What To Wear: Winter Cycling
For many, the idea of riding a bicycle in sub-freezing conditions seems crazy. When you have the necessary tools and knowledge, riding on ice and snow is super fun. One of the key issues for people getting into the sport of winter cycling is deciphering what to wear. I prepared the below presentation for the Freewheel Winter Bike Expo and wanted to share it with you. If you want to learn more about how to increase your comfort riding bicycle in the winter, keep reading.
First, it is important to note there is no cookie-cutter formula for everyone. Everyone has different blood circulation, fitness levels, and tolerances for comfort. This presentation is meant to be a guide that you tailor to your specific needs and preferences. This is NOT a manual guaranteed to bring you comfort, or safety. You will need to experiment with different layering, and over time you will be nailing the right clothing plan for every cold weather ride.
Before we jump into the temperature ranges, lets explore the main challenges we seek to overcome while achieving winter cycling comfort.
Our bodies produce vapor, or perspiration. The more intense our workout, the more vapor we produce. Managing this vapor is extremely important as the temperatures dip past freezing. Merino wool can hold 30% of it’s weight in moisture and still feel dry and warm against the skin. This is because it wicks moisture away from your skin more effectively than any known synthetic.
Adding space between your skin and the outside elements creates warmth. There are a few ways of doing this. The most common way is to add lofted insulation like a Primaloft, or Thinsulate. Lofted insulation comes in two basic forms: down, and synthetic down. Down packs smaller, but loses its insulation value when wet (think vapor produced by your body). Synthetic down doesn’t pack as small, but maintains most of its insulation value when wet.
Conductive heat loss is another challenge winter cyclists face. Anything such as metal that absorbs and holds cold energy will pull the heat out of your hands or feet. The best solution for reducing conductive heat loss in your hands is to use thick foam grips on carbon handlebars. Carbon is less conductive than aluminum. Aerogel is a space-age insulation with an insulation value more than 10 times that of down, and we use it in 45NRTH’s Sturmfist 4 gloves, as well as our Wölvhammer and Wølfgar boots to block cold transfer from steel cleats beneath the toes.
Protection from wind and moist weather elements is also an important factor in achieving winter cycling comfort. On jackets and pants it is important to have a hardshell to block wind and water, and in footwear it is important to use a product that has a built-in waterproof-breathable membrane. Decisions around protection should be carefully balanced against insulation warmth as membranes tend to trap vapor.
We’re going to cover 6 temperature ranges. The variables of wind, workout intensity, and duration are all factors that need to be considered when dressing for winter cycling. The more windy it is, the more important it is to wear protective shells to fight wind chill. The more intensely you ride, the more heat and moisture you generate. You’ll want to tailor your layering and add as much ventilation and breathability in your wind shells as possible the more intense your workout is. Duration matters as it relates to intensity and your layering plan. If you know you’re going to be out in sub-freezing conditions for more than 3 hours, do not ride too intensely in the first 75% of your ride as you will sweat and that moisture will want to freeze close to your body.
For temperatures 45°F (7°C) and warmer 150gsm wool against your body is all you need. So, a shirt, cap and gloves made with this weight of wool are great for this temperature range. Normal bib shorts with a longer overshort on the bottom are adequate as well. On the feet you will want a light winter shoe that has a waterproof-breathable membrane for wind and moisture resistance. Some might find that a lightweight long-sleeve wool base layer and vest to be comfortable substitutions.
When you dip to the 25-45 range you’ll be hovering above and below freezing, which can be especially tricky to dress for. In this range you’ll probably want a thicker 250gsm wool cap, and definitely some wind resistant gloves to take the edge off. Wind chill becomes a concern below freezing. A neck gaiter will keep the area between your chin and collar covered to trap heat and enhance comfort. Knee warmers with wind protection over you knees are important added accessories. Adding a 200-250gsm wool mid-layer on top of your base layer, and a wind vest is a good choice. Full zip vests and jerseys allow you to open up the front to dump heat if needed. Upgrade to a midweight sock in the same shoe as the 45°F range and you’re all set!
At the 15-25°F range you’ll need to move to an insulated winter cycling boot with at least 200gsm insulation, like the Wölvhammer boot. Pairing this with a heavy calf-height sock will keep you super cozy. For your hands you’ll need to take the next step in warmth with something that has 100gsm of lofted insulation. Depending on how much hair you have, it might be necessary to add wind protection to your headwear, and thermal bibs are a staple for continuous riding in sub-freezing conditions. Goggles will allow you to maintain your vision by preventing wind chill from making your eyes water.
When riding in temperatures hovering just above 0°F hands and eye protection become increasingly important factors to maintaining safety and comfort. Larger gloves with 300gsm insulation and gauntlet cuffs are a great choice. Pair these with thick foam grips like the Bear Paw grips from Wolftooth and your hands will win against the cold every time. At this temperature range a pair of wind resistant pants with fleece lining will keep your blood warm as it flows into your feet, preserving warmth there as well.
Riding in below zero conditions requires strong consideration for safety. You should also do a spot assessment of wind, intensity and duration of your ride and prepare accordingly. Be smart and intentional about your choices. Well-insulated footwear is an absolute requirement. A boot with a 400gsm insulation package and a felted wool liner is the best choice. If you ride with flat pedals a Sorel Caribou Wool boot would suffice. I your ride clipless pedals the only real choice is the 45NRTH Wølfgar, which has a removable wool liner, 400gsm Primaloft shell, and Aerogel under the foot and over the toes. For hands, this is where you definitely want pogies to block wind and store heat. Tailor your glove choice inside the pogie as needed.
It is not a good idea to attempt winter cycling for the first time at -25°F. Safety is of utmost importance, and the best way to achieve this is by practicing to the point where you have mastery of dealing with the wind, intensity and duration variables of your riding experience. At this temperature range the possibility of frostbite is high, and the consequences of poor planning could result in amputation or even death. You will want to have a down jacket packed with you at all times, and you’ll need to cover up any exposed skin on your body. This means wearing a balaclava with wind protection in the front. If the going gets really tough, or you need to stop, put the down jacket on.
OTHER TIPS AND CAUTION FOR SUB-ZERO RIDING
It’s not a bad idea to carry fire-starting materials with you, as this can save your life in a pinch. If your feet start to get cold, or you lose feeling in them, get off your bike immediately and walk at an aggressive pace for 5-10 minutes. This will help circulate blood thoroughly through your extremities, bringing back warmth and comfort. If you are going on a multi-day expedition, you’ll need to use vapor barriers on your feet so no moisture gets trapped in the lining of your boots. Once it’s in there and it freezes, the only way to get it out is by drying it with heat. It is NEVER a good idea to dry your footwear over a fire out in the wild. It can compromise the waterproof membrane, and in extremely unfortunate situations it can melt synthetic insulation, rendering it useless.
In summary, here is a quick overview of each range:
Remember, assess the temperatures you will be riding in, the wind chill factor, and the planned duration and intensity of your ride. This will ensure a safe and comfortable winter cycling experience. Thanks for reading. I’m leaving the comments open so you can ask questions or share your own tips.