Essential Winter Cycling Gear: How To Dress for the Cold

When it’s cold out it can be miserable to ride.

My buddy, who rides 7,000 miles most years, told me that there’s an old Viking saying: “There isn’t cold weather, just lack of preparation in men.”

I guess the point he was trying to make was that there are some things you can do – and should do – if you have to ride in colder weather. 

We’ve broken down our list of recommended precautions below based on the temperature.

When It’s 50-70 Degrees

One of the biggest frustrations for avid cyclists is the brevity of the ideal season for their sport. In many parts of the country, only a few months out of the year are perfect for riding. Runners may rejoice at these temperatures, but the cooler air combined with wind resistance might make it uncomfortable for cyclists to ride.

One of the essential elements at any temperature is clothing made from moisture-wicking material. Your sweat is your body’s way of cooling you down, but the temperature outside combined with the wind from riding is already doing it for you. We certainly recommend moisture-wicking base layers and a long-sleeve shirt.

If you need a jacket, check out Decathlon’s Warm and Light Cycling Jacket. We especially love it for fall and spring because it’s excellent in damp weather and it’s long, so it covers more of your body. 

Keep your hands warm with gloves that cover your fingers fully. Look for pairs designed for fall and spring since winter gloves might be too warm. Also, wool athletic socks are ideal in these weather conditions. 

You probably don’t need to do much to protect your bike in this temperature range since it isn’t cold enough to require extra maintenance. One item worth noting, though, is to keep an eye on your tire pressure. It tends to plummet in cold temperatures. Keep a gauge handy and check it before your ride. 

Adjust to the Cold Slowly

One more thing: if you plan to ride in the winter, it’s a very smart idea to ease into it. Allow your muscles and mind to acclimate slowly to the cold conditions by continuing to ride and adjusting your pace, route, and distance as necessary.

When it comes to riding during the fall, winter, and spring, flexibility is key to getting the most from your rides and enjoying them.

Below 50, Above Freezing: 30s and 40s

As fall starts to turn to winter and the temperature falls, you’ll need to take further steps to cycle safely. This involves not only winter clothing but also your essential gear and beginning to winterize your bike.

First and foremost, it’s particularly unsafe to bike in winter weather without a means of calling for help. In general, it’s always good to have a plan to avoid getting stranded, but it becomes even more critical when it’s cold because you’re less likely to encounter others on a bike path, and it’s more dangerous to be out in the elements. Always bring your phone.

For You

When the mercury falls, you need heat-protecting and insulated gear. Make sure that the layers against your skin are moisture-wicking and your outer layer is water-resistant or waterproof.

Many brands carry thermal tights and undergarments that are perfect for cold-weather biking. Uniqlo’s Heattech is one of them, and it’s inexpensive, which is an added bonus. 

You want even your winter jackets to be as form-fitting as possible. Loose layers pose a risk, as they can get caught on your wheels, pedals, or even your body and cause a serious fall. Check out Bontrager’s Subzero Softshell Jacket

Keep in mind that more heat escapes through your head than anywhere else on your body. It can be tricky to cover your head while wearing a helmet properly. Luckily, there are beanies and cycling caps made for exactly that purpose. 

For Your Bike

Changing temperatures and chilly weather mean that you need to take extra precautions when it comes to your bike. If you live in a wet or snowy environment, the chances are good that your city sands or salts the roads. These materials can be corrosive for the metallic parts of your bike in particular. Clean it as soon as you can after riding.

In addition, you want to minimize your bicycle’s exposure to the elements, particularly moisture like that from heavy snow. At the very least, keep it covered, and if possible, move it indoors or to a garage or covered structure.

As you ride, you need to be particularly careful of obstacles in the road. It’s likely that sidewalks or shoulders may be slushy or covered in snow. If that’s the case, move to the right land and be extra mindful of traffic. Keep in mind that roads can ice even before temperatures dip below freezing, and potholes might also get covered in snow.

When It’s Below Freezing or Sub-Zero

If it’s the middle of winter, road cyclists have to take even more steps to keep themselves safe while cycling. 

How To Protect Yourself

One of your first priorities must obviously be keeping your body warm. Start with your inner layers, and think about getting thermal bib tights, like these from Back Country, which are ergonomically designed for bikers and have a warm fleece lining. The Bontrager jacket we mentioned above is also great for these conditions.

Don’t forget about your extremities. In conditions like this, you need to be extra careful about your face, hands, and feet. Look for ultra-thermal gloves, and you may also want to carry hand, foot and arm warmers for pit stops, warm-ups, and cool-downs.

Your normal cycling shoes will not do in these conditions, at least not by themselves. Gore and Pearl Izumi both make shoe covers meant to insulate your feet and protect your footwear. Or, check out the 45NRTH Ragnaroks, in addition to thermal socks. Just make sure you don’t squeeze your feet too much, as that can cut off circulation, which is just as dangerous.

You’ll almost certainly need to cover your face with a full balaclava. Leaving any skin exposed at these temperatures might be dangerous. Look for one specifically made for winter athletes, like skiers or runners. They’re designed to allow you to breathe better, and that’s important because it can be difficult for your lungs to absorb oxygen when it’s cold.

You may not feel as thirsty while riding in the cold since you’re less likely to get hot, but you still need to hydrate. Make sure your water bottle is insulated, especially on longer rides, so that the liquid inside doesn’t freeze.

Sometimes, cell phones die when they get too cold (just like when they overheat), particularly older models. Try to store your phone closer to your body.

Keep Your Bike in Tip-Top Shape

There are some additional steps you can take to protect your bike, and you may want to consider these even if your region hovers above freezing most of the time. Mud guards on your tires will help deflect all the street “gunk.” 

If you plan to bike a lot in the winter, you might want winter tires, which are somewhat similar to snow tires for your car. Always bring a tire pump on your ride, and add chain lube more frequently. 

Finally, you might need brighter and stronger lights, which we’ll discuss below.

Is There Such a Thing as “Too Cold”?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question because it can depend greatly on a number of factors. That being said, there isn’t a temperature at which you absolutely must not ride. In fact, there are several winter races, called Fat Bike Races, throughout the country that run regardless of frigid temperatures.

You shouldn’t ride in the cold if you aren’t prepared with proper gear, or if you have no experience riding in the cold. Ease yourself into cold riding by continuing to get out throughout the fall and early winter. You must also be mindful of dangerous conditions, many of which we discussed above, such as ice and snow.

Another factor is the quality of your workout. For a number of reasons, your body is going to work harder to produce and keep body heat and to deliver oxygen to your muscles. That means that you probably won’t get the same kind or quality of workout as you do in warmer temperatures. Your body certainly won’t build muscle in the same way it does when it’s warmer.

Finally, one of the most important things to think about is your own subjective experience. While it’s challenging, cycling should also be enjoyable. If you’re constantly dreading cold-weather rides and suffering through every mile, it might not be worth it. 

Consider investing in a stationary bike or doing other indoor activities for a couple of months, like yoga classes or HIIT videos. Save your outdoor rides for days when the temperature is a bit higher and you can ride during the warmest part of the day.

Other Factors to Consider Before Riding

Besides temperature, it’s critical that you consider other related weather phenomena. One of the most important is ice, which is potentially very dangerous for cyclists. 

Another is light. Since daylight hours are so limited during colder months, you might end up riding without sunlight. This is especially the case if you have to ride before or after work in the early more or evening hours.

In that event, you must make yourself as visible as possible to other vehicles (especially motor vehicles) and light your way to avoid hazards. Make sure that your bike lights are designed for very dark conditions, ideally night riding. 

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