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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.