Whether you're a seasoned cold weather rider or you're simply looking to extend your riding season farther than last year, properly layering your clothing is essential. The art of properly layering your clothing takes some practice to perfect your approach, but you’ll be thankful once you’ve achieved an understanding of what works best for your body. Everyone’s cold tolerance, perspiration levels, and specific needs are different (for example, “My hands are always cold,” “Cold wind gives me headaches,” and “I sweat so much that riding in the winter just makes my whole body cold”) so learning how to listen to your body and how to be prepared for a range of temperature levels will go a long way in helping you ride comfortably year round.
We’re all familiar with the idea of layering clothing to prepare for cold weather. As temperatures are dropping around the country we thought it would be helpful to lay out a couple of cycling-specific fundamentals on layering. Certain things are important to keep in mind when you’re preparing for an activity like cycling where varying perspiration levels, temperature changes, and the other effects of a cold weather climate can conspire to make your ride miserable.
Things to Consider
As you ride, you’re likely to go through stages that require more exertion than others and, in turn, this will cause you to sweat more during some stretches than you will during others. It’s important to be prepared for this because sweat that is generated and doesn’t move away from your body will chill and ultimately bring your body temperature down.
Starting with a moisture-wicking base-layer or long sleeved jersey provides a good foundation. With this approach, moisture that is generated will move away from the body where it will have a chance to evaporate or vent rather than cool down against your skin.
On top of this layer you have a few options. It is important to take as many variables into consideration as you can, including:
- Your personal cold tolerance
- How long you’ll be riding for: will the sun be coming out mid-ride?
- Type of ride: casual, commuting, training ride, etc.
- The terrain ahead: mostly flat, several hill climbs, multiple descents, etc.
Each variable can impact the ride differently and the best you can do is to be prepared. You will expend energy (and, in turn, body heat and sweat) to climb, whereas on the upcoming descent you will chill down quickly. If your route includes these types of extremes, be prepared with a full-zip outer layer that blocks wind. This way you can unzip it for the climb and vent out as much sweat as you can before you zip it up partially or fully on the downhill to keep yourself from chilling down too much. Then on the flats in between you can vent yourself appropriately to get a good balance of air flow and insulation.
Jackets and Long Sleeves
Jackets and mid-weight long sleeve jerseys can be used as your outermost layer, depending on the conditions of the ride. Jackets and windbreakers work great to repel water and block wind, though they may not breathe as well as a mid-weight jersey will because they’re designed to block the transfer of wind, rain, etc. instead of allow it to pass through. To counteract this, make sure you choose a jacket with plenty of ventilation options, including a full-length front zipper and additional options like zippered armpits or a shoulder ventilation slot. These things give you more control over how much airflow you want to allow.
Mid-weight jerseys generally aren’t as strong against rain and wind but they insulate and breathe very well so pairing a layer like this with a base-layer that is equally effective at moisture transport can be a good solution if you’re not going to be in too much wind or rain.
We’ve all heard that so much heat loss occurs through our heads in cold weather so it only makes sense to target the area above the shoulders first. In truth, this phenomenon may be more closely tied to how the rest of our body is dressed, but it still shouldn’t be ignored.
Helmet liners act as a soft, fleece barrier underneath your helmet that insulates your head and wicks away moisture that can then escape through your helmet vents. Alternatively, helmet covers add an extra layer outside of your helmet to block wind and serve as a protective shell against cold air.
Additionally, balaclavas, ear covers, and other accessories can also be used in tandem to cover your face, nose, and mouth. Plus, balaclavas provide some additional flexibility and can be pulled down to expose your mouth and nose if you need some extra ventilation or if the temperature ticks up a bit mid-ride.
Leg warmers are a great option for several reasons. They are lined with fleece, block the wind, fold up easy mid-ride as the temperature warms, and, of course, they span the gap between your quads and your ankles to convert your favorite warm weather shorts into a viable cold weather option. Leg warmers accomplish all of this while also adding a welcome element of muscle compression to your extremities.
Additional features like ankle zippers shorten the time between the end of your ride and a nice warm shower by making it easier to put the warmers on and take them off. Other common features include tagless labels and silicone leg grippers that act to keep the warmers from sliding down during each pedal stroke. The wicking polyester/spandex blend transports moisture away from your body while insulating your skin.
Whether you’re bombing down a descent or fighting a headwind on level ground, your hands are front and center in the path of the wind and cold. Full finger gloves with windproof shells and fleece liners are useful because they block the wind from the outside while also working to wick moisture and insulate from the inside. Depending on your climate and sensitivity, there’s different styles to choose from that vary in thickness and insulation level.
Toe and Shoe Covers
Cycling naturally relies on your bottom half for most of your power but your feet don’t necessarily benefit from that heat-generating motion the same way that your quads and calves do. Shoe covers worn outside of the shoe and toe covers
worn inside the shoe between the shoe and your socks seek to ward off numbing chills and uncomfortable feet. Often made of neoprene or a polyester/spandex blend for insulation, they work to block wind and keep your feet warm. Additional elements like reflective features and easy on/off ankle zippers are standard features as well.
To be most effective, you’ll find that your combination of clothing may change somewhat from ride to ride so be prepared for a little trial and error. The important thing is to listen to your body and be prepared to add and remove layers as you ride. Many items (gloves, warmers, shoe covers, some windbreakers) can be compacted small enough to fit in a rear jersey pocket if need be. If you don’t like that approach, small panniers, rear rack bags and handlebar bags are unobtrusive and can be used to stash away some of your “just in case” items.
I also recommend keeping the “10 Minute Rule” in mind while riding in the cold. It’s no surprise that your system can get quite a shock from stepping outside decked out in technical fabrics like polyester, nylon, and spandex but do yourself a favor and ride for 10 minutes or so before adding any layers. You don’t want to be overdressed to the point that you’ll start sweating quickly into your ride without much effort so try dress in a way that will be comfortable after that initial shock wears off. You may feel slightly under-dressed at first, but don’t forget: you’re going from zero movement indoors to exertion outside in the cold. If you still feel cold and under-dressed after 10 minutes then re-evaluate your clothing and stop off for a minute to add the necessary item. Perhaps something as simple as a helmet liner or thicker glove is all you need.