For some of you, ( like me in California ) riding a bike at any temperature below 50 degrees ( Fahrenheit ) is really cold. For this post, “really cold” is defined as below 32 degrees. There’s no reason why winter riding has to be miserable.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.
When it’s really cold, there’s simply no point in fighting the elements because there’s a fine line between building toughness and getting sick. That doesn’t count the built-up snow and salt on the roads that make traction hazardous. It also provides less room and visibility for drivers and can corrode your bike’s drivetrain fairly quickly. Within reason, exercising outdoors even in the extreme cold is both doable and enjoyable.
Most of the time, you can think of winter activities as “exercising in less heat,” rather than being too different from exercising in warmer temperatures. That’s because the body is still producing heat from exercise that will keep you warm. The difference is that you’ll lose heat from your body quite quickly due to the colder temperatures. Therefore, staying warm during exercise in the cold is really about balancing how active you are, wearing the right clothing, and taking some common-sense precautions.
Breathing Cold Air
Most people have no problems from breathing in cold air during exercise, even with activities such as during cross-country skiing that requires rapid breathing. Your nose and airways are very good at warming up the air, so even very cold air is warmed up to nearly your normal body temperature by the time it reaches the more delicate lungs.
The main exception is athletes with asthma, as cold air might trigger an asthmatic episode. The same is true for athletes with exercise-induced bronchial-constriction. In this situation, heavy exercise can cause the muscles around the airways to react and make breathing more difficult. If this is a concern, one thing you might try is to wear a light bandana, scarf or mask. This will help warm up and add moisture to the air before it reaches your lungs.
Another way to help lessen the chance of breathing problems is to slowly warm-up before beginning heavier exercise. Not only will this be better for your body as a whole, but it will also help your breathing get used to the extra work that it’s being asked to do.
Wind chill is the biggest risk when exercising in the winter. Negative 10 degrees in calm air may not feel too cold, but zero degrees in a strong wind can feel extremely cold. This is because wind greatly increases the rate of heat loss from your skin. This can cause you to lose body heat much faster, so you must take extra care. There are many weather apps that can help you track the wind where you live during your rides.
Really Cold Weather Tips
- Be extremely careful when it’s cold and raining or when you’re near water. Water conducts heat 25 times as fast as air, greatly increasing your risk of hypothermia. If it’s a cold and wet day, consider doing something indoors instead, or make sure you have excellent rain gear. When it’s cold and wet, also try to keep stops or rest breaks to a minimum, as the act of exercising is generating a lot of valuable heat to keep you warm.
- If you have the option, consider finding routes away from open exposure to wind. Ideally, find routes with lots of cover from trees or buildings and consider heading to the trails for something different.
- Make sure you wear quality winter clothing with base layers. Wear garments closest to the body that wicks away sweat. Trapped sweat that can’t evaporate will also cool your temperature rapidly.
- Layering definitely does work. Each individual layer acts as a barrier to the wind, and the sum of a few layers is usually greater than one single layer of the same overall insulation. Layering also lets you customize the degree of ventilation during exercise.
- Last but not least, you lose most of your warmth through your head. Wear a hat or balaclava* under your helmet, especially with all the super-ventilating helmets out on the market.
Me in my balaclava*. It can be pulled over my nose and mouth if need be. Be aware, they come in sizes and for women that is usually a small. As you can see it tucks into my furry pullover keeping cold drafts at bay.
Dress For Success In Layers
The secret to all-year-round cycle clothing success, both on or off-road, is layering. It might be tempting to go and buy that awesome cycling jacket but that alone won’t provide enough performance to keep you truly comfortable in all weather. What every cyclist needs to do is dress in a way that can deal with changing external and internal conditions. Nothing is more miserable than over or underdressing.
Dressed for success. Today I’m wearing a furry winter sports pullover. It’s very warm but not windproof. Underneath I wear a sleeveless undershirt, a sweat-wicking long sleeve base layer, a Pearl Izumi ( water-resistant and windproof ) shell, and if it’s really cold a thermal underwear top. This is finished off by long workout leggings, and Pearl Izumi gloves with gel insert.
I don’t subscribe to dressing like everyone else when it comes to cycling. Road Cyclists have their cycling jerseys, shorts or bibs, and more. Cycling clothes are expensive but it doesn’t hurt to get a few good pieces to add to your riding ensemble. I look for sales and am partial to the Pearl Izumi and Fabletics brands. The important thing is to layer what you do wear correctly for comfort and function.
How Should I Layer My Garments?
- The first garment, which will sit next to your skin is the base layer. Base layers wick sweat away from your skin while also keeping you warm. A good base layer will help you stay cool and dry in summer, but warm and insulated in winter. I find a sleeveless undershirt made of a good sweat-wicking material under my base layer keeps my body extra warm without overheating on freezing days.
- Softshell jackets make a good layer over the first garment. They have wind-stopping material and some elements of rain-resistance. A good shell is often your first line of defense against true winter riding elements. Some shells have removable sleeves and vents if you get too warm.
- For really cold days I add another layer over the softshell. A waterproof or water-resistant coat long enough to cover your backside ( especially if you don’t have fenders ) is good. You don’t want the coat to be too heavy and that extra layer will help you stay warm and dry rain or shine.
These are only suggestions because there are so many variations depending on how you layer your clothes and what you like to wear. Just follow these outlines and use common sense.
Leggings ( or tights ) are made from different materials for the seasons. Most leggings are also sweat-wicking and will keep your legs warm and protected. If you get a sore rear-end while riding find leggings with sensible padded inserts. You can find workout leggings almost everywhere they have become more popular than blue jeans for everyday women’s wear, however, make sure they are thick enough to keep you warm. Bib tights for cycling are another alternative ( that men usually prefer, ) made for women too.
Protect Your Hands, Feet, Head, & Neck
Nothing has the ability to create quite as much pain on the bike than cold and wet feet or hands, so make sure your extremities are protected. Being dressed for cold weather success means nothing if a cold draft is blowing down your neck or through your bike helmet.
For your hands, swap fingerless mitts for full-finger gloves. If you use your phone while riding as a bike computer some gloves have fingers that work on touch screens that are very handy. Then, on the feet, use overshoes or oversocks to help keep toes warm and prevent water from getting into your shoe.
For your noggen, you can use any soft winter cap that fits over your head and ears and fits underneath your bike helmet. When you need something more I suggest the balaclava* which is excellent because it’s adjustable to protect any part of your face, ears, and neck. They are great neck warmers and tuck into your top layer. In winter I keep mine at the ready in my bike bag.
This is a moto jacket that I use as my warmest winter outer layer. It has the features you want to look for in a good cycling jacket. It’s waterproof and windproof without a bulky lining. Those cuffs fit over my gloves keeping my wrists warm with no drafts. It has a high neck that keeps me warm. It looks heavy but is light enough so that my layers underneath don’t make me overheat. Fabletics makes the moto jacket, many of my baselayer tops, and my leggings.
Layering up can work if you cycle to work or are going out for a longer ride. What you wear will depend on what the temperature is, where you are riding and how long you will be cycling for. It might seem that there’s a lot of gear suggested here but it’s worth remembering that all of these garments are the types of products that will stand up to many years of riding. Also, layering is a total cycling clothing solution, suitable for all outdoor sports.
Dealing with cold weather during any season can make one miserable but winter is the worst. Really cold, cloudy, windy, dark short days that make even the best bike rider want to stay inside and hide. As long as you have the facts and know how to layer even you can turn that frown upside down and get back to what you love. And let’s face it, winter can be so beautiful!
*A balaclava, also known as a balaclava helmet or ski mask, is a form of cloth headgear designed to expose only part of the face, depending on how it’s worn.
Stay warm and dry, be safe, and stay happy!