After years off a bicycle, I started riding again in spring of 2016. I started commuting via bike in late summer, and decided I was going to try through winter as well.
I was comfortable riding through fall in my normal clothes and shoes until the temperature was below about 38F. At this point learning to layer my clothing became the norm, especially in the fickle temperature swings of my region.
In the depth of winter, however, it’s still about layering but it’s most important to make sure my layers insulate while keeping sweat off my skin. For years I wore a synthetic base layer, but this year I finally purchased merino wool and it is a world of difference! Merino is soft, lightweight — and therefore good for all seasons — and insulates even when wet, so it’s perfect for people like me that sweat like crazy. I spent over 30 years feeling cold all winter because my armpits were damp where my clothing touched my skin – not anymore!
As I mentioned in Part One: The Bike, I don’t have fancy clipless pedals or clips, just flat pedals that are a little wider with bigger spaces to allow for snow or dirt to fall through. Therefore I wear my normal winter boots, a pair of Columbia snow boots I’ve had for over ten years. The small nubs on the pedals give me good traction – so far even in a freezing rain storm I’ve been able to stay on the pedal.
I wear my regular Columbia winter jacket – I bought it on clearance for around $60 five or six years ago and it still looks new. In extreme wind I have thin Columbia snowpants I found secondhand for $6 – they’re thin enough to layer easily over other clothes.
The layers I wear in deep cold:
- Merino wool T-shirt ($30 clearance at the end of summer through Ibex) – I wear this literally every day, whether I’m biking or not
- Merino wool arm warmers (on sale via Amazon)
- Fleece long sleeve shirt (Cuddlduds 60% off sale a few years ago) – I wear this nearly every day. I’m definitely a repeat-clothes-all-week kind of girl.
- Fleece leggings (Cuddlduds 60% off sale years ago) – on long rides these are enough, but for my commute I’ll also wear merino wool leggings if it’s very windy or below 15F
- Bike pants that are wind blocking and water resistant, with reflective details (secondhand; the brand is from China)
- Wool socks (Smartwool ski socks that were on clearance during summer) – if I’m riding more than 30 minutes I’ll add a thin liner sock underneath
- Secondhand Shetland wool vest ($3) – worn if it’s below 20F or very windy
- Variety of head coverings depending on temperature: Cotton blend headband, lightweight cotton blend buff (tube scarf), or fleece face mask. I find I need to keep my ears covered in any wind (even in summer) or below 40F. I also need to keep my mouth covered below 35F
- Merino wool liner gloves – on a long ride I’ll use my pogies and just wear these or regular gloves
- Split-finger mittens – these are intended for Nordic skiing but purchased off-season and were a lot cheaper than the bicycle-specific gloves split in the middle. For my bike with drop handlebars they are perfect. With the straight handlebars of the winter bike they’re a little more clumsy as I’m used to having two fingers on the brakes – now I know why the bicycle gloves are split in the middle 🙂
- Helmet with a cheap rain cover (maybe $6 on Amazon) – covering the air vents keeps my head much warmer
- Reflective arm bands – the more lit up I am, the more likely I am to be seen
- My beloved ski goggles (purchased during post-holiday clearance online) – these make such an incredible difference in my comfort and ability to see properly! I’ve been known to wear them just to walk the dog (the dog who lasts less than 90 seconds outside if it’s cold enough for goggles!)
My go-everywhere essentials:
- Backpack – hiking day pack that I’ve had for at least 15 years. I keep coveting a Banjo Brothers brand cycling pack that would hold more groceries but it’s not a need, just a very much want.
- Pack cover – rainproof, high visibility color, and the entire thing is reflective. I use this even when walking on errands now after noticing how much harder it is to see pedestrians than cyclists in the dark.
- Portable bicycle pump
- Two U-locks for my commute – if I’m going somewhere other than work, I’ll also bring a cable lock. I want my bike to be more annoying to steal than the bike next to mine.
- Small bicycle tool – hex wrenches to adjust my pedals and my saddle (seat) if needed.
- Inhaler! This is probably the most important piece of my kit – I’ve been advised to use a couple of puffs before leaving my house, and I definitely need it prior to hills. This time of winter I skip hills entirely and commute to the metro station, which makes my lungs happier.
- Water – In summer, even though I always have water with me, I’m usually ok during my hour long commute. In winter, though, I’m thirsty as heck by the time I’ve ridden the few miles to the metro, so I fill my bottle up with warm water before leaving.
My tips if you’re just starting to ride during colder seasons:
I’ve read a lot of guides on winter biking – and I mean a lot, because I am a researcher through and through – and most of them recommend using what you already have and building piece by piece over the years.
My biggest tip is to listen to your body. I know my body doesn’t do well in the cold; I’ve never really enjoyed winter in the Midwest even with synthetic base layers and a good quality jacket and snowpants. Merino wool base layers have completely changed my life for the better! It was very difficult to spend $70 on leggings, but I’ve been at least 20 times more active outdoors than I have in any year since moving here. The purchases made at the beginning of the season, then, before I’d tried cycling without, have absolutely been worthwhile. If I would have tried to tough it out I might have given up, thinking I’d always be too cold.
If, like, me, you’re always cold when you’re on a winter walk, or while shoveling snow: bicycling is different. You generate a surprising amount of heat from pedaling, and I’ve found I’m toasty warm within about 10 minutes of riding – enough to fog up my glasses due to heat coming off my face. I’ve learned to keep my calves and forearms warm, as this seems to help keep my feet and hands warmer.
Keeping your face and head warm and protected from the elements will make you feel much warmer. I kinda think everyone should experience a snowflake to the eyeball while moving 10mph to justify purchasing ski goggles when you don’t ski (oh, wait, that was my tactic). But in reality, everything we know about heat dissipation through exposed areas and especially our head is even more important when there’s a -30F windchill. I’ve been amazed how warm I am riding when I can’t feel the wind but can only hear it.
Most of all, experiment with different layers and types of clothing. I’m on the freeze-baby end of the spectrum, while there are folks out today in our balmy 38F wearing a lightweight hoody and cutoff jeans. You might be totally comfortable in your regular clothing, but if you start to feel chilly on rides or feel extra fatigued afterward, try a non-cotton layer underneath.
Happy winter riding!