The countdown to the Cape Epic sat at 42 days, and myself and teammate, Coleman, had a trip planned to Bragg Creek to ride outside and get some real climbing miles in as the days left to train quickly tick away. The weather forecast was... inhospitable to say the least, but with only so many weekends left, and the trip already planned, we made the trek anyways. Because what could go wrong?
With temperatures hovering around -24, and windchill values down well below -30, I'm happy to report we came back from 4 hours on the Bragg Creek trails with no frostbite, no hypothermia, and all our fingers and toes still intact.
Dare I say, we were even comfortable and warm through the entire ride. (outside of my eyes, have yet to find a pair of goggles that won't fog up under the effort-levels and changes of pace on a bike ride - if you have any tips on that front, let me know in the comments!)
Being one who used to struggle to dress for outdoor winter activities, I thought I'd share what worked for me. It may sound cheesy, but there is some truth to the saying that 'there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.'
So starting from the feet and moving up, here's what worked for me to spend 4 hours riding bikes in -30
As far as I know, 45NRTH is still the only company making true, north, real cold weather riding boots, and they do it well! The Wolfgar and Wolvhammer are both great boots that 45NRTH offers, and I can't recommend them enough to keep your feet toasty and warm. If you're like me and your feet get cold easily, go with the fanciest boots they make - the Wolfgar, rated to -31 celsius!
Make sure you buy your boots big enough to fit a warm sock inside, and maybe even some heat packs if you really want to stay toasty.
Unfortunately, the Wolfgar wasn't available a few years ago when I got my winter riding boots, and on the really cold days my feet would still get a little cold if I was out for longer than 2 hours. Luckily enough, I won a pair of Thermic heated socks at a raffle in the past, and I have to say I'm sold!
They are also a good option if you bought a so-called 'winter' riding boot from a shoe company that was really meant for a West Coast winter. A new pair of winter riding boots is expensive! A pair of heated socks is around $300, which is a touch cheaper than 45NRTH boots, and has the added benefit of being useful for other winter activities.
When's the last time you went outside and thought your legs were too warm? That's what I thought, never. So double-up on the insulation here if it's really cold - you won't regret it.
An insulated pair of bib-tights are a good starting point - Endura, 45NRTH, Mavic, Sugoi and almost every other bike apparel brand have good options, so go with whatever is comfortable - after all, a chamois is very much personal preference.
I have yet to find a single layer that works for the really bitter-cold days, so I'll toss on a pair of XC ski pants, or now that winter riding is becoming more popular, a made-for-cycling over-pant, like the 45NRTH Naughtvind Pant.
The core starts with my favorite base-layer trick that keeps moisture off your skin - start with a super-light mesh summer base-layer. Endura makes a Fishnet baselayer that can play double-duty if you plan to attend a rave. But all joking aside, it will let moisture transfer to the 2nd baselayer you should be wearing, which means your skin stays dry, even when you start sweating on the climbs. And if your skin is dry, it will be easier to stay warm when you're coasting down the descents on the otherside.
My 2nd baselayer is always merino wool in a winter-weight for warmth. Merino wool trumps synthetic in the winter because it retains warmth even if it's wet. I use anything from Icebreaker's 260 line-up, but any merino base layer from a reputable brand will do. It's worth noting you get what you pay for with merino wool - you can often find merino clothing at Costco or Walmart, but they won't last as long, and generally are made from a lower-grade wool, which means not as warm, not as anti-microbrial and not as good as the real thing.
Next up comes winter jerseys - again most cycling apparel brands have great options. For -30, I double up with 2 thermal cycling jerseys.
Finally, a winter softshell cycling jacket with wind-proofing rounds out the core. Again, many brands make great jackets - and if you have XC ski clothing laying around, you can even use a jacket meant for that!
Bar mitts or pogies, an insulated, wind-proof cover that goes around your entire grip/brake levers/shifters are worth their weight in gold! Look for one that attaches to your handlebar through a bar plug and holds their shape so it's easy to get in and out - again 45NRTH knocks it out of the park with their offering.
But when it's -30, you still need something on your hands to stay warm, and when it's that cold, an insulated winter cycling glove is a must. Cycling gloves still offer dexterity on the controls, so don't try jamming a ski glove on your hand and stuffing it inside your bar mitt. I have a Zeroplus Glove from Sugoi with midweight insulation that I really like, but again, find the brand that works for you.
The neck, face and ears all get cold fast, so a balaclava is a must. Merino wool is nice, and 45NRTH just so happens to make a great version; the Toaster Fork. It's double-layered for warmth, and has a long neck, making it easy to keep it tucked away underneath your jerseys/jacket.
Finally, the one thing I have yet to master is covering the eyes - every goggle I've ever tried has fogged up. I've had some luck taking the goggle off for the climbs, and only wearing it during descents, but even then, I inevitably end up with a wall of ice and fog on the inside. Some people seem to have more luck with goggles than me, so I might just have overly sweaty eyeballs...
Regardless, it was only mildly uncomfortable to ride with the eyes exposed - keeping as small of a patch open as possible will go a long way in keeping the rest of your face warm and comfortable.
When it's this cold, definitely bring a pack for your worst-case scenario - a mechanical on your bike or anything else that would stop you from moving for a period of time. I toss an extra windproof layer and a packable down puffy coat just in case I need to stop moving to fix a flat tire or other mechanical issue and need some extra warmth.
When it's cold, you may not feel thirsty, but you still need to drink (likely more than you think you should)! To make it easy, you can wear a hydration pack underneath one (or a few of your layers) to keep the water from freezing, or use a winter-specific pack with an insulated sleeve for your hydration sleeve.
Hot tip - fill a thermos with hot water and Skratch Labs Matcha Green Tea Hydration mix. Tasty, warm, full of electrolytes, and a little hit of caffeine. You can thank me later!