It’s cold up in these mountains- not as freezing as someplace like Minnesota or Alaska, but still pretty chilly. Half of my commute is either at night or before sunrise, so I’m riding in temperatures right around or below zero (in American temperatures) everyday.
I’m not sure what the wind chill factor is blasting down a ski slope at midnight on a fat bike, but it’s probably something substantial.
Since the rest of the country is in the midst of the polar vortex/ icy spiral of doom (ironically it’s sunny and 30 here today), I thought I’d write up the layering system I’ve figured out to make winter bike riding comfortable. In journalism class, they always told me timeliness was important.
First- forget wearing any spandex. Winter cycling clothes are a joke. To keep you warm, a layer has to have loft, and be able to trap warm air from your body.
Tights can’t do that. They’re also bad at resisting water, slush and all that crap.
Here’s what I ride in everyday. The brand of this stuff doesn’t really matter as long as it’s something decent and well designed, it should work fine. This is enough to keep me comfortable all day in the single digits:
- Cotton t-shirt, wool base layer if it’s staying below 10 degrees, or I’m out a long time.
- Fleece pull-over
- Bubblegoose (for my duece duece and my tre duece)
- Puffy vest, usually stays in my bag. For really cold wind or descents.
- Wool hat
- Gas station sunglasses
- Ski gloves
- Wool tights
- Shell pants
- Heavy wool socks
- Lake boots, two sizes bigger than I normally wear.
I know that common outdoor wisdom says that “cotton kills,” but I like cotton shirts, and I’m not dead yet.
For most rides, a soft t-shirt makes a fine baselayer. It’s not itchy, it doesn’t stink like synthetic, and I don’t have to change it when I get to work.
For longer rides, wool is my favorite baselayer. It’s naturally anti-microbial, so I can go a while (I won’t say how long) without washing the tights or socks. Your mileage may vary, I’ve been accused of being one of them goddamned dirty hippies more than once.
The shell pants I wear are super simple (better), one pocket, drawstring waist, baggy, and mostly waterproof. Since they’re not totally sealed up, they breathe pretty well. I don’t feel the need to wear anything more waterproof- I’m bike riding, not crab fishing.
I bought the jacket from a consignment store when we moved here. It’s puffy, bright (until it’s covered in dirt the day after I wash it), and has a hood. I never used to be a fan of hoods while riding since they restrict your vision, but I guess Pittsburgh was never this cold.
Throwing the hood up when the wind starts to blow makes a huge difference.
Hand warmth seems to be pretty personal. I’m fine without gloves down to 25, so ski gloves are plenty for winter riding in Colorado. Below freezing, Colleen seems to get numb hands no matter what she does. She has some poggies on the way. Hopefully those will fix her problem, because she’s out there commuting two hours almost everyday as well.
The Lake MZX303 boots have been awesome. Before I got them, I was riding in some Specialized winter shoes that were half a size too small, and getting numb feet constantly.
Winter boots definitely should be sized big- for around here, two sizes up is plenty. I can fit a thick sock, maybe two if I need to and the boot isn’t tight. The only thing that keeps a foot warm is circulation. Cut off the blood flow with a tight shoe, get numb feet.
I passed the Specialized boots onto Colleen which worked out perfectly, because they’re way to big for her.
Other stuff- unzip, or take off a layer before you start to sweat. As soon as I warm up, I start opening up vents. Sweating is bad.
When sweat evaporates, it goes into your insulation, where it builds up. Then the insulation can’t loft anymore, can’t trap any heat from your body, and turns into an ice coat. Which isn’t nice.
If you care, here’s some more good reading on winter clothing systems.