When the warm summer winds fade, many of us hang up our bicycles in the garage, never to be used again till next spring. And so goes the lifestyle of the fair-weather pedaler.
Well, let me warm you up to the idea that you can bike ride all year round.
The notion that it is too chilly to continue riding into the fall certainly seems insane by the time winter arrives. If nothing else, you can extend your cycling season by several months just by having the right clothing.
The old adage “dress for the weather” is so true. Those who are already cold-weather riding are not crazy (MTB riders excepted, lol)—we just have the right gear to make it fun.
Using the proper attire on the trails is important. I am going to explain the rationale and some of the physics involved to be comfortable as the temps drop.
Dress for Success
A common beginner mistake is wearing your street clothes for cycling. If you are a slow, leisurely cruising Park or Rail Trail rider, facing no hills—or if you’re only going for a short hop on your bike— then this is probably fine.
If you’re going to do this, pick street clothes that give you enough movement so you do not rip or split your garments. (Tight jeans or baggy, flappy pant legs are not good choices.)
And if you are planning to pedal for hours, you will need to rethink your cycling attire and get some proper technical (sport specific) clothing.
The other newbie mistake is overdressing. It will take some trial and error to find the right balance between how much heat you produce and how much heat loss your experience. You should actually start your day on the ride a little chilled and aim to get to a comfortable temperature within 15 to 20 minutes (A few hill climbs will do it, lol.)
If you’re overdressed, problems start when you begin to sweat. In cooler climates, this perspiration can get trapped in your clothing. If you cannot regulate the evaporation, your clothing gets damp, and moisture that does not migrate well away from your body will be uncomfortable and have a chilling effect.
Wear the Right Material
If you are wearing cotton shirts, underwear, or socks, these materials feel heavy and cold once you begin to sweat. Not good, when you’re trying to stay warm! Better to wear polyester and wool blends.
These materials are light, perform well, retain heat and wick moisture. Wool actually still feels warm after it gets wet—amazing! A merino wool base layer is fine for low activity, but it’s better to pick polyesters for more vigorous outings.
Retain the Heat, Lose the Moisture in 3 Layers
Dressing in layers is the best method to regulate your body’s heat and moisture. Layers help you build a barrier to the outside, blocking the cold winds and trapping warm air in the weaves and fluffy fleece material inside, to keep you insulated.
These layers of material are very effective at keeping you comfortable, as long as you choose the right fabric, construction and fit: too loose and you lose heat, too tight and you restrict movement.
1 Base Layer – Underwear layer against your skin to wick moisture
2 Insulating Layer – Warming mid-layer of fleece
3 Shell Layer – Outer wind-breaking thin jacket layer
The base layer should be tight fitting and move sweat away from your body. It will continue to feel warm when moist thanks to the wool or polyester it’s made of, and it might have insulating properties when it gets colder.
The middle layer insulates and should have zippers to vent. The colder it is outside, the thicker the fleece material should be.
Your outer layer needs to block chilly winds from penetrating your garments and cooling you down. This shell/windbreaker jacket should block most of the wind pressure, yet breathe when you sweat.
Some riders may wish for a jacket that is waterproof if it rains, say, while they’re on a long Rail Trail outing with not a shelter in sight. You might be able to find a water-resistant jacket that works and still breathes.
But a true waterproof shell may not breathe well, creating a sauna effect. To make a garment that can do everything and do it well is tricky and expensive. Better to have a separate plastic raincoat packed when you need it.
On that point, my thoughts are: If the forecast looks iffy, plan on doing mountain biking loops near your car, and you don’t need to bother with a water-resistant/proof jacket at all. The moment it starts to rain, you can beeline it back. Just be smart enough to pack a change of clothes.
What to Wear Cycling
In the dead of winter, there is a lot to wear to stay happy and warm. Finding suitable activewear without all the bulk is the goal.
These are very general guidelines as to what to consider wearing as it gets colder. It depends on your health, age, endurance, cardio output and the weather and windchill during your ride.
15 to 10C zone
As the temperature dips into the low teens, start wearing a light windbreaker shell over your long-sleeved shirt (or at least bring it with you). If the sun is shining, you might still be comfortable in shorts, or you may want to bring along slip-on, full-length tights and put those on at some point.
10 to OC zone
An inner fleece jacket is required—perhaps a sleeveless one if you are moving fast—over a long-sleeve undershirt. Tight medium-weight jogging-type pants with full-length cycling gloves and thicker socks need to be employed. It’s a good idea to wear a skull cap or ear warmers under your helmet.
Below OC zone
Now you’ll need to add more or thicker layers without getting too bulky. It’s a real trick to finding that comfort zone. Looking at what Nordic skiers wear will clue you in to how being active in the winter can be comfortable.
(I am going to save my other comments for a future article on gear for hardcore winter riders and those who love Fatbiking in a blizzard.)
Pockets – You can never have enough pockets. Look for deep pockets that zip closed. Velcro is OK, but only takes one time to have a spill and lose stuff (in the snow) to know that securing valuables in a zippered area will save you much grief.
Vents – Look for jackets that have zippered vents under the armpits. Undershirts and fleece tops should open up completely or at the very least have a zipper that comes down halfway.
Noisy vs. silent clothes – The quiet solitude of a lonely path can make noisy clothing, with its rubbing and crinkling sounds, annoying to some. Test that aspect in the store.
Cycling Shopping List:
If you’re going to ride in cooler weather, you should have the following items as part of your cycling wardrobe. Depending on the day, you may be dressing for a leisurely cruise on paved paths in cooler weather, or a sweaty MTB ride where you’re cranking hard on the climbs. Tailor your activewear choices accordingly.
Hat – a skull cap, bandana under your helmet.
Neck warmer/gaiter – great on a frosty day; pull it over your mouth and nose to warm your breath.
Gloves – full-finger gloves with palms that grip the bars work down to a certain temperature. If you’ll be riding when it’s below 0C, consider bar mitts, which are sleeves into which you insert your hand. (Actual mitts will not enable you to change gears.)
Undershirt – a tight, long-sleeved polyester shirt with a soft, non-itch feel inside.
Underwear – tight polyester underwear with long underwear on top. You should have two kinds: thin leggings and a thicker fleece blend for frosty mornings.
Pants/tights – a tight fit down to the ankles (please, not flared out—they might get caught in your chain). Colder weather may need you to combine two layers: shell pants with fleece underpants.
Fleece top – have both a thin and thick version depending on how cold it is, and maybe a third sleeveless one for milder days.
Shell jacket, waist length – some are cut for cycling. It should be wind/water resistant with zippered vents (if you can find them). If it has a hood, can you roll it up and hide it in the collar? Otherwise, it’s a drag chute.
Socks – I recommend thicker polyester, with a wool blend as it gets cooler.
> Cycling exposes you to the elements, a great feeling when the weather behaves but can surprise you when it changes suddenly. Use a few weather services to get an average sense of what the day might be like. And have a backup plan if things go awry.
> Unsure what to wear? Pack extra stuff in a backpack or saddlebag. That way, if you feel underdressed or overdressed, you’ll have options. But keep it to a minimum.
> Definitely leave a change of clothes back at the car to avoid a chill driving home. Maybe bring extra shoes/boots and a fresh pair of socks to keep the toes happy.
> Consider packing a raincoat, as it seems to rain more in the spring and fall than in the summer. Getting wet in the summer is OK, but no fun on a cooler-temperature ride when you’ve still got an hour to go.
> Finally, refrain from wearing blacks, greys and dull colours. There are many overcast days through the winter months. You want to be seen by cars and other traffic to avoid fatalities. (It’s also hunting season in the fall.)
Where to Look:
If you jog or Nordic ski in the winter, then you already have activewear that can be used while cycling—you’re set. But if you need more/better gear, shop around.
Cycling and running are very similar activities. Shop in those departments (online or in the aisles of sports stores) to find suitable activewear. By mid-summer, new gear comes out in the stores, and by spring, you can look for clearance sales.
Also, check used-clothing stores for garments that will work on the trail. Or try bike/gear swaps at cycling club events.
I have included some links on this page to sites that I believe offer good quality apparel. There is an eco-friendly movement recently to recycle old fibres to make into new garments. Patagonia is a leader in this cause and sensitive about its carbon footprint.
I may get a small referral fee at no extra cost to you, if you shop at these suppliers using my links. It supports the cost of this free site.
Some items get expensive, I know. Think of the cost as an investment in comfort and longevity to manage chillier climes in Canada. Also, consider the expense as insurance that these garments will perform well, keeping you happy when the going gets tough.
Those are my best tips on dressing for the weather—or is it better said, against the weather? Regardless, follow these and you likely won’t have to end your day rides early, and you probably won’t catch a cold or get frostbite.
One of the great things about cycling is that you can ride all year if you want. Other sports that need snow or water have their seasons, but we two-wheelers can crank it year-round. OH, JOY!
Play safe, stay warm – Dan Roitner
PS – I wrote this article from 35 years of experiences cycling. I made many newbie mistakes, learned a few lessons along the way and customized my activewear. I still never know exactly what to put on before I head out as the weather is unpredictable at times.