How to dress for winter cycling

You don’t have to freeze to enjoy riding your bike year-round

There’s nothing worse than pushing the pedals a few times only to discover that you’re over or under dressed for the weather. After sliding on ice and freezing my butt off more than I care to admit, I’ve created a few guidelines for facing Old Man Winter:

1. Avoid riding when temps and wind chill are below freezing. You can’t predict when a stream of melting water will trickle onto the road and freeze, spinning you out of control, so pay attention to the thermometer before you venture outside. Stay alert, looking for wet pavement and any shady spots on the road that might freeze first.

2. Keep rides short. As cold air moves in and out of your chest and smacks you in the face, you’ll quickly realize that this ain’t summer training. Don’t expect to set any records: Accept that your speeds will be low and your heart rate high. I usually consider outdoor riding a supplement to the trainer — a nice “long” training ride to mix in some hills (intervals), keep my bike handling skills sharp, and break up the boredom.

3. Don’t overdress. After taking a glance outside, you might be tempted to start stockpiling the fleece and SmartWool. But how well do you think the kid from A Christmas Story could get down into the drops? Exactly — Resist the urge to pile on the layers. Instead make a couple of solid choices, and start your ride feeling cool, but not cold.

4. Cover your core. Keep your torso toasty and your extremities will also stay warm. You don’t need anything fancy, just think thin, breathable layers. I like to use a wicking baselayer (which are a steal at places like Target, Marshall’s, and Kohl’s), either short or longsleeve. I’ll substitute this for thermal UnderArmor if the temps are cold enough. You can also use a vest or a thermal long sleeve cycling jersey.

5. Break wind. In the winter, the wicked descents you enjoyed all summer will suddenly feel like you’re sliding face-first down an iceberg. For me, blocking the wind is the most important piece to staying comfortable. If you invest in nothing else, get a good pair of weather-resistant tights. Faking it with a pair of legwarmers coupled with cycling shorts always left my butt freezing and ended my winter rides early. You will also need a heavy, lined windbreaker (if you want to stack a few thin layers underneath) or winter jacket, and wind-resistant gloves and booties.

A word about booties…

Yes, they are silly sounding, but man do they keep your toes toasty. As you’ll see below, mine are nothing fancy, but are wind and water resistant.

A few of my favorite things:

As you can see, this virtual winter biker (it was 60 degrees in New York today, so I had to improvise) is displaying my favorite tights, Pearl Izumi’s AmFib. These fleece-lined tights have wind and water resistant panels right where you need them, without feeling stiff. I also opted for tights that don’t have a chamois so I can use them for other activities. As pictured, a light, breathable hat that covers your ears is a great accessory. Just make sure it’s not too thick. If your neck and face feel frostbitten on rides, try a balaclava (not pictured, but just visualize what you would wear to rob a 7-Eleven). When choosing gloves, I often find full-finger mountain bike gloves are fine for fall and early winter. For cold rides, I use a heavier glove that blocks the wind. Top this outfit off with some SmartWool socks (they make a great biking specific one, but really any wool sock should cut it), and you’re ready to roll! Happy winter riding.


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