I live in Boulder, Colorado and ride year-round both for fun and fitness. I enjoy riding outdoors even when the temps are in the 20s. What do I wear?
I start by consulting the thermometer outside my window and the weather forecast. I use the https://www.weather.gov/ forecast.
I then select clothing based on the current conditions and the forecast. As a rule of thumb if I’m warm enough when I throw my leg over the top tube then I’m overdressed because I’ll generate heat as I ride. I always hedge my bet by carrying extra clothing in case the forecast is wrong.
I pay particular attention to the forecast for wind. The breeze we generate while riding cools us in the summer, but chills us in the winter! Even with no wind, riding at 15 mph (24 km/h) at 40 ºF (4 ºC) the effective temperature is 32 ºF (0 ºC). To determine the wind chill consult the National Weather Service’s wind chill calculator.
Wind chill is one of the main causes of hypothermia, when your body loses heat faster than it can produce and your core temperature starts to fall. Most cases of hypothermia occur when the temperature is around 40 ºF (4 ºC) and it’s unexpectedly rainy and windy. Hypothermia begins with shivering and as your core temperature continues to drop, then your heart, nervous system and other organs don’t work properly. If you lose fine motor control, for example you can’t use your fingers to manipulate a zipper, or if you start to stagger, you are developing severe hypothermia and must get out of the cold.
Loose Clothing is Good
Dry, still air provides the insulation we need. Although we choose tight streamlined clothing in the summer, in the winter looser clothing is better because it traps air for insulation.
Dress in Layers
Wear multiple layers, each with a different purpose, and to allow you to adjust your clothing as the ride (hopefully) warms up. On your torso start with a wicking layer to wick the sweat away from your body so that you stay dry. Do not wear cotton, which will stay damp rather than wicking away the sweat. Then wear one or more loose insulating layers. If you expect conditions to warm up significantly, stuff a few layers of newspaper under your jersey as an additional wicking layer, which you can then throw away. Cover your layers with a wind- or rain-proof outer layer.
When I started mountaineering in the 1960s in Washington State, the best gear was army surplus wool clothing. We wore it hiking in the rain and climbing the snow-covered volcanoes. I still wear wool for warmth because it retains its insulating quality even when wet from sweat or precipitation! Wool is both a great wicking layer and an excellent insulating layer.
Get a Good Coat
When you go shopping for a winter coat look for these characteristics:
- A two-way zipper or Velcro closure in the front to adjust the ventilation. Also, by opening from the bottom you can reach your jersey pockets. Zippers have a fabric baffle on the inside of the zipper—test that this is large enough that it won’t get caught in the zipper.
- Zippers to open and close the armpits, which allows you to increase or decrease the ventilation. The zippers should be covered on the outside by the coat fabric.
- A long tail to cover your buttocks. On some coats this flap can be folded up inside and secured with Velcro when it isn’t raining.
- Adjustable wrists, which can be tightened with Velcro. Elastic wrists can let in a lot of cold air.
- A high protective collar to keep your neck warm and dry.
- Reflective material across the back and front and down the sleeves.
Cover your Knees
Your knees have very poor circulation and chill easily. As they get colder their lubricating fluid gets thicker and doesn’t do as good a job of lubricating the joint. This increases the risk of injury. Around Boulder I see the pros that are paid to ride wearing knee warmers even with temps in the 60s! To protect your knees, wear knee warmers, knickers or tights when the temperature is below 65 ºF (18 ºC).
Because your legs are working and generating heat they need less protection than your torso. Depending on conditions you could wear knee warmers, tights, knee warmers under the tights or tights with a wind-proof front. Rain pants tend to get in the way. If your legs are getting wet, try mountaineering gaiters or spats, the English combination of a gaiter and bootie.
Layering applies here too. On your head wear a windproof skullcap. If it’s colder or rainy add a helmet cover. Cyclists in very cold areas have winter helmets with the vents covered with reflective tape. In my seat bag I have a motel shower cap as an emergency helmet cover. I also carry a thin polypro balaclava, which I can use as a wicking layer and if necessary pull down over my face.
For your hands winter cycling gloves are a good start; however, they may not be warm enough. Get a pair of lobster shells, which have the index and second finger together and then the ring and little finger. You can wear these over your winter gloves. These provide more protection and still allow you to manipulate your shifting and brakes. I carry polypro glove liners in my seat bag, which I can wear as a wicking layer under gloves and shells for added warmth. If I need to remove the outer layers to get food out and unwrap it, for example, the glove liners provide some insulation.
You can also wear layers on your feet. Start with thicker socks. I like wool socks that come up my calves. Loosen your shoes so that you have good circulation in your feet. If your feet are still cold wear booties; however, get booties designed for winter riding, not tight racing booties. As a cheap alternative get a pair of large heavy wool socks, cut holes in them for your cleats and wear them over your shoes. Or in a pinch wear plastic bags over your socks, taped closed at the top.
Stop and Adjust
In the summer being a little too hot or too cold while riding is unpleasant; however, in the winter wearing too much or too little may have serious consequences. Always carry an extra layer for your torso as well as your head and hands and if you start to chill, stop and add protection. If you start to overheat, stop and adjust your layers so that you don’t sweat. Just like in the summer sweating cools you down, which is bad in the winter.
If you don’t take the off-season literally and continue to ride, you’ll have good baseline conditioning when you start training for your main cycling season. By riding outdoors you’ll have more fun than grinding away on the trainer. If you dress in layers, wear base layers that wick away perspiration and adjust your clothing as the conditions change, you can ride comfortably in most conditions. Follow these tips and, like me, you’ll enjoy riding outdoors year-round.
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John Mullineaux says
In Pennsylvania, we often encounter windchills of 10 – 15 before start riding. Two things I have found invaluable are silk glove liners for my lobster claws and chemical toe warmers because booties are not enough.
Another advocate of chemical toe warmers if the temps dip below freezing.
I use proper winter road shoes also as overboots can chafe or wear out your good summer shoes.
My rule for my knees is keep them covered to 20*C.
Bob Menendez says
I found Bar Mitts on my bike help a lot
If you’re doing a big climb, how can you avoid sweating? I live in the SF Bay Area, so don’t have to worry about serious cold, but in even our mild winter, I dread the chilly descents. And I, at least, am not strong enough to be able to climb – say 3-4 miles, average 7-8% grade, which is a pretty typical segment of almost any ride around here – without being pretty damp by the time I reach the top.
I’ve found this is when two way zippers are most valuable. You WILL sweat on a big climb but the relatively slow speed will not chill you if you unzip (top and bottom) and let as much heat and moisture escape as possible.
Of course once you are over the top, zip everything up to block as much wind as possible.
PS – this is a great article IMHO and reflects what I’ve learned over many years.
PSS – I’ve never understood why every cycling jacket and vest doesn’t come with a two way zipper.
Mr. Versatile. says
When I was younger I used to ride when the temp was in the teens F. I’m 76 now & I still ride all year, but generally I won’t ride when it’s colder than 25 F. I use a rain jacket because it’s totally wind and water proof, has pit zips & a long tail that can be put up via Velcro. I sometimes wear mittens when it’s very cold, but it has to be VERY cold or my hands overheat. It’s a little hard to manipulate the shifters, but it can be done. The area where I live is pretty flat, so I don’t have to shift very often. The brakes are no problem. I’ve never owned lobster claws, but I’ve heard they’re great. I would absolutely not recommend wearing plastic bags over any part of your body. It produces so much sweat that it becomes uncomfortable in a short period of time & when you take them off at least a shot glass of water will be in the bag. Ditto for putting aluminum foil over your toes. You don’t know what discomfort is until you’ve tried that. Balaclavas are terrific & I wear a thin one when the temp reaches 40 or below. I have some thicker ones that I literally never use. A lot of riders quit riding when the temps go below 40-45 F. BIG MISTAKE!
Greg . says
Surprised neoprene booties are not recommended as a cold weather option.
Kerry Irons says
My experience with neoprene booties is that they are warm, but since they are not breathable your feet get pretty wet. Not a good thing. I find the nylon (or whatever) fabric with a thin fleece lining are the best balance.
The pop up ads are very annoying! May not continue reading if it’s going to be like this.
I ride up the small mountain near my home when the river greenway is closed. The ascent is 900’ with 8-14% grade. I wear heated gloves, thermal kit, and a balaclava, or skull cap which I pull over the tops of my ears. I am 76. My butt has never gotten cold, so I’m not sure why the concern about that from other posters. I wear thick socks and haven’t felt any cold in my feet.
I fear hitting an icy patch so I don’t ride below 38-40 degrees. I suffered a complete quad rupture in the left leg a couple years ago with an unrepaired fractured kneecap (after a fall on ice 6 months later) and my repaired knee musculature might not take kindly to another injury. Descending the mountain at 35mph does have a bit of wind chill, but I have never noticed any problem.. I don’t race up the grade, but take my time and don’t need to stop until the summit, to look at the magnificent Roanoke Valley below from the plaza in front of the 100’ Roanoke Star.
tony m says
If you’re going to be riding in the cold a lot, skip the booties and buy a good pair of winter shoes. My Sidi Frosts with a thick pair of Smartwool winter socks keep my feet warm even in the 20’s. And no fussing with getting booties on and off!
Dave Minden says
Last year I saw pics of inveterate year-round rider Jan Heine winter-riding warm by adding breathable layers instead of putting a wind/waterproof on top. I now do this – you get much better cooling on the climbs, and the downhills are warm enough when you zip up at the neck.
Fred Rose says
As far as summer riding goes, I use to live in the Mojave Desert area of California where I rode in temps exceeding 100 degrees, I found out from living there for 7 years I was cooler wearing loose biking clothes because it allowed air to enter into the jersey constantly giving it a cooling effect, whereas a tight-fitting jersey I felt at least 10 degrees hotter.
That was my experience in dry heat, I don’t think loose-fitting clothes would work real good with high humidity and high heat. Maybe others can chime in with their experiences with high heat.
I agree with not covering your entire foot with a plastic bag, but I’ll use the ends of plastic bags, over wool socks, to cover my toes and front of the foot, back as far as the instep. Cold toes are a drag.
The winter riding game changer for me up here in the northeast was getting a Goretex windproof suit as a shell and layering under that. A windproof balaclava and ski-type goggles also help to extend the season at both ends.
John Tonetti says
A couple of season ago I invested in a pair of Northwave winter cycling boots. They’re a bit tough to get on, but they are warm down into the 20F’s. I also have a couple of GORE Windstopper base layers… they have a soft layer, but windstopper panels on the chest, arms, and shoulders to reduce chill.
My final tip is a weather app called “Epic Ride Weather”. You import the ride you plan, the time you’re leaving, and your average speed and it will tell you the temp, “feels like” temp, precipitation forecast, and wind direction. Don’t leave home without it! Works great!
Joe Price says
Wool is the best stuff!!! I enjoy using a lightweight wool tshsirt as a base layer. For the coldest days I use a regular medium weight wool sweater over the tshirt. Then add a winter cycling jersey covered by a wind vest. I can easily ride into the 20’s and stay comfortable. I also have a lightweight wool gator that is super for keeping the back of my neck warm.
Fingers and toes are the most challenging. I agree with others on the chemical toe warmers but what works for me is using two sets of booties with the outer one having more wind blocking material. I have a great pair of 5 fingered cycling gloves that are two gloves in one. The inner glove is an insulating glove that does a good job of wicking + warmth. The outer glove is a synthetic shell that blocks the wind.