Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dressing for Winter Rides

On this very cold snowy day, I was reminded that it's been a while since I updated the article on dressing for cycling in the winter. So with some time on my hands during the blizzard of '15...

It is often said there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.

Both Fear Rothar and I are year-round cyclists, and have been for more than 30 years. In that time, we have learned and changed a few things, but the fundamentals haven't changed - dress in layers, starting with a good wicking baselayer, add additional layers as temperature dictates and top off with a wind/waterproof layer, as conditions merit. Complete the ensemble with good gloves, warm winter shoes and a proper hat.

In this article, I will talk in both general and specific terms. For instance I discuss what to look for in shoes and then I will include details for shoes that work well for me. In some cases I'll provide links to sources for harder to find items. In many cases, I'll suggest google or your local outdoor or bike shop.

Let me emphasize that one does not have to spend a fortune on equipment and clothes for winter riding. However I believe that good gear is worth its weight in gold - whether it is 0F and snowy or 35F and rainy. My winter arsenal includes a few pricey items, most notably, my winter shoes. If you are looking for bang for the buck for winter cycling comfort, winter boots are the place to start.


While I seek maximum ventilation in summer shoes, winter shoes should be well insulated. With that in mind, I also recommend getting a size larger in winter shoes so one can add insulation in the form of heavier socks and insulated or even heated insoles. 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 as a result the feet will feel even colder.

The first winter boots I bought (over 20 years ago) were from Sidi. While warmer than anything I had used before, the original model had no real insulation and a few years later I bought some nicely insulated Lake Winter Cycling Boots. The Sidi boots became my early spring shoes for when it was still chilly, but not as brutal as deep winter.  A couple of years ago, I started to notice issues with the velcro of the Sidis, but my friendly local cobbler replaced the worn velcro to give them new life. After many years of use, and many open/close cycles, I also broke a steel lace on the BOA closure on my Lakes, but BOA quickly sent me a couple of sets of replacements. Otherwise both sets of shoes show little signs of ever wearing out.

The company 45NRTH appeared on my radar a couple of years ago. Headquartered in Minnesota, where winters are proper, these folks are using real world experience to make some amazing winter gear. If my Lake boots ever go missing, I will replace them with a 45NRTH Wölvhammer. Notice I said go missing, since try as I might, the Lakes are still going strong.

After the bike, of course, cycling shoes can be one of the most expensive specialty items you'll need for cycling. Winter boots are no exception and you may suffer sticker shock looking at the price. But by far, winter cycling boots are the best investment I have made in my quest to stay warm and comfortable when cycling through the winter!

Base Layers

But now let me get back to basics... or more to the point, base layers.

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 the ride is. I can dress lighter for a spirited hammer session than for a slower casual fun ride. And all day rides are different from a one hour sprint.

For an all day ride, I use layers and zippers to regulate temperature throughout the ride. If it warms up, I can remove layers. When it starts to cool down as the sun plunges toward the horizon, 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 stay 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. Avoid cotton - once you sweat in it, it stays wet. 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.

The down side of most synthetics is their tendency to quickly get smelly and retain odor, even after washing. Fortunately merino wool has come to the rescue. Merino wool fibers are much finer and therefore less itchy than your grandpa's wool. I wear merino wool right next to my skin with no problems. And I can wear the same top for a week or more 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 - on and off the bike.

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.

Now 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 I'll leave this as an exercise to the reader and google search.

For those with wool sensitivities, polar fleece is a synthetic with similar insulating properties to wool. For those adverse to synthetics, silk also has nice insulating properties and works well as a base layer.

As mentioned previously, wool, unlike synthetics, doesn't retain odor, and can be used many times between washings without getting stinky. I usually just hang my wool sweaters and jerseys to air out and only wash them when they are actually soiled, or when they do start to smell.

When you finally do need to wash it, however, wool does take a little extra care versus synthetics.


Detergents strip wool fibers and cause wool garments to full - puff up and get fuzzy. There are many well known detergents that claim to be good for wool. Don't fall for it. They may be less harsh than standard detergents, but are still not the best for keeping your wools looking good.

We recently started using Kookaburra Wool Wash. It really is designed to protect wool fibers. It also doesn't need to be rinsed out, a process that can also damage wool due to differences in wash and rinse temperatures. At home, we have a front loading washing machine that has a much more gentle spin than a standard top loader. According to Kookaburra's recommendations, we just run the rinse cycle putting the wool wash in the fabric softener dispenser. When touring and hand-washing, the lack of rinsing saves lots of time.

Dryers are the enemy of wool. Hang woolies in a rack or clothesline away from any heat source.

So enough about laundry. 

Back to getting dressed. 

I start the layers with shorts and a light woolie top. Since I'm most likely adding tights or pants, I have a special drawer where I keep my winter shorts. These are the ones that are too thin in the back to be worn without embarrassment, but are fine under another layer. I have marked the tags with a big red X!

More layers - legs

Arm, knee and leg warmers are great for those rides that start out cool, but warm up enough to expose some flesh. Warmers are easy to push down or pull off on the move. They tend to be pretty compact so can be stored in a pocket or seat bag when not in use. I have both lycra and wool versions of various warmers for different temperature ranges.

Tights, being both more complicated to remove on the move and taking up a bit more space when stored, tend to work better for a ride with a fairly constant temperature, or where the temperature doesn't rise enough to justify removal.

I prefer tights without a chamois, so I can wear them multiple times between washings.

I have a love/hate relationship with bib tights.  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. Also when keeping nature breaks in mind, there is also the challenge for cycling jerseys and accessing pockets. My solution is use a base-layer top under the bibs, and a jersey (or jacket) with pockets and most importantly, a full zip, on top.

I have to confess that the Rapha tights pictured above are no longer on my favored list. Fear Rothar and I had numerous issues with wear under the sit bones. They had two layers of fabric laminated together, presumably for reinforcement in this area. Sadly, instead of making them more resistant to wear, this design seemed to have the opposite effect. Since the two pieces of fabric could not move independently, they just started to tear apart. We each destroyed three pairs of tights in the same way. I'm currently using some bib tights from Bouré, while John has tried some from Mavic. So far OK, but we will report on their durability in a few years.

A friend recently starting raving about some ladies bibs from Gore that have a drop flap, making my peeing challenge less of an issue. I will have to check these out soon.

For rainy rides I have a pair of Paclite pants from Gore. These are really handy for commuting into work, when it might be handy to avoid arriving soaked. 

For colder conditions, I have a few well loved and well used windproof softshell pants from Ibex and another pair made by Sporthill. A search for Nordic Ski pants will find a variety of similar options.

For deep winter conditions, either bitter cold, or very wet, I have a pair of insulated waterproof pants from Showers Pass. It seems that people who live and ride in the Pacific Northwest know a bit about dressing for cold and wet.

Finally one can combine multiple layers, wearing the softshell or rainpants or tights over warmers.

More layers - upper body

As a petite woman with skinny arms, I have a tough time finding arm warmers that will stay up. I have some size small arm warmers from Ibex that I can only use as a second layer, since they simply won't stay up! The only arm warmers I have found that will stay up on my bare arms are made by Rapha.They are so tight, in fact that I have to order a size up from my preferred jersey size.

A wind-vest is invaluable for varying conditions. It's great when a jacket is too much, and can be folded quite small for stuffing in a pocket. There are loads of different models out there, some lighter or heavier than others, with and without pockets and different levels of visibility. My current favorite vest is high-viz with pockets. While I'm of the opinion that drivers only see what they are looking for, regardless of hi-viz colors, I tend to go for the brighter colors in the winter, especially since it's so easy to get caught out in the shorter daylight.

For the past several years, my most used and most versatile winter cycling garment has to be my Rapha Ladies winter softshell. When I look back at photos from recent winters, I seemed to have this jacket on most of the time! It has two large rear pockets, plus a third smaller one in the middle. The middle pocket is handy for storing the lightweight high viz vest, when I'm not wearing it. The waterproof zippered pocket is handy for things that need to stay dry, but not necessarily immediately accessible, like maybe an electronic car key. I often have  my camera or phone in the other pockets for quick access. The softshell fabric provides insulation, protection from the wind and is somewhat water-resistant, while still being soft and comfortable. The large pit vents make it easy to regulate temperature as conditions vary. It has a fold away bum flap that can help with some amount of road spray should one be fender-free (although that never happens to me). The bum-flap also has a big reflective logo, useful when caught out at dusk or later. I have stayed comfortable in conditions ranging from 20F up to 50F, mainly by varying the weight of my chosen base-layer. I used a much heavier base-layer for the coldest of days, along with an extra layer on the legs, neck warmer, heavy gloves, and winter boots. Using the various zippers to create some ventilation, makes the jacket versatile for less extreme conditions. It is by far the most expensive piece of clothing I own, but its range and adaptability make it worth the price. Had I not won it at the Fixies take over 11-11-11 party at Ride Studio Cafe a few years ago, I would have eventually bought it - although maybe waiting for the sale price!

Recently after a few particularly cold and wet rides, I broke down and bought the hardshell version of this jacket (on sale of course). The hardshell is waterproof, where the softshell will soak through in proper rain. Designed for more extreme weather, it lacks pit zips. It has the same exterior pockets as the softshell, and the newer model includes drain holes in those pockets, so they don't fill with rain! This jacket is available in bright colors, like yellow and orange, and has loads of reflective piping, so it is well suited for lower visibility conditions.

I also have lighter rain jackets for less extreme conditions. The features I look for in a good rain jacket are underarm pit zips, longer back or drop down flap to cover the bum, Velcro closure on the sleeves to make it easy to get on and off over gloves, high visibility color and reflective piping or material. External pockets are also quite handy. When we lived in New Zealand, John bought a jacket made by Mountain Designs in Australia that had all these features. It doesn't pack up terribly small, so it's not ideal for a just-in-case jacket. But it's great for a tour in Ireland or a wet commute. Sadly I didn't buy one at the time, and of course, it's no longer made! MEC in Canada have something close.

One can spend an exorbitant amount on a good rain jacket but on that day that it saves your ride, you will be happy you did!

No matter what the forecast, I always carry a rain jacket in the winter. The one thing you can definitively say about New England weather is that it can be unpredictable. It isn't so much that it is constantly changeable or that the forecast is never right. It's just that sometimes it is wrong and frankly, I don't ever want to be caught in a 35 degree rainstorm without protection! The coldest cold you'll ever experience is rainy 35 F without rain gear, far more miserable than dry -5 F.

Hands, Feet and Head

Sometimes people miss the obvious when facing issues with cold extremities -

  • Protect the brain.

The brain, being your central control unit, protects itself first. Extremities are the lowest priorities. So the most important item of clothing for keeping the hands and feet warm is actually what is on your head!

  • and Insulate the pipes.

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.

I am still amazed when I hear someone who is wearing shorts or knee warmers and overshoes, complain about their cold feet. The rider will often say, "But my legs aren't cold, it's just my feet." Remember 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 ever made and still have cold hands if your arms aren't adequately covered.

Hats and headbands 

I really can't emphasize enough how important it is to keep the head warm, if you want the rest of the body to stay comfortable. The body protects what it considers vital first, so if your brain 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 mild temperatures, a wool hat for cold, and a wind-stopper 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. Even the best jackets won't completely snug up around the neck, allowing cold air to funnel in. A long neck warmer can 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 helpful.

In extreme conditions, I have even been known to use ski goggles. These are really reserved for temps below 5F. 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!


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.

I have more than half a dozen pairs of gloves for winter, each for a specific range of temperatures. John claims I can feel the difference in 1degree Fahrenheit. I'm really not that sensitive, but I do have different gloves for <20F, 20-35F, 35-50F and 50F+

Although sometimes I'll misjudge, since it's not just temperature that affects how my hands feel. So I've learned to carry a second pair of warmer-than-I-think-I-might-need gloves with me just in case.

The gloves pictured above from Chiba are labeled waterproof. Waterproof is a real challenge for a glove - and is somewhat dependent on the design of the jacket. If the sleeve is snug at the wrist and the glove fits outside the sleeve, water will get inside the glove due to capillary action. Despite my preference for loose sleeves with a Velcro closure, so it can overlap on the outside of the glove, most jackets are not made this way. 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. I've found these gloves at a shop in the US a few years back, but they aren't very common here or easy to find. I did find this online retailer, with a massive selection of Chiba products, including electrically heated gloves!

I have added Lightweights reflective dots to many of my gloves for added visibility at night. I used the fabric specific version and ironed them on. The dots have survived many washings. 

As it gets below freezing, it is less likely that one has to worry about hands getting wet from rain! My next warmer gloves are a pair of well insulated 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 if I need to pull the gloves off on the move to take selfies and other photos!

Mittens are much better than gloves for keeping hands warm. With gloves, there is a greater surface area exposed to the cold, and every finger is isolated. The disadvantage of mittens is some amount of lost dexterity. Since I mostly ride fixed gear in the winter and use bar end shifters when I do ride a shifty bike, it's less of an issue for me. I have a few pairs of mittens for different temperature ranges.

My ultimate mittens are a pair I got with my Lake boots years ago. Naturally, they are no longer available!  They have a nice warm fleecy lining, and a heavy canvas outer. They are roomy enough to use with a moderately thick glove liner. And they have a little zippered pocket for one of those disposable hand warmers. They have some reflective material on the sides, which faces back when my hands are on the hoods. These are good for temps below 25F. I've used these many times in single digit temperatures.

And finally, I will also mention handlebar mitts like Pogies (Revelate and 45 NRTH), Moose Mitts and Bar-Mitts. These are oversize mitts that attach to the handlebars at the brake levers. Most are designed for flat bars, but there are some are made for drop bars. The idea is you wear a lighter glove or glove liner and place your gloved hand inside this mitt attached to the handlebar, which provides ample insulation while leaving you with fine finger control for brakes and shifting.

So onto the feet...

I use wool socks year round.  I have a variety of long and short (thick and thin) socks from Swiftwick, Defeet, Smartwool and Bridgedale. There is nothing cycling specific about socks for me, but I admit to recently getting a pair of the deep winter socks from Rapha, when I was looking for a knee high sock to use with knee warmers under my tights to make a full additional layer on my legs. They have added windproof material to the toe and front of the sock. The price was comparable to various ski socks. 

The biggest issue with socks is having room for them in your shoes. I talked about shoes at the start of the article - if you can remember that long ago! Winter shoes should be a 1/2 or more size larger to allow for heavier socks, as well as room for those disposable toe warmers, or electric insoles. Winter shoes should be insulated, not ventilated, and heavier models will likely keep your feet warmer that super-light ones. 

I use walkable shoes year round, but definitely recommend walkable shoes for winter riding. There is nothing worse than putting your foot down on an icy surface and falling down because the cleat slid on ice!


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 even more helpful for keeping feet dry. 

I mentioned earlier that I rarely need to replace a good jacket or shoes. I can't same the same for overshoes. I have to replace them 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 more than winter rides. I have some flimsy lightweight packable shoe covers 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 for me is when I find something I like, buy a spare or two, since they may no longer be available when I 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. I prefer overshoes made with Goretex or Windstopper.

But even heavy winter boots and overshoes aren't always enough. Sometime it gets downright cold! There are various types of hand and toe warmers available. For the price of a cappuccino, one can get disposable toe or hand warmers. They last about 5 hours and are terrific. I keep a couple of spare packs of toe warmers in my saddlebag throughout the winter for emergencies. I have given them away often.

Years ago I had electric toe warmers from Hotronics. I used them lots and eventually wore out the rechargeable batteries. This year Fear Rothar broke down and got a new set. He doesn't leave home without them these days! 

So congrats for making it to the end. Now let's be warm out there!

Next up ... Winter Bikes...

No comments:

Post a Comment