Cold Weather Cycling

Mark Alden: Blue Ribbon Cycling MemberIt’s the time of year when the cold air starts to bite and the number of riders I see on the road and trail starts to dwindle. It doesn’t have to be that way though. With the right clothing and the knowledge of the uses for specific clothes it’s not difficult to stay comfortable riding your bike as the temperature dips.

My name is Mark Alden and I have been riding and racing for over 2 decades. In addition, I’m a member of the Blue Ribbon Racing team, sponsored by Campmor and was also a Campmor employee for 22 years (that’s a lot of time around outdoor gear). I live in the Northeast and ride year round and as a result I have learned how to dress for almost any weather condition. There are a lot of variables when it comes to dressing for cold weather cycling but hopefully I can offer some helpful advice so you can stay comfortable while riding your bike in cold weather.

Feeling the Chill

There are many factors that can influence what you will wear for a given temperature range. Higher exertion levels will probably call for slightly lighter weight clothing. While mountain biking, the speeds are generally slower and with the reduced wind chill you might want lighter clothing compared to what you would wear on a road bike at similar temperatures. Additionally, sunny vs. cloudy and windy vs. calm can influence what you will wear.

Another big issue that can influence clothing choice is encountering a broad temperature range during your ride. This is very often a factor in the spring and fall (or a constant in certain parts of the country) when you start in the early morning and ride for a few hours you might see the temperature rise 10 to 15 degrees. The opposite can happen if you are riding at the end of the day. In these situations you want to have layers that can be removed or added as needed. Cycling clothing accessories such as arm warmers, leg/knee warmers and vests are great for these conditions. They are all items that can easily be removed and added as needed and, for the most part, can readily fit in jersey pockets.

Always use clothing that has wicking properties, no cotton. Most cycling clothing is made with synthetic materials (or, less commonly, wool) that wick perspiration. Jackets or wind shells should be made with breathable materials. When your clothing is form fitting it does a better job at insulating and transferring moisture than loose fitting clothes by keeping warm air next to your body and allowing the wicking properties of the clothing to take effect.

Cold Weather Cycling Clothes

Below is a basic guide for what clothing to wear in various temperature ranges (in Fahrenheit). Keep in mind that different individuals will have different needs so the recommendations – especially at the end of a temperature range – might need to be modified.

Mid 50’s to Low 60’s

Bicycling Jersey Cycling Shorts Light Weight Short Sleeve Base Layer
Short Sleeve Jersey Cycling Shorts Light-weight Base Layer
Arm Warmers Knee Warmers Cycling Skull Cap
Arm Warmers Knee Warmers Light-weight Cycling Cap
Cycling Gloves
Mid-weight Cycling Gloves

On the low end of this range you can try light weight long-finger gloves along with a wind vest.

Mid 40’s to Mid 50’s

Bicycling Jersey Cycling Shorts Mid-weight Short Sleeve Base Layer
Short Sleeve Jersey Cycling Shorts Mid-weight Base Layer
Wind Vest Arm Warmers Leg Warmers
Wind Vest Arm Warmers Leg Warmers
Medium Weight Cycling Gloves Medium Skull Cap Medium Weight Shoe Covers
Mid-weight Cycling Gloves Mid-weight Cycling Cap Mid-weight Shoe Covers

Or instead of short sleeve jersey and shorts with warmers go with a light to medium weight long sleeve jersey and light weight tights with medium weight long sleeve base layer and wind vest or wind jacket.

Mid 30’s to Mid 40’s

Heavy Weight Jersey Medium Weight Tights Medium Weight Long Sleeve Base Layer
Heavy-weight Jersey Mid-weight tights Mid-weight Base Layer
Thermal Jacket Heavy Weight Shoe Covers Medium Weight Cycling Gloves
Wind Jacket Heavy-weight Shoe Cover Mid-Weight Cycling Gloves
Heavy Mediume Skull Cap
Heavier Mid-weight Cycling cap

On the low end of this range you might want to consider a thermal jacket that has wind protection instead of a jersey with a vest or wind jacket.

Below Freezing

Insulated Jacket with Wind Protection Heavy Weight Base Layer Heavy Weight Tights
Insulated Jacket Heavy-weight Base Layer Heavy-weight Tights
Heavy Weight Cycling Gloves Heavy Skull Cap Full Heavy Weight Shoe Covers
Heavy-weight Cycling Gloves Heavy-weight Headwear Heavy-weight Shoe Cover

For severe cold you might need another layer in between the jacket and base layer.

Additional Tips

  • Glove liners can extend the range of any weight glove. Thin synthetic or wool gloves work best.
  • Take an old wool hiking sock and cut a hole at the bottom of the cleat and put it over the shoe and under the shoe cover for additional insulation. Also, the sock can be used to hold a heating pack in place on the outside of the shoe over the toe vents (if found). This way you can keep your toes toasty warm.
  • Get a piece of windproof packcloth and cut a section big enough to cover your chest. On days when you need just a little extra to keep cold air off of your torso, place the packcloth under your jersey and over your base layer (the jersey will keep the cloth in place). The insulation properties are similar to professional racers grabbing a newspaper from a fan to put under their jersey for a chilly mountain descent. If it warms up enough, the pack cloth can be compressed to the size of a ping pong ball.
  • I prefer bib shorts and tights because they eliminate a layer that is met at the waist. This is especially helpful when you are wearing multiple layers; increasing comfort and closing gaps that might appear between upper and lower body clothing.
  • Put an anti-fog agent on your glasses to reduce fogging when you come to a stop or moving at slower speeds.
  • If you are going to ride in temperatures below freezing, keeping your water or sports drink from freezing can be a challenge. One method is to use insulated bottles, starting with warm water. If it isn’t enough you can use a winter specific hydration pack.
  • While shoe covers work great for road riding they get pretty beat up while mountain biking – especially if you ride on terrain where you have to walk occasionally. Consider winter-specific cycling shoes if you frequently ride off road in the cold.

Check the hourly forecast before you head out to help you plan for the day. With a little experience you will learn what combinations work best for you. Let us know in the comments below of any other methods you use while bike riding in the winter!


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