Why I Bike in Cold Weather--And How You Can Too

In addition to the helmet cover, I wear a fleece headband. I like the weight and thickness of the Therma Fleece band made by Pearl Izumi. Depending on the conditions, I will sometimes wear a balaclava in addition to the headband and helmet cover. I don't see a particular manufacturer name on my balaclava, so I can't tell you who made it. I can tell you it is relatively thin material and it is easy for me to pull the lower portion down off of my chin or pull it up over my nose. Pre-heating the incoming air to my lungs is important because I have exercise-induced asthma.

The balaclava is more comfortable worn with the seam facing away from my skin, or what some people would consider inside-out.

Hydration Packs and Carrying Extra Accessories

When it is really cold outside, I prefer to carry a hydration pack filled with hot water or energy drink rather than to carry bottles in the cages on my bike. The warm fluid on my back helps keep me warm and because the pack is insulated, the fluid in the bladder never freezes. Water bottles tend to freeze up solid as a rock. Even in cold temperatures you can get dehydrated, so you want fluids to keep you going.

I have two favorite hydration packs. If I don't need much fluid capacity or room to carry extra clothes, I like the Wink, made by Ultimate Direction. This small pack has zippered storage pockets and compartments on the straps so you can easily get to gels or energy bars. Having a neoprene-covered drinking tube is good too.

Even if you have a neoprene-covered tube, you may need to store the tube under your jacket to keep it from freezing. It's good to begin sipping warm fluids early in the ride and keep sipping regularly to keep the line open and not frozen solid.

If I need or want to carry more supplies, I like my Camelbak. I have an older model, but it looks closest to the L.U.X.E. Mine has a neoprene-covered drinking tube, and I like the ability to shut the valve off. This keeps it from leaking if something is set on top of the valve or the valve gets pinched. In this case, I'll keep my gels and bars in the pack, close to the warm fluid or in a pocket on one of the inside layers of my clothing.

Depending on the length of the ride and the planned stops, I will often carry an extra set of the bottom two layers of clothing that I wear on my torso. This is especially true if I plan to make a long descent after a long climb in cold conditions.

If I am riding off-road, I carry a rescue whistle as well. The Fox 40 is small and lightweight.

Torso

For that recent cold-weather ride that I mentioned above, I wore several layers. I like wearing multiple layers so that if I get too warm, I can easily remove one of them. For that last long ride, I wore everything I started with right to the finish:

  • A sport bra that wicks moisture. For winter, I prefer a long model most often worn by triathletes. One option is the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Tri Top.
  • Next was a very thin, long-sleeved base layer.
  • In really cold conditions, I like to wear a lightweight turtleneck with or without a zipper. If I think I'll need to be regulating temperatures, I prefer a zipper. Patagonia makes a zip-neck that is nice.
  • My fourth layer was a long-sleeve jersey. My favorite winter jerseys are the thermals made by Pearl Izumi.
  • Most of the time I will wear a vest when I cycle, particularly if there is no moisture in the forecast. For the heart of winter, I like a fleece-lined vest that is wind-proof.
  • Finally, for the coldest or wet conditions, I'll wear a lightweight jacket that is breathable, yet wind and waterproof. I talked about this jacket in a blog last summer, it is the Octane. I like gear that can be worn multipurpose, in different seasons.

Some might look at the list and think there is no way anyone could wear all of these layers and not boil to death; but I was perfectly comfortable and wasn't overheating. Because of the layering system, if I got too hot, I could have removed a layer or two—but that didn't happen at 10.9 degrees. I prefer multiple layers to one or two heavy layers.

Hands

My hands get cold easy. In spring, fall and winter I usually wear an underliner glove when I start every ride. Under Armour makes a nice liner that I have worn under several different types of cycling gloves. I like wearing liners, again, to regulate temperature—they are easy to remove.

For the coldest rides, the only glove that works for me is a lobster glove with wind and water protection. If I have to deal with a mechanical issue, the chemical pack I mentioned earlier fits into the glove itself or can be fit into the top of one of the claw sections.

Legs

I look for wind protection on the front my legs, and I don't like an outer layer that flaps around in the wind. I also need some fleece protection on the back of my legs, but I don't need the wind protection back there. While some people like their shorts integrated into their tights, I like to wear Pearl Izumi's AmFIB tight combined with a fleece cycling short. I have last year's Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Thermal (unfortunately, at the time I'm writing this column, no link to this product is available).

Feet

For the coldest temperatures, I prefer a sock that is double-layer, yet lightweight. I like the Wrightsock Lite crew because I can fit it into my cycling shoe.

Whether on the road or mountain bike, I like a neoprene shoe cover for cold conditions. A neoprene cover allows me to use the same shoe I use in the summer, rather than purchasing a special winter cycling shoe.

Eyes

I've had a tough time finding sunglasses that don't fog up when I have a balaclava covering my nose. Most glasses work well when only my mouth is covered, but they tend to fog up when my nose is covered. I like the top-vented Radar by Oakley that I mentioned in that blog link from last summer.

Being Outdoors Makes Me Happy

Some of you might read this and think that all of this clothing and the effort it takes to prepare for a cold ride is just too much. You imagine how miserable you'd be in the cold.

I understand.

If, or when, you get the itch to head outdoors in some tough conditions, know that skiers and cyclists are outside enjoying a workout in the cold and snow right now. With a few new additions to your wardrobe, you could be out there, too.

Find out how some sub-zero commuters weather the cold, and add your own experiences!


Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She currently serves as one of the World Cup coaches for the International Triathlon Union's Sport Development Team. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow cycling and triathlon training plans. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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