I originally wrote the piece a couple of years ago for a now-defunct blog. I thought it might be fun to dust it off as newly exclusive content for my blog.
Unless you’re lucky enough to be living somewhere in a tropical climate (or just love pedaling your trainer), chances are at some point in the year, you’re going to be riding in the cold.
The right winter-riding gear can mean the difference between a productive four-hour base-building session and a 20-minute ride that ended prematurely with you shivering under a space blanket in a rural convenience store. Here are some tips that will help you keep riding through spring.
Know your internal thermometer. I tend to get cold fairly easily, so I wear one or two more layers than my wife, who can ride in 30-degree weather in shorts and a long-sleeve jersey. Call it reverse chivalry; there’ve been times when she’s doffed her jacket after 30 minutes of moderate riding to give to me, shivering at the back of the pack.
When the weather turns colder, a good jacket is a must. This season I’ve been wearing Sugoi’s RPM jacket, that offers great protection against the rain and wind. The inside of the jacket is covered with a silver laminate that reflects heat back in, but you have to be generating heat – moving, not just standing around – for it to work effectively.
My hands tend to stay cold longer than the rest of my body. I own a pair of neoprene Castelli gloves that I love – the padding’s perfect, and they’re the most comfortable gloves I’ve ever worn – but they’re only good for very specific conditions: windy days with a slight chill. If it’s colder than 35 degrees, they take forever to warm up. I’ve worn them for two-to-three hour rides, and only during the last hour could I squeeze the brake levers. My friend Jay Hardcastle swears Pearl Izumi Lobster mitts kept his claws toasty warm even when the temperatures fell to the mid-teens. I’ve used a similar pair of Novara Stratos gloves in below-freezing weather and managed to stave off frostbite.
Another trick to keep your hands warm, according to superfast Speedway Wheelmen racer Sarah Fredrickson? Wear a pair of latex gloves under your full-fingered riding gloves. Your hands will be a little clammy when the ride’s over, but at least they’ll stay warm.
In the early spring and late fall, arm and knee warmers are essential. As the weather warms up, simply slide them down your arms or legs. No stopping required! SmartWool makes a great set, as well as Sugoi and several other manufacturers.
Build your base. The proper base-layer is the foundation for staying comfortable on a ride, so you want to build a collection with various weights and attributes. Former national cross-country champion Rebecca Zink swears by Smartwool base layers.
“They're soft, comfy, warm, don't get stinky, not bulky,” Zink said. “I really don't want to wear anything else.”
On breezy days, I’m partial to Peal Izumi’s Barrier long-sleeve baselayer featuring a windproof front panel that helps keep my core toasty. Sugoi’s zippered mid-weight baselayer is also a keeper.
Warming your poles. There’ve been times in the past when I’ve piled on multiple layers of clothes, only to forget to worry about my feet and head. Needless to say, those rides have been too short and too cold.
A lightweight Smartwool Headliner or similar wicking hat underneath your helmet is a must. I have at three of varying thickness I regularly use in cold weather, as well as a balaclava I use primarily for skiing.
Another quick and cheap tip: The next time you stay at a hotel, take a shower cap or two with you. If there’s an unexpected rain or snow shower, just pop the shower cap over your helmet to keep everything dry.
I’ve probably bought close to $100 of Smartwool socks over the years because they’re so comfortable and they do a good job of keeping my feet warm in cool temperatures. But when the mercury drops below 40-degrees, it’s time for the Sugoi Resistor booties. They’ve done a great job of keeping my feet warm and dry this cyclocross season, even though they’re not built for that kind of abuse. The bottoms of the bootie are fairly thrashed, and the sides have a few tears, but it’s nothing a little duct tape can’t fix.
Plan ahead. On a casual or base-building ride, I try to err a bit on the warmer side. I know I’m not going to be generating much heat internally, so I add warmer, thicker layers under my jacket.
But, if I’m racing, all bets are off. The next time you’re at a cyclocross race, make your way to the start line. Somewhere between the 30-second warning and the start whistle, bundled-up racers shed more clothes than a plus-size strip club. If you plan to go for a fast or high-intensity workout, be prepared to be cold in the first 5 or 10 minutes of your ride; you’ll warm up before you know it. If you start out toasty, you’re going to be burnt by the end of your workout.
Most importantly, if you’re heading out for a long-distance ride, stash extra baselayers, gloves and socks in a watertight bag in a small backpack or Camelbak. Getting soaked to the bone 30 miles from your car can quickly become a life-or-death situation.
With the proper gear and planning, you’ll be racking up hundreds of training miles while your peers and competitors are watching Top Chef on their couches. You’ll know who they are when they ask, “How did you get so fast?” when spring rolls around again. It’s up to you how you want to answer.