For several years now I’ve been a dedicated outdoor winter cyclist. Not that I particularly enjoy harsh conditions, I simply detest riding the indoor trainer. Winters in St. Louis tend to be rather open, but that doesn’t mean conditions can’t at times be very challenging. This past weekend was a perfect example, as an arctic blast brought temperatures down into the single digits. However, with no precipitation and sunny skies, this was no reason to abandon my rides. I got in 2.5 hours Saturday morning (8°F at the start) and nearly 3 hours Sunday morning (5°F at the start, after a 1-hour trail run). I didn’t see another cyclist the entire weekend (though surely someone must have been out), and if any of you got in this kind of time on a trainer, well I salute you.
Cold weather cycling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those so inclined the right gear can make the difference between getting a good workout and suffering badly. I’ve put together an ensemble for dealing with the cold – I don’t claim it will work for everyone, but surely it will work for someone. Contrary to what most people preach, I don’t use too many layers – at least on my core. I find excessive layers not only bulky but also prone to overheating, and it’s just not practical to stop and add or remove layers when you get too warm or too cold. I prefer to use minimal layers of high-performing fabrics that can handle a wider range of temperatures. I also believe that you get what you pay for – if you buy cheap crap, you get cheap crap. I’m not saying bargains cannot be found, but in general I’ve not been very happy with low-end or off-brand items. It’s not really a bargain if it doesn’t perform, and when it comes to cold weather cycling, performance is really the only metric.
It all starts with a base layer. I use this long sleeve base by Assos – it has insulating front panels (black) for wind protection with mesh on the sides (grey) to allow for ventilation. It is very lightweight but provides enough warmth that I need no other layers underneath my thermal jacket, no matter how cold it is.
Thermal tights are a necessity, and bibs provide a little more wind protection on the front (along with their greater comfort). I use these Giordana thermals and need no additional layers underneath. Zippers on the back of each cuff make it easy to get your feet in and out. The reflective highlights are useful if you ride or find yourself caught in dark conditions.
A good thermal jacket completes the core ensemble. This team jacket is made by Castelli, and as mentioned above, when combined with a good winter base layer provides all the warmth one needs. At higher temps (upper 20s to low 30s) an adjustment of the zipper is all one needs to fine tune, and I have yet to find a temperature low enough that the jacket/base layer combination can’t handle.
Keeping feet warm is a problem because of low blood circulation and typically cramped quarters inside the shoe. Some people wear multiple sock layers, but I’ve not had much luck doing this, as compression eliminates dead air space and defeats the insulating benefit. I’ve been most happy with this pair of Assos wool socks – thick enough to provide some real warmth, but not so thick they make things tight in the shoe, especially with this pair of Shimano shoes, which have a little bit roomier toe box. Don’t forget to put a piece of electrical tape over the vent hole on the sole. A good pair of thermal booties (these are Pearl Izumi) is a must and is normally all I need with the wool socks, but for really cold conditions like this past weekend I’ll add some wind socks (these are Castelli windblockers) over the wool socks. Some people recommend chemical heat packs over the toe between the shoe and bootie – this seems like a good idea, but I’ve really not needed to try it. I know a few people who use battery powered heated sole inserts or winter shoes, which also seem like good (albeit more expensive) ideas. Again, I haven’t felt the need to go to that expense, as the items I show here have been enough to keep my feet warm in even the worst conditions.
Hand warmth is a huge challenge and is still my limiting factor on how cold I can go. I’ve tried all sorts of gloves, and my best results have been with this Assos winter glove system. It consists of a light, thin liner, a wind-blocking full-fingered glove, and a lobster-style shell for extra wind protection. I like this three piece system because it allows flexibility for changing conditions, e.g. after warming up good you can remove the shell for dexterity without needing to carrying an extra set of gloves. In conditions like this weekend, however, nothing gets removed.
I don’t have much problems keeping my head and face warm with this setup. The first layer is a Giordana balaclava – best to get one with a fleece lining, as the non-fleece models don’t provide enough warmth at temps below freezing. When temps fall below ~20°F I’ll add this skull cap (Castelli) that I also wear alone at temps in the 40s. For really frigid conditions like this past weekend, I add this Giordana face mask – the combination of these three items provides complete coverage of the entire head/face except for the area just around the eyes, which are of course covered by my sunglasses. At less than frigid temps the balaclava can just be pulled up over your mouth as needed, but if it’s cold enough that you need your nose covered then it is better to go ahead and add the face mask – it’s warmer, and you can control fogging of the glasses better . Fogging is caused by moisture-laden breathe directed up from the mask or balaclava to behind your glasses – this can be minimized easier with a face mask since it can be cinched tight against the cheeks, while a balaclava can’t. Even so, fogging can still be a problem when at a stop, or with heavy breathing during low-speed climbing (no wind to dissapate the moist air). In these cases it helps to purse your lips against the inside of the mask to force air out through the mask. Glasses with ventilated lenses also help reduce fogging.
I normally get dressed in a heated building, and when it’s really cold I also try to find a heated space to put on my gloves, headwear, and footwear. If this is not available or convenient, I do so in the front seat of my car, doors closed. Try to avoid putting on these items out in the frigid cold – it really makes a difference. Add sunglasses and helmet (and a bike!) and you’re ready to go! I do suggest taking off your sunglasses before entering the Quick Stop for a hot chocolate break or you’re liable to be mistaken as a person with malicious intentions!
Soon after starting out when the wind chill starts taking its effect and my body hasn’t yet warmed up is the toughest part of the ride, but once I get warmed up I have little problem even with temps in the single digits. My hands are the only real issue, as the thumb and first two finger tips get chilled quickly while I’m still trying to warm up. When this happens, I remove my fingers and thumb from the glove fingers of one hand but keep them inside the glove and make a fist, alternately holding my thumb inside and outside my fist until they get warmed up again. Then I replace them into the glove fingers and do the other hand (I alternate hands so that I always have one ‘good’ hand for braking and maneuvering). Eventually, once your blood is flowing warm, your hands will stay warm – usually in ~15-20 minutes. In really frigid conditions you may need to do this on and off all during the ride.
Don’t expect this ensemble to give the feel of a Tahitian vacation! As I mentioned above, mental fortitude and time spent conditioning as fall and winter progress are also required. Proper gear just helps to raise your threshold – hopefully to the point where cold alone is not enough to cause you to punt on a workout. If anyone else has good suggestions of their own on handling the cold I’d love to hear them.