If you despise long indoor rides but are afraid to bike outside in the cold, this piece may persuade you that cycling outdoors is worthwhile. However, you must be prepared.
How cold is too cold for cycling?
To begin, let us define “very chilly.” For some riders, any temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit is considered quite cold. For the purposes of this column, “very cold” is defined as temperatures below 32 degrees. If you believe that cycling in temperatures below freezing is impossible, consider that hard-core commuters in Colorado and other northern latitude states are frequently seen pedaling in subzero conditions.
My first truly chilly ride, at 16 degrees Fahrenheit, was in January a few years ago. I couldn’t bear the prospect of riding indoors once again, much less for a two-hour ride. Some will refer to this as justification, but I like to refer to it as reasoning. I reasoned that if I was going to ski in 16-degree temps, why not cycle? Cycling outdoors in the fresh air and sun would be far more beneficial to my mental and physical health than spending two hours on an interior trainer.
No, I was not compelled to ride outdoors; it was a deliberate choice, a pleasure. After that first bitterly cold ride, I’ve learned that I am capable of doing so and that I much prefer being outside than being indoors.
Is it Safe to Cycle in the Winter?
While I do not feel that riding outside in sub-freezing conditions is inherently dangerous, I believe that some measures are prudent:
- If the roads are snow-covered or slippery, attempt to use a route with less traffic.
- Reduce the length of downhill stretches to prevent being chilled due to wind chill.
- With its wide tires, a mountain bike is more stable than a road cycle.
- Reduce tire pressure in order to improve traction and handling.
- Ride with a companion so that if one of you has difficulty, the other can provide a help.
- Maintain a supply of disposable chemical hand and toe warmers. They may be worn in your shoes to keep your toes warm or used to keep your hands warm when performing mechanical repairs.
- Carry a mobile phone with you.
- Make arrangements for someone to drive a sag car for you or, at the very least, be available to pick you up if you phone for assistance.
How Do You Dress for Cycling in Winter?
As you’re probably aware, some riders arrive in a jersey and knee warmers while others arrive in leg warmers, arm warmers, a vest, and a base layer shirt. I’ll provide my own choices for cold-weather riding clothing, but keep on mind that I’m easily chilled.
I recently completed a bike in temperatures ranging from 10.9 to around 24 degrees, not including wind chill. I’ll walk you through my ensemble from top to bottom.
I’m aware that some bikers prefer a head cover worn beneath the helmet, but I prefer a helmet cover. For wind chill and moisture protection, I prefer a helmet cover. When it begins to rain or snow, I find that a head cover becomes wet and chilly, but a helmet cover provides greater protection. Gore makes my current favorite helmet cover.
Along with providing wind and moisture protection, the cover makes it simple for me to remove it and manage my body temperature. For me, removing an under-the-helmet head cover is more difficult than just snapping off a helmet cover.
I also use a fleece headband in addition to the helmet cover. I enjoy the weight and thickness of Pearl Izumi’s Therma Fleece band. I occasionally use a balaclava in addition to the headband and helmet cover, depending on the weather. Because I don’t see a manufacturer’s name on my balaclava, I’m unable to tell you who created it. I can tell you that the material is quite thin, and it’s really easy for me to drag the bottom half down off my chin or up over my nose. Pre-heating the air that enters my lungs is critical for me since I suffer from exercise-induced asthma.
The balaclava fits better when the seam is facing away from my skin, or what some people refer to as inside-out.
Hydration Packs and Carrying Extra Accessories
When it’s really cold outside, I prefer to carry a hydration pack loaded with hot water or an energy drink rather than bottles in my bike’s cages. The warm fluid on my back helps keep me warm, and the bladder fluid never freezes due to the pack’s insulation. Bottles of water have a tendency to freeze solid as a rock. Even in frigid conditions, you can become dehydrated, which is why you need fluids to stay hydrated.
My two favorite hydration packs are as follows. If I don’t want a lot of fluid capacity or space for additional clothing, I like the Wink from Ultimate Direction. This tiny pack features zippered storage pockets and strap sections for easy access to gels and energy bars. Additionally, having a neoprene-coated drinking tube is beneficial.
Even if your tube is wrapped with neoprene, you may need to store it beneath your jacket to prevent it from freezing. It’s a good idea to begin drinking warm fluids early in the ride and to continue doing so often during the ride to maintain the line open and not frozen solid.
If I must or choose to carry more supplies, I prefer my Camelbak. I have an earlier model, but it appears to be the most similar to the L.U.X.E. Mine features a neoprene-coated drinking tube, and I like the valve’s ability to be shut off. This prevents the valve from leaking if something is placed on top of it or if the valve is pinched. In this instance, I’ll keep my gels and bars in the pack, near the warm fluid, or in a pocket on one of my inner layers of clothing.
Depending on the ride’s length and scheduled pauses, I frequently bring an additional pair of the lowest two layers of clothes I wear on my torso. This is especially true if I want to descend a long distance following a big climb in chilly weather.
When I ride off-road, I also carry a rescue whistle.
I wore many layers on the recent cold-weather ride I described previously. I enjoy wearing numerous layers because they allow me to simply remove one if I am too warm. I wore everything I started with for the whole of that final lengthy ride:
- A moisture-wicking sports bra. For winter, I prefer the long type that triathletes frequently wear. The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Tri Top is one alternative.
- Following that, a very thin, long-sleeved base layer was worn.
- I like to wear a lightweight turtleneck with or without a zipper in really chilly temperatures. If I anticipate the need for temperature regulation, I prefer a zipper. Patagonia makes an excellent zip-neck.
- A long-sleeved shirt served as my fourth layer. My favorite winter jerseys are the Pearl Izumi thermals.
- When I ride, I usually wear a vest, especially if there is no forecasted rain. In the dead of winter, I prefer a fleece-lined windproof vest.
- Finally, I’ll wear a lightweight jacket that is breathable but also wind and waterproof in the coldest or wettest weather. I discussed this jacket in a blog post last summer; it’s called the Octane. I enjoy clothing that can be worn for a variety of purposes and in a variety of seasons.
- Some may look at the list and conclude that no one could possibly wear all of these layers and avoid boiling to death; yet, I was quite comfortable and did not overheat. Due to the layering technique, I could have removed a layer or two if I became too hot—but that didn’t happen at 10.9 degrees. Multiple layers are preferable than one or two heavy ones.
My hands often become chilly. In the spring, fall, and winter, I normally start each ride with an underliner glove. Under Armour has an excellent liner that I’ve used beneath many sorts of cycling gloves. Again, I like to use liners to adjust my body temperature—they are simple to remove.
The only glove that works for me on the coldest rides is a lobster glove with wind and water protection. If I have to deal with a mechanical issue, the chemical pack I stated previously fits either inside the glove or on top of one of the claw pieces.
I’m looking for wind protection on the front of my legs, and I’m not a fan of an outer layer that flails in the wind. I also require fleece covering on the backs of my legs, but not for wind protection. While some want their shorts to be incorporated into their tights, I prefer to pair the Pearl Izumi AmFIB tight with a fleece cycling short. I had last year’s Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Thermal (sadly, no link to this product is accessible at the time of writing this column).
For the coldest conditions, I like a double-layer sock that is also lightweight. I prefer the Wrightsock Lite crew because it fits well within my bike shoes.
Whether riding a road bike or a mountain bike, I prefer a neoprene shoe cover in chilly weather. A neoprene cover enables me to wear the same shoe that I do in the summer rather than investing in a winter riding shoe.
I’ve had a difficult time finding sunglasses that don’t fog up while my nose is covered by a balaclava. Most glasses function fine when I cover only my mouth, but they tend to fog up when I cover my nose. I’m a fan of Oakley’s top-vented Radar, which I discussed in the blog post from last summer.