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The Essential Gear for Winter Cycling

One of the biggest complaints I hear about cycling in cold weather is “I don’t know what to wear.” Overheating in cold weather is one of the worst things you can do, but being cold is equally awful. Here’s how to strike a balance.

You don’t want to freeze the entire time, but you also don’t want to overheat (or worse, soak your clothes in sweat). So, what gear do you really need when it comes to cycling on cold weather? Let’s take a look.

If the temp is above 70, there’s really no reason to add anything to your normal kit. A jersey and bibs or shorts, and normal socks should do the trick. No need to get complicated or overthink things here!

As temperatures drop, however, you’ll need to start adding things. Just keep one thing in mind: it’s easy to remove or add layers while on the bike, so dress (or take gear) for the coldest part of your ride. There’s nothing worse than starting in the mid-60s and riding into the evening only to have the temperature drop 15 degrees once the sun goes down, leaving you much colder than you’d like to be.

You also need to think about how you dress. Cycling is an interesting sport, because your lower half is constantly moving and working hard, while your upper body remains mostly stationary. That means your torso tends to get colder than your legs, which can, in turn, make the rest of your body cold, too.

So when it comes to staying warm, start with your core and move outward. A warm core will help keep the rest of your body warm, because the blood pumped from your heart is warmer, which transfers to the rest of your body. So start with your core, and add gear as the temperatures get lower.

Gear in the 60s: Full-Fingered Gloves, Base Layer Top, and Hat

As the temperatures drop below 70, you’ll likely want to start adding some layers to keep you cozy—especially if you plan on riding into the evening or night.

To stay nice and comfortable, you should consider at least adding a base layer of some kind under your jersey—probably short-sleeved at this point, but you could also substitute a long-sleeved base layer, especially as the temps drop into the lower 60s. Merino wool base layers work exceptionally well for this, as they not only wick away moisture to keep you dry, but are also naturally antimicrobial so it won’t harbor bacteria. That’s cool.

Of course, you can also use something you may already have in your closet—I general ride with an Under Armour Hear Gear compression shirt as a base layer (at these temps, anyway) and have been really happy with that.

Otherwise, you may want to sub in some full-fingered cool weather gloves to keep your digits from getting cold, and also a heavier-duty cycling cap under your helmet. You lose a lot of heat from your head, so keeping it warm will aid in keeping heat inside your body instead of losing it.

Gear in the 50s: Arm and Leg/Knee Warmers, Vest, Wool Socks, and Shoe Covers

As temperatures continue to get cooler, you add more gear—but this is also where things start to get more complicated. Because you may start a ride in the mid-60s and end in the low 50s, it can make finding the right balance of gear a challenge.

This is why bringing in gear that can easily be added or removed during a ride is important. For example, you can start with arm warmers around your wrists instead of pulled all the way up. The same can be done with leg or knee warmers. Then, as temperatures drop, you can just pull them up.

The same thing applies to a vest—most vests are small and thin (they’re mostly made to break the wind), so they can be rolled up pretty tight and stuffed into a jersey pocket. Then, as you get colder, you can pull it out and put it on. Or if you get too warm, roll it up and stuff it in your jersey pocket.

Lastly, if your feet tend to get cold easily or your shoes are well ventilated, it’s probably time to add some wool socks—at least some lightweight ones—and possibly even toe or shoe covers. Gotta keep them toes toasty—just make sure you order the correct type of covers for your shoes! Road shoes require different covers than mountain shoes, for example.

This is the point where you can also sub in embrocation if you want—especially in the low 50s. This heating cream is great to keep you warm without the need for arm and leg warmers, but it’s probably too much in the upper 50s. And since you can’t easily take it off like you can with arm/leg/knee warmers, be wary of overheating if you apply when temps are too high. Competitive Cyclist has a good guide on the ins and outs of using embro, so I’d definitely suggest giving that a look.

Gear in the 40s: Thermal Jersey, Thermal Bibs, and Thermal Hat/Ear Covers

As the temperatures drop into the 40s, it start to get really cold on the bike. The air is colder and start to cut through most clothes, chilling you to the bone. Still, heat ventilation is important to prevent overheating, which can stilhappen even though it’s frigid outside.

That’s where thermal gear comes into play. Thermal bibs and jerseys are both recommended at this point, which are generally designed in a way to vent heat where needed (generally on the back side) and keep you warmer overall.

You can also bring in a thermal base layer under a regular jersey—Under Armour Cold Gear is excellent for this. When riding in frigid temps, I’ll often throw a Cold Gear mock turtleneck under a traditional jersey, which is one of my favorite pairings.

Similarly, you’ll also probably want to cover your ears a little better at this point. A thermal hat works well for this, though keep in mind that if you add this when the temps are a little too high you’ll start to overheat. A thermal cap will hold heat against your scalp, where heat usually escapes. So use this one sparingly, and generally only when the temps dip into the lower 40s.

Gear in the 30s: Tights, Heavy Gloves, and a Balaclava

So if you haven’t figured this out by now, we’re layering at this point. So that means you’re adding pieces from the higher temps alongside the other recommendations.

When temperatures start to get into the 30s, well, you’re pretty dedicated at this point. My personal threshold for riding outside is really around 45 or so—anything below that and I’d rather just stay indoors and ride the trainer.

But I digress, if you want to throw rubber on the pavement in the 30s, by God, you do it! You’ll want to throw on some heavy tights over your bibs (running tights are fine since you’ll be wearing them over your bibs—you can wear them over regular bibs or thermals (I’d recommend the latter), bust out the heavy winter gloves, and you can also sub in a balaclava instead of a thermal cap in the lower 30s. If you’re currently looking to buy a balaclava, make sure to find a “hinged” model that will allow you to easily pull it down off your face if temps if you start to get too warm.

Gear in the 20s and Below: Throw Your Closet At It

If you want to ride in the 20s and below, you’re going to want to gear up pretty heavily. A thermal base layer, thermal bibs, thermal jersey, cycling jacket, wool socks, heavy shoe covers, heavy gloves (or lobster claws), toe warmers in your shoes, and pretty much everything else is fair game. When it’s this cold outside, you don’t have to worry too much about overheating.

Also, I applaud your dedication. I will most definitely be snuggling with my trainer when/if the temps get even remotely close to this.

Image Credit: Paul Vasarhelyi/shutterstock.com


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