Cold weather riding tips
by David Cole
Cold weather doesn’t mean you need to stop cycling. Cycling in the cold can be very satisfying, provided you know some hints and tips that will keep you comfortable. I thought I’d offer a few that I’ve learned along the way.
The first has to do with riding style. You may have heard of “winter riding rules.” These refer to keeping a modest, steady pace for most the ride, with no attacks or sprints until the very end (if even then). The reason for this is so that you don’t overheat and sweat through your clothes, and thus don’t get chilled by wearing wet clothes. In weather under 40 degrees I usually ride a couple mph slower then when it’s warmer. So don’t plan on riding intervals or doing hill training, just get outside and enjoy the scenery and work off some of the holiday bloat. You also don’t want to stop too long at any rest stops, so that you don’t cool down too much.
While you’re out, you’ll need to worry about keeping yourself cool enough. At least, that’s been my experience. Even at a steady pace, you still generate enough heat that being overdressed is often more of a problem than being underdressed, especially if you’re our for a long ride and the day gets warmer as you go. When you first start your ride, if you don’t feel a little chilled then you’re dressed too warmly. I’ve found that you want to look for clothes that have a windproof front but breathable fabric in the back. I just bought REI’s Headwind jacket exactly for this reason. I also like clothes that I can easily convert or remove, such as arm and leg warmers, and jackets with removable sleeves that become vests. Double zippers and vents on jackets are good, too.
Keeping warm is an issue too, of course, especially for your feet, hands, and ears. I’ve found that Smartwool socks are excellent at keeping your feet warm, especially with some kind of windproof shoe cover (I use toe covers down to about 42 degrees and neoprene booties below that). The black socks won’t show road grime if you get caught in the rain (and I always wear wool socks if I think it may rain). I was unable to keep my hands warn below freezing temperatures until I purchased some Gore-tex ® gloves from Performance. I’m sure the technology has improved in the meantime, but my advice is to look for gloves that are both insulated and windproof, yet allow enough finger movement to shift and brake properly. Smartwool glove liners are good down to about 38 degrees. For my ears I use a polartec head band, but one that bulges out around my ears rather then pressing them flat against my head. I use a helmet cover below 40 degrees, and a polypro balaclava when it’s well below freezing.
If you’re riding in the cold then you probably also need to be prepared to ride in the dark. I look for jackets and gear that are very visible and that have built in reflective material. (I commute to work, so I’m much more interested in being visible than being fashionable). I also keep at least a flashing reflector light on the bike.
I find that I adjust my clothing with every 5 degree change in temperature, and that with the gear I have I can ride to work comfortably when the temperature is even in the upper teens. It’s very satisfying to be riding comfortably when you know it’s darn cold out there.
What to do if you’ve seriously underestimated the cold and you’re many miles away from home? The most important thing to do is keep your core body temperature up. A common trick is to stuff layers of newspaper under your jersey. (This can be a quick, disposable way to start a long ride on a cool morning but with an expected warming trend). I’ve known other folks to use bubble wrap. Keep yourself as dry as you can, and stop for something hot to drink if you need to. If you get seriously cold, there’s no honor lost in abandoning the ride. I remember one century ride where a cold front came through about halfway. My fingers got so numb I could no longer shift or brake, so I knew it was time to stop. Use common sense.
When you reach your destination you may still be chilled. One of my favorite winter rides is to start and finish at Spa Health Clubs in Cary and go soak in the steam room and whirlpool afterwards. The heat feels so good! If you're lucky enough to have a hot tub or whirlpool at home, enjoy!
So, don’t be afraid of the cold – get our and ride! I hope I’ll see you out there!