Winter riding tips for your road bike

In my post about bike riding, I mentioned that this was the first winter I was spending on my bike. For the past few winters, I’ve hung up my road bike every October and left it untouched until March or April when things warmed up again. I also gained about 10lbs each winter from months of indoor inactivity and noticed I was suffering from bouts of winter blues. When I started doing cyclocross last fall I realized it wasn’t that hard to power through the winters and continue riding.

I noticed the thing holding me back and hanging up my bike each fall was simply being too cold when riding. While I could handle cold temps on my legs, it was mostly my ears and hands freezing from lack of coverage. Also, I avoided riding in the rain, which in Oregon can be the majority of winter days. This winter I decided to spend a few weeks and a few hundred dollars testing out everything I could find to try and get some comfort when temps got cold and the weather turned wet.

Keep in mind that winters in the Pacific Northwest are mild by global standards and probably even by American standards, but they’re much colder than what I was used to after spending the first 30 years of my life in California. Average daily high temps in the Oregon winter are roughly in the 30F-50F range with lots of rain (and snow a handful of days). The stuff I list here has worked well for me when doing 15-20 mile rides (about 60-90 minutes of riding) in temps that are just above freezing and raining.

I’ve broken the following tips for gear down by area of the body. I sometimes tried 2 or 3 different products before finding one that worked and I’ll say upfront a lot of this stuff is expensive but I contend the comfort is definitely worth it. Also keep in mind all this gear does add to your exercise time — it literally takes me about 15 minutes to fully suit up for a cold ride and almost that long to take it all and hang it for drying. I bought almost all of this gear at REI but their online store changes often and I’ve linked to other places I could find the same item or something similar. Click any thumbnail to get to a store selling it.

Keeping your head warm

There are a few important things to consider here: you want to keep your ears warm and your head dry even in rain. Towards those goals I found the following products to work best.

A Skullcap is a liner you put on your head, under your helmet and they extend over your ears (this is key to keeping warm). I tried out a cheap one made by Trek and another cheap one made by REI but they didn’t cover my ears completely or block much wind. I found a model made by Gore (the gore-tex people) that has a windstopper layer inside of it to be quite warm and big enough to completely cover my ears.

skullcap

Helmet covers are also important for sheding rain off your helmet and keeping wind from getting to your head through all the vents. Gore makes one that works fantastically. Water flows right off it and never soaks in.

helmet cover

Helmet type is important to keep water off your eyes and face. I’ve always ridden with a helmet like this one, which offers tons of vents to keep your head cool in summer. I quickly found that even with a helmet cover, lots of rain would pour onto my glasses so I ended up getting a mountain bike helmet with a bit of a visor like this one. That extra inch or so hanging over my temple is enough to keep rain completely off the top of my face while riding.

Don’t forget your eyes. I wear prescription sunglasses by Oakley, with their lightest lens available (it lets in 61% of the light while normal sunglasses only let in 10-20%). They still block sun but I can wear them and see fine on cloudy days, they block cold winds from making my eyes tear up, and my helmet’s visor (even with the helmet cover stretched over it) keeps water off them nicely.

Keeping your torso warm

There are loads of options for what to wear on top and most people go for layering. I tried jerseys with fleece over with a shell on top of everything and found it to be too bulky. I eventually found a really nice high-end jacket by Gore that I can wear with a simple first layer like a t-shirt. Even after months of rainy and muddy rides, it never lets water in and keeps me really warm even below freezing. It does get a bit warm when temps rise to up to 50F but it has underarm vents (with a mesh screen under to keep your shirt inside — a nice touch I’ve never seen in a jacket before). It also has a napoleon pocket for my iPhone and standard cycling jersey style pockets in the back (also has a tiny zippered back pocket I keep my house keys in). I love this jacket to death and it’s gotta be the most technologically advanced fabric I’ve owned. I have zero complaints with it.

jacket

Keeping your legs warm

If temps are in the 40F-50F range, I find that a simple pair of cycling tights works fine. It’s basically just a pair of normal cycling shorts but they go down to your ankles. And yes, you do kind of have to get over the weird feeling of wearing tights in public but embarrassment goes away after a ride or two. I love these Pearl Izumi tights because they have a great chamois pad:

tights

When temps are in the 30F-40F range and it is raining, I use another set of tights, this time by Gore. They have windstopper fabric and they are unpadded, so you have to wear them over summer cycling shorts. I can’t find them at REI anymore but I think these are the same pair.

Keeping your hands warm

I normally wear a pretty light glove and I really like having the dexterity to work a cycling computer and adjust zippers while riding so it took me a long time to find a winter glove that didn’t feel like an oven mitt. When temps are in the 40F-50F range I wear a light leather glove by Pearl Izumi that is basically a summer cycling glove with full fingers. When the wind kicks up, it rains, or temps go into the 30F range, I switch to a slightly heavier glove, a thermalfleece padded version of the same glove. Lots of companies make lots of heavier gloves but I found them to be cumbersome to use and after 15min or so on my bike, my hands would start to sweat even if it was barely above freezing outside.

Keeping your feet warm

Lastly, if you’re using road shoes they’re probably thin leather that is tight fitting and require a short thin sock. That spells disaster for comfort in the winter rain and I decided to try out some heavy shoe covers/booties. They work amazingly well and it’s one of those things where you didn’t know you needed them until you had them. I was surprised the first time I wore them on a cold ride because I was just used to having ice cold extremities but these really help you stay warm, especially in rain. Without these booties, my feet used to cramp up on cold rides, but it hasn’t happened since I started using them.

booties

Conclusions

This winter, I’ve ridden several hundred miles in weather a lot of people don’t like to drive a car in. I’m fitter, healthier, and happier and when I have a couple hours set aside for a ride, with all this gear the weather really doesn’t matter anymore. It is expensive stuff and I’d guess it’ll cost you $500 and up to get fully outfitted but the difference is dramatic and these gear choices are the only thing making comfort possible in the freezing rain.

38 Comments

  • Great tips! I live in Chicago where it gets down to 0F for periods of days long, and generally hovers around 10-20F all winter.
    I’ve personally identified four “grades” of temperatures and I vary my dress accordingly.
    * For temperatures 45F and above I wear my standard riding shorts, thin t-shirt, and my Nike+ shoes which are ventilated.
    * For temperatures 30F to 45F I add a light windbreaker and a light pair of gloves
    F
    * For temperatures 15F to 30F I add a second pair of gloves, a cap under my helmet. I also swap out my shorts for a pair of jeans.
    * For temperatures -10F to 15F and on those days that are extra slushy, I wear a pair of motorcycle boots and when I get down around 0F I wear a fleece under my windbreaker.
    Keep in mind, my ride is only about 3.5mi in each directions, so I’m only exposed to the nasty weather here for 30-45 minutes during the worst of the winter and 15-35 during the warmer days.

  • Oh yeah, I forgot to mention fenders for your bike. I run Planet Bike quick release fenders on my road bike and have some bolt-on ones for my cyclocross bike.
    I’ve also heard good things about those Portland wool jerseys, I’ll have to check them out.

  • Very nice roundup of gear.
    The one piece I would add to your list is a balaclava. I used to commute about half the time when I lived in Pittsburgh, and some mornings on my 12 mile ride downtown my water bottles would freeze completely solid, so you know it was cold. Those days you wear it fully over your face, and on slightly warmer days you can pull the face part down so just your head, ears and neck are covered.
    Oh, and gloves with the little patch at the base of the thumbs where you can wipe your snots while you ride are clutch.

  • Wool, wool, and more wool.
    Seriously. Nothing keeps you warmer, especially when wet. And, best of all, it doesn’t stink.
    Some stuff I’ve tried and like riding year ’round in Pittsburgh:
    Swobo “Belgian” cap. This is good from the mid 40s down to the 20s. The brim keeps precipitation out of your eyes.
    Portland Cyclewear Jerseys. The 2007 models are incredibly good deals. In temps down to the mid teens, I wear a short sleeve wool jersey with a silk long sleeve (under a soft shell jacket). And I can go a week or two between washing the jersey. And wool works quite well in the summer, too.
    I’ve also been happily using a pair of regular wool gloves ($10 at REI). If the temps drop below freezer, I layer them under a pair of old Nashbar lobster mittens.
    I try as much as I can to wear normal clothes when commuting, so unless it’s raining or snowing, I just wear jeans or cords. As it gets colder, I’ll layer silk long underwear bottoms under them. I use a pair of Gore-Tex running shoes (some Salomon models that REI had on sale) and these keep my feet mostly warm and dry. I have a pair of shoes under my desk at work, though, should my shoes get soaked in the rain. If it’s raining or snowing, I use a pair of windproof tights under nylon knickers.
    And even though we aren’t talking about bikes, I have full fenders with mudflaps on my commuter. The mudflaps are key for both keeping your feet and your bike dry.

  • One very important consideration is your bike. Having cycled in Ottawa,Ontario in January I can testify to the importance of not having any cheap plastic components in sub-zero temperatures. They will freeze and get brittle. Not much is worse that being stuck in a hill climbing gear for your entire ride because the plastic portion of your shifter exploded.
    Also be sure you can stay warm even if you have to stop cycling.

  • Is the helmet the Giro Animas? Your link just bounced to their home page. (Gddmn Flash.) The issue with rain & glasses has been the main thing keeping me from biking through the winter; I just can’t see anything! I have a mtn bike helmet with a bit of a visor and it doesn’t seem to help much, but that one looks a hair bit longer than mine.
    Maybe I can ride through the spring rain this year!

  • Got my bike from the shop. It’s better than new! I was going to spring for the wind-proof tights, but they were $120, and my frugal fingers just couldn’t pull the trigger. Maybe in November…

  • I know it’s not quite the same but what about cycling indoors using something like Inside Ride’s E-Motion Rollers (http://www.insiderideuk.co.uk/rollers.html)? These in particular look really cool because you can move your bike freely on the rollers.

  • Check http://www.icebike.org for great info on equipment, clothes, techniques, etc.
    I commute 4 miles into downtown Denver, and like Clint, I’ve developed a series of temperature ranges, with some overlap, depending on humidity/precipitation. My commuting style is to ride at almost my full sustainable rate, with sprints above that, so my torso tends to stay hot.
    My base layer is shorts and t-shirt, with fingerless gloves.
    At 50F, I add light, long finger gloves, and Swix earmuffs, which are very slender and fit under helmet straps perfectly (even accommodating glasses). I know they don’t look like much, but they work for me down to single-digits.
    Under 40F, I add a nylon windbreaker
    Under 35F, I add light tights, and switch to heavy Lake MX Zero gloves (very warm, with good dexterity, and washable fleece liners)
    Under 25F, I add an additional glove liner, and a tube-style muffler around my neck/face
    Under 15, I add neoprene socks, heavier tights, and an OR mitt over top of the gloves.
    Between 15 and 5, I layer light and heavy tights, add neoprene booties over my shoes, and I pre-heat my hands by running them under hot water for a minute. This gives me a 5-10 degree boost (like riding at 20, not 15).
    Under 5, I stop riding. I’ll still be sweating with only a nylon windbreaker on, but my poor circulation leaves my fingers and toes aching, and near frostbite. That’s not worth it–plus there aren’t that many days in Denver that I have to endure not riding.
    I’m hoping to buy/build either “pogies” for my handlebars (road, which makes it harder) or a simple faring, since the rush of air over my gloves is responsible for most of the heat loss.
    On the bike side, I swear by disc brakes now, after two full seasons on them. I use the cable-actuated Avid road disc. They work very well in rain, snow, and ice–unlike rim brakes. They also make it trivial to swap wheels, and use different size rims.
    I have three pairs of wheels for different road conditions:
    700 road rims with 23mm/120PSI tires for the 300 days of sun
    700 cyclocross rims with 35mm/90PSI knobby tires for light/fresh snow
    26″ mountain rims with 2″/30PSI Nokian studded tires for ice, and rutted snow.
    Some folks think that’s extravagant, but the two additional wheelsets cost less than filling the tank on an average car for a month of commuting.

  • I used to be a bike messenger in Boston and rode my bike in all kinds of weather all winter long. I used to take a thin scarf and drape it over my head and along my ears. Over this, I would put my helmut. Then I would wrap wrap another scarf around my neck and over my mouth, zipping my goretex jacket, over several layers of shirts, up against the scarf.
    This was excellent protection against the cold. I wore biking tights over biking shorts with various layers of longjohns depending on the temp.

  • please keep your keys elsewhere, you don’t want to know how painful it is to fall on your keys. if falling wasn’t painful enough.
    and thanks for the good recommendations.

  • Plastic wrap or plastic grocery bags work great too. Just wrap your feet with plastic before you put your shoes on. Any old tobogan will work just put a plastic bag over that and under your helmet to block wind.

  • Not so much a concern for road/cyclocross, but cold weather can wreak havoc on the suspension and (hydraulic) disc brakes of a mountain bike. If you’re racing make sure you keep your bike in the car or near a space heater so you don’t lock something up and damage it.

  • I rode my bike to and from school every day when I was in grad school in Finland. The coldest I ever saw was -30F or so. This was often in/on snow up to a foot deep. I never had a need for snow tires, and learning to ride over ice only involved sliding out 3-4 times.
    I never wore a hat, only sometimes wore a scarf, usually wore a pair of gloves under a pair of mittens, and only a light jacket and pants over thermal body underwear. The key was just to ride as fast as possible. My forehead and beard sometimes froze solid though.
    If I could do it, anyone can–(I lived in Florida before that and California now).

  • I have some great two-fingered “lobster claw” mittens from Louis Garneau – flexible enough to use road brakes with no problem, and a lot warmer than regular gloves.
    I normally switch to my foul-weather commuting bike in the winter – mostly just fenders and non-clip pedals (there’s nothing worse than doing a low-speed skid on ice and falling down because you can’t un-clip).

  • Thanks for the advice. I’ve been cycling all winter in London but it’s only started to get cold enough for me to pull out the ear warmers. My gloves aren’t quite warm enough so I think I’ll give yours a try. Thanks!

  • I used to ride my bike to work in Fairbanks, AK at temps as low as -40F. It was a very dry climate so I didn’t need all those fancy materials. I did however wear my military issue goretex jacket for warmth. One problem I had was the lubrication in my bearings. Look for synthetic gear lube and swap it out. Your gears and bearings will last a lot longer that way.

  • Second the recomendation for wool. Ibex, Woolistic, Swobo, Smartwool socks. I hate booties, so it’s got to be winter shoes. High tops, neoprene sock liner, flap over the laces…nice. I like silk glove liners that I got at REI under my NASCAR-ish ‘mechanix’ gloves that I got at Pep Boys.

  • Itry to ride as often as I can in the Cold Calgary Winter and find that layering is really important.
    As the temp goes down to the low teens (in Fahrenheit)I start layering a lot and find that it is the first 5 minutes of riding that I am the coldest before my core warms up. I try to keep mitts on my hands instead of gloves to stay warmer and I also wear some nice warm hikers.
    I have never worn one of those skin tight jersey or spandex type pants or shorts (except my biking shorts underneath my sweatpants in winter or shorts in summer) but am really interested in how good they are for keeping my warm.
    Thanks for all of these tips, I still have an issue with keeping my face warm but the skullcap would be freat to use instead of my bulky toque that I wear.

  • I cycle year round in Ottawa to and from work where it is often -20*C and down to -40* with windchill from time to time. Starting at the top, I use a snowboarding helmet which has almost no holes for ventilation, thus much warmer. Then either an ear band or a balaclava if its below -15*, and goggles if below -20 or -25. Then T shirt + 1 or 2 sweat shirts + windproof shell + scarf; then undies + long underwear if below -15* + shorts + clycling pants with lining. Regular gloves unless below -20*, then the “two finger” really warm gloves. And lastly, hiking boots with extra socks as needed. Flexible and works well.

  • i recommend silk next to the skin and wool on top of that. both of these natural fibers breathe well (sweat evaporates), keep you very warm, and the silk is very comfortable.
    i find most of my silk and wool at my local goodwill and so my winter biking gear is not only extremely comfortable but probably cost about one tenth of what one would pay for spandex, etc…

  • This is a great article… I really enjoy my winter biking. I ride about 10 miles each way through Chicago winters and it’s been cold and snowy this year!
    I really recommend silk as the first layer. It also helps to keep you warm if you have to stop biking since silk warms you when it’s wet (and you’re bound to be sweaty). I bought some long undies from winter silks that get me to about 20F in Chicago. Below that, I wear the pants recommended on http://www.icebike.org/ and they’re fantastic! I have another pair of light pants on top of those that are more water proof since Chicago winters (especially this one) can be VERY wet affairs!
    Aside from the pants recommended on icebike.org, I have really tried to use “general” clothes for winter biking as much as possible and with layers on top of layers it works pretty well.
    For the top, I’ve found a silk shirt, and a few layered thermal shirts get me through the worst of Chicago’s winters and my bike ride is about 10 miles each way. Below 15F I find the balaclava invaluable… without it, I get big icicles in my beard a la: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vjimw/2260980571/

  • Huh. Back in grad school (Providence RI) I used to just ride to campus in whatever I would have been wearing anyway for cold weather – I just took out the velcro-ed things for adjusting helmet fit so it would fit on over a woollen hat. Rain or anything under about 15 F, I walked because I had nowhere to change on campus. I hadn’t realized how soft I was by comparison to some of the folks who have commented above!

  • Feet are always my issue and don’t like booties.
    I sprung for the very pricey Lake boots, and I must say they are worth every penny. A pair of smartwool socks and Lake boots and my feet are never cold!

  • For winter biking in NYC I find a balaclava essential. It insulates the entire head plus covers the mouth and nose, making the winter air much nicer. Gloves are required, but for outerwear a light zip down sweatshirt and windbreaker are all that’s needed. Once I start moving I get so warm that I have to unzip the outerlayers before I overheat!

  • Enjoyed reading everyone’s hints. Since my husband and I both ride recreationally (25-50 miles) year round, I know each person is different in the amount of layers neccessary. I’d like to add that thin plastic gloves like the 100 for $1 are a wonderful extra layer for just a little extra warmth without the bulk (or fixing something dirty). I, too, get much of my riding gear used, and before purchasing them, I try to roll them up to see if they will fit in a water bottle holder, for ease in carrying if I take that layer off. Another great product are Hot Hands which are charcoal and salt packets that you can buy at Wal-Mart are great between layers of socks ontop of one’s foot and fit inside cycling shoes. For those who don’t know an advantage to a balaclava (which come in varying degreees of thickness) is that you don’t have to wear it over your whole face, but you can wear in under your chin, over your chin, over your mouth, or up to your eyes depending on your warmth status.

  • Dang. I guess “It’s too cold!” is no longer a valid excuse, then. But “It’s too expensive!” and “It’s too windy!” still work!
    Thanks for doing the hard work for your fellow cyclists!

  • MUST HAVE items for winter riding: Moose Mitts.
    http://www.trails-edge.com/retail/te_shirts/amfbikemits.htm
    I’ve used them for 4-5 years, and wear short finger gloves down to 0F with these. (I have both the flat bar and road bar models)
    Fleece lined, and a pocket inside for either keeping a gel thawed, or for keeping a chemical warmer to warm the inside of your mitts.
    They are quite easy to use, and work very well.

  • I ride regularly in the cold Midwest (Kansas), and I also don’t like booties — too hard to get on/off the shoes, but they do work. One alternative: adhesive toe warmers (basically activated carbon). Layer a thin sock, toe warmers, a thicker sock, and your cycling shoes, and you’re good on a 30-degree day. You can buy ‘em at any sporting goods store that sells camping and hunting supplies, and they’re like $3 a pair.
    And don’t be afraid of snot. Embrace it. Or at least get good at the farmer’s blow.

  • I ride in Edmonton Alberta daily. Our winters hit -30 Celcius pretty routinely (-22F). I have used every synthetic known, but finally have come up with a solution that is unbelievably comfortable. I use Icebreaker marino wool turtle neck tops, and leggings, with sugino bib tights, and a mountian gear bellaclava. The goal is to prevent skin exposure. The warmest stuff was useless if the small of my back or nape of my neck peaked out. Combine the wool base layer with down north face mitts and a good gortex jacket and I am toasty.

  • I use to have a friend, an Olympian contender in biking, and he advised me that you need to keep your knees warm. Cartilage does not warm up easily and can cause you long term trouble if not cared for. His observation was that most bikers fail on this important aspect of body care. He recommended that knees be covered on cold winter biking days because they are the most exposed to the cold and the least to warm up.

  • Another cheap alternative to a skullcap is a hardhat liner. Mark’s Work Warehouse and related places offer these and they do a great job of covering the ears and head while not blocking out the sound of traffic.

  • Good article, and a lot of good comments. I’ve been riding bikes for a long time; first to school(s), now for commute. I’m currently at the coldest place I’ve lived in – Boston, MA, and ride as long as the roads are not too slippery or too snowed. I strongly second the balaclava. They come in many thicknesses, from a very thin lightweight fabric to nice and thick fleece with windblock. Whatever works for you. Kids’ sizes are harder to find, but with her face covered, my 5yr old happily rides with me in way below freezing temps. No complaints.
    A few additional comments –
    1) Wear tech fabric as a 1st layer. Top and bottom. It keeps your skin dry, and that goes a long way to keeping warm. Cotton is *not* a wicking material. And yes, the long-johns look incredibly stupid. But who cares, as long as you’re warm.
    2) Layer. Layer all parts: tech shirt, fleece next later, windshell next. When it gets too warm, take one of the layers off. Same with pants, although there you can prob only take the outer layer off without causing a public disturbance :)
    3) Layer your gloves too! A lot of the comments mention gloves/mittens to be inflexible. My solution: thin thermogloves as a 1st layer. They are warm, skintight and extremely flexible. Next, either regular gloves or mittens, and for even colder, add a 3rd later of water/windproof mittens.
    4) Ski goggles. Seriously; I avoid wearing glasses when riding (contacts instead) so nothing really to keep the cold air out. My old ski goggles were a $deity-send. They are made to fit over helmets anyway, elastic straps, good seal with your face.
    5) Toes are difficult to keep warm. Multiple layers of socks and warm boots, but somehow they manage to get cold anyway. I just ignore as much as I can, and thaw them at the other end.
    –M

  • I haven’t read every comment so if this is a duplicate I apologize.
    Check out craft-usa.com. their basewear has to be some of the best that I tried. I use to swear by PI’s Amfib stuff but I find myself never wearing once I got the Craft stuff. It’s really expensive so do I what I do and shop their clearance section.
    BTW, when watching pro cycling, you’ll notice alot of guys wearing their stuff.

  • Check out the Warmfront. I got one as a gift at the Moab Skinny Tire festival and it’s great. http://www.thewarmfront.com.

  • I just started commuting 10 miles round trip to work and am getting mentally prepared for anything colder than I have experienced in the past two months…so far the coldest was 55F and I just wore shorts and a T-shirt…worked just fine. But I’m afraid that I may start whining once it gets colder :)
    Thanks for all the comments, tips and suggestions…will implement several as I prepare for cold weather riding.

  • One brand that is awsome for base layers and gloves and head covers.
    Under Armour!

  • hey,
    sorry this is changing the subject here but i am trying to find some prices for a second hand dirt bike, does anyone know how much it would cost me to buy one?

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