The Mental Challenge of Dressing for Cold Weather Riding

By John Yoder

November and December cycling can be frustrating in northern Indiana, at least for me. It's not just that there are fewer hours of daylight, not just that the high for the day is often 40 degrees with a 20-mph wind from the north, and not just that every cold-weather ride makes my nose’s production of mucus shift into overdrive.

No, the pain of late fall cycling comes from not knowing what to wear on any given ride in the fluctuating colder weather.

As much as I manufacture schemes to avoid heading for the stationary bike in the family room because of a seasonal Arctic blast, trying to figure out the optimal gear to keep warm can make my motivation to ride outside go off a cliff.   

By contrast, the clothing choices of June to August require minimal mental effort: If the temperature is above 65, I put on shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. If the temperature is around 60, with a 10-mph wind, I might wear a windbreaker, long-sleeved jersey or a vest. One or, at most, two decisions are all the effort required before I head out the door. Life is good. (And I realize that many who live in warmer climes don't even have one decision to make in the summer months – other than the specific short-sleeve jersey and shorts.)

Late fall’s weather (and October’s, to some extent) destroys that decision-making simplicity. Now, I must think about what gear will keep my torso, hands, ears and feet warm, a process that too easily becomes an excuse not to ride outside at all.

Coach Ertl's Brilliant Clothing Guide

So I was thrilled to read the article by Coach David Ertl in RBR Newsletter that suggested what clothes to wear at temperatures ranging from 70 to >20 degrees (21 to -6.6 C), in five-degree increments below 50 degrees. What a helpful guide! It's brilliant! And he even includes a downloadable PDF chart. (Here's the link: https://www.roadbikerider.com/riding-skills/basic-skills/640-what-to-wear-in-various-weather.)

All I needed to do was keep the chart in a convenient place and consult it before the ride, and I would be spared the unpleasant experience of riding out in gear that was too warm or too cold for the conditions. It had the potential to banish cold-weather wardrobe indecision altogether.

Yet, even with all that helpful, step-by-step advice, I still struggled with my clothing choices because that list, though it is as thorough as anyone could possibly want, didn't jibe with my cycling wardrobe. For example, Coach Ertl recommends wearing a balaclava at 25 degrees. I have four of them of different thicknesses, made of materials I've long forgotten. Which one should I wear? The chart can’t tell me, so I have to decide for myself.

Another example is gloves. I have five pairs, all different weights. He recommends medium-weight gloves at 40 degrees, but without wearing them, I don’t know which of mine corresponds to his definition of medium-weight.

Don’t get me wrong: the chart is extremely helpful as a general guide. The weakness is not in the chart but in the fact that the suggestions can point to clothes I either don’t have or for which the match isn’t clear, like the weight of gloves. 

Add in the not-so-minor detail that we all tolerate cold differently – he recommends shoe covers at 40 degrees, while I don’t use them till 30 degrees – and I feel myself once again drifting toward the stationary bike.

My Two-Step Solution to Meeting the Mental Challenge

Using Coach Ertl’s chart as a template, I’ve settled on a two-step solution for cold  weather gear selection that works for me.

  • First, I create my own chart based on my wardrobe and tolerance for cold, e.g., less tolerance for a cold head and more tolerance for cold feet. This idea echoes the advice of John Marsh in his introduction to the Ertl chart: “Everybody is an experiment of one when it comes to finding what's exactly right for you, so try different combinations and see what works best.” Exactly.
  • Second, I do a short ride around my neighborhood to test the clothes before heading out on a longer ride – not an original idea by any means, but a step I’m often temped to skip. I make the route a circle so that I can feel the effect of the wind (which can often be dramatic) from every direction. This shake-down ride is like pouring water in a bucket to see if there are any leaks, except in this case, I’m testing to see if I have an opening somewhere in my gear where cold air could seep in.

My test ride circles back to the garage, where I can change into heavier gloves or a different head covering, if need be. I don’t see these clothing changes as a failure of my system, but rather as a sensible part of the ongoing, never-quite-resolved experiment in cold-weather wardrobe selection.

Fine-tuning the gear will make the ride more enjoyable and put off the day that I know is coming – when I finally will be forced inside to ride the stationary bike because I've reached my personal weather limit (which includes snow, for me).


John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).

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