What to Wear Cycling in Varying Weather, a Conversation with Coach Ertl
This article began one December when I started trading emails with Coach David Ertl. Coach Ertl lives and rides in Iowa. I grew up in neighboring Missouri and can attest to the terrible weather (and the 100-degree-plus extremes — in normal years!) possible in that part of the world.
What follows is the text of Coach Ertl’s guidelines for what you might wear across a range of temperatures. 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.
For example, David and I share the fact that our feet are a weakness when it comes to riding in the cold, so we both need to beef up our gear for our feet. But I would put on my thin full-fingered gloves, and a thin head cover, about 5 degrees before he would.
Coach Ertl provides some additional guidance after the temp breakdowns, and we traded a couple more emails based on some particular gear he doesn’t like — but I do like. One thing to note is that David uses the term “undershirt,” which is synonymous with “base layer.”
The Coach’s Guide — Text Version
Here is my approach to dressing for the temperature. Like you, John, my weak link is my toes. They are often the limiting factor. If head, hands, feet are not mentioned below, then I do nothing special for them.
70 Degrees (21C): Shorts and short-sleeve jersey.
60 Degrees (15.5C): Shorts and long-sleeve jersey or long-sleeve thin undershirt.
50 Degrees (10C): Tights or leg warmers; heavy long-sleeve jersey with sleeveless or short-sleeve wicking undershirt; or lightweight long-sleeve jersey with long-sleeve undershirt.
45 Degrees (7C): Tights or leg warmers; long-sleeve wicking undershirt and lined cycling jacket; thin full-fingered gloves; headband covering ears; wool socks and shoe covers.
40 Degrees (4.4C): Tights or leg warmers; long-sleeve heavy mock turtleneck (I like Under Armour) and lined cycling jacket; medium-weight gloves; headband covering ears; winter cycling shoes, shoe covers, wool socks.
35 Degrees (1.7C): Heavyweight tights; long-sleeve heavy wicking turtleneck undershirt and heavy cycling jacket; heavy-weight gloves; headband covering ears; winter cycling shoes, shoe covers, wool socks with charcoal toe warmers.
30 Degrees (-1C): Heavyweight tights; long-sleeve heavy wicking turtleneck undershirt and heavy cycling jacket; heavy-weight gloves; lined skullcap; winter cycling shoes, shoe covers, wool socks with charcoal toe warmers.
25 Degrees (-3.9C): Winter bib tights; long-sleeve heavy wicking full turtleneck undershirt, long-sleeve jersey and lined cycling jacket; mittens or lobster claw gloves; balaclava; winter cycling shoes, wool socks, plastic bag, charcoal toe warmers.
20 Degrees (-6.7) and below: Winter bib tights; long-sleeve heavy wicking full turtleneck undershirt, long-sleeve jersey and lined cycling jacket; mittens or lobster claw gloves; balaclava; winter cycling shoes, wool socks, plastic bag, charcoal toe warmers.
Regarding the charcoal toe warmers. I find these help add another half hour to the time I can ride when it’s 35 and below. I buy these in bulk at Costco, where they are about 50 cents per pair. Sweat will deactivate these. Feet sweat when covered with shoe covers – even on the coldest days. Therefore, to help them last longer, I stick the toe warmers to the outside of the toes of the shoes and then put the shoe cover over these, instead of putting the charcoal packets inside the shoe.
I also put my toes in a sandwich plastic bag to help keep the moisture in the toebox of the shoe. When it gets really cold (<25 degrees), I put my whole foot into a plastic bag (Subway or newspaper bags work well).
To be fully equipped for all temperatures, your riding wardrobe must be quite extensive, especially if you want a couple of each item. Over the years, I have developed quite a collection of all weights of clothing.
My Comments to David’s Text
I notice you don’t seem to use arm warmers. Or bib knickers. I would throw both of those into the mix for low- to mid-50s (knickers) to low 60s. And arm warmers (often with a light short-sleeve base layer and normal jersey) for mid-50s to low-60s.
I like arm warmers for their versatility in adapting to a range of temps. Especially if you start low and go up 10-15 degrees on the ride.
As for knickers, I love them! Just for the same reason you like long-sleeve jerseys, I suspect. They cover my knees, which I like to keep covered below, say, low 60s. And I never have to mess with adding another garment (knee or leg warmers).
To Which David Replied
I don’t use arm warmers or leg warmers. I prefer tights and long sleeves. And I have never understood the purpose of knickers. Why cover everything except that last 4 inches below the calf? I just use tights for everything.
I agree though, you can mention a choice of tights, leg warmers, knickers. They basically cover the same situation.
Wind, being out in the open, and sunny vs. overcast conditions also impact how warmly we need to dress. If it is cloudy or windy, I’d suggest dropping down to the next colder level. If it is sunny and calm (or you are leaving in the morning and know it will warm up a couple of temperature ranges during the ride), I will bump up to the next warmer level.
In the coldest of conditions, select an arrangement of bar gloves over your gloves. These rubber treated hand-molded pockets append to your handlebars, including another layer of wind-ceasing material without bargaining your capacity to move.
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Always consider the dew point – best determinant of how warm it cool it really feels outside.
can you elaborate a bit more on this? what am i looking for with the dew point?
tom farnsworth says
Dew point – the temp when water condenses – includes consideration for temp and humidity. very dry – you don’t feel the cold as much. very humid – you FEEL the cold!
Curtis Corlew says
I love knee warmers when the weather cools. It seems to me that my knees need the warmth more than my crotch, which can become too warm with thermal tights. I like knickers too. They’re less of a pain to get on than tights. They’re like bib shorts with a small bonus for my knees.
I ride where the temp changes a lot during the day. Arm warmers and vest give me adjustment possibilities and not too much to carry.
Zvi Wolf says
I’m a knickers guy. I wear them in the 40s through the 60s and sometimes into the 30s. If it’s colder I wear long socks. If more moderate I leave my lower leg exposed. I guess we’re like baseball players, some wear long pants like tights people and some wear knee length pants like knickers people. It’s personal choice, but this person would be way too hot in tights at moderate temps.
If your a guy save your 3/4 knickers for your wife
Joy Butler says
You did a great job of explaining the kinds of clothes that we need to wear when cycling. I like how you mentioned the different approach to dressing for every temperature, awesome! My friend who is a cyclist needs to see this. I am now forwarding your post to him, cheers!
Brilliant conversation and I can see how outerwear really does impact performance, although i do swing towards Davids view of full length tights.
I think the issue though is, at lower temperatures its understandable you’re wearing more, how do you balance that out with perspiration and heat though generated throughout the ride.
See wearing less is much easier, you build up the heat and its not trapped in a sense, but my problem is when that heat cant typically go anywhere, it actually begins to cause huge discomfort.
What do you think and how have you got around this?
If I am wearing long tights, then I have the knicker option. Just fold up the long tight to below the knee and it will help get rid of heat and reduce sweat. If it turns cold again just roll them back down. Besides wind and temp, I factor in type of bike and terrain. Low temps and high winds will dictate a mountain bike to reduce wind chill and provide lower gearing for spinning to generate more internal heat. With these conditions on a road bike I take a helmet cover to reduce all the heat loss through a ventilated helmet. If the terrain is hilly then getting rid of heat is a concern and will go with lighter clothing gear in general. All top layers should have zippers for letting heat out and nylon or anything that doesn’t breathe is only a last resort because of the moisture build up it entails. Well and fleece vests work well to keep the core warm while allowing heat to escape through the arms.
This might be a stupid question but I really hate cold and my feet are always the first to suffer so I need to know; do you put the plastic bag on before or after socks? “I also put my toes in a sandwich plastic bag to help keep the moisture in the toebox of the shoe. When it gets really cold (<25 degrees), I put my whole foot into a plastic bag (Subway or newspaper bags work well)."
Road Bike Rider says
After the socks. If you do a search on the site for Gore socks, there is a review there of a sock that works better than plastic wrap.
Consider SealSkins brand socks: basically a sock with an integrated waterproof layer. Ideal for really cold (and really wet) conditions.
Although not mentioned in the article, I find that one of the best protections against cold is windproof clothing. I use a Gore Oxygen Windstopper jacket and pants. For temps in the high 30s to low 40s, I only need a long-sleeve Under Armour jersey. Below the high 30s, I add a marino wool jersey. Gore Windstopper booties, a pair of Sealskinz gloves, marino wool socks and a windproof balaclava or helmet liner rounds out the winter wardrobe. For very cold days, to prevent eyes tearing, I found a pair of inexpensive goggles by Kroops to be very helpful.
Where can I find a jersey like the one in the 70 degree picture?
What kit do you suggest when the weather is 30f and pouring rain?
30f should be snow
Your extremities go cold first, but you ll freeze solid without some core protection. King recommends raiding your ski drawer for a set of long undershirts. Wear a standard set of bibs and leg-warmers on your legs, and cover them with a thick tights for added warmth. Top it off with a fleece-lined shell and you re good to hit the road. Just remember: If you get cold, pedal faster.
Cecille Wilmes says
We would actually require the energy of a entire star to get to that pace. You will get much more in a case if you roll your clothes up, they are heading to get creased in any case. Travel agents are trained journey professionals.
Sam Black says
I always use powder (foot or just baby powder) on my feet when it gets cold. Helps to prevent sweat, which makes feet colder. Old ski instructor trick
Heather Noggle says
Thank you for this cycling weather guide!
B Johnson says
IMHO all of this advice is a bit to too far warm. I would keep the advice and lower the temps 5-10 degrees F.
kevin j says
Where can we find your article?
I commute in the winter and spray my feet with antiperspirant. Keeps my feet from freezing even when it gets in to the 20s works on rides as long as 2-3 hours
Taytum Elia says
I commute in the winter and spray my feet with antiperspirant. Keeps my feet from freezing even when it gets in to the 20s works on ri
David Chamberlin says
What happened to the text version spreadsheet that used to be a link off this page? It appears to be gone.