The Best Winter Cycling Clothing Tips

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By Reid Beloni, CTS Expert Coach

I want to follow up on our previous tips on equipment for outdoor winter riding with some winter cycling clothing tips. Your equipment can help keep you dry and safe, and your clothing will keep you warm and comfortable. We don’t expect you to ride in a blizzard, but if the tips below help you get outdoors one more time each week during the winter, that’s a win. There are a lot of apparel options out there, and many are very good. However, since CTS Coaches use Panache clothing and Giro accessories, we’re going to use their options as examples.

Learn from your past

Every day is different, both in the conditions outside and the intensity that you are going to ride. As a result, it is important to pay attention to how things have gone for you historically. Did your feet get cold when you went out last weekend because you weren’t wearing enough? Did you overheat because you wore too much? Build a mental library of what has worked and what hasn’t for various conditions and rides. You can add this information to training logs, as well. It takes some trial and error to determine what works for you, and it’s important to realize that you may need more (or less) clothing than someone else in the same conditions.

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Layers, layers, layers

You’ve heard it a million times: layer.  Layering is very important for winter activities, especially high-intensity ones like cycling or running because despite it being cold outside, you have the potential to generate a lot of thermal energy (a bi-product of our bodies inefficiency at turning food into mechanical work).  Layering allows you to adjust your temperature based on changing conditions, as well as to match your work rate.  An even more novel reason for layering: it saves you money!

If you have the money, order one of everything. A more economical approach is to choose from a large catalog of items, picking only a few that can combine to meet a greater range of needs. For instance, purchasing two sets of moderately-priced accessories can be more economical than buying one set of expensive leg warmers, arm warmers, shoe covers, gloves, etc.) It also means you’ll have a clean set when the other one is in the laundry. Similarly, instead of purchasing an expensive mac daddy super jacket that aims to do everything, consider purchasing a less expensive, lightweight and waterproof rain/wind jacket, and a less expensive heavier thermal jacket. With this combination you can wear the two jackets three different ways: rain/wind only, thermal only, or rain/wind over thermal.

Toast your buns

Layering works really well on your torso, and even on arms and legs. Yet, even though you may be wearing two jackets and thermal base layer, you’re probably wearing the same shorts you wore in July. Everything else is warm but you have just a thin layer of lycra between the top of your leg warmers and the bottom of your jacket. Thermal bibs are one of the best inventions for winter riding. If you have been a cyclist for many years and haven’t tried them, you probably don’t even realize the difference warm buns can make during a cold weather ride. Trust me, these thermal bibs from Panache are incredible.

(BTW, if you’re interested in any of the Panache items mentioned in this article, you can get FREE SHIPPING when you use Promo Code: cts#fs at http://www.panachecyclewear.com/)

Size up

Larger clothes and gloves trap more air, and warm air is your greatest ally in keeping warm. This is key, across all apparel areas. If your jerseys and jackets are all super tight and you feel like a sausage, you’re probably not going to be as warm as if some of those outer layers were a bit looser. When you compress insulating layers they don’t insulate as well. When it comes to helmets, I love the Synthe MIPS model Giro supplies for CTS Coaches. It is a great helmet, but the huge vents can lead to brain freeze when it’s cold outside.  So when I bought a Giro Air Attack for use in the local time trial series, I went up a size to a Large.  The extra space allows me to wear thick winter caps under an already slightly warmer aero helmet. Similarly, my hands realistically fit into a large sized glove, but my winter gloves are all XL or even XXL. Again, if insulating material is compressed it doesn’t insulate as well. Just make sure you can still access the shifters and brakes.

Keeping your feet warm can also be a function of the size of your shoes. Cramming a thick sock into a tight shoe is a recipe for frozen toes. But lightweight, summer socks won’t keep your feet warm either. The solution is often a thin wool sock in the shoe and a windproof and/or waterproof shoe cover like the Giro Proof. In very cold conditions consider placing a chemical warmer between the top of your shoe and the shoe cover or under the insole in the toebox of your shoe. The other option is simply to go with insulated winter shoes.

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Start with two pairs of gloves and two hats

I start almost every winter ride with two, maybe even three, pairs of gloves. You can wear a thin liner by itself if it warms up, or on climbs, and put a larger windproof glove over top if it gets cold or on descents. I carry a third pair in case the first two get wet or sweaty. For instance, you can buy these Panache gloves a size larger so you can wear these underneath. If you need even more heat, try a deep winter glove with a built in pocket for chemical warmers!  A sweaty skull cap can make any cold weather ride miserable. Taking it off isn’t a great option because of the cold, but keeping it on as you go downhill or ride home after a hard workout is also cold. Either store your hat in your pockets during your hard efforts to keep it dry, or carry an extra skull cap you can put on for a long descent or the ride home.

Stay dry

Getting wet during a cold ride can lead to serious problems, quickly.  You’ll need to consider keeping dry two ways: preventing water from getting in from the outside, and preventing sweat from accumulating on the inside. Keep water out on wet rides by using rain jackets, fenders, and water resistant accessories. Honestly, even with the best gear, stepping into or riding through a puddle are two of the most common ways a rider gets wet feet. So watch where you put your feet!

Keeping dry from the inside is a balance of temperature control and sweat. A good base layer will move sweat away from your skin so it can evaporate, this keeps you skin warm and dry. But also adjust your clothing on the fly. Trap enough air that you are warm; let enough air in that you stay dry.  Going up a long climb or doing a hard interval you might unzip a few layers.  Over the top of that climb, zip back up or throw on a vest or jacket.

Know when to say when

It’s great to think of yourself as a hardened, tough athlete who can brave the elements to complete a workout or enjoy the outdoors in winter. But when conditions deteriorate or you are getting too cold to continue safely, make the smart decision to shorten your route or find shelter and call for a ride home. Frostbite and hypothermia suck.

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Bonus Tips:

Here are a few more things I wish I had known about sooner.

  • Neck gaiters or convertible beanie hats.  These are both basically tubes of insulating fabric that are very versatile, they can be worn around your neck, pulled over your face, or adjusted around your head to provide different levels of temperature control.
  • Unless it is a rain jacket, be sure your outer layer has pockets.  Nothing is worse than having to find your way under a pocketless outer jacket or vest to pull a bar out of your jersey, all while wearing thick gloves.  Make sure your food is easily accessible.  Hey look: a vest and jacket with pockets!

Hopefully these tips help to demystify winter riding.  With a little bit of planning and the right outlook, winter riding can be really enjoyable and rewarding.

Reid Beloni is a CTS Expert Coach working out of our Brevard, North Carolina training center. With a Masters degree in Exercise Science from Appalachian State University and a ton of experience riding in mucky and nasty East Coast winters, Reid is the perfect coach for this series on winter riding.


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Comments 12

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  4. One other thing I meant to add – I like the idea where you say to get clothing the next size up so you can layer up for the winter. I’d recommend a pair of winter boots too rather than just shoes with overshoes, and if you get those winter boots as you say in the next size up you can get the warmer socks underneath without feeling like you’re cutting off the circulation in your toes which is half the trouble in the colder months. The big sizes might not be so good for speed work but for anyone tapping out high mileage I find they can’t be beat.
    Cheers
    Tony at Bikesy.

    1. +1
      winter boots (with goretex) – as least as good for my ride as thermal clothing. even with summer socks, my feet are happy at -2 celsius and 20km/h wind.

  5. Good read there Chris, all solid information for people getting into their first few seasons of cold weather.

    We’ve got a condition here in the UK known as ‘Easter Knee’ . All of us old boys had it once in our bike careers, usually in our first season. We tell the new lads you get it from getting the shorts on before spring has sprung properly and your knees are messed up by Easter. They don’t listen though do they!
    All the best
    Tony @ Bikesy

  6. I’ve been following Chris and then CTS since the early Lance days. You have done much to spread the gospel of cycling to the masses. One thing that even the cover photo demonstrates, regardless how cool black looks in the peleton, it is a poor choice for visibility, particularly in the Fall and Winter. Drivers are more surprised seeing a rider on a raw cloudy day. Why make even harder for drivers to avoid you by being camouflaged in the shadows?

    As a leading spokesperson in the industry, you could start the change. The life you save could be the pictured rider in the CTS kit.

  7. Also heated gloves are awesome foe people who have cold fingers with lobster gloves,gerbing makes great ones that last 2 hrs on high heat,also chaval a bit more pricey but actually laser 5+ hrs in sub freezing weather

  8. Great suggestions. I retired from Gore so I wear a lot of Gore-Tex especially Windstopper. Gore-Tex is breathable and wicks moisture so you stay dry. I like to wear a base layer of G.Tex, then a Merino wool high neck jersey followed up by a Gore-Tex Windstopper outer jacket with a fleece lining. I also wear G. Tex windstopper gloves, Heat Holder thermal socks, booties and skull cap. I also have a thermal inner cover under my helmet. I ride comfortably in temps just above freezing, any colder I ride indoors.

  9. Couple of “winter” suggestions to add. Always error on the side of overdressing. If you get too warm you can always take something off but… if you’re too cold you can’t add something that you don’t have with you. Also, because eating with gloves on can be cumbersome and unsafe, try adding a gel or two to your energy drink for some extra calories to keep from having to eat as much solid food. Just don’t forget to take along a water to help lower the osmoality of the solution.

  10. Some great tips Reid. Years ago, while living in Belgium, I began keeping a log on the desktop of my computer of what I wore for any cold weather ride, what the temperature and conditions were and where I had comfort issues (too hot, too cold, feet, hands, ears, etc. – a lot of the things you touched on). I now have a record of what I need to wear down to -8°C, a temperature below which I have learned, nothing keeps me warm 😉 – One lesson remains true however, if you are not a little cool in the first ten minutes of the ride, you’ve over dressed.

  11. I’m really happy to see the posts here focused on actually riding outside in the winter. As a Minnesotan who grew up cross country skiing, I’m a firm believer in there being no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. (and sometimes lousy snow conditions) I’ve been fat biking for a couple years now, and my bucket list race is the Arrowhead 135. I want to add one thing that I think is extremely important for those riding in truly cold weather: a merino wool base layer is pretty much essential. No matter how good you are at layering, you will end up sweating, and with enough layers to keep sub zero temps out, the sweat can’t evaporate, but wool keeps you warm even when it is wet. Good wool clothing can be a bit spendy, but if you care for it, it will last a long time. Other than that, I find that when temps drop, a good set of lobster style gloves are the best mix of dexterity and warmth. Ride on!

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