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Bicycling Blog - Dressing for Cold Days

Spring is here but the cold weather has re-appeared, at least temporarily. That doesn't mean that you have to skip your bicycling ride. With the proper clothing you can ride outside in almost any weather. So here are some tips that I hope will make winter and early spring riding more bearable.

First and foremost, you need the right clothing. Cold weather garments need to block out wind and retain heat but not too much heat. And you also need some water-proof outer garments as well for the rainy days. Layering is key and having pockets to carry extra clothing in changing weather conditions is also important. There are lots of choices available and they come in a broad range of prices and materials. Finding the right combinations is a personal thing and I recommend keeping a dairy to help remember what combinations worked well or didn't work for certain conditions.

As a rule if you are warm enough when you first start out on a cold day ride then you will be too hot during the ride. The disadvantage to this is you will get sweaty and this can lead to heat loss later in the ride that can cause you to get cold. You should be cold when you first start out and you should be warmed up 10 to 15 minutes into the ride. For me the first 15 minutes of the ride is the hardest part of winter riding because I'm never certain if I going to get warm enough until it finally happens and I don't want to get too far from home and find out that I under-dressed.

Here is an example of how I would typically dress on a 35 degree dry day. Starting with my feet I wear tightly knit wool socks that fit comfortably inside my cycling shoes. I use chemical toe warmers that you can get at a drug store or hunting store. And I wear my regular cycling shoes with fleece shoe covers over them. Moving up I wear my regular bibbed shorts, full wool leg warmers, and over that I wear Lycra long legged riding pants. For my core, I wear a long sleeved compression undershirt and a long sleeved wool jersey. Over the jersey I wear a wind vest. Up top I wear a wool knit cap that covers my ears and fits under my helmet and I wear my helmet. I put a thin layer of Vaseline on the exposed skin on my face. Lastly, I wear nylon and Thinsulate ski gloves.

For most people, the hands and feet present the most problems. There are a variety of gloves and shoe covers available so it's just a matter of finding the ones that work for you. Trial and error can get expensive but you will never be comfortable if you can't keep you hands and feet warm. I find that once my core gets up to temperature my hands and feet soon follow.

If the temperature is colder that 35 degrees I wear a heavier coat instead of the wind vest and sometimes I wear wool gloves inside the ski gloves. The coldest weather I've ridden the road bike in is 15 degrees, sunny, with a light wind. If it's 40 degrees or higher I don't wear the long pants over the leg warmers and a skip the chemical toe warmers.

In the 40 to 50 range, I will use knee warms instead of the full leg warmers and opt for a light jacket or use a wind vest and arm warmers.  The advantage of the latter is that if you are starting out on a cool morning but expect it to warm up as the day goes one you can remove those items and easily carry them in a jersey pocket.  Layering and planning for changing weather conditions is key.

Another strategy for cold weather comfort is where or what you ride. The wind is very chilling this time of year so planning routes through wooded areas helps to cut down your exposure. Sunny days are more easily tolerated that overcast days also. Full sun can make the day feel as much as 10 degrees warmer than what the thermometer says it is.

 In cold weather mountain bike riding also helps make the ride more tolerable. The slower speeds that you are typically moving lessens the wind chill. And riding the mountain bike on wood trails, like those at Harmonie State Park, keeps you out of the wind completely. I've done several rides in the park dressed as described above only with the heavier jacket when the mercury was reading single digits and found that I was surprisingly warm.

The last thing I recommend for cold weather riding is bringing along warm liquid to drink. Insulated bottles are available for cycling and these, along with warm liquid to start with, will keep your beverage from freezing for several hours. My drink of choice is hot tea with honey, lemon and a dash of Morton's Light Salt. This is my version of a home made sports drink: caffeine, carbs and electrolyte replacement. The lemon is just for flavor.

So with some planning and an investment in the proper gear it is possible to ride outdoors all winter in our area. And, if deep snow or heavy rain forces you indoors for a day or two there is always the trainer to take up the slack.

 Keep on riding!