Dial in Clothing Choices for Enjoyable Winter Riding

Editor's Note: We first ran this article a little less than 2 years ago. In the interim, Elizabeth, still a client of Coach John Hughes, has continued to set endurance records.

By Elizabeth Wicks

(Note from Coach John Hughes: Elizabeth Wicks, 71, lives in the central Massachusetts area just north of Worcester and has been an endurance cyclist for 20 years. She rides year-round and logged 5,500 miles in 2013, 5,700 miles in 2014 and 5,824 miles so far in 2015 (aiming for 6,000). She has set five (!) records at Calvin’s 12-Hour Challenge and last year rode 291.5 miles in 24 hours to set the women’s age 70-74 record at the National 24-Hour Challenge. I’ve coached Elizabeth since 2004 and have written about her training for RBR for the great lessons it holds for all recreational riders. Knowing that Elizabeth is an avid winter rider, even in the harsh conditions of the Northeast, we asked her to describe how she prepares for and rides in the winter. Again, there are some terrific lessons here for all of us roadies.)

From the time I first started riding, I learned that I could go out in the cold and enjoy it. Dressing right is the key. People ski, skate, sled and hike in the cold, so why not bike?

I learned the most about cold weather riding from my years riding with the Crack 'O Dawn Riders, a group of cyclists in the Boston suburbs who head out at 5:45 a.m. every weekday all year round.

I go out in the winter because I like to be outside. When possible, I’d much rather ride outside than on my trainer. The only problem with winter riding is that it can take 20 minutes to a half hour to get dressed! So an hour's ride almost doesn't seem worth it, sometimes, but it is once I get out there. In the winter one can't really ride hard because your muscles aren't as warm. Also, I find with all the clothing layers required, it is harder to pedal. However, I do get in some good leg work. John Hughes also has me do trainer workouts to work on technique and intensity.

I will ride when the temperature is as low as 22-24 degrees and the wind chill makes it feel like 18 degrees, particularly if it is a clear, beautiful day. The only time I won’t ride is if there is any hint of black ice on the roads. I have learned my lesson on that one. Black ice is called black ice for a reason. You can’t see it and will go down before you know what has hit you. It has happened to me in the past. I now have a well-functioning fake hip that I am terrified of hurting, let alone other body parts.

Even in the winter, I love the early morning. It may be pitch black at first, but one does have the morning light to look forward to, versus riding at night when it just stays black. When the mornings are dry and clear, it is a joy to watch the sky lighten and see the sun rise. On weekends, I do go out later in the day and can enjoy some really nice long rides up to 50-70 miles, even a century on a really good day.

Bike equipment: I don't do anything special except ride my older bike with fenders. My older bike won’t take wider tires, so I don't put on different tires in the winter. I try to only ride when the pavement is pretty clear, definitely no ice, hopefully only snow on the edges. Whatever bike you ride, its parts are going to wear faster because of the salt, snow and debris on the road. I clean my bike as often as possible to keep the road crud off.

Nutrition: As John has recommended, I bring food that doesn't freeze - Fig Newtons, nuts, gorp and dried fruit.

Hydration: On a short ride, I'll bring a bottle of water and hope I can get a few sips in before it freezes. On longer rides, I use a CamelBak under my jacket. I run the hose up through the front of my jacket so the nozzle is reachable without too much effort. I keep the hose clear of water by blowing back into it. This year I might try bringing hot liquid in one of my hiking flasks that really keeps things hot.

Clothing Choices are the Key

The following clothing choices may seem a bit excessive, but together they work for me and enable me to ride!

If you don't feel at least a little cold before even starting out, you are overdressed. I dress in layers and bring extra layers on a long ride to have a dry layer to put on next to my skin. A lesson learned Elizabeth Wicks Jan 2015.WEBfrom hiking: the minute you start sweating, take a layer off. You don’t want damp clothes next to your skin because they’ll just make you colder.

I have two secret weapons:

  • An old Pearl Izumi jacket that isn’t made any more, but I can tell you what makes it great. I’m wearing the jacket in the photo. The front and sleeves are made with wind protection material and the back is a Polertec material that breathes. It is toasty with the right layers at the coldest temps, but the minute it gets close to 40F, it is too warm.
  • A Craft brand wind shirt with a front wind panel and arms and back made of their usual base layer material. Worn under my jacket, I am comfortable when the conditions are 20F with the wind chill factor.

Cover everything: I use Vaseline on my nose and cheeks rather than one of those masks that cover your entire face (I find that those make it difficult to breathe).

Head: I wear a balaclava, which I can pull up over my mouth if I want to (the photo shows it pulled mostly below my mouth), with a light ear band and helmet cover. The helmet cover is a must, as it keeps the wind out.

Hands: I use lobster gloves with liner gloves. Lobster gloves are warmer than regular gloves: the index and middle fingers are together and the ring and little fingers are together, so there’s less surface area to leak heat and the adjacent fingers keep each other warm. My fingers are the last body part to warm up, but they do. Also, an extra pair of liner gloves comes in handy to replace the first pair if they get damp.

Body: I start with a Craft singlet and a Craft long-sleeve base layer, and/or short sleeve over it (so it's easy to remove) or the wind shirt if it is really cold (such as down to 18 with wind chill). The only thing I can't find that really breathes is a bra! Even the latest sports bras get damp too easily. So I go without. My outer layer is the winter jacket.

On my legs I wear warm, heavy-duty (thermal) tights with or without long underwear. I like the Eastern Mountain Sport loose-fitting long underwear. If it’s below freezing and windy, I wear wind pants, instead of the heavy-duty tights, with long underwear.

Feet: I wear wool socks and put chemical toe warmers on top of my toes/socks so that when I’m pedaling they don’t feel hot on the soles of my feet. Over the shoes, I wear booties that zip up the back so no air gets in.

I have had best luck with Graber brand toe warmers. Sometimes when I am out for multi-hour rides in frigid temps, they do seem to cool down, but warm up again when I go inside for coffee or whatever and stay warm when I head back out. As they are air-activated, you can use them twice. If you are only out for an hour or two, put them in an airtight plastic bag. You can use them again within several days for a ride of another hour or two. If they get lumpy it means they're no longer usable.

On the road: The best bet is not to stop and go inside because that is when you sweat. So I try to do a circuitous route up to a couple of hours that gets me back home without a break.

If I do stop for coffee, I disrobe as much as I can the minute I go indoors. I know when I head out again I am going to feel damp at first. It often takes 15 to 20 minutes or longer to warm up, but once I start moving I generate body heat again and warm up nicely. If it is a multi-hour ride with a couple of stops, I bring a dry layer to put on nearest my skin.

For avid roadies like me who don't live someplace with convenient XC skiing or snowshoeing, starting in November we can ride our bikes in the winter and have a hell of a lot of fun. Like anything else, you just have to learn how.

Learn more about winter riding in Coach Hughes’ eArticle Year-Round Cycling. Listen to helpful podcasts on winter cross-training and getting the most out of trainer rides on RBR Radio.

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