Dress for duress: toasty tips for safe and confortable winter cycling

Cyclists should wear comfortable clothes to prevent heat stress and chills. Clothing for cold weather should be made of insulating material to trap heat. A polypropylene balaclava keeps the head warm, while insulated socks and gloves effectively warms the feet and hands.

No matter how hot it gets in summer, cyclists always create a cooling breeze simply by rolling down the road. But take that same pace and combine it with temperatures in the 30s rather than 80s, and suddenly speed chills. In fact, as our chart shows, calm 30-degree air feels like 3 degrees when you’re riding 20 mph.

To pedal comfortably through winter (or get outside earlier in spring), you need clothing that blocks wind and retains warmth without making you overheat. It’s a tough task, and I’ve yet to find the perfect head-to-toe system. However, while commuting and training during Pennsylvania winters for several years, I’ve developed the following dressing techniques that work well, making it possible to ride for a couple of hours in wind chills as low as 30 degrees below zero. Am I warm in these conditions? Not really. Am I comfortable? Enough to eliminate frigid air as a reason to miss a ride.

HEAD

It all starts here. As you’ve probably heard, more body heat is lost through the neck and head than any other source. Protecting them is priority one, and it’s easy (and cheap). I wear a polypropylene balaclava that’s thin enough not to require changing my helmet’s pads. In fact, I also leave the vents alone, allowing air flow to prevent overheating. TABULAR DATA OMITTED The balaclava fits tight around my face and extends well into my turtleneck undershirt to prevent air leaks. When necessary, I can pull it up to cover my chin or mouth. It’s effective in a wide range of temperatures and can easily be folded into a pocket if the temperature climbs.

GOOD BUY: Polypropylene lightweight balaclava from Campmor ($6, 800/226-7667).

FEET

These are the first to announce displeasure in cold temperatures. Interestingly, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your toes toasty if your head and torso are warm. If they aren’t, blood flow to the extremities is reduced. Second in importance is protecting your feet from wind and wetness. Wear socks made of an insulating material that holds moisture away from your skin. I prefer wool high-tops. Be careful not to tie your shoes too tight (restricting circulation), and cover them with booties. Some of the most effective and reasonably priced are made of neoprene. Even better (but more costly) are models combining a waterproof outer material such as Gore-Tex or Aqua-No with a fleece liner. These are also lighter, thinner, and foldable. For maximum heat retention, choose booties that have high, snug tops and cleat cutouts no larger than necessary.

GOOD BUYS: Performance neoprene shoe covers ($30, 800/727-2453); Bellwether Stretch Aqua-No booties ($50, 415/863-0436, CA).

HANDS

Again, keep your core warm and your hands will have a better chance. For temperatures above 35 degrees, full-finger gloves will do. But when it’s colder, I’ve found nothing works as well as insulated “lobster” gloves that put your first 2 fingers in one compartment and your last 2 in another. This enhances warmth almost as well as full mittens, but allows the dexterity to operate a bike. Other effective features include a long, knit cuff to prevent air leaks, terry material on the back for wiping your nose, and a windproof, water-resistant shell. The trick is knowing the temperature above which lobster gloves will cause your hands to sweat. If this happens, the dampness can make them feel chilly.

GOOD BUY: Pearl Izumi Stretch Entrant Lobster gloves ($40, 800/328-8488).

TORSO

Dress in layers that transport moisture and trap body heat. I start with a polypropylene undershirt, then put on a long-sleeve turtleneck made of polypro or another wicking, insulating material. On top I wear a wool/acrylic-blend jacket with nylon chest panels. These block the wind while allowing the back of the jacket to radiate body heat, reducing the risk of getting too sweaty. A full front zipper lets me open the jacket while climbing or riding with a tailwind, but close it partially or fully at other times. I’ve never encountered temperatures so low that these 3 garments weren’t enough. In fact, when it’s above 30 I’ll often go without the base undershirt.

On cold, rainy days, I switch to a waterproof jacket with underarm vents. I still get damp (from sweat and condensation), but at least I stay warm. Tip: Wear a small fanny pack around the outside of your jacket. This will hold it down, keeping your lower back covered and allowing you to work the zipper easily with one hand. Also, it gives you a place to carry small items because you don’t have jersey pockets.

GOOD BUY: DuPont “Thermastat” 2-layer long-sleeve turtleneck ($28, Bike Nashbar, 800/627-4227).

LEGS

Above about 45 degrees, I prefer leg warmers rather than tights. They let my hips breathe to reduce the chance of becoming too warm. If it’s chillier, I switch to polypro or brushed Lycra tights. When the temp is 30 or colder, I use tights with a bib top for the extra torso and low-back insulation. You can also get these with double-thick knee panels for additional protection. On frigid, gusty days I put on the best wind-chill busters I’ve found–Assos insulated bib tights. They’re expensive, but they’ll keep you on the road. Amazingly, they won’t cause you to overheat when the temperature is in the 30s, but to make them last I save them for the coldest days.

GOOD BUYS: ShaverSport polypro leg warmers ($25, 303/399-3555, CO); Assos Thermo Bib Tight ($170, 800/266-2776).

EYES

Not even an encore viewing of The Terminator will make you cry like icy air at 20 mph. And the glare of the low winter sun can be blinding. My favorite eye protection is the Smith Prolite Sportshield ($20, 800/635-4401). I wear it year-round, choosing among the 4 lens colors to match each ride’s light conditions. Because I use contacts, I appreciate the lens’s wraparound protection, as well as the fact that it snaps to a wide headband. This absorbs sweat to keep the view clean, and it’s the only thing that touches your head–there’s nothing conducting cold or putting pressure on your ears or nose. In winter, I put the headband over my balaclava and across my ears, keeping them warmer.

HOT TIPS FOR COLD ROADS

HERE ARE 10 GOOD IDEAS FOR RIDING IN WINTER WEATHER.

  1. Start into the wind, then let it blow you back home. Otherwise, you’ll work up a sweat riding with a tailwind, then suffer in the icy wind chill.
  2. Don’t overdress. If you’re not chilly in the first few minutes, you’ve probably worn too much and will overheat.
  3. In freezing temperatures, use an insulated bottle or bottle cover to increase the time before your drinks turn to slush.
  4. Be wary of shaded corners, which may hide ice.
  5. Install fenders if they’ll fit. They’re great for reducing grit and muck on you and your bike.
  6. Wear light, bright colors to help motorists see you on dim days.
  7. Install rear reflectors or carry reflective ankle bands for times when dusk catches you a few minutes from home.
  8. Carry 2 spare tubes. Patching a tube with frozen fingers isn’t easy, should a second flat occur.
  9. Don’t stop for long, if at all. Resumption of the wind chill will make you cold, and you may be unable to shake the shivers the rest of the ride.
  10. Don’t overdo it. As a rule, you can be fairly comfortable for 90 minutes in subfreezing temperatures. But things will deteriorate quickly after that, particularly if you’re raising a sweat.

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