What to Wear for Winter Cycling

Written by

You know you're experiencing a clothing crisis when your focus shifts from the trail, the traffic or your route sheet to your increasingly cold and numb hands and feet. Here's a plan for staying warm on the bike and avoiding a cycling wardrobe emergency this winter.

Step 1: Mind the Extremities

When riding a bike in winter, your hands and feet are always the first to get cold. Conversely, protecting just these vulnerable extremities can make your entire body feel warmer, and help you avoid overdressing. Rule of thumb: anytime the mercury drops below 60 degrees, preventative measures should be taken. If you ride regularly during the winter, simplify your pre-ride prep by having three levels of hand and foot protection at your disposal:

Level One: 55 to 60 degrees

At these temperatures, the heat you generate from riding will help keep your tootsies warm, at least for the first hour or so. You can usually get away with minimal enhancements to your normal cycling garb but you do want to protect your hands and feet.

Hands: Windproof, water-resistant shell gloves that fit over your everyday cycling gloves

Feet: Midweight wool socks

Level Two: 50 to 55 degrees

Hands: Dedicated midweight winter riding gloves with built-in insulation.

Feet: Midweight wool socks plus disposable toe warmers

Ears: Insulated headband

Below 55 degrees or so, you must take action to avoid painfully cold hands and feet. An insider tip: buy the disposable toe warmers used by skiers. They slip right into your cycling shoes and are heavenly.

Level Three: Below 50 degrees

Hands: Dedicated heavyweight winter riding gloves—disposable hand warmers are an option too

Feet: Midweight wool socks, disposable toe warmers and neoprene shoe booties

Ears: Insulated headband

Pull out all the stops here, and the best you may do is delay the inevitable onset of numbing cold.

Step 2: Cover the Chest

Protecting your chest from cold air is critical. In the not-so-distant-past, pro road cyclists would stuff a newspaper down the front of their jersey before a cold-weather descent. You can avoid the ink stains with the "little black dress" of cycling—the windproof vest.

When combined with arm warmers or worn over a long sleeve jersey, a vest will keep you comfortable across a wide temperature range, and is easy to stow in a jersey pocket.

Below 55 degrees, or when it is foggy or raining, a long sleeve cycling jacket is a better choice.

Step 3: Please the Knees

Cyclists young and old must protect their knees from cold. Young cyclists with still-developing joints are especially vulnerable to knee injury and should wear knee warmer in temperatures below 70 degrees. Older cyclists with healthy knees should cover up at 60 degrees or lower. Once the mercury heads south of 50 degrees, full length cycling tights are called for.

An insider tip for mountain bikers: if your eyes water excessively during cold-weather trail rides, invest in a pair of quality goggles. Most come with clear lenses—perfect for early morning or night rides. You might look a bit funky but you won't regret it.