By John Yoder
Winter 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 winter cycling comes from not knowing what to wear on any given ride in the cold 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.)
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 in the 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).
David Minden says
Here in Wisconsin our little crew does the same process as John. But, add in that each of us often take 2 pairs of gloves with us. Partly this is that the hands seem to be the place everyone feels the cold first, so if either you don’t gauge right with a lighter pair you pull out the heavier, or if the day is getting cooler you can bulk up as needed. But also, if a friend’s gloves aren’t making it you can help. My 1st cold weather ride I guessed wrong. By mid-ride I had numb fingers. After stopping for hot apple cider at the small town coffee shop, and going through the excruciating re-warm, my friend leant me his heavier pair – unneeded for him – and I had comfort going home!
Glenn Talaska says
How many people have a hooded jersey. I have a hooded Garneau that I just love because it can easily be added or subtracted to change warmth. I bought this one many years ago and its slowly wearing out after thousands of commuting miles. I have been unable to find a replacement.
David Frost says
Living near the top of a substantial hill, nearly all our rides start out with a descent of about 350’ over 1-3 miles distance when we aren’t warmed up. So Fall, Winter and early Spring rides include the clothing for that portion, and typically a stop several miles later to adjust for the rest of the ride. Thankfully, the descent attire is also good for cold upwind stretches, or the late evening return from my bike building volunteering gig. But a saddle bag large enough to carry the extra clothing has become a requirement.
Another aspect of age (68) is that my internal thermostat seems to be less tolerant cold, adding to the clothing variations.
Steve Kurt says
I agree that the large bag is an important detail. As the day warms, I may decide to take off the booties or glove shells or helmet cover, etc. Or.. it might be nice to pack an extra layer in the event things get colder. The bag also carries a thin pair of gloves for the times when I have to fix a flat tire in frigid weather. I’ve had to fix a flat at 8 degrees F at sunset, and you really don’t want to touch an aluminum rim with bare flesh! 🙂
Chris VandenBossche says
I have my own chart but I’ve found you also need to adjust for conditions in addition to temperature. Sun or no sun makes a huge difference, equal to 5 degrees or more. BTW, I live near John and love the Pumpkinvine Trail!
Mark Pemburn says
The “personal chart” is a brilliant idea! I have noticed a great range of clothing among riders on the same day—some are way under-dressed by my standards, and others, over-dressed. A big part of maintaining a healthy body is being aware of what is right for you under any condition. That said: a big part of growing as an athlete is embracing discomfort when you can’t do anything to alleviate it.
Craig Williams says
Being an unashamed nerd, I keep a spreadsheet of ride statistics, including what I wore, what the weather conditions were, and a subjective “too warm” or “too cool.”. If the weather is 52F and sunny, I find a similar ride in the past and dress accordingly.
Andrew Kundrat says
As my riding in winter is not as intense as summer, I have two cold weather techniques for adjusting clothing. One is to wear a light weight string back to carry removed clothing or potential add-on clothing. Another is to plan the ride so as to pass my house once or twice so I can stop and make clothing adjustments.
tony m says
Even though this is “Road Bike Rider”, I’m sure many of us ride both road and mountain bikes. One thing to add is that dressing for mountain biking is different than dressing for a road ride. If you follow your road riding chart for an off-road ride, you will be WAY overdressed. The slower speeds, wind protection and usually harder efforts of a mountain bike ride mean you can wear less or lighter clothes than a road ride under the same conditions.
Stephen Turk says
My challenge is dressing for the range of temperatures on a ride. I live in Southern California, so don’t have to deal with extreme cold, but I have occasionally seen 32F/0C in the canyons in the morning. On a recent 4-hour ride, the average was 48.7F, but that included a pre-sunrise section through the local wetlands at around 39F and climbing a shady canyon at 33F. By the time I got home, it was 61F! So some well-planned layering is needed, plus somewhere to put the layers as they are taken off (during the climb), put back on (during the descent), taken off again (as the morning warms up), etc. Even so, significant portions of the ride are spent too warm or too cold, but not enough to justify yet another stop to adjust.
That said, riding outside in the winter is still a whole lot better than riding inside!