While lower temperatures may not seem like preferred weather for riding a bike, riding through the winter can be enjoyable especially if you dress for the conditions. In Colorado we have the unique advantage of having robust outdoor recreation opportunities throughout winter. This means that many Colorado residents have the gear to stay warm through a wide range of temperatures. From ski gloves to snow jackets, while there definitely is a whole suite of winter gear specifically designed for cyclists, much of the winter gear you already have will make riding through winter comfortable.
A Short Ride doesn’t need the same gear as a long ride
Before heading out on your ride it’s important to consider what you’re planning to do. A 10 minute ride to a store doesn’t need the same, expensive, dedicated bike layers, one would wear on an hour long ride. The main virtue of dedicated tech wear is that the longer you’re on your bike in the cold, the trickier it is to thermoregulate and the more inevitable it is that you’re gonna start sweating.
Staying Warm but not getting to warm
Our legs are full muscles that work hard on the bike and generate a lot of heat (fun act: over 30% of fuel that you muscles consume while cycling is wasted as heat), if you don’t have some wicking and venting going on, you’ll get your clothes soaked thru and it’ll quickly feel like you’re wearing a greenhouse.
Cotton casual wear and underclothes are particularly bad in those conditions. Cotton has an absorbent quality that sponges water and keeps it next to your skin, while the outside temps chill the moisture and begin a process of leaching heat away from your body very quickly (wet and cold is MUCH worse than dry and cold). Using technical base layers – a strategic combination of wicking, insulating and venting layers – is critical the longer you’re outside and the colder it gets.
Get out your ski gloves
While everyone bundles up when temperatures drop, the combined warmth and flexibility of a good ski glove makes an especially big difference on a bike, where a chill wind can quickly rub your knuckles raw. Hands are one of the most important body parts to keep warm when riding in cooler temperatures. If you have winter gloves, especially ski gloves, they’re probably fine for winter riding. The only thing to be careful of is whether they compromise your ability to shift or grab your brakes effectively. Some knit gloves compromise grip. But most ski gloves do not. It’s not a bad idea to consider getting gloves that are a tad big and supplementing them with glove liners, and keeping a backup pair just in case your primary liners get damp. It’s pretty miserable to ride in cold wet gloves, even for a short trip.
As for your feet, winter hiking boots generally work well if the bike you intend to ride has flat pedals. If the bike you’re planning to ride requires clipless shoes, wool socks, or chemical toe warmers can help keep your feet warm. We’ll go into more detail on cycling specific gear at the end.
Keeping your head and Face warm
While ski or snowboard helmets do a great job of keeping your head warm there are some drawbacks of riding (especially in traffic) with these helmets. The main issue is that the earmuffs can compromise hearing and spatial awareness, and that they can limit peripheral vision a bit, making checking your surroundings somewhat feel less effective.
This is a case where some bicycle specific winter gear will be helpful as thin, warm and sometimes windproof hats are a great solution in addition to your standard bike helmet and a neck gaiter or scarf to block airflow down your neck.
But don’t forget your eyes, cold eyes aren’t fun. While some choose to use ski goggles, they are generally overkill unless it’s really cold. In most cases, close fitting sunglasses that keep the gap between your brow and the upper rim of the glasses do a great job of keeping the wind out of your eyes. Similar to the bike light conversation, the shorter days mean that you’re more likely to be riding with little or no daylight. Be sure to have either some clear lenses or clear glasses for early or later rides. Cheap hardware store safety glasses are a great option if you don’t wear glasses.
Generally slush and moisture don’t stick around long in Colorado Springs but staying dry while riding during the winter is important. On the snowiest days (where a fatbike or studded tires may be a must) snow pants may be required but in most situations, water resistant hiking gear will do the trick. Waterproof gear also serves double duty as a windbreaking, insulating layer that keeps the chill away for during your ride.
If your budget allows, dedicated winter bike shoes are one area where technical gear is important, especially if the bike you use has clipless pedals. There are a number of really good brands of winter bike shoe these days. They’ll do the best job of balancing close, gapless fit, ankle support, water and slush resistance and a bit of grip for when you do need to put a foot down on ice or snow.
If you ride a lot in the winter keeping your hands warm is key, one of the best options here are bar mitts. They’re essentially neoprene oven mitts that slip onto your bike’s handlebars. Winter riders like them because they guard against freezing wind, without bulky gloves, making it easier to grab keys and bike locks.
Over our winter biking series of posts we will dive into the details, to make sure your comfortable and safe while riding through our winter.