able to wick moisture. I have found that the best fabrics have a light “lining” which provides a bit of loft above the skin. This loft allows air to flow between your skin and the base layer to speed up the wicking process.
For your lower half, you’ll want to look for one of two combinations: winter tights or shorts with leg warmers. Winter tights are available in many thicknesses. Several styles even incorporate wind-shielding panels over the front to keep your knees toasty. Many feature a brushed interior with a tightly woven exterior to, once again, wick moisture and keep you warm simultaneously. The one thing to note is that many tights do not have a chamois pad. You may wish to wear your riding shorts under them for in the saddle comfort. The second option is to wear your riding shorts with leg warmers. These are essentially form-fit sleeves for your legs that pull up and over your shorts. These are best if you live in an area where your ride starts out chilly and then warms up, because they are easily removed.
On top of a base layer, wear a jersey. While it might not be the most expensive, or touted as the best-in-class for wicking, it provides a permeable layer to help move moisture away from your skin. The more moisture that you keep away from your skin, the drier and warmer your core will be. Additionally, it has pockets for all of your riding essentials. If the weather is brisk but not cold, oftentimes adding a pair of arm warmers to cover your forearms will suffice.
If the temperatures are plummeting, arm warmers won’t be enough. You’ll need something to keep the wind away from your core. There are several synthetic fabrics that work well. A soft shell jacket with the venerable GORE-TEX fabric is the best choice. A few models even feature wind-proof front panels. These keep your chest warm while allowing excess sweat to move away from your body via more permeable fabric on the back and underarm area. If you need something even warmer, or if your winter rides may include rain, a waterproof hard-shell jacket is ideal.
Once you have swathed your core in layers, you’ll want to pay attention to your hands and feet. Gloves come in many thicknesses and styles. I wear one of two types. For days that aren’t windy I have a GORE-TEX pair that double as my cross-country ski gloves. My heavier pair actually looks like lobster claws, with two pockets (each for two fingers) and a thumb pocket. They look silly, but keep my hands as warm as mittens while allowing me the ability to shift my gears and brake.
Feet are more difficult to keep warm. Because your cycling shoes have cleats, there are spots on the sole that let cool air in. To counter this, the best thing is to wear warm socks and then cover your feet with booties. Most booties are either neoprene or feature wind-proof panels. If you are a die hard about riding in the winter, you may want to invest in one of the newer styles of winter riding shoes that feature insulation and a waterproof layer. These don’t necessarily negate the need for booties, but they do provide additional warmth.
Additionally, you’ll want something to cover your ears and possibly your neck. Most bike shops sell either headbands or hats that are designed to fit under your helmet, while a skiing gaiter works well for neck protection.
Remember that the sun is as bright in the winter as in the summer and you can get sunburnt from the reflection off the snow. Wear proper sunglass protection and use lip balm. One trick I’ve learned over the years is to use a petroleum jelly type sunscreen (Aloe Gator) on my exposed facial skin. It sounds a bit terrible, but I have never suffered burnt or chapped skin. The petroleum keeps moisture in and helps to block bitter wind, and the SPF blocks the sun.
Whatever combination of clothing you choose, be sure you are able to move in it and that it won’t restrict your ability to turn or brake. Try everything on and bend into “riding position” to ensure that the skin at your wrists, ankles, and lower back remain covered.
Above all, enjoy the miles outside. The fresh, crisp air is sure to keep you motivated for the inevitable indoor trainer days.