Thursday, December 20, 2012

Beware of Your Winter Wears...

Winter riding can be a love/hate endeavor. Beautiful landscapes often make winter riding a joy. The desolate look of winter provides an amazing backdrop for any cold weather ride and surely keeps me coming back for more. But winter riding is not all barren trees and snow-lined winding country roads. There is all that damn clothing.

Dressing for winter can be a real drag. Finding the exact right balance of warmth, breathability, and wind or water protection can sometimes seem like a Rubik’s cube with no solution. Overdressing or under-dressing can be equally devastating to your winter miles. So here is my winter what-to-wear guide, a step-by-step (or more accurately, layer-by-layer) guide to staying comfortable throughout Philadelphia’s toughest months. 

Dressing for any climate—hot or cold—starts in the same place: your skin. It is the first layer, not the last, which often is the most important in staying dry and warm. The goal here is to create what is called a “micro-climate” around your body. This allows your own body heat to keep you warm. The way you create said micro-climate is by choosing the right base layer. 

Base layers come in all different types from warm to cold weather specific and everything in between. You need a base layer that will wick moisture (your sweat) away from your skin. Moisture against your skin is a sure fire way to get cold. This prevents a warm layer of air against your skin (the micro climate). 

Craft, Castelli, and Capo offer fairly extensive base layer options, most of which have great wicking abilities. For extreme cold weather, go for a base layer that also has wind-stopping materials on the front side. Beware of too many wind-stopping layers though; these materials often don’t “breathe” well. When a material doesn’t breathe, it does not allow the moisture that has been wicked away to evaporate. It locks it in. You will eventually be soaked to the skin if this is the case. 

This guy: Don't be this guy.  

After you have a quality base layer, it is time to start working outward in layers. This is where your own personal judgement will come into play.  Everybody is different.  Every ride condition is slightly different.  You will have to make the call as to what pieces of kit are specifically suited to the current temperature and conditions. There are, however, some principles to guide these decisions. Here are my personal thoughts on what works for me:

On top of my base layers, I always opt for a warm, but very breathable garment. This could be a long-sleeved fleeced jersey for really cold days, or something lighter for those middle of the thermometer rides. I always opt for something very breathable here because I want this layer to pull my sweat further away from my skin. If the temperature was between 50-65˚F, then this would likely be my final layer. I might opt for a wind vest over this depending on the wind conditions. 

Layering popped collars = Not cool.  Layering for winter cycling = So cool.

Personally I always opt for a layering approach rather than one very heavy winter coat—although this is a simply a personal preference.  In my opinion, I want what I am wearing to be as versatile as possible.  I opt for a long sleeve jersey and wind jacket or vest instead of a full winter coat.  This allows me to unzip or simply take off my outer layer on a climb—when the wind is low and you are working more—and then put it back on for the descents where the fast speeds mean higher winds. Some people do prefer the simplicity of a nice jacket though: base-layer, jacket, done. If you go with the full winter jacket though, you don’t have those additional options as the conditions change throughout the ride.
Balaclavas are great for really cold weather.  As a bonus they are guaranteed to make you look like a creepy stalker.

For seriously cold rides (sub 30˚) you’ll really have to pull out all the stops to stay warm. This means pulling out the balaclavas, heavy wintergloves, winter specific shoes, and even supplemental warmers. Fleecedwind-blocking bib-tights are not cheap, but you will not regret the purchase when it is 25˚ and you’re riding at an additional 20MPH of wind chill. At these extreme temperatures, keeping the wind out is your first priority on top, and you should opt for a wind-proof jacket for your last layer. 

Feet and hands are always problem areas for these super cold rides, but here are some strategies I gleaned from my Dad, who was an avid skier: When it comes to gloves and shoes, sometimes less is more. Two layers of socks are not necessarily better than one.  More insulation can cause your shoes to fit too tight, which restricts blood flow, and too many socks can cause your feet to sweat excessively, which will bring the cold quickly.  Opt for a very thin wicking sock and a thick, but not too thick wool sock. It is very important that your shoes still allow space for your foot to move and not be overly restricted. 

The Assos "Lobster Claw" is great for keeping the wind out, but maybe not ideally suited for office work.

Gloves can follow the same priciples. Buy one size too big so there is room for a warm pocket of air.  Instead of just going for thicker bulky gloves, try simply throwing some hand warmers in there. They are well worth the $2.

For the outer layer of your gloves and shoes, follow what we said before:  Keep the wind out.  Get wind-blocking shoe covers. The thickest gloves around won’t do much if they let the cold wind contact your fingers. And finally, keep your extremities as active as possible. Move your hands to different positions on the bars often. Wear your shoes a bit looser than normal so you can move your foot around when you feel the cold coming on. 

Overall, there is a long learning curve to dressing for the cold. Following these simple guidelines will give you a great head start, but there is no substitute to simply getting out and seeing what works for you. Test your winter dressing abilities on short rides with convenient bail points.  This way if you get your wardrobe horribly wrong, you are not far from home.  Before you know it, you’ll be the one giving advice to the newbies on how to dress to impress.  


  1. In addition to a thin hat for under my helmet, a cycling helmet cover is an integral part of my cold weather arsenal - effectively blocks the wind, traps a small layer of heat, and allows moisture to escape, keeping yer noggin warm and dry. Can take it (or the hat) off and stash in a pocket if it's too warm - again, layering is key.

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