winter cycling

Winter Cycling: Training Outdoors Effectively, Safely, and Comfortably


By Jim Rutberg,
Coach and co-author of “Ride Inside” and “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

Although I co-authored a training book for indoor cycling, being outdoors is one of the most appealing aspects of cycling for me. Winter cycling takes a bit more planning and thought compared to throwing on a pair of bibs and a jersey in the summer, but once you get some routines and habits dialed you will find winter cycling can be fun, invigorating, and rewarding. So, rather than exclusively retreating to the ‘pain cave’ for the next few months, use the following guide to get the most out of outdoor cycling through the winter.

Winter Cycling Clothing

With the right clothing decisions you can ride comfortably in almost any weather conditions. The key to comfort during winter cycling is striking a balance between insulation and breathability. You need the insulation to hang on to your body heat, but your clothing must be breathable so sweat and moisture don’t build up close to your skin.

Layers for managing upper body warmth

There are three main aspects to layering: wicking moisture away you’re your skin, providing insulation to retain heat, and creating a barrier against wind and water. A warm, form-fitting base layer is a winter cycling essential, like these long-sleeved heavyweight knitted or ceramic examples from Giordana. Your next layer should be for insulation, like a long-sleeved merino wool jersey or a fleece-lined thermal jersey. If the weather is sunny, mildly cold, and relatively calm, a base layer and thermal jersey may be all you need. If you need protection from wind or water, add barrier layer on top. This can be as simple as a wind jacket or as robust as a full weatherproof, thermal jacket. CTS has worked with Giordana for a long time, and their FR-C Pro Lyte jacket is a personal favorite.

The beauty of layers is that you can adjust the amount of cold air you let in and heat you let out by opening zippers and vents or adding and removing layers.

Tips for choosing and adjusting layers

  • Unzip or open vents on longer climbs. You don’t want to overheat and sweat profusely as you work hard on a climb, because moisture that builds up in your layers will chill you on the descent or when you start moving faster on flat ground.
  • Carry a barrier layer if you expect temperatures to drop. This could be because the sun is going down in the afternoon, you’re going to be returning into a headwind, or you’re climbing first and then descending to get home. Honestly, carrying a thin barrier layer is always good as an insurance policy. I carry a rain jacket because it packs small and provides protection from wind or water if I need either.
  • Find the right fit. Staying warm and dry is a matter of managing the airspace around your body. You want a form-fitting base layer, but your insulation layer should fit close to your body but neither so tight that the fabric is compressed nor so loose that you’re trying to heat empty air space. Similarly, your barrier layer shouldn’t compress the layers beneath it, nor flap in the wind like a sail.

Keeping Hands, Head, and Feet Warm

If you can keep your head, hands, and feet warm, you can do long rides in cold weather in reasonable comfort. But when your head, hands, an/or feet are cold, your ride can quickly become miserable – even if your torso is nice and toasty.

Tips for keeping extremities warm

  • Carry an extra set of gloves and hat. Your hat and gloves can get sweaty during climbs or in tailwinds, or just from exertion. Swapping them out for a dry set can make the next part of your ride – or the ride home – much more pleasant.
  • Get the right fit. As with jerseys, insulating fabrics do their jobs better when they are not compressed. Gloves that are too tight or that have broken down over time will not be as warm. Thick socks crammed into cycling shoes won’t keep your feet warm.
  • Protect your feet from the outside. You’re likely using the same cycling shoes in the winter as you did last summer, meaning they fit snugly with thin summer socks. There might be room for a thin wool sock, but in very cold conditions you’ll need windproof or insulated shoe covers for added warmth.
  • Consider chemical warmers. Air-activated hand warmers can provide an additional level of protection from the cold. They may be too warm to put directly in contact with your skin, though, so try them between your insole and sock, or between the top of your shoe and a shoe cover. Similarly, if using them for your hands, you may need a thin liner glove so you can put the warmer between the liner and the thicker glove.
  • For bitter cold, consider bar mitts. There’s a reason they are standard equipment for ultraendurance cycling races in Alaska.

Invest in insulated bib shorts

Oddly enough, cyclists frequently have three different types of gloves, two types of shoe covers, and multiple winter jerseys and jackets to adjust for varying levels of cold… while wearing the same cycling bib short they ride in summer. One option is insulated bib tights (men’s and women’s), which wrap your legs, hips, and lower torso in warm, thick fabric. If those are too warm, consider leg warmers and insulated bib shorts (men’s and women’s). I promise, on those cold but not freezing days, you’ll appreciate insulated bib shorts.

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Winter Cycling Equipment

Once your body is ready for winter, it’s time to get your bike ready for winter cycling. Depending on where you live, winter can be hard on bikes because of wet conditions or increased road grime from antiskid or de-icing measures.

Potential equipment modifications for winter:

  • Add lights. If you’re not already riding with front and rear blinking lights, start now and leave them on all year. Bright colored and reflective clothing may also help, but keep in mind that none of these attempts at improving visibility can solve the problem of inattentive or aggressive drivers.
  • Get a frame or handlebar bag. I must admit, I resisted anything more than a saddle bag for a long time, but they really do make life better. Instead of uncomfortably stuffing your jersey pockets with clothes, stow them in a frame or bar bag. It allows you to take the best pieces of clothing for the day, not just the ones you can cram into your pockets.
  • Get fenders. One day last winter I went out for a ride, excited to get back on the road after a recent snowstorm. I forgot about the snowmelt, though, and although the air temperature was in the 50s, I was quickly freezing from the spray coming off my tires.
  • Winterize your bike. Because winter conditions can be harder on components, I typically transition to wider, thicker tires for the winter, along with mid-range cassettes and chains. They’re a bit heavier, but perfectly good for training. Of course, with the supply shortages these days, you might have to grab whatever cassettes, chains, and brake pads you can find.
  • Invest in cleaning equipment. Keeping your bike clean will go a long way to reducing wear and tear on drivetrain components. The road grit on your chain and cassette acts like a sanding compound, so invest in brushes, rags, and degreaser and make cleaning a regular part of your routine. If you don’t have access to an outdoor hose because it’s winter, get a pump sprayer from the local home and garden store.

Winter Cycling Training Strategies

Being bundled up like the Michelin Man can definitely put a damper on a cyclist’s enthusiasm for interval training, but with some modifications to your routines you can keep your training on track.

  • Get a good warmup before intervals.

    It may take you longer to feel ready for hard efforts than it did during warmer weather.

  • Do interval work early in the ride.

    In winter, many workouts will include some moderate or intense intervals within a longer endurance ride. When it’s cold out, do the intervals early, not only because that’s when you are freshest but also in case you need to cut the ride short because of the cold.

  • Do intervals indoors and endurance outdoors.

    The trainer is a great option for interval workouts because you can control the environment completely. With a smart trainer you can even use ergometer mode to nail the target power for every effort. On other days you can bundle up for a moderate EnduranceMiles (Zone 2) ride outdoors.

  • Don’t spend too much time checking the weather.

    Just get dressed and go. Too many cyclists waste time agonizing over the weather. With practice you’ll get a good sense for what gear to use for specific temperature ranges, but to get there you have to get out more often! This is another reason I recommend a frame or bar bag. You can keep it on the bike, stocked with extra layers in case you need them.

  • Don’t forget to eat and drink.

    You’re still sweating and working under those layers, so hydration and nutrition are still important in the winter. Your sweat rate will likely be lower than during the hottest days of summer, so you may not need as much fluid, but a bottle per hour is still a good starting point. Similarly, when cyclists are focused on how cold it is they sometimes forget to eat. Reaching for food is also more of a hassle with thick gloves and stuffed pockets, so sometimes during winter group rides it’s harder to find an opportunity to eat. And remember to keep solid foods like bars and chews close to your body so they stay soft enough to chew…

Perhaps the most important part of winter cycling is to keep doing it. As soon as an athlete’s mindset shift to skipping outdoor rides because it’s cold, their rate of compliance for all workouts – indoors or outdoors – starts to drop. The only ride you’re going to regret is the one you didn’t do, so grab your gear and get out there!


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Comments 23

  1. I enjoy sewing and have particularly enjoyed experimenting with fabrics. I have used emergency blanket foil in layering jackets to help stop wind and reflect heat. I’ve recently purchased gloves with a foil liner but haven’t used them in cycling. I’ve used fleece-lined neoprene, flame resistant knits, wicking materials like polypropylene and fleece. Wool socks used with a thin wicking sock have proved comfortable but still need neoprene shoe covers for warmth.

    To top it off, nothing warms my cold body in a hot shower like running hot water over my head first. I can stand there and shiver, waiting for warmth to overcome me, but soon as the heat hits my head, I immediately feel in control of my body temp. Just saying. I sat in a hot tub trying to regain control of my body from suffering near hypothermia one ski season but never thought to dunk my head. I’m just now wondering if I had, would I have regained my composure then?
    Stay safe and dry out there.

  2. Take advantage of having 2 hands, feet etc and trial using left side v right. Its astonishing how often an “obviously” effective layer can in practice add no benefit or even be worse. Sometimes explained by relative compressive v insulation effects but usually…I dunno!

  3. Trial and error has taught me to wear this during Montana winters: (all temps in F)
    Fleece cap under helmet. Longer rides add rain jacket hood
    Planet Bike gloves-add overmitts on long downhills
    All of above + another mitten layer. Wear winter boots or heated insoles on low.
    Add face mask, electric gloves on medium heat
    -10 to 10 above
    Add goggles, heated gloves on med heat under 2 more layers, heated insoles on medium inside winter boots, rain pants over tights
    -30 to -10
    All of the above + turn up heat on gloves and insoles.

    I found heat packets in my boots didn’t have enough oxygen to keep putting out heat. After getting frost nip I switched to battery heated insoles. Items a available at the warming

  4. I’m a huge fan of uninsulated super light windproof cycling jackets that can easily be stuffed in a cycling jersey back pocket, as conditions warrant. They’re surprisingly effective – particularly if it’s a little windy – which always feels worse when the temps are low.

    I like to take a pair of super thin liner gloves – and make sure they fit under my outer gloves.

    Also, you don’t need cycling-specific base layers. And I always go for ones with zips, Check out REI underlayers. And I attach zipper pulls, so I can use the zippers with gloves.

    Finally – just my opinion – if you’re going to ride in the 30’s or lower, ditch the regular shoes and shoe covers (which I hate) and get a pair of winter riding shoes. They are 200% less hassle than shoe covers. I’m a huge fan of Lake winter shoes.

    Have fun! (And don’t ride with me. I stay out too long. 🙂 )

  5. Hi I no longer ride during the winter months, do 1 to 2 hour sessions on turbo, around 6 or 7 hrs per week, all z3 or above apart from recovery weeks/spins.
    then as the weather warms up in Feb or March, hit the road!

    I just don’t see the point in getting ill, risk being hit by car in dark rainy weather, crashing on ice or wet leaves….

    By April May i’m fit enough for 200km rides at a reasonable pace, 16/17mph solo with 2000m of climbing.

  6. We live in southern Scotland where the weather is often cold and damp. I steeled myself to go out a few days ago, wet roads 2C (around 36F) and low winds. I decided to do a level 2 ride to minimise sweating and wore the following (from inside to outside): wool thermal long sleeve top, ankle length thin cycling socks, bib longs, old baggy running longs (I’m not a style icon!) and overshoes, winter gloves (and a spare pair down my long sleeve, zip up) a neck tube, zip up thermal jacket, a wind proof jacket, a thin wool cap and of course a helmet. It turned out to be a very pleasant ride. Once I got warm enough I took the wind proof jacket off to prevent sweat buildup, and I stayed out for about 5 hours. I do suffer from cold hands and feet but was fine on this ride as I stuck to level 2.

    I think the takeaway from all my waffle above is that if you plan your clothing and the type of ride you are going to do you can still have a good ride even if the weather isn’t ideal.

  7. Good article, thank you.

    Definitely hand and foot warmer pads – I used them for the first time last winter and they were a game changer for me. Kept me riding all winter through.

    Would also suggest packing a BIG SMILE! Amateur cycling is for fun, and to be able to get out on our bikes is a luxury that many don’t have.

  8. Plan for time to launder a MOUNTAIN of stinky kit. If you lack multiple sets of warm kit, doing the laundry between rides becomes important. When my wife and I ride together in cold weather I am amazed at the size of pile of our combined kits afterwards!

    Especially in spring and fall, I carry an extra wool tubular head/neck/face cover. These tubular garments (such a BUFF brand) are versatile and can really make a difference in comfort if conditions change mid-ride.

  9. Hydration is a problem for me. Either the bottle freezes and/or the drink is so cold it drops my core temp when I drink it and then I’m shivering. I wish Hydroflask or someone would make a vacuum seal bottle that fits a bottle cage. Anyone know of that type of

    1. Hydro Flask 20 OZ Wide Insulated Sport Bottle
      Available on AMZN.
      Any of the 20 oz wide mouth bottle work in a standard bottle cage. Hot tea on a cod ride is a game changer.

    2. Try this trigger action travel mug by Stanley.

      I bought one years ago and it works a treat.

    3. I picked up a Hydro flask insulated bottle from REI which I don’t see online from them or HF’s website. You can put hot liquids in it but you can’t drink through the cap without ruining it (and possibly your mouth). Bivo makes insulated and non-insulated stainless steel bottles that are bottle cage friendly and are carbon-friendly.

  10. Living in the Midwest, my 1st move is to assess current road conditions. Not worth an injury crashing from a patch of snow of black ice. If you ride MTB, well-frozen sandy trails can be a fun alternative (sand in the ice can have surprisingly good traction). I forget about speed and just enjoy the ride.

    Agree with going to wider tires in winter, but check to make sure they fit your bike (allowing ~3mm clearance). Not really a problem for gravel bikes.

    Bitter cold air is dry (low absolute moisture content). Irritating to the nose, lungs, etc. (increased risk of nose bleeds, wheezing). Think about covering the nose/mouth.

  11. One item not mentioned – battery/electric gloves. These have been a lifesaver for me riding in Maine winters along the coast, where the roads are usually clear and safe to bicycle. My hands tend to run colder than most folks, and heated gloves are the only option that will keep my fingers, and particularly my thumbs, warm with adequate dexterity and minimal bulk. Chemical heat packs are great for the toes, but I find them useless for keeping fingers from going numb. The effectiveness of heated gloves has improved dramatically in recent years, and the cost plummeted. I’ve been using a $60 pair purchased off Amazon for three years now, and they continue to provide excellent performance. At the highest heat setting with 2200mA batteries they will provide a good two hours of warmth. You can easily carry and swap out extra batteries if your rides are longer. I’ll ride here down into the low 20’s, if not blowing a blizzard, in complete comfort on road or mountain bike. At temperatures below that, or when the roads are a mess, I’ll opt for a run.

  12. Pingback: Cycling at Night: Skills and Tips for Great Mountain Bike and Gravel Night Rides - CTS

  13. Great advice throughout. I’ve been riding/training in the rainy northwest for 40 years. I’m also just not into riding indoors, so I’m out in all types of conditions. With that context, here’s a bit more to consider.

    Yes for fenders if you live in a wet climate. But not the funky-dink clip-on style. Go with full fenders and add mud-flaps. Your feet and the rider on your wheel will thank you.

    Over the years I’ve had all types of rain jackets of various price points. The worst was the old clear PVC style. Others offered varying degrees of protection but always lacked. I finally bit the bullet a couple years back and invested in a Gore ShakeDry rain jacket. Highly recommended since it breathes well and you stay dry. For cold but dry days, the Gore wind-blocker underwear is also a huge win.

    Last, use your old shoes for winter. Chances are they are still serviceable but just beat up. You’ll be using shoe covers so who cares about the looks? And with all the dampness, better to run the old hammered shoes than the new expensive pair you bought last summer. And do have your tights over the top of your shoe covers. For long rides eventually your feet will still get wet. But tights over the top can slow that down a lot.

  14. I ride in the rain a lot in the PNW. Your comments about overheating are right on. I never wear anything waterproof above my ankles. In dry weather, the evaporation of sweat cools us. In wet weather, we need to allow some small amount of water into our insulating layers to do what evaporation did. If I can’t cool, my power drops right off. I make it maybe 3 miles in anything waterproof. My shell is about the size of a Navel orange in my pocket. Feel chilly? Pick up the pace.

  15. This might seem counterintuitive but avoid OVERdressing. As with any planned outdoor exertion, you should feel a bit chilly (but not freezing) at the start. Overheating on a quick group ride where others are appropriately dressed is NO fun.
    GREAT reminder for chemical warmers! This time of year I carry a couple ‘just in case’, especially on days where temps may drop quickly during the ride.
    And I DO always check the weather as conditions can change FAST in many regions. A chance of ice/snow on the road & I stay indoors on the (dreaded) trainer.

    I ride my ‘beater bike’/wheels for winter after they start salting local roads to avoid corrosion on my main ride. Even on dry days that salt ‘dust’ from the road gets into everything.

  16. Thanks. Moving from a coastal to an inland much colder environment. Good tips and motivation to keep it going despite colder temps.

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