Riding in the Cold
For as long as I can remember I would “retire” the bike for the season sometime in mid-November. In my neck of the woods this was the approximate point when the temperature dropped consistently below zero. I didn’t like the idea of riding in the cold, and I figured the road conditions were going to be a challenge (e.g., snow, ice). This was fine for the most part, but I found that the three months or so that I took off from riding would make the spring riding season a challenge. All of the progress I had made from a fitness perspective would drain away over the winter (and as the holiday season occurred in the middle of all of this my eating habits weren’t doing me any favors either).
After two seasons of spring/summer/fall commuting I decided I wanted to try to ride in the winter. I have a whole host of suggestions as to how to go about doing so safely, but the first observation worth making here is that I discovered that the cold wasn’t really the problem; instead it was whether or not it was wet. Wet conditions in the cold can lead to ice and snow, and snow can also “hide” ice underneath. Ice is obviously a concern as it is slippery, snow can be slippery as well, particularly if it is loose. When snow is soft and thick it can be a problem as your tires “sink” into the snow and this can slow you to the point where it is not worth riding at all. Additionally, falling snow can impact visibility for you and other drivers, another safety concern. About the only snow I like for riding is hard packed “dry” snow, and even this can be slippery.
Knowing all of this it would seem that cold weather riding is not a good idea, particularly if you live in a part of the world where it snows a lot during the winter. However, what I discovered was that the colder seasons, just like the warmer ones, have wet and dry “stretches”. And when the road was dry (no snow, no ice), cold weather riding was just as safe as warm weather riding. Yes, you have to bundle up for the cold, and I will discuss that in more detail, but by riding on dry days (or more specifically on days when the roads were dry) I was able to ride 3-4 days a week all through the cold days of late fall, winter and early spring. This was only slightly less often than I rode in late spring, summer and early fall, and I must admit I was a bit surprised.
My “rule” for riding in cold weather was fairly simple; if the roads were dry I took the bike. If the roads were snow or ice covered, I did not. This did the trick; dry roads in cold weather are more or less identical to dry roads in warm weather from a safety perspective. There are only two significant differences that I am aware of between hot and cold riding on this point. First, really hot roads can have “gummy” portions of newer asphalt that stick to your tires, not so much a safety concern but it can be an annoyance. Second, really cold weather makes the rubber tires on your bike extremely stiff. I’m not sure if this makes flats more or less likely, but it definitely makes changing a tire almost impossible. I changed a tire once in -12 degree Celsius weather and it was extremely difficult. The tire did not want to come off of the rim, and my poor, freezing hands almost gave up.
There are two key priorities when you ride in the cold, retaining your heat and blocking the wind chill. Both of these are manageable, but you do need to spend some time putting together a winter clothing “kit” and learning how to dress for the colder weather. Essentially you want to “layer and block”, layering allows you to trap air both in the clothing and between the layers. Trapped air is warmed by your body heat (you generate excess heat while you ride) and keeps you warm in return. Blocking the wind keeps the cold air from cooling off the trapped air in your clothing, and from cooling your body directly. The key here is to ensure that you don’t lose heat at the periphery (e.g. in the space between your gloves and your sleeves) by overlapping layers of clothing.
When done properly, cold weather riding can be done in complete comfort, I have cycled in weather as cold as – 25 degrees Celsius and been perfectly warm. Ironically, the real issue becomes overheating while riding in the cold. If you layer up properly you will find that in short order you start sweating under your clothing, and then when you stop moving for an extended period of time (e.g. at a long intersection light) you will find yourself getting very cold very fast. Thus there is a third key priority when riding in the cold, removing excess heat. That is why layering is so important, peeling off layers allows you to cool off and maintain a reasonable body temperature, something I do regularly while riding in the cold.
The best way to explain this is to outline my full cold weather kit and then show how I use it during the coldest weather. First things first, as most of us know your extremities get cold first. Distance from the heart (the source of circulation of the blood) is the key factor. What that means is that by lower body tends to get colder than my upper body, and I tend to wear more layers on my lower body than my upper body as a result. This also explains why it is so important to wear a hat, a hat traps the heat as it is radiating from your body. I find that removing my hat in the cold can make a significant difference to my body heat.
I’ll start from the top and work to the bottom. Any hat you wear must be somewhat thin, as you need to put a helmet on top. What you want is a “skullcap” toque that fits tight to your head. If you have difficulty locating a hat that meets your needs, or if you can only find expensive specialty caps for winter use I suggest looking a children’s winter toques, they are smaller but designed to be just as warm, and aren’t as expensive. In particularly cold weather you can supplement this headgear with a headband. The headband will keep your ears completely covered as toques can “ride up” while you are on the bike leaving your ears and forehead exposed. Protecting your ears is important as cold air blowing in your ears can cause painful earaches. An exposed forehead encountering cold wind can lead to powerful headaches. I had both of these experiences before I figured out my kit.
The next issue is your neck. A scarf is handy as it is long and can be pulled up over the face easily if the wind gets too strong. I have also used a “neck tube”, essentially a thermal sleeve that fits around your neck. I roll it down for the regular ride, and then when I feel the need to cover my face it can be rolled up to cover up to just under my nose. In extremely cold weather you have the option of wearing a balaclava, a full face mask with only eye, nose and mouth openings. I wear prescription eye glasses so I always have something in front of my eyes, for those who do not a pair of sunglasses is a good idea, as a strong wind on a cold day can make your eyes water extensively. In extremes of cold ski goggles are an option as well.
For my trunk (my upper torso) I start with a regular cycling shirt, something short sleeve and breathable. You want breathable fabric for your undershirt as you want your perspiration to migrate away from your body. On top of that I wear a thin pullover, one I picked up at Mountain Equipment Co-op (an outdoors equipment store) about 15 years ago. Lighter than a sweater and featuring a zipper in the front, this layer helps to trap heat. My final layer on top is a “shell”, a standard issue cycling jacket with a long back end, zippers underneath the arms and down the sides of the jacket, and a zipper in the front. These jackets also feature Velcro at the cuffs so you can “seal” the heat in, and straps at the cuffs to keep the sleeves from creeping back. This combination, a breathable inner layer, a thermal layer to trap heat, and an outside layer to keep the wind from cooling you off, works remarkably well.
For my legs my heaviest “kit” consists of a regular pair of underwear, then two pairs of long underwear, one extra thin and another regular thickness. Then I add a third layer of regular lycra cycling “pants” (essentially just like cycling shorts but with full length legs). Finally I put a pair of cotton sweatpants over the whole collection. The point of course is to layer to retain heat but ensure breathability to allow moisture out. Multiple layers mean more sites for heat to be trapped, and more opportunity for your body to keep you warm. Just like the upper body clothing, the outer layers are a wind break, the inner layers trap heat.
Protection for your hands and feet are the last item on the agenda, and bear special consideration. As I mentioned above, your extremities are the areas of greatest risk when you ride in the cold, with your toes being at the greatest risk and your fingers a close second. If you experience any discomfort when riding in the cold it will be most likely be due to exposed skin on your face or finger and toe coldness.
For my hands I wear a pair of thin leather gloves that are lightly insulated, over top of these I place a pair of special mitts. These mitts have individual finger coverings in them with the top of these coverings cut off so you can use your bare fingers if needed. They also have a mitten top that can be folded over and then they function as a regular mitt. When it is coldest I put the mitten top in place and I am then wearing gloves inside mittens, which keeps my fingers very warm.
It is possible to purchase special footwear for cold weather riding, for my part I have a pair of insulated work boots that do the job. I combine them with layered socks. I have a thick pair of outer socks and a thinner pair of inner socks. So far I have found the combination of two layers of socks and an insulated workboot to be sufficient to keep my toes warm. Still, there were a few extremely cold days (below -25) when I opted for special “heat packs” that you could place in your shoe or glove. These packs work almost too well, but they will keep you warm on the extreme cold days.
So there you have it, a complete cold weather cycling kit for the whole body. Using this kit I have been able to ride in cold dry weather very successfully. To see how this works take the full kit, assume I am wearing my entire arsenal (except perhaps for the balaclava) and it is very cold. The first point to make is that when you set out you will be cold, as you ride you will generate body heat and if you have layered correctly you will start to warm up. One important skill is to overlap at the edges to make sure heat doesn’t escape and cold doesn’t get in. So you should either tuck your shirt into your gloves or tuck your gloves into your sleeves, tuck your shirt into your pants as well. My inner sock is generally underneath my long underwear but my outer sock goes outside my pants (on that note I don’t generally put an elastic around loose pants that might get caught in my bike chain, I run the sock up out of my boots and tuck the pants into it). By overlapping layers you keep the heat in. Even the smallest sliver of exposed skin can get uncomfortably cold, so you need to be careful about overlapping layers.
The next important thing to realize is that you can easily overheat during winter riding. The same clothing that keeps the heat in will quickly lead to you being too hot and sweating while you ride. In this respect hot weather and cold weather riding can be very similar, you can arrive at work soaking wet. The difference is that being wet in the cold weather can be very dangerous. However, winter riding also provides you with the opportunity to cool off while you ride. There are two easy ways to do this, one is to vent and the other is to remove layers.
One of the reasons I recommend clothing that has zippers is that this allows venting of heat while you ride without removing the layer entirely. So assuming I am out with my full kit on a cold day my first step if I’m heating up too much is to undo the zippers on my outer shell. My riding shell has zippers under the arms that go down the side of the shell. When I undo these it allows cold air to rush in and cool off my trunk and my arms. The next step if this doesn’t work is to unzip the main zipper on the front. After this I remove the shell entirely. Each of these steps can cool you off considerably, as the shell is your windbreaker, if you remove that layer the wind will quickly cool you off.
Most days when I ride in the cold I start venting and shedding layers within the first 15 minutes. After the shell comes off I zip down my thermal pullover, I find that venting on the top layer works best as my upper body is warmer. I rarely remove lower layers as I find my lower extremities to be the coldest. The goal is to ensure that your body is cool and comfortable while riding and you arrive dry at work. For the most part I tend to overdress for the weather, knowing I can vent and remove layers. Finally, it is also worth noting that the wind chill in the cold weather is, for the most part, more important than the actual temperature. I can ride at much lower temperatures when there is no wind chill. Put in a slightly different way, wind on a warm day is pleasant, wind on a cold day can literally be painful, so I make my riding decisions appropriately.
Two other issues make cold weather riding different. The first is that wet and cold conditions lead to a sort of sludge of ice, dirt and snow that comes to populate the “gutter” right beside the curb, sometimes it can also pool in the road. Depending on how much of it is there, you will end up riding further left of the curb than you would in dry conditions, riding through is both dangerous and slow. This makes some drivers nervous, and some cyclists too, but it can’t be avoided riding on certain winter roads. Also, bike trails in parks and along waterfronts can be closed in winter months. In addition, you may be constrained to main arteries in the winter, as secondary roads with less traffic tend to stay wet and covered with snow and ice longer. For the regular winter commuter main arteries, particularly wider ones will be your best bet. So winter riding is for those more tolerant of regular road traffic.
The second issue is damage to the bike itself. The noxious mix of dirt, road salt, snow, water etc. that coats your wheels and eventually your chain in the winter can quickly lead to breakdown of your components. The first winter season I rode through my rear derailleur froze up completely. That was my own fault as I hadn’t been cleaning it regularly. Even two or three rides into wet winter weather you start noticing the signs of trouble, for example, this season my chain started “catching” as I pedaled backwards after my first two rides in mildly wet winter weather. It only gets worse after that. The only real solution is to purchase a bike with an enclosed gear and chain system or to clean the bike regularly. The problem is cleaning frequency, a quick wipe of the chain won’t do the job in the long run as the salt and dirt gets into all of your gear mechanisms. So you should really be disassembling your rear derailleur and cleaning all of the components. It isn’t necessarily that difficult to do if you are systematic about it, but you would have to do it so often during the regular season that it is almost prohibitive. My personal solution is to only ride on dry days. You will still pick up more dirt than in the summer, but it is much less significant than what you pick up when the roads are wet.
When the seasons start to change I will go from lighter clothing to heavier clothing, adding layers as I go. My footwear changes over the seasons, I cycle in the summer with bare feet in sandals or vented cycling shoes. As the fall starts I add socks to the sandals and shoes, as it gets colder I wear socks and a leather shoe without ventilation. Then I move to double socks, then to workboots, then layered socks in the workboots. There is a similar progression for leggings, starting with shorts, then full length lycra cycling pants, then cotton pants on top, then the long underwear layers. For the hands it is cycling gloves, leather gloves, cycling mitts then leather gloves plus cycling mitts. For the head I start with no covering, then headband, then winter cap, etc.
By combining these elements you can be comfortable in all varieties of weather. Keep in mind that wind matters most in the colder weather, and I should also note here that it is possible to buy specialty cold riding clothing (for example thermal pants or shoes). For the most part I have never tried this sort of gear, I’m sure it works well enough. However, I tend to try to use cheaper substitutes where possible, as a matter of fact most of the clothing I use for cold weather riding was cobbled together out of things I already had for other reasons (e.g. winter camping). The only specialty winter gear I have purchased for cycling is my dual function mitts. For the most part though, cheaper alternatives are always available. A light cotton shirt is fairly breathable, and can substitute for a cycling shirt. What is less substitutable is design options like zippers. A standard cotton t-shirt would not have a zipper. Still, you can always improvise, as I pointed out a children’s winter cap can work well but not be unduly expensive.
Just for the record, the only cycling clothing I have purchased over the years has been a few cycling shirts (with pouches on the back and a zipper in the front), cycling shoes, gloves, a thermal pullover (with zipper) and an outer “shell” (with side zippers, a front zipper, sleeve loops and Velcro “seals” at the cuff). All of these items were purchased about 15 years ago and I’m still using them today (with the exception of the gloves, a pair normally lasts me about two seasons). In each case the item functions particularly well for its purpose, and since it has lasted me a long time it was definitely worth the cost.