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Cycling in the Cold: You Sweat, You Die and What to Wear

November 2015
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With late fall on us, we’re into the tough cycling season now.  More days than not, it’s easier to stay inside than it is to suit up and ride.

The common thinking is that riding now won’t matter for next season anyway, so why bother?

Well, there’s truth to that line of thinking… as well as some fallacy.

If you live where it snows in the winter, you’re either riding a fat bike, a mountain bike with studded tires or you’re sweating puddles under your bike on a stationary trainer.  Either way, you’d have a bit of a point.  Where this gets dicey is that you’ll undoubtedly gain confidence riding in the cold because you’re obviously a badass and knowing that will absolutely help to make next season faster,  stronger and better.

I once had a cutoff for cycling:  50 degrees (12 C).  Four years later and that’s 20 degrees (-6 C), and the funny thing is I wear almost the same clothing for 30 degrees that I did for 50…  The difference being, I used to sweat the same as I would if I were riding in late August or September.

You sweat, you die.

I watch the survival shows, Dual Survival and Dude, You’re Screwed being my favorites.  I used to be keen on Survivorman but I’ve since come to see Les as a bit of a drama queen.  One of the favorite refrains, whenever cold is involved, is “you sweat, you die”.

I go through the same thing when I go hunting… It’s 30 degrees out and you’re going to be sitting dead-still for hours at a time so you’d better have a bunch of layers and warm outer clothing. On the other hand, we have to hike a mile into the woods over some very hilly terrain. To beat this, we unzip our bibs and jackets, keep hats in the backpack, wear only light gloves out… and we still have to watch our pace so we don’t sweat. If we go too fast, we’re going to break a sweat. Clothing soaks up the sweat, gets wet, and you’re screwed. If you make it an hour or two sitting there like that, you’re mega-tough… and possibly hypothermic.

Cycling isn’t much different, minus the drama… “You sweat, you die” becomes “you sweat, you pedal faster or go home”. Sweat too much and you will get cold and miserable as soon as you slow down and getting warm again takes much longer than under cool weather conditions. Period. End of story.

My goal, when I’m out in the cold, is to have no more than four small blotches of sweat on my base layer when I get back… two under my arms, one on my chest and one on my back. Achieving this is rather simple. If I’m just a little chilly at the start, by the time I get warmed up I’ll be good.  It’s well publicized that this is the way to go but personally, I had a tough time grasping how chilly “chilly” should be.  Put simply, If I think, “This is gonna suck”, that’s chilly enough.  Three miles down the road I’m not even thinking about it any more.  If, on the other hand, I have enough clothing on that I’m thinking, “This isn’t so bad”, I need to shed a layer.

Where I run into trouble is my legs. They hate the cold. It’s like they refuse to work properly below 60 degrees so this makes for trouble when I’m riding in temps 40 degrees below that.  Generally speaking, and this is because I’ve never bought a full pair of tights (which I’m sure would help considerably), when it’s below 40 I resort to a pair of knee warmers over my leg warmers…  This, at least makes the freezing temps bearable.

So, with the exception of my legs, I’ve adopted a minimalist approach to the cold that I’ve found works quite well…  Going from the ground up, full merino wool socks (an absolute must), toe covers or foot covers (below freezing), leg warmers, knee warmers (if necessary), cycling shorts, base layer (I’m partial to 32 Degrees Heat wear lately – one of the best base layers on the market and they go for less than ten bucks at Costco), jersey, long sleeved jersey (or jacket for under 35 degrees), neck gaiter, hat and melon protector…  Full fingered gloves are obvious.

Last Saturday was a perfect example of when I get my clothing right.  It was 36 degrees out (maybe 1-1/2 C) and I had on my base layer, a light long sleeved jersey and a thermal long sleeved jersey…  I thought to myself going out, “This is going to suck”.  Three miles later I was comfortable and other than the fact that I didn’t wear my knee warmers over my leg warmers, I was perfectly comfortable all morning long.  When I got home I had the small tell-tale sweat blotches but I wasn’t soaked with sweat…

So, if you’ve avoided riding in the cold because you get too cold, try shedding some layers before you give up on early spring and late fall cycling.  You might just enjoy it a little more..

[ED:  As a caveat, I ride faster than the average bear (19-20 mph average)…  If you’re slower, say 12-15 mph, you may not have to worry too much about sweating.  Take that into account before you shed too many layers.]

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11 Comments

  1. Tony says:

    Fascinating post. I ride significantly slower than you yet my legs never feel cold. I just wear long johns, the Paradox brand from Costco, and that does it. As far as toes goes, I wear wool sox. I used to suffer from cold toes, but found that tinfoil in the shoes as a liner reflects up the body heat and keeps them from freezing. I wear glove mitts for 20F temps. Haven’t found anything better to keep my digits from the frigid.

  2. bribikes says:

    I remember last year when I was in full research mode for winter cycling I saw the tip, “wear disposable latex gloves under your winter gloves to keep your hands warm.” Since I work at a restaurant, one day I slipped on a pair for my commute home. My hands were soaked in sweat and freezing by the time I got home. That is how I learned about the dangers of mixing sweat and cold.

  3. This summer I got bike shoes with solid soles, with overshoes, what a difference at 5°.

  4. ekels22 says:

    Just got a Gore Bike Wear soft shell cycling jacket going to test it out today in Michigan windy around 40 degrees.

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