Everything you wanted to know about winter cycling gear, and maybe some things you didn’t know you needed to know!
What do I wear for cycling in winter?
Part of the answer to this frequently asked question depends on what type of riding you will do. If you are commuting to work for as much of the winter as you can, you will probably choose some different pieces than someone who is riding competitively or training through the cold months. That said, the principles are the same.
What you need to stay comfortable cycling in winter is actually very similar to clothing for other winter sports – particularly alpine skiing. There are quite a few similarities between the stance and movements of the two sports. Also, both involve strenuous effort that raises body temperatures, alternating with more relaxed periods where it’s easy to get chilled. Clothing for both sports requires a balance between the temperature produced by effort and cooling due to wind.
Commuters and casual winter cyclists can do pretty well with ski gear in a lot of cases, especially if they ski and have ski clothing available already.
More dedicated cyclists will benefit from clothing made specifically for cycling, for better fit and comfort, and practical bike and cycling friendly features.
First principles – Four Words to Guide your Winter Cycling Wardrobe:
Layering, Wicking, Windproofing, Breathability.
Going to extremities
Extremities get chilled first, both because our bodies direct blood flow to our core to stay warm, and because they are out there in the cold wind, and obviously the faster we go on bikes the more wind we make for ourselves.
Preventing the wind from getting to extremities is therefore the first line of protection for winter cycling.
Gloves require good insulation with wind proofing, but must still allow dexterity to control the bike, which makes the search for the perfect winter cycling glove a constant quest. We have some great options, with wind-blocking fabric and split finger or mitten designs. For those of us who have colder hands to begin with, mittens or split finger designs will perform better, as fingers held together stay warmer than when individually pocketed in gloves. Mitts also have room to slip a disposable hand-warmer behind the fingers, which can feel like a life saver.
Good shoe covers are essential when it gets cold. An extra layer on your feet with good wind and water proofing can keep you riding happily in very cold temperatures. Many cyclists opt for neoprene overshoes, made from the same stuff as wetsuits for diving. Gore-Tex and Windblocker are even better options, as they are easier to get in and out of, do the same job, and are more comfortable to wear.
We’re all (cold) ears.
Choose a helmet liner or headband that goes over your ears. They will thank you by not falling off as icicles, or at least by not giving you pain both freezing and thawing. A good helmet liner is thin enough to fit under your regular helmet, with straps adjusted to make room, and has good thermal and wicking properties. It’s hard to beat a merino wool blend fabric for this job. A windproof helmet cover makes a big difference too, keeping out both wind and road spray or precipitation. Keeping your head warm is half the battle for winter cycling.
Tearing up in the freezing wind can be a real problem for winter cyclists, and ski gear comes to the rescue here. Many winter cyclists opt to wear ski goggles and it can make all the difference. A full face balaklava, or buff over the mouth and nose can keep the freezing wind off your face very effectively. Scarves can work too, but tend to be harder to keep in place without constant adjustments.
A short or long-sleeve baselayer or two are the foundation of your winter kit. Choose base and mid layers with good thermal qualities and good moisture transport. There are some great synthetics out there that fit the bill, and lots of cyclists love merino wool as a natural and very practical choice. Avoid cotton, which does not wick well – that trapped moisture next to your skin can bring on a severe chill.
A medium weight layer over the base can be a mid or heavier weight thermal jersey. Choose a high neckline, and zippered front to allow ventilation when you’re working hard enough to get hot.
A windproof gilet or vest makes a great top layer for moderately cold temps. This is a vest with a cycling cut and rear pockets, to keep your core warm and block the wind. When it’s really cold a windproof jacket is an essential addition. Look for breathable, water resistant fabric.
One thing to watch out for when layering up, especially for female cyclists – extra layers in the saddle-contact region can increase likelihood of chafing and discomfort. We recommend cold-weather weight cycling tights with a good chamois as a better option than padded shorts with a chamoi-less layer over the top. That said, layering up is the key to enjoying cycling in the colder temps, so see what works for you. A top quality chamois and the minimum of layers to keep you riding comfortably is the goal.
Breaking down your complete Winter Cycling Kit
Chilly: Baselayer, mid-weight thermal jersey, windproof gilet or vest. Easily zipped or doffed to adapt to warming up and cooling down.
Freezing: Add a windproof, breathable shell. Keep the vest if you need an extra layer.
Super-cold: Swap in a heavy-weight jersey, or double up to get more insulating layers.
Chilly: Thermal tights with chamois.
Cold: Heavy-weight thermal tights with a chamois, or if layers work for you, no-chamois tights over your chamois lined shorts.
Super-cold: Add windproof, breathable cycling pants over the top.
Chilly: Thin thermal helmet liner.
Cold: Add a breathable windproof helmet cover on the outside.
Super-cold: Add face protection – a buff, balaklava, ski goggles.
Chilly to super-cold: A buff or bandana can keep the wind off your neck and stop it sneaking down your jacket. A heavier neck-gaiter is a great addition when it’s colder.
Chilly: Thermal gloves, windproof thermal gloves.
Cold: Windproof mittens, split-mitts, or a thermal glove with a windproof shell mitt over the top.
Super-cold: Choose a mitt with pockets for air activated or USB powered hand warmers. Consider bar mitts for ultimate cold weather protection.
Chilly to cold: Longer, warmer socks, and thermal windproof overshoes/show cover over your regular cleats.
Super-cold: Slip air activated warmers inside your overshoes, over your toes, if you can fit them (smaller ones are available – check ski gear outlets). They will still help if slipped in by your ankles. Depending on the riding you’re doing, you might prefer to switch to flat pedals and wear a winter boot that’s not too clunky for pedaling.
Cold knees are more injury prone. Go for covered knees and wind-proofing in chilly temps. Some people like to look tough in shorts in winter (yes I am looking at you, Bruce), but they’re not doing themselves any favors long term.
Winter cycling gear Q & A
What should I wear for road cycling in winter?
Road cyclists are still interested in speed, even though they may brave some frigid temperatures to stay in shape over the winter. That means forgoing bulky winter gear in favor of closer fitting pieces that won’t catch the wind, draining energy. Most road cyclists continue to clip in with their usual cleated shoes. The secret is to dress in layers, with emphasis on thermal qualities, moisture wicking, and breathability. Wearing warm and windproof gear on extremities is particularly important. Keeping head, hands and feet toasty helps winter cyclists keep core temperatures where they should be. As cyclists, when we get chilled it’s our extremities that feel it first.
How cold is too cold to ride a bike?
It isn’t too cold to ride a bike until it’s too cold for you to feel comfortable and be safe. Otherwise, as long as you’re enjoying it, keep riding. Of course, you might need some special clothing and equipment to keep cycling through frozen conditions. With the right winter cycling gear many hardy cyclists keep riding through the toughest northern winters.
Can you ride a bike in winter?
Yes, you certainly can! It really depends on having clothing that keeps you warm and comfortable in freezing temperatures, and having a bike that’s equipped to be safe to ride in snowy, icy conditions.
How do cyclists stay warm in the winter?
Cyclists keep themselves comfortable riding in freezing temperatures by layering their clothes, and making sure their extremities are protected by windproof and waterproof outerwear. Insulating, moisture wicking and breathable fabrics really help. Wind and waterproof gloves, overshoes and helmet covers are essential winter cycling accessories. In really cold conditions cyclists can also use air activated hand warmers tucked in gloves and overshoes.
Wearing a number of thin but warm layers with a windproof shell over the top keeps the heat in very effectively. Choosing breathable fabrics and shell helps regulate moisture. Since cycling can make you sweat quite a bit even in the cold, it’s important to avoid getting clammy. High exertion keeps your core temperature up, but if you ease up your effort and there’s too much moisture in your clothes you can get chilled really quickly. Moisture wicking fabrics and breathable shells are the answer to that.
How should I dress for winter cycling?
To enjoy cycling in winter keep these 4 words in mind: Layering, Wicking, Wind-proofing, Breathability. Cycling specific winter clothing will give you better comfort and range of motion in cycling positions, along with the convenience of bike-friendly features like pockets in the right places, ventilation, bright, reflective materials, and a fit tailored to minimize energy draining wind-resistance.
What is the best winter cycling jacket?
The best jacket for winter cycling is the one that has the right combination of cold weather protection features for the riding you will do, and the best fit for your particular shape and size. There isn’t one answer that’s right for everyone, so the best place to start is with a list of must-have features. Try on any you can find in your size at a price that makes sense to you. Try the jacket with the minimum and maximum number of layers you would expect to ride with, and in cycling position. Look for wind-proofing and water resistance, breathable fabric, taped seams, zippers in the right place and ability to adjust with gloves on. Make sure the fit feels good in your cycling positions, with no binding around arms, shoulders and neck. Look for a reasonably snug fit over your layers – avoid loose fabric that can flap in the wind and drain your energy.