Cycling in cold weather is a reality most of us have to face at some point in the year. Avoid it and your training goes out of the window. But how can you stay warm?
In this article I’ll talk you through my layering techniques and the kind of clothing I use to keep the frostbite at bay. Everyone has a different tolerance to the cold so you may find some or all of these useful but, hopefully, my experience will save you having to make the cold mistakes I did early on!
I have found these techniques useful up to about -2°c with a wind chill of -5°c. I have never taken on a winter further north so if you have any tips for surviving when it gets even colder, it would be great if you could add them into the comments.
There is simply nothing worse than cold feet when riding. Unlike other sports, your feet remain in a locked and static position when cycling so this, coupled with them taking the wind head on, means they lose heat easily.
For the winter I will ride with anything between two and four layers on my feet.
The combinations will be as follows:
- Thin socks and overshoes
- Thick socks and overshoes
- Thin socks, thick socks & overshoes
- Thin socks, foil, thick socks & overshoes!
Oh and occasionally I wear shoes too!
The most extreme version looks like this:
Firstly I start with my Altura Thin Socks. These are the same socks I wear right through the summer by themselves and they make a great base layer. Second up is some tin foil. Yes, you heard me right. Tin foil. I use the thick stuff and normally wrap it around my toes. Amazing at keeping the wind chill out and the heat in. Thirdly I use my thicker Altura socks. This makes my shoe quite a snug fit but really keeps me warm as well as holding the foil in place. Over my shoes I then use Sealskinz overshoes. These are great at keeping the wind off and add in another layer of warmth.
This is reserved for only the very coldest days on the longest rides. I have only used the foil once or twice but find anything below about 4 degrees I need at least the three layers.
Keeping my legs warm whilst cycling in cold weather is something I battled with for a long time.
I have used various different types of tights, eventually settling on the Fiandre by Sportful. These are specially designed for tough conditions. They provide an extra layer across the knee, thigh and back to keep you warm. They were the 4th or 5th different set of tights I tried and I’m sold on them. The pad is incredibly comfortable and they’re nice and warm. They also battle well against the wet weather, so a win on two fronts!
However, on the coldest of days I still found the wind getting through onto my thighs which would be bright red by the time I got home.
I decided adding some shorts on top would help and they have really made a difference. I didn’t want to use cycling shorts as I was worried that having a second seat pad would cause problems, so I opted for some compression shorts designed for running. I use Under Armour compression shorts which are designed as a base layer but given how tight cycling clothing tends to be, I have found them perfect for sitting on top of tights without flapping around in the wind. I use them on the really cold rides and they really protect my thighs from the biting wind.
The body is pretty simple to figure out when fighting the cold.
For me a base layer and soft shell are normally enough, though I will add in either a second base layer or gilet if there is an icy north wind.
Base layers are the starting point to staying warm. Anything with merino wool I found incredibly comfortable and also helps to take sweat away from your body. This is a key part to staying warm when cycling in the cold. If your base layer gets wet with sweat you can get cold very quickly. Having something appropriate not only from a warmth but also a wicking perspective is really important.
My personal favourite is by Isadore. I tend to go for a short sleeve as I don’t find my arms get too cold. Remember with base layers to try and go a size down compared to your normal T-shirt size as you want them to be nice and tight.
Soft shells are normally described as for colder spring or autumn days but I wear mine right the way through winter. I find them to be warm and comfortable. Layering them is the key; adding in a couple of base layers and a gilet means the lighter nature of them works perfectly. The only exception to this is the rain where I will opt for a full jacket.
Unfortunately, my favourite is now out of production which was the Bontrager RL Convertible Soft Shell. This one has a fleece lining, which makes it brilliantly warm, and removable arms for when it warms up in the afternoon.
A gilet is an incredibly useful bit of kit. Easily slipped on over a soft shell to keep the worst of the wind off, it can be quickly taken off and stored in a jersey pocket when it warms up. Most roll up very small making them easy to carry around. This is an essential purchase for cycling in cold weather!
I use one by Stolen Goat. It fits perfectly without flapping around in the wind and has three slits in the back to allow you to easily access the pockets in your jersey through the holes.
These are quite a tightly fitted piece of kit so, given you are likely to be wearing it on top of a number of other items, I would suggest going a size bigger for ease of fit.
Not a lot of layering to be done here but after the feet they’re probably the worst area to get cold.
I have a two-pronged approach here:
- Sealskinz merino wool lined mid weight gloves for the slightly cold days.
- Sealskinz thermal gloves for when it gets arctic!
Last and certainly not least we have the head, and I even manage to get some layering done here!
Firstly, make sure you have some decent glasses that wrap around your head as much as possible. The cold air will make your eyes stream really quickly.
As good a descender as I’m sure you are, taking the local Col at 60 km/h completely blind will eventually be a bad decision. I then use two other key pieces of kit.
Firstly a buff. I wear these pretty much the whole way through the winter. I have two, a thin cotton one for the normal days and a merino wool one for when you feel like you’re cycling in McCain’s warehouse. These are the Swiss Army Knife of headgear and can be folded and wrapped in a number of different ways.
I tend to bring it round my neck and chin and then over the back of my head to try and keep as much warmth in as possible. You will be able to get it about halfway across the top of your head before it starts riding up your neck.
The second key piece of kit is a skull cap. Again, these are reserved for the worst days and are layered with a buff.
I put the buff on first and then add the skull cap on top before putting on my helmet. This helps to keep my forehead warm as well as stopping heat escaping from my head (an aero helmet can be useful for this too as they have no ventilation). You will end up with double layering on your ears and part of your head which you will be thankful for when winter really hits!
This one by Altura is cheap, durable and windproof. Tick, tick and tick!