What to Wear Cycling in Varying Weather, a Conversation with Coach Ertl
This column began in early 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.”
Finally — and this is the coolest part — he created an Excel spreadsheet that I converted into a PDF to share with RBR readers. It’s a handy quick-reference guide that I think you’ll find useful any time you face riding conditions that leave you wondering just what to wear. Here’s Coach David Ertl’s Cold Weather Clothing Chart.
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.
There’s more to it than just clothing! Learn more about all your options (including clothing) for riding in different weather conditions with Coach John Hughes’ e-article, Year Round Cycling.
Coach David Ertl is a USA Level 1 cycling coach with the Peaks Coaching Group. He also is a national coach for the JDRF Ride To Cure Diabetes Charity Ride program and writes the training blogs for RAGBRAI, the weeklong ride across Iowa every summer. He has written more than 10 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach David Ertl, including the best-selling Pedal Off the Pounds. Click to read David's full bio.