Chris Carmichael Blog: Tips for Thriving During Cold-Weather Winter Cycling

By Chris Carmichael

Although many ski areas around the country are lamenting the lack of snow this winter, it’s still plenty cold enough out there to make cycling and running outside a significant challenge. This year is a little different than prior years for me, in that I have a 6-day mountain bike stage race coming up (Trans Andes) at the end of January. It’s been decades since I’ve had to focus on race-day fitness in December and January, but the up-side is that it’s reminded me of some of great cold-weather cycling tips. Next week I’ll be in Chile, but we’ll have a similar article with cold-weather tips for runners.

For cyclists, weather protection happens outside your shoes.

Unless you’re going to invest in a separate pair of winter shoes, you’re going to be wearing the same footwear in January that you will wear in August. Cycling shoes are designed to be well ventilated and snug fitting, which is great in warm weather and not so helpful in cold weather. Thick socks don’t fit into snug cycling shoes, and cramming them in there will actually make matters worse. Compressing the thick sock and simultaneously compressing your foot reduces both the insulating effectiveness of the sock and constricts circulation in your foot. That’s why thick socks in tight cycling shoes is a recipe for numb toes.

Instead, stick with thin socks, although you can experiment with different fabrics including wool, Gore-tex, and other windstopper-type products. Regardless, when the temperatures are in the mid-40s or lower, you’re going to want something covering your shoes from the outside. The benefit to shoe covers is that they can be as thin or thick as you need them to be without impinging on the fit of your shoe. Similarly, the placement of seams is less of an issue with shoe covers compared to high-tech socks.

I have two pairs of shoe covers that have served me exceedingly well. The first is the Softshell Shoe Cover from Pearl Izumi. Living in Colorado, we have warm sun and cold air temperatures, so there are plenty of winter days where you need shoe covers but you don’t need the warmest gear imaginable. For me, the Softshell is perfect for anything above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. When it gets colder than 40, I often shift to Pearl Izumi’s Barrier Shoe Cover. Simply put, it’s thicker and warmer. For cold mountain bike rides, I actually use my older road shoe covers. Mountain biking is harder on shoe covers because there’s an increased need to walk during snow/icy winter mountain bike rides, so when I get new road shoe covers I use the older ones for mountain biking.

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Warm hands ward off misery

To keep your hands warm, you need to follow the same basic ideas that govern keeping your feet warm. Gloves that are too tight will not work as well as gloves that have some space in them, and for really cold weather a “lobster claw” (a mitten with a split between your middle finger and ring finger. Star Trek fans love them…) is a great choice because you benefit from having your fingers together but you can still reach the brakes while holding onto the handlebar.

One additional tip with gloves is to consider carrying an extra pair, especially if you’re going to be climbing early in the ride and descending later, or if you’re going to be out when the sun starts to set. Here in Colorado, we do a lot of rides where you predominantly climb for the first hour or more of the ride, and then you descend home. We often wear one pair of thinner gloves for the climbing, and then put on a dry and thicker pair of gloves for the long descent home. Even if you don’t have an uphill/downhill ride, being able to put on a warm and dry pair of gloves on the way home may make the whole ride better. Same goes for the skull cap you put under your helmet.

New options for keeping your head warm

Speaking of caps, keeping your head warm is paramount to having a great ride. There’s nothing worse than getting that ice-cream headache feeling while you’re descending a steep hill in the winter time. As with cycling shoes, a properly-fitting helmet doesn’t have much extra room in it for a thick hat. Fortunately, you can usually find very thin skullcaps that will fit under your helmet. CTS Coaches are fortunate in that we wear Lazer Helmets. Since they’re a Belgian company they understand cold and wet weather, so they developed both an insert for cold-weather riding and a clear plastic Aeroshell to close off the air vents. I think they work brilliantly, and they’re much better than the old fabric helmet covers that honestly reminded me of those fuzzy covers old people put on steering wheels.

Since your face may be one of the only areas of your skin that aren't covered, consider applying Aquaphor to your face to prevent windburn.  

It all starts with great layers

However, shoe covers, gloves, and helmet covers/inserts all fit into the “accessories” category. And although winter riding would be miserable without them, the foundation for comfortable winter training rests with your primary articles of clothing. I’ve been extremely impressed by the Panache clothing I’ve been wearing for the past year, and the 2012 CTS kit is even better than the 2011 gear! The fit and the fabric, even the chamois, makes riding more comfortable in any and all riding conditions. I really appreciate that the layers are not bulky, because that makes it easier to stash a vest/jacket or arm warmers in my pockets.

The key to layering in winter is to keep your torso warm. Often you’ll sweat heavily early in your ride, either because you’re going uphill, it’s the warmer part of the day (if you’re riding in the afternoon), or because you’re doing your interval work. Then when you turn for home and either go downhill, ride as the sun is setting, or cruise home at an easy pace, the sweaty clothing chills you quickly. Opening your zippers or keeping your vest/jacket in your pocket early on can help reduce the saturation of your clothing, and it also means you have a dry barrier layer to put on for the ride home.

How does all of this add up in real life? Well, last weekend I went on a 3 hour mountain bike ride on a day when the high temperature was 38 degrees Fahrenheit. For the first 2.5 hours was predominantly climbing, with a few short descents to get from climb to climb. But the final 30 minutes was going to be a gradual 2500-foot descent back to my house. At the top of a ridge (in the sun), I swapped out my thinner, wet gloves for thicker, dry ones. I swapped out my wet skullcap for a dry one (I prefer Lazer’s plastic shell and/or insert for road rides where the average speeds are higher), and I put on a dry Panache wind jacket. All told it took about 90 seconds, but being warm meant I could descend faster and pay attention to the trail instead of thinking about staying warm.

Talk to you after the Trans Andes!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

Comments 2

  1. Pingback: Joys of Off-Season Riding | The Bicycle Shack LLC

  2. It made me smile to see the advice to unzip and let some air in during winter cycling. I can remember being shocked at how much my first proper deep winter ride made me sweat!

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