How to: Dress for winter
In my part of the world the temperature is heading south for the winter, and whilst we are still lucky enough to be able to continue riding with relative ease – unlike those with proper winter – it still presents its problems when it comes to deciding what to wear on the bike.
If you are commuting in plain clothes it may not be as difficult, providing you are not trying to set Strava records on the way there. You will still heat up more than if you were walking and it will still be somewhat more difficult to manage the trade-off between staying warm and keeping free of excess perspiration, but the situation is a little less complicated than when heading out for a more strenuous recreational ride.
There’s cold, there’s wet, and there’s dark.
If you are going to wear the clothes you will be in all day, the first and best thing you can do is to leave enough time for your journey to be undertaken without needing to rush. Dead serious. If it is not raining, and you don’t have to rush, you need precisely zero articles of cycle-specific clothing. Sure, throwing some Lycra on under your normal pants will be more comfortable, but at the end of the day you can just grab the bike and go. Not only is leaving yourself enough time to keep to a moderate pace the solution to being comfortable and not saturated with sweat, but riding at a comfortable pace also makes for a much more pleasant journey. Your stress levels drop considerably, your mood improves, you have more time to make decisions, and you get the opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds of your surroundings, whatever they may be.
Alright, so let’s say that your journey is long enough or you ride just hard enough to make deciding what to wear a little less straight forward, but you’re still not going to change once you get to work.
First, in any rainy situation, whatever your thoughts on whether mudguards are (cool or uncool), they are without a doubt one of the best things you can do to make winter riding more comfortable. They are available in all sizes, for all bikes, but full guards are the best (obviously). If the skies have cleared but the roads have not, you won’t have to worry about puddles or wet and filthy clothes upon arrival, and you can ride with one less care in the world.
Don’t over-dress. Sounds obvious, but I constantly make this mistake because I’m cold in the morning around the house and dress for how I feel there and then, and within minutes of starting out, I’m already too warm. I know this, yet I still do it time after time. I hate being cold…
Warm hands and feet make a big difference to your overall level of comfort. For weather that is beyond merely chilly, get some good gloves that are windproof, and possibly waterproof if you want to plan for rain. Remember that anything waterproof won’t breathe as well as something that isn’t, regardless of its claims. As long as the gloves are warm and the temperatures aren’t too bad, wet hands aren’t a big deal if they are still warm.
Shoe-covers may not be the most fashionable, but toasty feet are wonderful things on a cold morning. There are 3 types of shoe-covers: thin over-socks that are useless if you have warmth in mind, insulated but non-waterproof shoe-covers (pretty obvious what they do), and full-on, waterproof, windproof, insulated overshoes. For the later there are varying levels of thicknesses for insulating properties. Again, while the waterproof shoe-covers aren’t usually any more bulky than the non-waterproof ones, they won’t breathe as well, making for some sweatier feet. For those of you that are particularly sensitive to the cold, like me, it’s worth it to have them as warm as possible. I have had a pair of Endura shoe-covers that have served me well for about 10 years now, but after using them on a couple of winter mountain bike rides, they are ready to be replaced (they do have a MTB specific pair, to be fair, but I can’t say if they’re any better).
Hot tip: if you are using them over cycling shoes, go for the same size as your shoes. If you want to use them over regular shoes, often the size up is better, as trainers, etc. are a little bulkier. Also bear in mind that if you are not using road cycling shoes (with cleats), then with most of the shoe-covers you will be walking directly on the underside of the covers as they usually only have holes cut out for the cleat and the heel, and they will wear out in time if this is the case. The BBB Waterflex covers are more open on the underside, having only a Velcro strap in the middle (and the toe wraps around to the bottom), making it a little more suitable for regular shoes. Others will make commuter-specific overshoes, such as, again, Endura’s Luminite II overshoe.
An alternative to shoe-covers would be a waterproof/windproof sock, like the SealSkinz, but obviously your shoes will still be wet if it rains, and they’re not going to be as warm.
A final note on shoe-covers is that if it is really raining, eventually water will get in from the top as it runs down your legs, especially if you are wearing socks that are at, or higher than, the tops of the covers. You’ll have somewhat wet feet in this case, but at least they’ll still be warm.
Hands and feet covered, what about the rest?
If you are wearing what you’ll be wearing for the duration of the day (as I do), there’s not much you can do aside from a suitable outer layer. Really, there is nothing special required here. A regular jacket or rain jacket will suffice, but there are advantages to jackets that are cycling-specific, such as a lower-cut back to help protect against spray from the back wheel, reflective elements for low-light situations, better ventilation, often they’ll have longer arms suitable for a riding position, and some will have a closer fit. Netti are a popular and less costly brand here in Australia, and I’ve always been a fan of Sugoi’s gear (their Zap jacket is both waterproof and made of a very cool, highly reflective material). Clearly, there are others.
I have found a hood to be extremely useful for the commute in the rain, though it does compromise your shoulder-checking ability a bit. When it’s tipping it down, my hood is up, and my head is dry.
Cycling specific water-proof pants (that you put on over your regular pants) are a little harder to find, but if you combine a waterproof jacket (with hood), waterproof pants, shoe-covers, gloves, and mud-guards, then even the heaviest of downpours isn’t actually that bad! I’ve often arrived home after riding through a deluge and been none the worse for wear. There’s a weird kind of enjoyment I get from a successful commute in the rain, but it’s something I absolutely loath when underprepared…
Now, for harder, longer recreational rides where you are not needing to be presentable for work or pleasure (or if your commute is longer and you can change out of your riding clothes on arrival), it’s a different ballgame, as you have many more options with which to equip yourself against the elements.
The hands and feet situation is the same, so that’s easy.
As you will be working harder and for a longer period of time, you’ll want to manage your moisture build-up as that has a significant effect on staying warm. Start things off with a good base layer. I’ll wear one on all but the warmest days in summer as they are not only comfortable, but do the job of moving sweat away from your skin to evaporate quickly and also provides your initial thermal layer.
There are different weights of base layers, naturally, so you can select the appropriate weight for the temperature range. Wool is a fantastic material as it keeps you warm even when wet, but also doesn’t smell if you have to use it for extended periods between washing. For winter, BBB’s Thermolayer is a synthetic material that has the properties of wool (warm, dry, and fresh), and has a slightly higher neck to keep the breeze out a bit better. Rapha’s Merino Mesh base layer comes highly recommended, if you want to splash out for something like that.
If it’s not too cold, you might just wear a base layer, jersey and arm warmers (or long sleeve jersey), but if it is any cooler, the second most valuable item of clothing to have at your disposal is a good vest (or gilet).
A vest will keep your core warm without overheating you, as a significant factor in losing heat is the amount of air moving over your body at speed – particularly when sweaty. This is achieved by usually having a windproof/water-resistant front panel and a mesh backing, so the wind is kept at bay but excess heat is flung out the back. A gilet also has the advantage of taking up a minimal amount of space in your jersey pocket, making it the perfect companion on days that may start cool but warm up, or rides that include a few longer descents that could benefit from keeping the wind off of your chest. After all, a descent is usually preceded by a climb, and you don’t want to be speeding down a hill with a freshly sweat-soaked jersey pulling all of your heat away from you. Good way to catch a cold. You’ll use it in spring and autumn for sure, and likely throughout (an Australian) winter except for particularly cold days.
When the temperature drops a bit further, a long sleeve jersey lined with fleece is often the answer, though many people opt for a light jacket, of which there are many. There are plenty of lighter outer layers out there now, sitting somewhere in between a long-sleeve jersey and a full on jacket, so you’ll have to find the right balance for your comfortable temperature range (your environment and whether you heat up quickly or not, etc). Long sleeve jerseys will provide a minimal defense against the elements (cold, wind, or rain), fleece jerseys a little warmer, light jackets warmer yet and also usually wind-resistant/windproof, and many of those are showerproof with some sort of DWR treatment on the fabric. All of these will still breathe reasonably well.
With jackets, especially waterproof ones, there is a greater chance that you will be pulling it off at some point, only to put it back on when you cool off again, particularly if the ride is a hilly one. This is because no matter how breathable something that is waterproof is (or claims to be), whether it is Gore-Tex, eVENT, or any other breathable/waterproof fabric, it’s still not going to allow moisture build-up to evaporate at the rate if would when not wearing a jacket, and still not as close to a non-waterproof one than manufacturers would have you believe. Unless the temperature is cold enough to keep the jacket on for the entire ride, you will probably want to take it off at some point (like a long climb). You may not mind being sweaty – after all, you are exercising and that’s kind of the point – but you will get warm and sweaty if you are peddling at more than a moderate pace. Simply unzipping it will drastically improve things, but there’s still a good chance you’ll want to stow it away completely. Come to terms with this.
You can sometimes end up getting just as wet inside as not wearing one in the rain due to this build-up of perspiration. There is still an advantage though, and that is heat retention. Wet fabric draws heat from your body at something like 25 times more than just air (the faster the air is moving around it the faster that heat disappears), so wearing something that soaks up perspiration and doesn’t move it on very well can have a significant effect on your ability to keep warm. Your base and/or mid layer should be moving this moisture on and may continue to do an admirable job at shifting moisture away from your skin, but that will ultimately get held up by the waterproof jacket. Wet, but at least you’re still warm.
What a good breathable jacket will allow for is a greater ability to move this moisture on while still retaining heat. Technically. You might delay the onset of sweat building up on the inside of the garment a bit, but ultimately you will still get sweaty. Once sweaty, however, a breathable jacket will get rid of it more efficiently than a non-breathable one, so you will dry out faster by comparison.
This is assuming that the jacket has no vents to help with the job of removing moisture, but as we are talking about winter, and I’m assuming a cold temperature, the last thing you will be wanting is a current of cold air running through your clothes. Makes me cold just thinking about it…
So, for cold weather, it’s all about the layers. If it’s cold and dry, then you want to layer very efficient fabrics that move moisture along while keeping you warm. Start with a good base layer (again, there are warmer ones for winter, but don’t be afraid of thin or even mesh ones too – as long as they are effective at moving moisture away from your skin, they’ll do), add a mid layer, and then add a warmer/windproof/waterproof top layer as the conditions demand. If you need to, add more layers, but usually a wisely chosen three will suffice.
If it’s both cold and wet, then you’ll be wanting a water-resistant top layer if it’s only light rain, or a waterproof top layer for anything more. As we don’t all have the space or the funds for limitless clothing options, the waterproof jacket will do, as long as you accept that you’ll get a bit of a sweat up with it on. Plus, it will also pay off if it’s really cold.
And if it’s really cold, then put something between your head and your helmet. The classic cycling cap will both keep a lot of heat from escaping, and keep the sun and a bit of rain out of your eyes. Cotton is the default material for caps, but my local shop caps are made from a jersey material (Lycra) and benefit from a much better fit for a range of sizes (not as tight – I have a Rapha cap that gives me a headache from being a little too tight), but also doesn’t get saturated with sweat like cotton. Plus, I have to say that they are the most comfortable, by far…
If it’s a bit colder yet, you might want to go straight to a skullcap – basically a beanie, but it is lined with fleece and covers your ears. From there you can go to a balaclava, if you are riding in temperature well below zero.
So, hands, feet, and torso are covered, which only leaves the legs, and they’re pretty easy.
You have one of two options: use your regular bib-shorts with leg warmers (fleece lined, sometimes with wind-resistant front panels, but these don’t tend to have quite as good a fit), or go for a full-length bib for winter that are almost always fleece-lined, and/or made of a heavier Lycra. There’s always the 3/4 length option if you don’t get too cold, which are otherwise the same as the full length.
And there you have it. The elements of your winter cycling wardrobe. This will likely require some experimentation, as somethings will fit you better than others, some things will reveal their true nature only after a few rides or more, and some things will be more to your personal preferences in terms of the temperature range they keep you in.
Have any other handy tips? Leave a comment!
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