Riding in the winter does not have to be that uncomfortable, however, just like many things in life, it’s about preparation.
In North America, winter riding can take on a lot of different forms. In the Pacific Northwest for example, constant rain is a necessary evil with occasional snowfall as many in Vancouver have recently experienced!
The constant here is that specialty clothing is required for each type of condition. As the temperature drops and wind chills increase, correct clothing and equipment choice is essential.
A good place to start is your bicycle. Adding some sort of fender to the front and rear wheels will limit the spray from wet roads. In fact, the worst part of riding in the rain is not the rain itself but the road spray coming up from the tires. This is the black gunk that stains your clothes a dark grey and never washes out! Growing up in rainy Vancouver, Canada we even had purpose built ‘Winter bikes’ with extra seals on the bearings, heavier tires and full fenders with mudflaps (cyclo-x bikes are perfect since there is plenty of clearance for fenders). If someone did not have fenders AND mudflaps, they had to stay at the back of our group on training rides. If there is a potential of black ice, studded tires would work wonders.
Getting yourself dressed appropriately for the weather conditions is a critical part of winter riding. It will take some experience to know how many and which layers to use for specific conditions. Generally, as the wind chill increases (combination of temperature and wind velocity), the more insulation layers are needed and the more wind proof the outer layer needs to be.
Starting from the top, your head is where you can lose a lot of heat. There are great balaclavas that are thin enough to wear under your helmet, yet provide excellent thermal insulation. For windy and/or wet days, a gore-tex helmet cover works wonders, albeit slightly geeky. Having a set of mini-earmuffs can also be useful, and these can usually be found at cross-country ski stores.
For your torso, I find that wool under layers really do work best – I really like the Ice Breaker brand. Start with thin layers and gradually thicken the outer layers, depending on how cold things are. Most importantly, buy layers that have a longer zipper so that if the weather warms up or you’re climbing a hill, you can unzip to create increased ventilation and lessen the amount of sweat produced. Finish off with a wind barrier appropriate for the conditions. If it’s wet, it should be a heavier “gore-tex” type jacket with sealed seams, etc. Sometimes, a wind vest is all that you’ll need. Be sure that your outer layer has reflective taping that will help with lower light visibility.
For your legs, a good pair of thermal tights works well – either use suspenders or get the bib style. The cycling pedaling action will tend to work the tights down if you don’t have anything holding them up. Incidentally, tightening a draw string around your waist is actually like choking yourself since your best breathing is done with your stomach contracting and expanding. As the wind chill increases and the chance of rain increases, tights with a water/windproof front panel can be very useful. Tights should also be long enough to overlap the top of your booties.
Keeping the feet and hands warm has been a perennial challenge for cyclists. Some riders with circulation problems will need more robust options than others. Generally, for your hands, lobster style mitts or even full mitts are warmer than individual finger gloves. For rain days, “gore-tex” mitt covers as a second layer can work wonders. Emergency warming can be done by pulling into a local convenience store and quickly throwing your soaked gloves into the microwave for 30 seconds or so – really, this works!
For the feet, there are greater challenges as they are exposed to the tire spray on wet days. Serious winter riders will have a second pair of cycling shoes, ½ size larger so they can wear 2 layers of socks. In rainy conditions, extra holes are drilled into the bottom of the shoe to let water flow through. On longer rain rides, your feet will get wet, no matter what you do! In any case, wool socks really do make a difference since they stay warm when wet. The wetter and colder the conditions, the better the bootie cover you need. Extreme conditions will require an insulation bootie along with a rainproof cover. Finish off by pulling your tights over the top of the bootie so water won’t run into your feet. Emergency wind proofing can be accomplished by using small sandwich baggies over the toes of your stocking feet, then sliding your foot into your shoe.
Riding conditions during the winter create additional dangers for cyclists. There are shorter daylight hours so adding flashing LED lights to your bike that can be seen from the front, back AND sides are crucial for any type of dusk or night riding. Tires with reflective sidewalls work wonders. Potholes can fill with water disguising them as simple puddles, so watch out! Snow can melt across the road during the day and freeze over night causing black ice. It’s simply a good idea to ride with more caution during the winter.
If you’re having a bad day in the cold, just think about how hard this day was for the boys during the ’88 Giro over the Gavia Pass. This was an epic day that started in the rain, went up into the snow and down to Bormio in the rain. This clip is from the top of Gavia as the guys are stopping to put on warm clothes. At the finish, many can’t even walk. There’s bit on Bob Roll (in a green rain hat) sobbing….these boys aren’t made of chocolate:
Finally, it’s important to pay attention to the constantly changing conditions of winter and adapt with your equipment and riding style. Have fun out there and be safe.