Staying Warm

cold_day

Winter is a great time for riding around here. We have a choice between cold and sunny or  not-so-cold and rainy. If we can, we pick the sunshine, but that often means starting our rides when it is just below freezing.

Riding into a glorious winter morning is wonderful, if you are warm. But if your feet and hands are blocks of ice, it’s hard to admire even the most gorgeous sunrise. Here are a few pointers toward staying warm:

  1. Wear insulating, breathable clothing. Getting hot and sweaty is a recipe for getting cold and clammy on the next downhill. That is why I avoid shells and instead layer up with wool. Wool is a favorite around here, because it adjusts to a variety of temperatures. If you don’t have a wool jersey, an old wool sweater will do just fine. If it’s very cold, a shell can be useful to block the wind, but remember to take it off before you get sweaty inside.
  2. Think of your core as the origin of your body’s warmth. If your core becomes cold, you will notice it first in your feet and hands. Putting on warmer gloves and shoe covers won’t help, because there isn’t enough heat coming from your core. Instead, cover up your torso, arms and legs. Think of your extremities as radiators for the excess heat your body generates when you ride.
  3. If you get cold, pedal harder. It’s that simple: the more calories you burn, the warmer you get.
  4. Avoid long downhills: too much air rushing by to cool you, not enough energy expended to keep you warm.
  5. Hot drinks. If you do get cold, you can jump-start the warming of your core by ingesting warm drinks. In the 1950s, randonneurs carried thermos on their bikes during PBP, filled with soup. On very cold days, I sometimes carry a small thermos with tea in my handlebar bag. Or we stop at a café.
  6. Eat. You need calories to burn. If you bonk, you’ll get cold. The time to lose weight (if that is your goal) is after the ride, when your metabolism is going strong, but you are no longer pedaling.
  7. On rainy days, avoid getting the spray from your tires onto your feet. Flowing water is one of the most efficient ways of cooling things. That is why most car engines are water-cooled, and so are power plants. You don’t need that for your feet. Consider installing a cut-down rear fender at the front if your fender ends more than 15 cm (6″) above the ground.

Those are the things that have helped me enjoy riding in the winter, when getting out is crucial not just for my training, but for my sanity. What are your cold-weather riding tips?

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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71 Responses to Staying Warm

  1. Ned Williams says:

    Thank you for the well timed article. I do have a tendency to overdress or underdress. I believe the wind is a larger factor over temperature, or on long rides temperature changes from dawn to midday & dusk into night. I’ll keep in mind the idea of consuming more warm/hot drinks & I will work on your thoughts about hands & feet. I already wear wool, but may need to change how I layer. As I’ve gotten older I’ve had more difficulty keeping my hands & feet warm. I know the problem with my feet is not circulatory, its actually a neurological “disease” that is causing the nerves to be more sensitive to temperature and pressure. It might be occurring in my hands, too, as the neurological issue affects the extremities first.

  2. I like to dress a little bit on the cold side, this way I sweat less and stay drier. By staying drier, I stay warmer.

  3. MattS says:

    In Ottawa, Canada, we get our fair share of cold. In the fall when we race cyclocross its pretty easy to stay warm for an hour or so. Over the winter its well below freezing most of the time, so riding on roads isn’t generally on the table. Some of us ride fatbikes in the woods, which are much easier to dress for, as speeds are low, and generally dry. Come spring we’re back on the roads and dressing for rain just a few degrees above zero. I follow Jan’s protocol when its dry, but always pack a shell in case I have a mechanical that requires walking, or if it rains. I’d rather be swampy and warm than wet and cold. Sometimes some of us use the garbage bag maneuver, punching out holes for the head and arms, and wearing under jerseys. This can be a lifesaver when the rain hits and temp drops, retaining core heat. So that’s a tip: carry a garbage bag for such occasions. Another tip is to use merino neck tubes/buffs to keep the neck warm. I have two weights for different temps. Lastly, when its going to be foul for hours and you know it, use a warming embrocation on your legs, back, chest, and, when severe, face. At the very least, this helps you get out the door when its already nasty out.

    • I have used the plastic bag solution for my feet when I could not find my booties the night before a long ride where I knew I’d encounter snow. (Usually, I don’t bother with booties, as I keep my legs warm with layers of wool.) The bags take up no space and work amazingly well.http://janheine.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

      • Jason Marshall says:

        Here in Chicago there are a few times a year when your typical clothing set-up will fail. A good thing to carry in addition to the plastic bags is a pair of latex gloves. No space or weight penalty and they can really increase the R factor. As a bonus they are great to have on-board to keep your hands clean when you run into mechanical issues.

    • Dick Elmendorf says:

      I’m getting old and not as tough as I used to be, but I second Matts suggestion for embrocation. In addition to putting it on my legs, I put it on my chest, shoulders, and lower back. It gives a nice, warm glow.

  4. Jonathan says:

    An old adage I look to when dressing for a winter ride is be a little chilly when starting a mtn bike ride and a little warm for a road ride. You heat up quickly on the moto (or cross) and the speeds are lower so the effects of conductive cooling is lessened. Road riding is faster with greater air movement so one should start the ride feeling well dressed. Always easier to remove a layer and stuff it in the front bag or strap it to the rack then to shiver and maybe never get warm.

    Also, don’t forget the timeless trick of stuffing a few sheets of newspaper down the front of the jersey of long downhills. Those papers have served cyclists well for generations!

  5. Reciclone says:

    Thanks Jan! Since I follow you I’ve developped an increasing enthusiasme for “randonneruring”
    all that I’ve started ciclotouring back in the eighties.
    I’m just finishing my “rando” project and to read your posts is most exciting and encouraging…
    By the way the bicycle I’m making is a humble hommage to “The golden age of handbuilt bicycles” Wich hangs on my “atelier’s” wall.
    I just can’t wait for a long cold winter ride…;o)

  6. welshcyclist says:

    How do you cope with icy roads?

    • Ideally, I avoid ice.

      If there is a little ice, I don’t worry much. On the straights, if I see a patch of ice ahead, I speed up, then coast across it. (Inertia is your friend.) If I have doubts about corners, I slow down a lot.

      If there is ice all over, like last Friday when the photo was taken, we change our route from hilly winding roads to the trail, which is flat and has no cars that may slide into you.

      • welshcyclist says:

        I am not worried about cars sliding into me, just staying upright. I travel alot in the dark, this time of year, so spotting icy stretches is extremely difficult. Anyway, I’ve even had bad falls in daylight, too painful to repeat. So you don’t use ice tyres with spikes?

      • Ice is limited to a few days a year around here, so studded tires aren’t worth the hassle. I know that riders in Finland use them throughout the winter…

    • Allen says:

      If you are dealing with significant, unavoidable ice for a large part of the winter, you just can’t beat studded tires. I have a single speed set up with a pair of Nokians. Very, very stable, even over perfect ice, even in ruts. Worth every penny (and yes, they are expensive).

  7. Peter says:

    Am a regular cold weather rural Canadian rider. For a -15C 20K round trip on dirt roads to my local general store for 40 lbs of groceries –
    Top – economy base layer from Mark’s WorkWarehouse, Ibex short-sleeved jersey, old Sugoi Thermal wool jacket, well worn ski jacket, balaclava and wool winter cycling cap
    Bottom – Sugoi shorts, Sugoi regular tights, Pearl Izumi thermal commuter pants
    Mitts – Garneau lobster with thin work fabric work gloves
    Shoes – Gaerne insulated
    Bike – generic frame, lotsa low gears in a 3X9, studded 35 section tires

    This set-up works well at -15, providing wind is minimal, but cold hands eventually become a problem. The going is slow but pleasant, but I always feel I am having more fun than the snowmobilers who whizz by. The general store usually has free coffee and the bike is a good conversation piece on wintry days.

    • Allen says:

      When it gets that cold in Denver (not too often, but this week it has been around -20C for my morning commute), I just say ‘screw it’ and go with snowboarding mittens. A few years ago I sprung for some expensive ones (Swany). Bombproof–I’ve never gotten numb fingers while wearing them.
      And yes, if you accept the conditions for what they are, riding in extreme cold is STILL more fun than burning gas.

  8. Allan Folz says:

    I’ll second the front mud flap. I’ve known about them for years, but never made the effort to install one. I even had a brand new one bouncing around in my spare parts box for the last 18 months or so. I was never overly bothered by the spray on my feet, so it didn’t seem a high priority.

    I finally put it on my bike over the Christmas break and, wow, what a difference it makes. The bottom bracket and chain are unbelievable clean, I had been skeptical it would make that much difference, and my shoes and ankles get a lot less wet and grimy.

    Other than that, in my experience you don’t necessarily have to start warm, but you do have to have enough clothes to conserve enough core heat to get warm. If you don’t have enough clothes on to warm up after you start riding, it’s going to be a long day. When you’re losing core heat as fast as you make it, there’s never going to be an excess to get out to your extremities. If you have some way to create an excess, once your core and extremities are warmed up, you can shed layers down to an amount that may have been not enough for the start of the ride and be happy and warm the whole day.

  9. Conrad says:

    I really like a wind vest with mesh back over a long sleeve wool jersey and wool tights. This combo has a huge comfortable temperature range for me. When the temperature gets to the low thirties, I find a thin wool hat under the helmet and substantial gloves are really helpful. Also, tights with a windproof front panel to keep your crotch from freezing on the coldest days.

    • Jon says:

      I employ a merino wool hanky (cut from old scarf) to help keep the crotch warm on cold, windy days. It’s comfortable, and allows me to wear my wool cycling shorts and knickers year round.

    • MikeC says:

      I agree with the practicality of a wind vest combined with one or two long sleeve wool jerseys. I can go from 25F to 45F with two jersey under the vest and 45-60F with one jersey underneath. I also like the use of plastic bags under wool socks. I usually add a second plastic layer over the socks as a wind break if it’s below 25F.

  10. Chris L says:

    You forgot to mention the importance of wearing a hat. Amazes me how many riders I see bundled up but with nothing on their head. You lose more heat through your head than any other part of the body. I went through both the US Army and US Marine Corps winter survival schools as well as the Canadian Army program so I’ve had my fair share of cold weather training. All three schools emphasize the need to keep your head warm. It can be tough with a helmet but there are plenty of thin, windproof hats that will fit under a helmet.

    For riding the best – and most accurate – advice I ever received was “if you’re warm when you first start you’re over dressed, if you’re cold after 15 mins you’re under dressed”.

    • You are right – a hat is useful when it’s truly cold. However, it’s the first piece of clothing to take off if you overheat, because your head is the best place to radiate excess heat. If you take clothing off your torso instead, your hands and feet will get cold.

      • Ned Williams says:

        Jan, your reply reminds me of a common misconception regarding heat loss. While many people believe that a body loses more heat from the head than any other body area, the actual truth is that any exposed area of the body looses heat at the same rate per square unit of surface area. The loss is the same whether it is your face, head, hands, etc. Taking off your hat is perhaps the easiest piece of clothing to remove and for the majority of riders who still have hair, that hair provides a small amount of insulation.

      • Sorry I was not clear. I meant to say that taking a cap off is the easiest way of regulating your temperature without affecting other areas of your body. A shell may be easy to remove, but it may cause your hands to get cold…

      • Spiny Norman says:

        @Ned, that’s not quite right. The amount of vascularization is important because areas of skin with less circulation cool more in cold weather. Consequently, the temperature gradient from those areas to the external environment is smaller, and heat loss is slower. The head and face are heavily vascularized (which is why cuts to the forehead tend to bleed so freely). In addition, as you cool (become hypothermic) your extremities vasoconstrict to keep heat in the core and to reduce the rate of overall heat loss; your head doesn’t do that to nearly the same extent.

    • MattS says:

      Wow, I take a hat as such a ‘given’ that I didn’t even note that. Riding without one is folly. I like the Icebreaker helmet liner for mild cold, and heavier winter cycling hats for harsher days. To commute and fatbike, I use a snowboard helmet with a visor (with goggles when colder than -8 celcius), which is insulated, including ear flaps. Its great, and keeps me warm even around -30 celcius (Arctic cold for those who work with Fahrenheit), provided I wear a mid weight hat inside. For commuting – which I’m sure some of you do in similar conditions – goggles keep the sensitive skin around the eyes warm, which seems to make a big difference in terms of overall comfort. My old Oakleys fit a piece that drops over the nose and upper cheeks, which also helps a lot. I’m not sure why snow goggles don’t always feature that coverage.

    • Paul Ahart says:

      With regards to keeping one’s head warm, this is what I do: I own two identical helmets, one medium, one large. You can guess which one gets worn in winter. IBEX and SMARTWOOL both make merino wool “skullcaps” which cover the head and come over the ears. For even more warmth, I’ll wear an earband over the skullcap. Wearing the slightly overlarge helmet allows the use of whatever weight hat the weather demands, without feeling one’s head is getting squeezed.

  11. Jeremy says:

    It’s interesting that your prioritize heating the core over the extremities, as I’ve found that the opposite is true for me. Cold affects me most at my extremities, since the are the most exposed to wind (especially the hands), and since they are involved in pedaling, steering, and braking the bicycle, being uncomfortably cold in the extremities has the greatest affect on my ability to ride. My hands and feet also sweat less than my core so there’s little risk of them overheating. Thus, my cold weather kit always includes windproof gloves and either thick socks and/or booties. I find that if my extremities are comfortable, it’s easier to allow a little bit of radiation cooling at my core (through breathable layering) and thus to regulate my temperature easier.

    Winter is also a great time to go out on long rides with a fixed gear bicycle, if you have one. The constant pedaling keeps the blood flowing and keeps you warmer, and the speed control allowed by the fixed gear makes it easier to negotiate slippery patches.

  12. Bubba says:

    I had this conversation with a randonneuse from Minnesota. She had been maintaining a long consecutive months brevet streak (multiple R12 medals) in Minnesota weather. She said that dressing for Minnesota winter is easy: Look at the temperature and put on the right amount of clothing. She said dressing for California winter is hard, because the temperature swings between max and min could be 30-40 degrees, and even more when you include wind chill.

  13. Heather says:

    I lived in Saskatchewan for years, and biked through brutal winters, but was not bothered by the cold that much, but living in the pacific northwest turned me into a wimp! Well, my body adapted to the climate and got I older. I so envy teenagers and their superhuman warmth.
    Wool is amazing, glad I got back to it a few years ago. Silk is also great. Any merino will do, need not be over priced bike specific. Cashmere too! If you can handle lambs wool you are amazing! I used to wear endless lambs wool sweaters but can’t handle it anymore. In the country few places have central heating or any heating other than a woodstove, so I am used to wearing 4+ layers of wool! I tend to wear dressy wool coats or an old Hudsons Bay parka which can be a bit bulky, but I can always take layers off. I do have trouble with hands and feet, but usually my hands are fine when biking if I have the right mittens. I love wool lined leather gloves. I have leather mittens lined with polartec and they do not keep my hands warm when it is cold and have to pedal like mad to warm up. When it is raining gortex or other waterproof breathable is the best option, although wool coats wick moisture nicely and prefer it. My ice cold feet are a big problem(have been in agony/tears) so am reluctant to even do longer rides when it is cold. I wear warm winter boots when it is dry, even ugg like sheepskin liked things just because they sort of keep my feet warm. Sometimes merely walking for a bit warms my feet up, as if they need contact with the ground? I have a pile of wool pants to hem and tailor which should be warm. I’ve been reluctant to put the long underwear on after wearing it non stop for 7 years straight when I worked in a freezer.
    It’s been cold, but not so rainy which I love! I prefer cold and sun to slightly warmer grey/endless rain. There was black ice yesterday and was nervous, but the roads were salted. We were going to take the magical secret dirt road home to avoid traffic, but it was actually very icy! And of course, nothing better than stopping in a warm toasty cafe for treats!

  14. Willem says:

    Fenders and a mudflap are de rigeur, and I always take some light nylon booties that do much to keep my feet warmer, particularly but not exclusively in the wet. I use a buff underneath my helmet when needed, and take it when I am not sure I will need it (it weighs next to nothing). I am still looking for better/warmer winter cycling gloves than I currently have. The ones I have seen all have straight bar specific padding rather than drop bar padding. Any suggestions?
    I use Conti Topcontact Winter II tyres. These are not spike tyres, but ordinary looking and riding tyres with car winter tyre technology, i.e. a low temperature rubber compound and a special tread pattern. The grip is spectacular (esp the etrto 559 size). They are more flexible in the cold than summer tyres, and they roll quite well and better than most touring tyres (not Grandbois level, but far better than spiked tyres). I would think they are the ideal winter tyre for the Pacific north west.
    Willem

  15. Elton Pope-Lance says:

    Covering helmet vents makes a huge difference. Sheldon did so with shipping tape as in http://sheldonbrown.com/eagle.html. Several helmet manufacturers now make clear plastic snap-on covers that work well and are easily removable. There are also fabric covers that are quite effective. I find a light wool cycling cap with ear flaps under a helmet with a cover keeps me comfortable into the 20′s on my 1 hour commute. Colder than that, and I’ll add a face cover (i.e, balaclava or scarf) and goggles over my glasses. And, for me here in New England, Schwalbe Winter studded tires are critical. Without them, I go down fast on black ice, break easy, and heal slow.

    • Bubba says:

      AASHTA!

      R.I.P. Sheldon

    • Alex says:

      If rain is on the menu, I swear by those flimsy disposable shower caps they provide you with at some hotels, summer or winter: they fit over almost any helmet w/out a visor, are cheap so if you forget it or rip it it doesn’t matter, are so small and light you can take a handful on a ride, and they really just keep the rain out, without blocking air circulation/adding insulation. and if you’re worried about being laughed at, you can barely see them . . .
      I also just (re) discovered (merino) neck gaiters/Buffs. I bought four different ones, telling myself i’ll keep just the one I prefer, and lo, I still have all four. Saved me on a -7C 8 hour ride. Caveat: the merino Buffs are very (but wonderfully) thin: easy to put a finger through!

  16. GG says:

    The following is what I use for riding through winter rain storms here in Northern California. Temperatures range from 35-55 F; conditions range from cloudy to drizzle to steady rain to heavy downpours. On sunny days regular cold weather gear suffices. Here’s the rainy day setup:

    head: generic poly cap under helmet
    torso: generic long sleeve jersey; vented cycling rain jacket (waterproof)
    legs: regular cycling shorts plus optionally leg sleeves (if temps below about 45 or heavy rain expected)
    socks: blueseventy neoprene swim socks inside MTB shoes
    gloves: Cressi 2.5mm neoprene gloves

    In rain, lately I am riding a single speed mountain bike geared for road/short hills (44×17). It is fitted with a cheap plastic front fender which is mainly only good for keeping front wheel spray off my face. Other than that, everything takes incoming water, either from road spray or from ongoing rain. My theory is not to fight the water; just prevent heat transfer, hence the neoprene and waterproof top (this also deals with spray off the back wheel). This setup has worked for up to 4 hour rides with typically intermittent rain (say 25-50% of the ride) and occasionally heavy downpours. The gloves stay on from start to finish except perhaps in the event of a mechanical problem; pulling cash out of a baggie from a jersey pocket (at coffee shops), opening energy bars, and operating a cell phone are doable with them on.

  17. wilbur says:

    I highly recommend the winter wool cycling cap by Pace.

    I also recommend a wool neck gaiter. I prefer the cap + gaiter combo over a balaclava because its much more adjustable and modular. Plus, if you make a stop for food at a gas station, you can easily pull the gaiter down instead of looking like a robber.

    I can recommend cutting tyvek envelopes from the post office into emergency booties or a chest wind breaker. Also, fold up some tyvek and duct tape it under your insoles to prevent cleats from turning into a heat sink.

    I also have been using Bar Mitts this year. I have mixed feelings about them, but they certainly keep your hands warmer than gloves. All and all, they are as clumsy as lobster claws.

    • Bill Gobie says:

      I have been using Bar Mitts’ Flat Bar model on my recumbent. I think they are fabulous. I can wear short-finger gloves in temperatures down to freezing. Having my fingers unencumbered by bulky gloves helps a lot with eating, adjusting clothes, and other tasks. The Mitts have room to store small items like skullcaps and candy bars, and in really bad weather I can put chemical hand warmers in them. I have wondered whether the road bar versions are as satisfactory. Why do you find yours clumsy?

  18. Patrick Moore says:

    Very interesting topic. Here in ABQ, NM we’ve had a cold streak for the 3d week now with lows down to 2*F (that’s what I personally saw; perhaps lower in some places) and highes well below freezing. And wind. I’m good down to about 15*F, and my experience is also that wool in layers is the best gear: even in wind, layers keep you warm.

    I used to wear a shell but invariably found that, after an hour, I’d peel it off to find myself drenched in sweat, even when wearing wool underneath – and this in temperatures in the low 20s, and with wind. I gave that up except that I agree that a windstopper vest or insert under the front of a jersey is a good way to stay comfortable without excessive layering on days that are windy. (We get lot’s of wind here.)

    I’ve also confirmed that keeping your core warm keeps your extremities warm: BUT with one exception (just verified this again on today’s ~25F, windy ride): if your extremities are encased in shoes or gloves too short or tight, they will suffer, no matter how warm your torso. Buy your gloves at least one size to large – I’ve found that think “cool weather” gloves are warmer with 5 mm or so of gap between end of finger and beginning of glove than thick ones where your fingers are scrunched up against the end of the garment. Likewise for too-tight shoes. [Aside: thick, puffy Wigwam wool socks are at least sporadically available at Costco for $15/3 pair – excellent, as they “smush down” to fit into even summer shoes without losing all their loft.]

    Ditto for plastic bread bags over your wool socks and under your summer shoes – good, for me, down to freezing, at least for rides up to an hour.

    A piece of Tyvek from a mailer is an excellent thing to carry; I also like thin nylon vests that are easy to fold small and tuck into a pocket. Neck gaiters are great, too, tho’ I’ve recently discovered wool dickies: they combine the neck coverage with a bit of chest coverage. I made mine from a sacrificial wool turtleneck.

    I’ve found literally dozens of Italian merino pullovers and other nice wool sweaters at Good Will for $5 each – had so many I’ve given away a good dozen. Today’s ride included an Italian merino zip up pullover over a flannel shirt and under a Rivendell Wooly Warm ragg sweater/jersey. Torso perfectly warm.

    Tea: wonderful stuff. As a 13 year old boy in 1968 my father took me hiking in the Himalayan foot hills, up to 11,000 feet (terminus Ghoropani which in those days was just a couple of thatched, mud huts). We relied on chai: simply cheap black tea boiled strong with a lot of milk and sugar. A day or two out from Pokhara we passed a “babu” trader who, dressed in western street clothes (tight pants and beatle boots!) was hiking a backpack of chingaderas into the hinterland to sell at a profit – the farming villages were isolated except for porters and mules. He was lying in the dirt by the side of the road exhausted. My father had the porters brew him some chai, gave him a Hershey bar, and he was good to go.

    Lastly, ice: I owned my Ken Rogers for less than a year before I sold it, and last winter here was rather mild, but I do remember with great pleasure how I could actually aim at ice patches while maintaining normal speed. A 2-w-d Trykit conversion would work best, but even left-hand, 1-w-d is decent if your tire is knobby or studded.

    • Tim says:

      You are right that extremities will suffer if socks/shoes or gloves are too tight. Need some room to wiggle toes and fingers around a bit. I also agree that thrift shops are a great place to shop for cycling gear: wool and flannel items for winter and seersucker for summer.

      • Spiny Norman says:

        Absolutely. And I don’t like step-in bindings in winter. Sneakers, wool socks, and pedals with shrouded toeclips are the way to go, unless you’re going to to the full neoprene booty madness; but I save that for diving in a drysuit.

      • Spiny Norman says:

        Just to amplify a bit on my previous comment, the problem with step-in bindings is rigid shoes that don’t encourage your foot to flex and thereby limit circulation.

  19. Tim says:

    I wear a merino wool neck gaiter on my head. It covers the ears and receding hairline, but is open on top to allow heat to escape…no helmet. Wool half finger gloves or mittens if it’s very cold. Wool layers and flannel shirt for upper body and long thick cotton walking shorts. Wool socks under Converse Chuck Taylors. This is perfect for me with temps down to upper 30′s…any colder I don’t ride. I’m in Dallas so consecutive freezing days rarely an issue.

  20. Allen says:

    I am slowly upgrading EVERYTHING to wool. Expensive, but I’m going slowly. Just got lightweight wool liners for my “windproof” gloves. These take me down to about 20F. Beyond that, I put on snowboard mittens. Wool balaclava is key. Even if I overheat a bit and start to sweat, the wool won’t allow me to get cold and clammy. Amazing. When it’s below 10F I put on an extra pair of socks, but I always stick with knickers and knee socks, regardless of temp. Even in extreme cold, air circulation = comfort. I see people in ski goggles sometimes, but I’ve never felt the need. Cold air on my face is no biggie as my commute is only about 35-40 min.
    Overall, I’m kinda wimpy, so I prefer to be overdressed. But if I put on a shell on super cold days, I almost always get sweaty underneath. Not good.
    My bike is old and not set up for good fenders, so I strap on crummy plastic ones in the winter. It’s not a problem in Denver as we are pretty dry, even in winter. I use leather shoes that look like hightops and shed spray pretty well. If it’s really raining, I’m gonna get wet, but that’s rare.
    Studded snow tires are truly awesome. Anyone living in a place where ice is a real factor should consider the investment!
    All of the above is what I do for my commute. If the temp is below 35F, I generally don’t try to do a ride for fun.

  21. Paul Glassen says:

    The other day I showed up for my twice-weekly senior’s group ride to find that the ride leader had cancelled; “too cold” (according to the email I didn’t find until I got home). I went for a slightly abbreviated ride by myself anyway, around two and half hours. Our weather in coastal British Columbia is very similar to Jan’s in Seattle. Rarely much below freezing. But it’s also very damp. I don’t know any equivalent to “wind chill factor” that describes the effect of damp air. However, I am convinced that the greater conductivity of moist air chills a body much faster than dry air at the same thermometer reading. Anyway, my only observation on cold weather riding from this solo outing was the positive effect of brief stops along the way. Cycling in itself generates an ‘over the handlebars’ wind of 15 or 20 miles per hour. I found that even a very short stop, just standing still for a few minutes, warmed up the hands and feet remarkably. I know most hardcore, conditioning riders would resent the break in their pace. But it does make the ride more enjoyable.

  22. Alex says:

    Layering merino wool really is magic. I try to avoid the rain/wind shells unless absolutely necessary, as they seem to make me clammier and are not really breathable. Actually, I have never found manufacturer’s claims of “breathable” to be satisfactory regarding synthetics. Wool is the best, by far, in this regard, and 2 layers of merino even do a decent job of windproofing. I have a GoreTex cycling cap, and though it is waterproof, it is so non-breathable that your head gets as wet from sweat as it would from rain — there is a very small sweet spot temp where it works as it should (35-40F and raining). A wool cap or beanie works much better for me. My ears are my most sensitive body part, it seems. Ear flap caps are OK, but ear warmers are more versatile and allow my ears to remain toasty but keep my head from sweating if the temp is over 40ish. Smartwool socks of appropriate thickness are usually all I need for my feet, with plastic bags added when wet or truly frigid.

    • Spiny Norman says:

      This winter I’ve been biking in a general-purpose soft shell that uses the Gore Windstopper stuff, over merino. I love it and have never felt clammy at all.

  23. RickH says:

    I bought a home trainer some years ago for the bad ride days. I forced myself to use it. I tried hard to fool myself into the “it’s doing me good” mind set. It lasted about 3 weeks. I’d rather spend 3 hours out on the road than 3 minutes on a trainer.
    That being said, here in Australia we hardly get the extremes I’m reading above but we do get some horror spikes and unexpected lows. The problem for us is the availability of quality clothing for a small, very small market. When it comes to riding in these “extremes” (for us) it becomes trial and error for what we have and/or can get. It also can be expensive for something that will be used for just a few occasions of the year.
    I do have a couple of fine merino undershirts and love ‘em.
    I haven’t found that having a warm core or riding harder will keep the extremities warm but my really cold weather riding is very limited. I’ll try something different when winter comes around.

    • MattS says:

      Rick, I put up a blog post last night that might interest you, on the subject of riding inside. The bottom line: it doesn’t have to suck.

      I too don’t find a warm core necessarily keeps my extremities warm. Growing up I played hockey outside about 5 time a week, often in pretty nasty cold. My hands and feet froze regularly. As an adult, that history seems to inhibit my circulation (I’d love to hear from someone about what happens physiologically here). Spending lots of time on backcountry xc skis in recent years (before the fat bike), I found I could dress quite minimally yet keep my hands and feet warm as long as they were swinging. If the first portion of a ski was a slow plod, my hands would get cold. So I’d take off my poles and do an exaggerated poling motion, really whipping the hands at the bottom – not wind mills. I’d feel the blood pressurizing the ends of my fingers. After that, I’d generally not have an issue with my hands for the next few hours of skiing. So, before riding my bike I do the same thing now, and this ‘kickstarts’ my circulation. Seems to work really well…when I remember. Unfortunately, I have a harder time whipping my feet; if anyone has a suggestion it’d be appreciated. Boosting the circulation to start out with seems to be key.

      • That is why your legs rarely freeze in cycling, but in normal cycling, your hands and feet don’t move much. The secret really seems to be to generate a little excess heat, which then is moved to the hands and feet, which act as radiators.

      • Tim Evans says:

        Yes, I can sympathize with you. I cannot speak authoritively to the “physiologically” involved, but the circulation to my extremes is inhibited, too, even though my core stays warm. I grew up on motorcycles, and rode them almost exclusively for most of my adult life. Even though I live in Southern California – a wonderful climate for motorcycles and bicycles – my body has conditioned itself to cold by reducing blood flow to its extremities. Even at 45 F (7C) my hands and feet go numb, and hurt, if the ride is long enough. For longer rides and lower temperatures I use heat packs (toe and feet warmers) inside mittens and over my toes inside shoes.

  24. Chad Berg says:

    Ive been an mtb and cyclocross racer in the pacific nw for 20 years with plenty of fancy lycra race kits and accessories. Over the last year while taking on the project of restoring a vintage racer/commuter bike, I have looked to dress the part in retro attire, just to add to the nostalgia, fun of it, and pay homage. What I have come to learn is exactly what many of you already know and have said. Wool is king! Ive done most of my purchases at thrift stores to include longsleeve wool 1/4 zip light sweaters, that is basically a vintage jersey without the pockets. $10 is typically the max price, compared to other options upwards of my$150.
    As far as riding on ice/frost goes…(thats all we have had here lately), I have been riding on Gran Compe Ene Ciclo 28c tires. Instead of my normal 80psi on these tires, with the frost/ice, I have dropped the pressure down to roughly 50psi with great success. I have yet to break loose, even when encountering 20′ spans of ice over blacktop. It goes without saying, that you need to adjust your cornering to slowing down well before and remain inline with your body over the center of the frame.
    Thank you to this website/forum, and brothers such as Andy Speier of the Seattle Randonneurs for helping/teaching me a whole different discipline of cycling that I have really learned to love.

  25. RickH says:

    I must mention too that some images of winter scenery is very picturesque.

  26. Frank says:

    Although I like wool myself, I am currently experimenting with a lightweight Primaloft Jacket to keep me warm and insulated in the cold on my commute. At 8 km one-trip my daily commute is too short to really get me warm in the cold: When I warm up I have already arrived. So I need something that is warm immediatly, without making me overheat. For this I really like my Haglöfs Barrier Pro jacket, which is a typical lightweight Primaloft jacket like Patagonia’s Nano Puff, Atom LT or similar products from other manufacturers. These jackets are very much like sweaters, but a lot lighter (350g) and more packable. I combine them with a Merino base and often a light (Pertex) windproof shell, which for cycling can be worn underneath the Primaloft jacket, so it stays on when I remove the insulation layer.
    I guess for longer rides the loft jacket probably is too warm, but it’s really great on my shorter way to work … oops, actually I should be on my way now already …

  27. Willem says:

    This reminds me, even if it is off topic. Because we have a cold snap here in the Netherlands, it was a good opportunity to test the new technology for heating cycle lanes with geothermal energy: http://nos.nl/op3/video/462301-verwarmd-fietspad-oplossing-sneeuwprobleem.html
    It did indeed work, heating up the road surface by about 10 centigrades. Construction cost is only about 10-15% more.
    Willem

  28. Rolly says:

    Layers in various configuration of: Merino wool base layer; Polypropylene second layer when necessary; Wool jerseys. Breathable wind shell with big armpit zips and many vents (Goretex Windstopper is awesome). Either a wool headband for the ears or a micro fleece balaclava that covers the entire head and neck plus some of the face (mine is made by Sugoi, is very breathable and wind proof). Wool socks and heavier shoes (I use Shimano BMX shoes). Layer up the legs depending on temperature and wind conditions; good tights with a wind proof front and a breathable back, have been effective for me in the North Atlantic wind (Halifax), Pacific Northwest rain (Vancouver) and central cold snaps (Montreal); Sugoi Entrent are the best ones I know of. For the hands I swear by polypropylene glove liners with fleece mitts that are loose and supple enough to work any shifters, etc (got that trick from reading an interview with John Stamstad, the Iditarod endurance cyclist; it has worked better for me than any expensive cycling gloves I’ve tried. A Goretex shell mitt makes the combo even warmer). Lots of liquid to keep hydrated instead of too much sweat. A bag to store extra items either brought along or taken off.
    – Rolly

  29. Peter F says:

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned these yet, and I haven’t tested them extensively riding, but I play soccer outdoors all winter here in NYC and on the cold days, I swear by those little disposable hand and feet warmers you can buy in outdoors and hunting stores. Even when my core is warm, my fingers and toes still tend to freeze. The warmers I use are called LIttle Hotties and they’re chemically activated by air when you open them and they claim to be biodegradable as well. I’ve found they provide just enough temperature boost to keep my hands and feet comfortable.

    Yes, as an eco-minded human, I’m not keen on the disposable nature of them, and if you used them every day they’d get expensive too. But saved for the coldest days, which means 5-10 times a year for me, I’m able to justify them.

    Just one more idea for the bag of tricks.

  30. Michael says:

    When you all say “wool”, are you talking 100% or blends?
    Which blends should I avoid?

    • I prefer 100% merino wool for the main garments. For things that should be form-fitting (gloves, socks), blends can be useful.

    • Patrick Moore says:

      Blends are nice because they don’t shrink as easily — though I’ve run superwash 100% wool through the heavy duty cycle and dried it on “cottons” without any shrinkage at all; but I find that they do not repel underarm odor as pure wool does. In fact, with anything more than 85% – 90% wool, the armpits start smelling very quickly. (You did want to know that, right?) That said, over 10+ years of using wool, I’ve not found it hard to either hand wash it or machine wash on “delicates”, and air dry. It’s nice that a good, 100% wool jersey can be worn for 10+ hours of riding before it starts smelling.

      For socks, OTOH, I prefer some synthetic in the high-wear areas.

      • My Woolistic jerseys have been in daily use for more than 10 years now, always washed on the wool cycle (front-loading maching machine), air-dried on a rack (or on really wet days on the “warm air” cycle in the dryer). The color has faded, especially on my back, but otherwise, they are as good as new. No shrinkage whatsoever.

        Contrasting with this, I had a Swobo jersey that first fit me, then my female tandem partner and now is too small even for my 12-year-old son… So obviously, wool and wool can be two different things.

  31. Bill Gobie says:

    Woolistic jerseys are fragile where the tops of the pockets are sewn to the back. Once one learns this the hard way and avoids loading the pockets heavily the jerseys hold up well.

    I usually wash my wool items with other clothes on the normal, cold, cycle in a front loading washer and air dry. I use an oscillating fan to circulate air, and open the heat register in the laundry area to introduce dry air. I once shrank an Ibex jersey using the dryer’s warm setting for just a few minutes, so wool never goes in the drier anymore.

    I bought some Swobo jerseys in the mid-90s. They never shrank. They eventually became too threadbare after about fifteen years. Swobo went through a bankruptcy or two so perhaps Jan’s jersey was a much different product.

  32. Bill Gobie says:

    I can suggest two items not mentioned yet. First, ski socks. Ski socks are knee high and have padding on the shins and underfoot. The padding adds insulation and some wind-block on the shins. I find this can be just the right amount of insulation when it is too warm to wear leg warmers or tights.

    Second, Rain Legs. These are lighter and pack smaller than rain pants. They provide a windproof barrier for your thighs and knees. I have worn them the last two days in Seattle where the temperature has been in the low 30s with fog and no sun. They kept my legs warm without the problems of bulk and overheating full rain pants have. Rain Legs have drawbacks — the waterproof coating is not very durable. The coating is not breathable so the tops of your legs will get slightly sweaty.

  33. I just got back from a tour to Pinnacles National Monument that featured very cold morning riding of around 25F. I wore three layers of wool combined with a wind vest. I think the vest works well since sweat can burn off through the wool on the arms, keeping my extremities from getting clammy. I don’t mind as much if my core is a little sweaty since it is usually warmer. Long wool socks and merino knee warmers cover my legs, and can be pulled down on sustained climbs. That being said, I was still pretty cold until the sun came over the hills!

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