Friday, February 5, 2010

Staying Warm While Biking in the Cold

I started a series of posts last year tagged with the label Chilly Dress Code in which I detailed what I wore for a given ride at a given temp. I did it mostly to help me remember what I wore at what temps and how it worked for me. I also thought that some folks might find it useful and I do try to light the way for others to consider the bicycle a viable means of year-around transportation. You know, to help the environment, increase personal fitness, save money, blah blah blah. For me it really comes down to being a heck of a lot of fun that I can incorporate into my daily routine. Due to bad choices I made earlier in life, I may never be able to retire so I need to make sure I am having as good a time right now as I possibly can.

So, how do I dress for winter bike riding? I don't have to think about it that much any more so I didn't carry through documenting my gear this year even though I have have been riding more and in more varied conditions. I guess when you have it down you just do it and it becomes the natural way of things that don't require planning. For example I don't have a list of instructions for brushing my teeth, I just do it. I don't have a guide for taking a shower, I just do it. So it is with getting ready for my commute, I just do it. I do have a strategy for showering and brushing my teeth but don't worry I'll spare you the details since if you don't have those down yet, this blog might not be what you need to focus on.

Here's my general strategy for staying warm when cold weather riding.

As the temp drops below shorts and jersey weather, I switch to wool cycling shorts and a wool jersey (if I'm not already wearing them…) and then add a wool T-shirt under the jersey.

This is very important: I add knee warmers around 65 degrees.

The reason this is important is that the ligaments in the knees don't have much in the way of blood supply and are easily stressed by the cold. Some folks apply embrocation, others like me just put on knee warmers. It's not that my knees feel too cold, they are in fact just fine but this is important to keep them in good shape to keep riding without having knee problems. Since I want to continue riding, I don't want to make choices now that will restrict my riding in the future. Folks have different opinions on the critical temp but the bottom line is that you need to protect your knees before they feel cold.

Anyway, I add arm warmers when it drops into the 50's and long finger gloves as the temp descends towards the 40's. I also tape the vents on my shoes with Gaffer's Tape, a removable version of duct tape that was developed for the theater. Sometime as it is nearing the 40's I will switch over to a soft-shell jacket with just a wool tank top under it or maybe a wool T-shirt. I should mention that when I say 'wool' what I really mean is 'Merino Wool'. Merino wool is offered by lots of companies but mine is mostly Icebreaker and Ibex with a little Patagonia and SmartWool mixed in for good measure. I can't say enough good about merino wool but I could in this post so I'll leave it with the fact my opinion that it is the best performing fabric out there and not just because it NEVER gets stinky.

My soft-shell also has some features that are exceedingly important for ride comfort. My commute is currently 16+ miles each way so I am on the road for an hour, an hour and a half or more when the temp drops and I have to battle snow and ice. For a ride of this length you will sweat and venting is the key to comfort (and safety when it's really cold). I generally wear my Gore Bikewear Tool Jacket soft-shell which has both pit vents and a small zippered pocket over my heart that also acts as a very effective vent. When I start out I am a bit chilly but within a couple miles I am comfortable; a few more miles and I start to get hot.

Another important point: The importance of venting before I get overly sweaty.

I will sweat some in almost all temps but the trick is to vent before I get too wet; once I'm wet, finding the balance between comfort and chills is very difficult if not impossible. It took a while to get tuned in to when I needed to start venting or removing layers for my gear that doesn't have venting built in. My key for when it's time to vent is just when I'm get to my temperature comfort zone, which can be anytime from 5 to 20 minutes depending how hard I am riding and how cold it is. When I reach that point, and not a moment later, it's time to introduce some more cold air to prevent sweating from really getting started.

My last few jobs were closer to home than my current position, around twenty to thirty minutes riding, so I didn't have to pay quite as much attention to what I was wearing or how sweaty I got since I would be at work before anything bad could happen. Now that my commute takes nearly an hour and half as I battle the rough snow and ice conditions with my studded tires I could injure myself if I didn't get it right. You may not be facing risk of a freezing injury but you may find that you can ride in similar comfort as you do in summer if you pay attention to the right things and preventing your clothes from getting wet from over sweating is one of them.

By the time it's dropped into the 30's I have on tights over my knee warmers, or have on my Craft Windtex bib tights. These tights have a considerable wind stopping front along with insolation so the knee warmers aren't required. They can carry me in comfort into the upper 20's but then it's time for my cross country ski pants to come on the scene. Mine are Ibex with their Climawool fabric that has wind protection but I still wear my knee warmers underneath. I will also have switched from my taped up cycling shoes to my Lake Winter Boots. Mine are the mountain version but the road version may work just as well for warmth though not so much when you have to hike a bike through a snow drift. When the temps drop into the teens, I add wool tights between the knee warmers and the ski pants and drop a chemical warmer into the boots.

Yet another important point: As the temp drops there are two variables; the number of layers you wear and the thickness of those layers.

Perhaps you aren't convinced that wool is the way to go and prefer the various technical fabrics. Fact is they also work very well and will keep you warm (and also capture much of your body odor…) but you will still need to add layers as the temp drops and/or increase the thickness of each layer. I find that three layers is suitable for almost any conditions though as it drops well below zero and/or the wind really kicks up, I have added a forth layer. Wind protection also needs to be considered and this applies to your entire body. When it gets into the single digits or perhaps below zero, I add Neoprene boot covers over my Lake boots and will also have chemical heaters in the boots to make sure I keep warm. 

Note; I have Raynauds syndrome so I need to take more precautions than the average person to keep my fingers and toes from freezing but most folks don't have this and don't need to take the same precautions as I do; knowing yourself will always be the key to success in cold weather activities.

I haven't discussed my hands much yet but I add layers there too. Wind protection starts in the 50's, then wool liners in the gloves in the 40's. I carry WindStopper lobster shells as a backup though I don't have to use them much unless it's quite windy. In the 20's I replace the fleece gloves and their wool liners with cross-country lobster ski gloves and then add the wool liners back in as the temp drops. I may add heater packs to my gloves and at around zero I generally replace the ski gloves with mittens but it depends on how much effort I am putting out and how much wind factors into the ride.

For my feet, it's pretty simple. In addition to switching to the Lake boots, I add liner socks under the regular socks and this is one area where it seems the polypropylene liners work a bit better than the wool. My boots are a size bigger than I would normally buy so I have extra room for thicker socks but still never more than two pairs. When the temp drops into the single digits and below, I also put on some neoprene boot covers and maybe a second chemical warmer in the boot; one on top of my toes and one underneath.

Last up is my weather protection from the neck up. Having a beard, even my wimpy beard, helps a lot with protecting my face from the elements but I do add a balaclava somewhere in the 30's though I don't pull it up to cover my mouth until it's well down into the 20's or even the teens if there isn't much wind. I DO, however, start with it over my mouth for the first ten minutes or so until the furnace kicks in. I have found that toughing it out at the beginning of a ride only makes it take longer for me to find my comfort zone so I start with more knowing I will remove it pretty quickly. I don't mind being a wimp and driving for comfort on my commute; I'm not a masochist, just a commuter.

I wear my regular cycling glasses down into the single digits, perhaps even below zero but at some point I will switch over to ski goggles which along with the now pulled up (and thicker) balaclava will cover all my exposed skin. I also have switched over to my downhill ski helmet in the 20's because it has built-in ear flaps and really keeps my whole head comfortable. Mine has venting that I can open as I warm up (remember; venting is your friend!) and sometimes open and close the venting over the course of a ride.

So there it is, my approach to comfortable bike commuting through the Minnesota winter. Did I forget anything? Oh, yes I did! 

Final important point (ladies can skip this part or just giggle your way though it): I depend on wind protection for my manly parts; wind briefs become essential as the temp drops. Men's parts are designed for cooling but that doesn't work out so well when cycling (or skiing for that matter) so you really need to have extra wind protection over the family jewels. Wind briefs tend to be on the expensive side but are worth every penny and then some.

Your results will vary and you will need to do your own fine tuning but I think this should be a pretty good guide for what you need to consider as the temps drop. The two main things to remember are managing your layers and making sure you vent before you get overly sweaty.  It is possible, in fact it's exceedingly enjoyable, to ride in colder weather and by taking the right precautions it can be every bit as comfortable as riding in the summer. It might even be more fun since it sort of feels like you are getting away with something and when doesn't being a little bit naughty enhance your pleasure?


  1. WD, I know you're following the Badger's race this weekend. I just posted an update on his behalf that you might enjoy. It is a wild and woolly one! He really enjoyed your poetry contribution and he'll have something to say to you directly about that when he can finally communicate with the rest of the world.

  2. My trouble is that it's usually much colder in the morning when I start off than it is in the evening ride home. It can be tricky to balance between too little (and shivering) or too much (and sweating). Do you carry all these layers with you just in case?

  3. Limes - Thanks for the update.

    Merry - I pay freakish attention to the weather and dial it in pretty well but I am always prepared for variation so yes, I do have alternate layers sometimes though mostly just for my hands. When it's really cold and/or nasty, I also carry a thick wool vest along to make sure I can keep my core warm.

  4. WD,
    nice write up!!!
    one question for you......... did you get your Gore jacket localy,
    if so where?
    i've been looking for the "Fusion" jacket but i'm not having much luck.
    not a lot of call for that high $$$ item here in the north where i am.

    Thank you for your time!!

    Peace, Joboo

  5. Joboo - Glad you liked it. As for the Gore jacket, I got it online but I don't remember if it was Nashbar or Sierra Trading Post. I try to support the local shops but when they simply don't carry something I need, I'm all about getting it online, usually for a pretty good discount.

  6. I can't say enough about merino wool, either. It's the best. Back in the day, I wore merino wool shorts and jerseys even in the summer, as they work well regulating body heat in all conditions. When I lived in Wyoming, I had a similar cold weather routine as you follow in Minnesota. Nice write up. And thanks for ringing in on Limes' shout out for me at Boulevard!