It should be obvious that the hands and feet are at the end of your arms and legs, and the warm blood you'd like to have flowing around your hands and feet has to pass from your heart inside your nice warm core out through the arms and legs to get to the hands and feet. Imagine your hot water heater working away down in your basement, but with uninsulated pipes running outside the house to get upstairs to your shower, or the duct work from your furnace running outside the house before reaching a vent in your living room. A lot of heat will be lost through those uninsulated exposed pipes and ducts. Same for your body.
I am amazed when I hear someone who is wearing shorts or knee warmers and overshoes, complain about cold feet. The rider will often claim their legs aren't cold, it's just the feet. But the blood that warms the feet has to travel through those exposed legs to get there. So be sure that you have enough insulation on your arms and legs. You may have the warmest gloves made and still have cold hands if your arms aren't adequately covered.
Of course it is the balancing act. Remember that another common mistake that people make is overdressing. Exercise generates heat (and sweat). It's important to avoid damp clothing if you want to keep warm. So it's a true Goldilocks mission to find what is just right! But have no fear, it isn't impossible.
But sometimes, it gets cold, and you need more than just shock absorption.
I start with liners. Glove liners are essential for me. I always have a pair with me. They can add several degrees of comfort to any glove, extending the range of the outer glove significantly. They are also great with big bulky gloves for when you need to take the outer layer off, to operate a camera or open an energy bar for instance. The photo above shows a pair of lightweight wool liners from Ibex. They are light and thin enough to fit under my other gloves, yet provide that extra warmth.
A couple of years ago, John and I were out riding on Christmas Day, when I found this brand new pair of gloves in the middle of the road, clearly someone else's Christmas gift, lost out of a pocket on their first outing. These have been great for borderline warm conditions - and the price couldn't be beat!
These Louis Garneau gloves are for 45F-55F. I bought them a couple of years ago after a cold spring-time brevet, to help encourage the arrival of warm weather. It didn't work! I used them several times that spring. These are a cycling specific glove with terry cloth thumb and not a lot of bulk. I added the Lightweights reflective dots. I used the fabric specific version and ironed them on. The dots have survived many washings. I also have a pair of Chiba Windstopper gloves that cover the same range.
I use these Chiba Waterproof gloves for 35F-45F. These are labeled waterproof, and have survived more than a few wet rides. In a long heavy downpour water may eventually get into the glove due to capillary action as water come down the arm of a jacket. (As mentioned in the previous post, a rain cape is one of the best ways to keep the hands dry and warm, but may not work so well in windy conditions.) I have used these gloves commuting in 40F rainy conditions. They have cycling specific padding and grips, and the very important terry cloth thumb for wiping runny noses. They have a warm fleecy interior, but are not so bulky that they would cause issues with integrated shifters. If I could have just one pair of winter cycling gloves, these are the ones, especially when supplemented with the liners!
But fortunately, I'm not limited to one pair!
My 25F-35F gloves are a pair of ski gloves to which I've also added some reflective tape from lightweights. These have enough room to supplement with a light glove liner, and/or a padded cycling glove. I'll also point out the security cords on these - very handy when I pull the gloves off on the move to take Panda shots and other photos!
The above selection are the gloves I keep by the door in the winter! Fear Rothar has a similar collection with a few other brands and models thrown in the mix.
The point of showing several gloves to cover different temperature ranges is that if you are riding in real and varied winter conditions, you likely need more than one pair of gloves, and will find yourself with a similar ranking of gloves for temperature. As mentioned above, range extending can be done using a glove liner, but for a wide variety of winter weather, different gloves are really handy for different conditions.
Before I head out for a ride, I check the current temperature and forecast, and grab gloves accordingly. Sometimes I'll take multiple pairs if the temperature is due to change a lot (or if I misjudged and got cold the day before and just want to be sure!)
Disclaimer: I mostly ride fixed gear bikes in the winter, so I have no worries about jamming fiddly shift levers when using bulky gloves or mittens. And my bikes with gears have bar-end shifters which also are no problem with even the bulkiest of gloves or mittens. Something to consider in a winter bike!
And finally, I will also mention handlebar mitts like Pogies, Moose Mitts and Bar-Mitts. These are oversize mitts that attach to the handlebars at the brake levers. There are models for both road style drop bars and flat bars. The idea is you wear a light glove and place your gloved hand inside a giant outer glove, providing ample insulation and windproofing while leaving you with fine control for brakes and shifting.
So onto the feet...
I use wool socks year round. Defeet, Smartwool and Bridgedale are my current favorites. I've recently noticed the toes are starting to get threadbare in some of them, so I will be sock shopping soon. I tried some Swiftwick socks this summer and really liked them. I'll have to order some longer ones to try this winter.
I use very different cycling shoes in the summer and winter. My summer shoes are well ventilated, while the winter shoes are well insulated. Also my winter shoes are larger. This way I can use thicker socks or heavy insoles or inserts. Many people make the mistake of using the same shoes or same size shoes and trying to stuff thick socks into them in the winter. A shoe that is too tight restricts circulation and makes the feet even colder. I used winter cycling boots from Sidi for years with great luck, but found Lake Winter Cycling Boots were even warmer. The Sidis are good in-between summer and winter shoes for me. Mavic and Shimano also make a winter cycling boot, but I haven't tried either. Cycling shoes in general can be expensive, and winter boots are no exception. But by far, my winter cycling boots are the best investment I have made for winter cycling!
For the outer layer, I like Goretex or Windstopper overshoes. I rarely need an additional layer with my Lake shoes, but for lighter shoes or really wet conditions, an overshoe can extend the comfort range. Fenders and long mudflaps are also helpful.
I mentioned earlier that I rarely need to replace a good jacket or shoes. I can't same the same for overshoes. I tend to buy a new pair every year. I've been searching for years for overshoes that will hold up. Most have flimsy soles that wear out quickly if walked on, but I have found a few in my travels with thick rubber soles - which hold up much better. Of course the downside is that they are bulky and take up a lot of space when stored, which is a consideration for touring. I have some flimsy lightweight ones for tours, and keep the bulkier ones for occasions where stowing them is not an issue.
My favorite overshoe (that I used for years of commuting) is no longer made. It had a good rubber sole with a cutout for the heel and the cleat, and a Velcro closure in the rear to make it easy to get on and off and adjust for different size shoes. I really like not having a zipper to get clogged with mud. The lesson here is when you find one you like, buy a spare or two, since they may no longer be available when you need new ones!
I avoid neoprene totally. Every time I have tried it, I just end up sweaty, wet and cold. Some people tell me it works well for shorter rides, but I have had no luck with it, and avoid it completely. Given how much of it I see in shops, it must work for some folks - I'm just not one of them.
But even heavy winter boots and overshoes isn't always enough. Sometime it gets downright cold! There are various types of hand and toe warmers available. For about $1 a pair, one can get disposable warmers. They last about 5 hours and are terrific. I keep a couple of packs of toe warmers in my saddlebag throughout the winter for emergencies. I have given them away often.
Now to the head...
If your head hasn't told you that cycling in the winter is insane...
I'll just say again that the head is the most important thing to keep warm. The body protects what it considers vital first, so if the head isn't warm, heat is diverted from the extremities to protect the control center/brain. This is why it is often said, "If your feet are cold, put on a hat."
I use a wool headband for cool temperatures, a wool hat for cold, and a windstopper skullcap for bitter cold. Hats need not be cycling specific, although I do have a nice peaked cap with ear flaps that is.
I have both wool and fleece neck warmers. These are one of the best and yet most overlooked pieces of winter cycling gear. Jackets may not snug up around the neck and cold air tunnels in. A neck warmer may also serve double duty as a face mask.
A helmet cover designed to block the wind coming through those (wonderful in the summer) air vents is also very important. I have a bright yellow one made by Carradice, which in addition to blocking the wind is also highly visible. I also have a less garish (black with reflective piping) model from Louis Garneau.
In extreme conditions, I have been known to use ski goggles. These are really reserved for temps below 10F. Anything above that and they are just too warm for me. They eliminate issues with glasses fogging up when stopped at traffic lights, and keep the eyeballs from freezing!
This is how I dress for winter. Next up, I will talk about the bikes I use in the winter.
It's a fixed gear with a studded tire!