Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dressing for Winter Cycling - Base Layers

For many years now, the most popular article on our website is the one about dressing for winter riding. The next few blog posts draw from that article with some updates. The weather here is starting to turn distinctly colder, so the timing seems right to talk about dressing for winter rides.

Both Fear Rothar and I are year-round cyclists, and have been for many years. We commute throughout the year, but also enjoy quite a few recreational rides during the winter as well.

Someone once said there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. This is mostly true. Dressing properly for cold weather certainly has a great deal to do with my enjoyment of riding in the winter, but I have to admit that I like the looks on my co-workers' faces when I ride my bike into work at 5F.  I'll also admit to enjoying and taking full advantage of the incredibly mild winter we had last year. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind a little snow this year, so I can use my 2 year old, but used-only-once cross country skis! And maybe even the studded bike tires!

I've learned and changed a few things over the years, but the fundamentals haven't changed - layers of clothing, with a good wicking baselayer, topped off with a wind/waterproof jacket, good gloves, good shoes and a proper hat. In this series of posts, I will talk in both general and specific terms. For instance I may mention using a wool t-shirt as a baselayer and then I may include a few sources for ones I have and like.

In the past I've received comments that I am suggesting that one has to spend a fortune on equipment and clothes for winter riding. This is definitely not the case. However I am certainly of the opinion that good gear is worth its weight in gold on a cold rainy ride. I do have a few pricey items, like my Lake winter cycling boots and my Goretex rain jacket, but in their defense, I've gotten and will continue to get many more years of use from them. Besides the cost is more than offset by savings on gasoline and car maintenance.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is overdressing. Exercise generates heat (and sweat). There is nothing more bone-chilling than wind blowing through damp clothing! So avoiding overheating and sweating is as important as keeping the cold at bay. It's a Goldilocks dilemma, but it is not impossible to get it right. If I am slightly cool when I step outside for my ride, I'll likely be comfortable when riding. I'll add the caveat that it also depends on how hard I will be riding. I can dress lighter for a hard or spirited ride than I would for a slower casual one. And all day rides are different from a one hour sprint.

For an all day ride, I use layers and use zippers to regulate temperature throughout the ride. As it warms up, I can remove layers. When it starts to cool down as the sun goes down, I put them back on. Zippers provide one of the best means of temperature regulation. Tops with long front zippers and jackets with pit zips allow a rider to be comfortable through a varied range of temperatures, simply by opening or closing the zippers.

Base layers that wick moisture away from the body will keep one dryer and therefore warmer. Many years ago wool was a staple of any cyclist's wardrobe. Wool wicks well and stays resilient when it gets wet. It's warm in cool weather, and is surprisingly comfortable in warmer conditions. It's also one of the best fabrics to wear in rainy conditions, since it will keep one warm even when wet. Unfortunately, in the old days, most wool cycling apparel was quite itchy and many cyclists, myself included, moved to synthetics like polypropylene and fleece.

In the past, I used various synthetics with good luck, with one important exception: The down side of most synthetics is their tendency to retain odor, even after washing. Fortunately merino wool has come to my rescue. Merino wool fibers are much finer and therefore less itchy than the wool I had as a youngster. I wear merino wool right next to my skin with no problems. And I can practically wear the same top for a week on a bike tour without washing it and without it smelling like a toxic waste dump. Wool simply does not retain odor like synthetics. Wool is now the staple of my wardrobe.

Base layers need not be cycling specific. It's amazing how much rear pockets (or trendy logos) add to the price of a garment!  One of my favorite sources for merino wool clothing (both sport and casual) is Ibex. I order a lot directly from them and make an annual pilgrimage to the Tent Sale held near Woodstock, Vermont over Columbus Day weekend. Smartwool make some nice zipped wool t-necks, which work quite well as a base layer. They also make nice wool socks. New Zealand, home of 44 million sheep and 4 million people, is also home to several makers of high quality merino wool clothing, including Icebreaker. This list could go on.

And thanks to the comfort and versatility of merino wool, it has become very popular choice for cycling tops, i.e. tops with pockets in the back!  There are so many folks making wool jerseys and other wool cycling apparel that these days that it is pretty easy to find with a simple google search. 

As I mentioned, wool, unlike synthetics, doesn't retain odor, and can be used many times between washings without getting stinky. But it does take a little extra care versus synthetics when washing. For years I used Woolite, but then was surprised to see recommendations against using it for wool clothes. Woolite is a detergent, a gentle detergent, but nonetheless, a detergent. Detergents strip wool fibers and cause wool garments to full - puff up and get fuzzy. We now use Ivory Snow Liquid (a soap versus a detergent) for all our woolies. We also have a front loading washing machine with a delicate cycle that makes machine washing all that wool clothing a bit easier than hand-washing . We then hang our woolies on racks to dry. Dryers are the enemy of wool. (I also wash and dry my good bike shorts the exact same way).

Speaking of shorts, and not spending a fortune on clothing. When my shorts get a bit thin at the back, but the chamois is still good, I mark the tag with a big red X - which indicates these shorts should only be worn under tights!

I talked about my love/hate relationship with bib tights before. It's tricky, balancing the added warmth and comfort of the bib tights with the hassle of taking stuff off when stopping for a pee break.

Bibs do an excellent job of keeping cold away from the lower back. There is no chance of a gap letting cold air blow up on to the back. For this reason, bibs tend to be my choice when it's colder. But they present an obvious challenge for cycling jerseys and accessing pockets. My solution is to go with a base-layer top under the bibs, and a top with a full zip and pockets on top, avoiding anything without a full zip that would mean pulling it over my head. Fortunately my favorite jacket has pockets. I'll discuss it more in the post on outerwear. I still have to take off the outer layer when nature calls, but it's easier and faster, which is important when it's cold! For more moderate temperatures, I use legwarmers, eliminating the need to undress so much when making those nature breaks. But as I say it's a real Goldilocks dilemma, convenience versus extra warmth!

Despite the amazing amount of merino wool clothing in NZ (heaps of long and short and no sleeve tops, tights, undies, caps), finding cycle-specific items like arm or knee warmers when we lived there was an exercise in futility. I actually ordered a pair of NZ made knee warmers from Salsa, a US company, to be shipped back to NZ! I did find that I could easily get things made if I provided samples. I literally walked down to our local Saturday market and went to one of the booths that had wool tops. I took an old pair of leg warmers and they made me two new pair based on the old ones! One of the great things about NZ was how easy it is to get things made to order. Fortunately I can get my current favorite wool warmers (arm, leg and knee) from Ibex.

Those love/hate tights are the ladies model from Rapha. They are very form-fitting (they are called tights for a reason). The ladies model has full coverage in the front, with a long zipper to make it easier to get them on and off, and surprisingly a very high-viz white stripe on the back of the left leg, which given that Rapha are a UK company, is quite visible to cars coming up behind me in America, driving on the right side of the road. They do not have a chamois, so they are worn over that thinning in the back pair of shorts that must never be worn without a second layer, to avoid ridicule. This means I can wear the tights several times between washing, as opposed to tights with a chamois.

Locally, Ride Studio Cafe carries Rapha, which helps us tremendously with shipping and makes being able to look at, touch and try things on easier.

So I'm now dressed in my base layer (long sleeve wool t-shirt, shorts and bib tights), but I'm more than a little chilly when I step outside. I'll need to add a jacket, socks, shoes, gloves and hat, which I'll talk about in detail in upcoming posts...

Outer Layers
Hands, Feet and Head


  1. You're wearing glasses in that photo... Do you wear them for riding? If so, how do you keep them from steaming up?

    I can't wear contacts anymore - now I can only see well enough for safety if I wear glasses.

  2. I use Oakley Progressives/Transitions on the bike. I am at the stage I cannot read at all without the glasses, but my distance vision is still reasonable. So if I want to read my GPS or a map or see how to fix something on the bike, I better have my glasses on. The transitions are great because I can stop in at the grocery store on the way home from a ride, and see what I am buying! But to answer the question, I tend not to have a problem with fogging unless I have on something like a full face mask. Spit shine for the glasses does a pretty good job of preventing fogging! I learned this trick from swimmers!

    For bitter cold where I do need more face coverage, I have used ski goggles - but it's got to be close to 0F for that. I will talk more about this and other extreme measures in a later post.

  3. You guys are just so daring and adventurous. I always love reading about your days, it makes me like part of the team too.

  4. Kath,

    Glad you enjoy the blog. If we make it past doomsday this Friday, we've got a week of daring adventures coming up with the Rapha Festive 500 for 2012!