If you've ever clicked a 'How to Dress for Winter Riding' article from any of the major cycling publications and websites, you have likely been left a little disappointed. Either that, or left thinking that you are incredibly soft and can't handle the cold.
Living in Alberta, our winter is a little different than a Vancouver winter. Or an Oregon winter. Or a California winter. Or any other major riding center's winter. You get the picture.
So after tossing out the suggestions I've read of a light windproof layer being sufficient for winter riding, I've finally come around to a set-up that generally sees me able to brave temperatures below -20 and remain relatively comfortable.
Before I dive into that though, a quick background on me and cold weather riding is in order. Don't worry it's brief, my history of winter riding really only traces back to the first time I got into the Cape Epic. Other than that, I preferred the training method of sitting on a couch and drinking far too much beer over the winter. But in that winter of preparing for my first crack at the Cape Epic, I had to force myself outside, or risk going insane from time spent inside on a trainer. I always struggled with keeping my extremities warm, so it took a long time with a lot of experimentation before I found a way to dress for an Alberta cold-snap.
What to Wear for -20 to -25 (or a true Canadian winter)
I have ridden in temperatures below -20, but after -25 it gets pretty difficult to keep warm. Any exposed skin when it gets near -30 is going to get uncomfortable very quick, and I've found goggles next to useless due to the fog they accumulate almost instantly when you start using a face-mask or balaclava. So I'm going to offer up some tips on how I dress for -20 to -25. If you're looking to ride in colder temperatures than that, I can recommend a good therapist for you to help work through whatever deep, suppressed childhood memories you have that would lead to you want to put yourself through the pain of riding in -30.
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I used to overlook how important the core was to keeping the hands and feet warm. The problem is, it's also easy to overdress your core, even at -25, which ends in a sopping, clammy, wet mess of a baselayer that sends a chill down to the bone. That is if you haven't used the proper baselayer anyways.
Since the windchill varies with the speed your riding, and the unfortunate fact that when you put in your greatest efforts (like on a climb) the speed/windchill is the lowest, you have to dress for the bone-chilling cold descent, as well as the body heat you'll accumulate when you start to put in efforts.
I start with a mesh or fishnet baselayer. Sure, you'll look like you're ready to hit an intense rave, but it doesn't trap moisture and won't get saturated from sweat. Next up, I'll use a 260 weight merino wool base layer. Merino wool is great in that it will retain its insulating properties even when wet. So even as you descend after that long, arduous climb, you'll stay warm on the way down.
After dealing with the baselayer(s), I'll toss on a fleece-backed cycling jersey. Luckily Pedalhead has some great custom ones from the clothing company Jakroo, but many cycling apparel brands have off-the-shelf ones that are great too. To finish things off, I use a windproof winter cycling jacket, again from Jakroo. Plenty of options exists out there though, including a lot of good Gore-Tex branded stuff, as well as a new offering from 45NRTH. The key to look for is some light insulation, full windproofing, and good breathability. XC ski jackets can work well here too if you've already got some, but if you're in the market for buying a new one, go with a cycling specific jacket for the added versatility of jersey pockets.
The same layering principles for the core apply to the legs. Before you panic, no I'm not recommending fishnet stockings to start things off. I go with thermal bib-tights to start, and then a windproof shell pant over-top. If you've got windstopper XC ski tights, those work great. If you don't already, a cycling specific pant will be cut a bit differently around the base to avoid snagging on the saddle.
Even at -25 I've never felt like I needed more covering my legs. Some people double up with bib-tights, but I find two chamois is a recipe for disaster, so stick with one insulated bib-tight and a windproof outer pant that is only a shell.
Oh how I used to suffer through riding in -10 with cold hands. No matter what gloves I wore, my hands would always be freezing. Even gigantic ski mitts that made shifting and braking difficult still left me with numb fingers. Then I discovered bar mitts. Bar mitts are a lightly insulated shell that sits over top of each end of your handlebar with an opening to slot your hand in. Just keeping the wind off your hand and wrist does a lot in itself, but some insulation helps when the temperatures really drop. I'm too lazy to take mine on and off my bike, so when it's warmed up to -5, I just ride gloveless or with summer gloves. When the temperatures dip as cold as -25, I'll put on a lightly insulated riding or XC ski glove (you know, those ones that all those other 'how to ride in winter' articles recommend), and have never been uncomfortable. Warm hands AND a normal feel of the controls at the bar is a big win-win.
Anyone else ever buy a 'winter cycling boot' 5 or more years ago? Some didn't even have insulation! Thankfully, with the popularity of fat bikes, the options for insulated footwear have increased, but it can still be one of the tricky (and expensive) parts of your cold weather kit to outfit. Up until this year, I was using a Northwave winter cycling shoe, which was really a windproof summer shoe, and covering it up with a solid neoprene shoe cover. As cold as -10 I could stay relatively comfortable, but anything colder than that and it wasn't fun. This year, I finally bought a true winter boot from 45NRTH and haven't looked back. I can't believe it took me 3 years of riding with California winter-style boots!
Depending on how cold your feet get, there are quite a few good options out there. Some people can get away with a light-duty winter shoe and shoe covers. Others need to go to the extreme and get 45NRTH's Wolfgar boot, which is the warmest boot I've ever worn, cycling specific or not! And plenty of options exist in between.
If you've already invested in a light winter boot that you have come to realize isn't warm enough for the conditions you want to ride in, you do have an option outside of buying brand new expensive winter boots. Heated socks are a great addition to shoes that just aren't quite warm enough. a At $350, they are cheaper than any of the warmer 45NRTH boot options, and can be used for skating, skiing, snowshoeing or whatever other winter activities you like.
In frigid temperatures, I've often used a ski helmet as my go-to, however it is worth noting that they are tested differently than bike helmets, and as a result may not protect you in the same manner as a cycling-specific helmet. If you don't want to use a ski helmet, a so called aero-helmet with little venting is a great option. Some brands like Giro and Lazer sell winter-liners that integrate into their summer helmets, which is a great option to look into if you own one of their helmets. Add a warm balaclava, preferably merino wool to keep the mouth-area from getting too gross, and you're set to handle whatever mother nature throws at you.
I have yet to find a way to cover the eyes at -20 and colder, as goggles just fog up within 10 or 15 minutes, but some people have better luck. If you're like me and can't cover your eyes without going blind from fog, it's best to adjust your ride accordingly to avoid any major wind. In other words, stick to tight, technical trails in the trees where you're never going too fast.
There you go, some tips from someone who definitely understands that winter can get colder than -5. You might find yourself over-dressed, or maybe under-dressed with these tips, but at least it's a starting point. Be careful though, once you figure out how to nail dressing for the cold, you run out of excuses to not be riding. ;)