Cold Weather Cycling
There’s a certain mystique, grit, or maybe it’s just plain dedication, to cycling in cold weather. Some might say the attributes are more properly defined as crazy, stupid, foolish. And let’s be perfectly honest. We’ve all seen someone riding a bike in hazardous weather and wondered why on earth someone would put their life in obvious danger. But let’s not pass judgment. To some people, anyone riding a bike after the leaves have fallen needs their head examined. And cycling while there’s snow on the ground, most definitely clinically certifiable. Forty degrees to a Miami native is perceived differently than it is the cyclist from Minnesota. In short, the term cold weather is up for regional interpretation.
For this article our interpretation of cold weather will be early spring and late fall mid-western weather, somewhere around the 35 – 40 degree mark. Granted, winds will change directions and create variances but in terms of weather, these are relatively similar enough seasons to be considered cold weather. Beyond this temp is the point where many cyclists hang their bike for the winter or attack the rollers from the confines of a heated home.
First of all your basic cycling shoes will probably be okay. A little heavier sock or a pair of covers might make the time on the pedals more comfortable but generally speaking your regular cycling shoes will do just fine. If you work your way into the frigid weather then of course all bets are off and full-fledged cycling boots come into play. But we’re not diving into that snowbank. Since we started at the bottom let’s work our way up from here.
You’re going to need some cycling pants or the equivalent. If you’re a runner and can turn your running kit into a dual-purpose outfit then you’re probably good to go for the most part. If not, there are several routes you can take at this point and again these garments will be dictated by your perception of being cold and staying warm. Thermal baselayers are great for retaining warmth. Leg warmers are simple and basic and can be paired with your cycling shorts. Both options wick away moisture in the event you generate a sweat. Tights and bibs can provide a basic layer and even your raingear can be just enough to deflect the wind and retain the heat needed to be comfortable. But far and away the most popular and cheapest option is a basic pair of active-wear pants with elastic cuffs or ankle straps and your cycling shorts underneath. You can layer beneath the pants and easily remove layers as your body heats up but typically a pair of running/cycling pants with cycling shorts beneath will keep you cruising comfortably down around the 40 degree mark. Be sure your choice allows a full range of motion. Restricting muscle movement can create an injury just as easily as over-exertion or poor technique. Generally speaking you will probably feel a bit chilled until you put a couple miles on the odometer but that’s a good starting point. If you’re warm before you get started you’re over-dressed.
Your upper body is reflective of the lower section with the exception that your trunk will generate more heat. Your basic cycling jacket with a longsleeve jersey beneath will keep most riders in the comfort zone down to 40 degrees. Arm warmers can add some extra protection and of course a nice base layer might be more your style but typically we find the upper body base layers more prevalent when the weather drops down around freezing. Use whatever layering methods keep you comfortable but be sure you still have material that vents or breathes.
Many cyclists will tell you if you get cold, pedal harder. Work yourself to increase the blood flow and raise the heat level. Others suggest always carrying a small pack where extra clothing can be stored. Both are good suggestions and keep in mind that you still need to hydrate. You won’t need to hydrate as often but it doesn’t hurt to carry your summer supply of water or sports drink as well as some energy bars. Both can provide a quick burst of psychological advantages on top of their physical energy values.
One of the most overlooked items is a pair of warm gloves. Short finger gloves, forget it. Even full finger gloves without a liner are probably going to be cold. And cold hands are your worst enemy. You can have the best of everything on this page but if you’re hands are freezing five miles down the road, your ride is over. A fleece lined glove is extremely comfortable on the hands and goes a long way to retaining heat while keeping fingers nimble for shifting and braking. Breathability, extended cuffs, good gripping qualities, all important in a cold weather cycling glove. Don’t skimp in this area. Buy the best you can.
A balaclava, otherwise known as a ski mask, is another great investment. The balaclava protects your entire face with the exception of your eye area. And let it be known that after your hands, your ears and nose are going to take the brunt of the cold. You don’t need a big bulky knitted balaclava here. Specially made for cycling you can find these items in a thin, breathable, stretchy, style that sits comfortably underneath your helmet and performs like a jersey. You can wear the clava pulled up to the eye area or pulled down under the chin.
An added item or alternative to the balaclava would be a skull cap or beanie. Most can be pulled down to cover the ears and your jacket can be zipped high enough to cover the neck area. The cap and balaclava can also be used together to provide a bit of extra protection capturing more heat before it escapes through the helmet.
And since we assume you’re already wearing a helmet there’s no need to cover how this item helps hold in the heat. Amongst providing other great features. Some cyclists will probably want to top this off with a pair of glasses or goggles. Cool wind in the eyes creates a waterfall for some people and when you’re tooling down the side of a busy road or racing a downhill ski slope of mud the last thing you need is a loss of vision.
It doesn’t take a pile of money or the best gear to keep you cycling for a few extra weeks or get you on the road a couple weeks earlier. Some common sense and planning is easily enough to keep you in the saddle an extra month if you’re willing and determined to squeeze the season for what it’s worth. And a little love from mother nature never hurt either.