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Cycling in the Cold: A Noob’s Guide to what I’ve Learned About Staying Warm when Your Snot Can Freeze
The All Seasons Cyclist prodded me for almost two full years to ride when the temps dipped below freezing. My first year of cycling, 45 was too cold. My second, 40. This year, I’m down to the low 20’s and I can go colder (we just haven’t had temps drop that low, consistently, yet.
Interestingly, I haven’t added much in the way of new clothing that would make that much of a difference though there are a few key light pieces that you’d never guess would make as big a difference as they really do. I’ll get to the clothing in a minute though…
First, speed matters. The faster I go, without overheating, the warmer I feel. 18 mph (average, which means speeds consistently above 19) feels great down into the 20’s while 15 feels chilly up to 35 degrees. This is a little counterintuitive as the faster you go, the more the cold bites but the friction created by movement makes up for it… Unfortunately, there is one exception (at least for me). My legs. Leg warmers are great and tights work right but I still have a tough time keeping my legs warm enough to work right without binding them up with too many layers.
Second, too much speed and too many layers means sweat. Put simply, in extreme survival situations; “you sweat, you die”. So sayeth Survivor Man. While cycling is nowhere near an “extreme survival situation”, I’ve found the same principle to apply. Too much sweat and you will freeze your bagingas off before long if you slow down… Here’s the equation: 🚴 (XS+XC)*T*Sw=💀
Third, while I can (and have) maintained an average north of 20 mph below freezing, it ain’t easy. All of those clothes , especially if they’re tight, slow me down quite a bit. I had to learn to accept slower speeds and fewer miles in the cold. On the other hand, slow outdoors sure beats fast indoors on a trainer.
The last non-clothing related item I’ve picked up has to do with, if you can believe it, the bike setup. I’ve written before about the fact that I ride low. It turns out that, if the boys get a little chilly from too much, um, direct frontal wind(?), then all I have to do to warm them up is ride in the drops for a couple of miles. With the wind blocked, it’s all good… Seriously, try it, it works.
Now for the clothing…
First, too heavy is just as bad as too light. I had to learn to trust that lighter, in certain areas, is okay except in the legs, as long as I ride fast enough.
The cap (or tuque for the Canucks)
Not to be confused with a toque, which would be ridiculous, a tuque or cap, in the absence of a wind breaking helmet cover, is a must.. I’ve got three I alternate and they all work well… A high-tech running cap that I picked up at a snowflake 10k more than a decade ago, a New Balance running cap that I just picked up a month ago and a cycling specific Specialized Element Windstopper™ cap (below). Now, as you might guess, the Spec hat is (obviously) a little better than the running cap but not enough to cheer about. For me, the important part is covering my melon and ears. While covering the ears can be tricky when it comes to hearing traffic, if I don’t cover mine, there will be no cycling in the cold, can’t do it. It just takes more vigilance when listening for traffic.
We’re not talking food here, not Baklava, a balaclava. I’ve got a very light balaclava that’s about the same thickness as a light tee shirt. It works excellently well down to the low twenties – not quite freezing but close. There are thicker models on the market, especially from the big cycling companies for seriously cold weather but I haven’t had to bother (yet). When it comes to cycling in the cold, balaclavas are sexy baby. When it comes to the full cover though, I prefer lighter around the neck so my balaclava is only good for a very specific range of temperatures,
If I want a ride in temps below 40-ish degrees to suck, all I have to do is leave my neck and chin exposed. Two years ago I bought a bicycle magazine that offered a 3-in-1 balaclava-cap-neck warmer for free (it came wrapped up, with the magazine). It sat in my cycling go-bag because I couldn’t figure out how to manipulate the thin, stretchy material into a balaclava. After picking up my caps this year I pulled it out and just used it as a neck warmer that I can pull it up over my nose when I’m at the front of the group. Instant non-sucky cold weather riding and the material is only about the thickness of a tee shirt. It’s fantastic well below the 20’s and has become one of the best cold weather pieces of clothing I own. My wife uses a fleece one but I’d worry that would be too warm.
I have a Specialized Element (thermal) jacket that, for cycling in the cold, is freaking amazing. As long as I keep my speed up, all I need is a decent long-sleeve base layer underneath. It is not a cheap jacket. If I remember correctly, I paid $150 for mine, on sale, two years ago. The newer model (the 2.0) runs about $250 but as comfortable as I am in mine, it’s worth the cash, even at $250.
The All-Important Guns…
I still have work yet to do when it comes to the legs as what I have is woefully inadequate. Currently I use my cycling shorts with a Brooks compression short beneath (below 30 degrees is the only time I wear anything beneath my cycling shorts), my thermal leg warmers and a pair of light-weight running tights over everything. The problem is that by the time I put all of that crap on, it hampers the movement of my legs. Eventually I’m going to pick up a pair of thermal tights but I have to do some leg-work to figure out what I want.
Very simple: Wool cycling socks, Bontrager foot covers. No problem.
Gloves, at least so far, have been pretty simple even though I’ve seen plenty of thick, hi-tech cycling gloves… I use Specialized Deflect gloves with a thin base layer glove when temps drop below 40… I’ve been out riding with temps down to 23 and never worried about my hands being too cold. For temps above 40, the Deflect gloves are plenty fine by themselves.
Now, as I wrote earlier, I used to think 40 degrees was too cold but I was missing out on some very decent outdoor cycling opportunities. The real trick to getting my clothing right for the really cold stuff was my neck. If my neck and chin are exposed under 40 degrees, I’m pretty much miserable. If I’m sufficiently covered, I feel quite good down to the 20’s. This is why I’m so keen on that silly collar that I got with the cycling magazine… Who’d have thought that such a simple little thing would make such a big difference in whether or not I can enjoy a bike ride on a colder day, certainly not me, but such is the case – for me, it’s all about my neck.