Warmed Over Cycling
September 10, 2009 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Can you please recommend some good urban winter bicycling clothes for me?

I live in NYC, and I ride my bike to and from work as much as possible. Last winter, I stopped riding because it got cold, and I turned into a humungous gelatinous blob. If at all possible, I would like to avoid this fate.

Can you recommend some winter biking clothes that will give me a good range of movement and keep me warm? The cheaper the better! Any available links appreciated.
posted by orville sash to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
REI carries a line of commuting clothes, including waterproof pants that slip over the pants that you normally wear and have narrow, zippered ankles. The REI stuff is relatively well-made and cheap. Wearing a capilene undershirt or fleece underneath will keep you warm.

Pearl Izumi also has good waterproof pants and jackets, but they are, of course, more expensive.

For me, the coldest parts are my hands and feet. Two winters ago, I used REI/Novarra fingered gloves, and have to say they were pretty cold. They also fell apart after a season. I returned them, and bought a pair of Pearl Izumi lobster-style gloves for the last winter, and they are far warmer and more robust. I'll wear them again this winter.

I also wear neoprene booties over my bike shoes -- mine are from Performance Bike (read: cheap). They work pretty well to block the wind. You can get very elaborate with these, or, as is the case with mine, very simple -- mine just cover my toes.

Finally, I can't say enough for fenders.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:16 AM on September 10, 2009

Seconding lobster gloves. I'm a polar bear, but every time I've tried riding in the winter stopped me cold because my hands would stop checking in. Lobster mittens changed this to having to worry about hand sweat when it was 20F outside.

Also , the ankle-high Pearl Izumi boots with the breathable magic in them definitely work. I was out mountain biking in 8" snow with no problem putting a foot down in drifts.
posted by notsnot at 9:23 AM on September 10, 2009

I live in Boston. For most of the winter, I just wear a windblock fleece jacket with a goretex rainjacket over it (with the hood under my helmet to help keep my head warm), and typically goretex rain pants over my normal pants. I have used both lobster gloves and normal, five-fingered gloves -- whatever you get, make sure it's well insulated and reasonably water resistant. The lobster gloves I had didn't actually keep my hands as warm as I would have liked, so I now have a pair of very warm five-fingered gloves from EMS (which is pretty much like REI).

When it gets *really* cold (< 10F, maybe), I put on a heavy goosedown parka, flannel lined jeans, and ski goggles :).
posted by larsks at 9:50 AM on September 10, 2009

It looks like the average temp in NYC, Dec to Mar is in the 25-40F (-7 to 5C) range---that's quite doable on a bike. It's mucky and wet, but ok for cycling.

For the bike: fenders and even a mudflaps on the fender (easy to make with an old milk bottle and some poprivets). Lights also, winter days are short and it's easy to get caught out after dark. At least have a rear blinky. The Planet Bike ones are among the best and brightest.

For you: Good waterproof gloves and booties are important, as hands and feet get the most uncomfortable in the cold and wet. I used to use plastic bags between my shoes and socks, but the price of boot covers is well worth it, IME. Almost any ski glove will work for you hands. Wool mittens are a decent alternative as they stay warm even when wet.

Wear a hat. I usually wear a ski cap (a toque, actually) which fits easily under the helmet (though I use the thinner helmet pads in the winter). Hats make a huge difference to comfort in the cold. Again, wool is my favourite, but fleece also works well in my experience.

Glasses can be important when it's wet or windy. There's more road spray in the winter and going fast or high winds in the cold can cause your eyes to tear up.

A good windproof jacket and pants are nice but not hugely essential. You can do those temperatures in bike shorts under track pants with a big sweater (assuming mitts, hats and booties). Increasing your visibility with a yellow jacket is a good idea though. Wind and wet will dictate your choices on the day.

You should be slightly chilly standing, off the bike. If you're warm stationary, you're probably overdressed.

Safe biking! Cars don't expect cyclists in the winter, so don't take too many chances. Best of luck! There's nothing like a good ride on a cold morning.
posted by bonehead at 10:01 AM on September 10, 2009

You know, I was going to ask a similar question when I logged into Ask MeFi today, though I'm also interested in recommendations for cold-weather cycle touring clothes. Your decision depends in part on whether you're looking for garments to wear over your work clothes or whether you intend to change once you arrive at work.

I have a couple pieces from REI that work well: the Novara Stratos bike jacket and the Novara Express bike pants. Novara is REI's house brand, BTW. The jacket is pricy but I love it--it's warm, well ventilated, and highly visible. I'm not as fond of the pants, because they make a lot of noise and I'm between sizes. They can be pulled over regular pants, though, which is nice.

This winter I'm thinking of trying SportHill's XC pants when it gets cold; the combination of warmth and wind resistance looks attractive. But I'll check back on this thread to see what else is suggested.

As MC Low-Carb and notsnot said, keeping hands and feet warm is important. I tried lobster gloves last winter and found that they were just too warm; my hands would be soaking by the end of my 3-mile commute and the gloves never really dried out. What I ended up using was an old pair of fleece-lined leather gloves (real wool fleece, not polypro). I also picked up some lightweight glove liners which work fine by themselves. Often I would take off the heavy gloves about halfway through my commute and switch to the lighter ones.

For my feet, I got a pair of neoprene covers that fit over my shoes to provide insulation and waterproofing.

J&G Cyclewear's waterproof helmet cover is useful if you wear a helmet. By blocking the vents, it provides just enough insulation to keep my head warm without overheating. You can also wear a lightweight cycling cap under a helmet to get a similar effect.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:02 AM on September 10, 2009

My wet and cold Midwest winter wear:
Feet: wool socks covered by neoprene socks if I was wearing my SPD sandals and wool socks in Gore Tex hiking boots if I wasn't.

Legs: Wool tights from Rivendell Bicycles covered by thrift store jeans or rain pants ($20 kind from Wal Mart) depending on how wet it was or some other wind resistant pants from the thrift store (like wind pants that track runners use or something like that). I used an ankle strap made from a scrap of fabric (free) or tucked the pants into my hiking boots.

Upper Body: Really varies by temperature, but for the coldest temps, I did a T-shirt under a heavy thrift store wool sweater, a fleece vest, and a windbreaker/raincoat (also from Wal-Mart for $20). That was good down to about 0 for me. It takes a few more minutes to get the upper body warmed up, but any more layers than this and even I, who am cold almost all the time, would get too hot. If it was above 20, I'd leave off the fleece vest and/or change to a lighter weight wool sweater.

Hands: This was the hard part for me, and I have about 15 pairs of gloves depending on the wind and the distance of my ride. Most of them are cheap, but I think the best combination I had was a very thin wool-blend liner from REI coupled with some really good puffy ski gloves (don't remember the brand, but they were about $30 on sale at the end of the season).

Head: I usually wore the flat kind of earmuffs that go around the back of your head rather than the top of it. Sometimes I wore a thin fleece stocking cap under my helmet, but often I'd get too warm if riding more than a few miles that way. What I liked best was the earmuffs in combination with a hood from my rainjacket that went up OVER my helmet (on the outside of it rather than under it). That kept some warm air in but also gave me enough ventilation so I didn't overheat. Ski goggles help if your eyes water in the cold. Plus you just look badass wearing ski goggles on a bike (ok. I may be in the minority with that opinion).

Overall, I think the best strategy was to choose things that kept out wind (even if it's a still day, you're creating a wind chill for yourself by riding) and shed water. Expect to be cold the first mile or so. If you're warm from the beginning, you'll probably be too hot as you keep riding. I found it best to experiment with lots of different layering of clothes I already had just to find a sweet spot of layers for any given temperature.
posted by BlooPen at 10:04 AM on September 10, 2009

Oh, also seconding MC Lo-Carb on fenders. They protect you from slush; they also protect your bike's drivetrain from road salt. Make sure they're properly fitted and get a generous front mud flap to keep spray off your bottom bracket and chainrings--unless you have a fully enclosed chain, but in that case your bike probably also has fenders.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:05 AM on September 10, 2009

For the level of temperatures orville sash would experience, I'd expect a thin base layer (to wick sweat), an insulating layer like a regular sweater and a shell would be enough. As I said, shorts and a long pant on the bottoms are often enough for me at freezing. When the temperature dips much more (below -10C, or 15F), that's when I break out the thermal jammies and the heavy wind gear. Below -25C, I'll add a fourth layer and beef up the hat to a balaclava.
posted by bonehead at 10:14 AM on September 10, 2009

Last post, I promise: a scarf or a neck-warmer is also pretty important --- as well as the heat loss from your exposed neck, without a good seal at the top of a jacket, cold air can spill down the inside of your shell, which makes all your careful layering useless.

The more expensive cycling jackets do have good neck seals, but a hiking or skiing jacket or running shell generally will not. Even with a good cycling jacket, I still like to have a neck-warmer.

You can find combo neck-warmer/hoods which allow you some flexibility if you overheat.

As a bonus, here's the style of hat, I mentioned above. They call it Peruvian, but I've always known it as a X-country ski toque.
posted by bonehead at 10:37 AM on September 10, 2009

I can ride for about 20 minutes before feeling chilly in temps down to about -10F in the following:

2x lightweight wool sweaters, down vest, goretex shell. Wool balaclava over a silk balaclava under it. Lobster claw gloves from Nashbar. Huge wool socks and loose fitting shoes. Good poly/wool tights under loose fitting jeans with nylon wind-proof pants sometimes. Safety glasses to keep the wind out of the eyes.

Anything warmer, I just remove some of that stuff. If I'm riding a bit longer, I wear 2 pairs of thick wool socks and (I am not making this up) plastic bags inside SPD sandals. My normal shoes are way too tight to stay warm in real cold.

Anything colder and I stay home.

Most of what I've listed can be had for less than the price of Pearl Izumi tights. :)
posted by paanta at 10:47 AM on September 10, 2009

Icebreaker woolies. I have a sweater that's functioned as a layer and as a stand-alone pullover for 3 years now with no signs of wear. Pricey but very much worth it.
posted by everichon at 11:13 AM on September 10, 2009

That's 3-season, five-days-a-week three years, BTW.
posted by everichon at 11:14 AM on September 10, 2009

My sister in law gave me and my husband Turtle Fur fleece hats. They are quite thin and fit under our helmets and they make a HUGE difference in the comfort of our rides to work.

I made my husband a silk and wool scarf that's practically Tom Baker Dr. Who length*. He can wrap it around his neck a few times and the ends can cover his chest adding extra warmth. I made it after realizing that most scarves are simply not long enough. The neckwarmers are nice, but they seem to leave the clavicle unprotected. (also, a pinstriped wool scarf looks more dashing.)

(*in reality, I think the scarf is only 6 feet long.)
posted by vespabelle at 11:19 AM on September 10, 2009

- A bandana or microfleese cap to cover my head under my helmet.
- One or two long sleeve poly bike shirts, with a wool bike jersey over it/them.
- One or more of: a light or heavy poly tights/long underwear, and/or Col d'lizard ice-biker tight.
- Hiking shorts on top (for pockets, extra protection for the critical bits, and to protect public sensibilities from old guys in tights!).
- 0 or 1 light poly socks plus thick hiking socks, and bike sandals. Yes, really! Unless you have oversized boots, your boots will compress the sock and make it useless, plus, when (not if) it gets wet from sweat, you'll get colder feet than you will otherwise - and you WILL get cold feet. If it's wet enough, a goretex bootie over the sock(s) will keep them from wetting from the outside, but hasten the wetting from the inside. It's judgment call.
- Guantlets, sometimes called Pogies, Bullwinkles, or moose-mitts, over the handlebars & controls. You need flat-bars to make this work. I can ride comfortably in fingered fleece gloves this way. Without them I'd have zero chance of keeping my fingers warm, even in mitts, and just try to use your controls skillfully with those on!
- Toe clips (rat-traps) and toe-clip covers. They'll make a big difference in keeping your exposed socks clean(er) and dry(er). So will fenders.
- Pannier or backpack -- every time -- with an extra layer or two for when you misjudge the weather or need to stash a layer on the way home after work, or if you break down and have to walk.

This works for my body, riding effort, & weather and it should give you a starting point. Ride hard, stay warm!
posted by TruncatedTiller at 1:12 PM on September 10, 2009

I agree with bonehead's suggestion about a base layer. I live in Boston and commute all winter, and I find the most effective way is to put a wicking base layer on my upper and lower body, and then can wear a t-shirt/sweater + pants, with something windproof on my upper body. The only disadvantage is peeling of the layers on arrival.

I highly recommend getting a ski-helmet. I use mine once it starts to get cold and it keeps my head at a perfect temperature, and allows you to hear very clearly.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 1:16 PM on September 10, 2009

er, ...microfleece cap...
posted by TruncatedTiller at 1:34 PM on September 10, 2009

Thin glove liners. I've found these to be a must. Going with or without the liners doubles the options for the gloves you're going to collect. I use a pair of cotton work gloves from the hardware store on warm days, and pair of winter cycling gloves on the cold days. The liners are great because they're a wicking layer for your hand and you can pull them out to dry. Optimally they keep your sweat from soaking into the gloves' insulation.

There will be snot. Cycling gloves are worth it for the patch of terry-cloth over the thumb for wiping your nose. Cotton's good for this too.

The neoprene booties are great, but they're not very durable. I don't like the feeling of plastic bags over my feet, and I haven't found a better solution.

I use a two cycling jackets--a thermal layer that's also good on it's own down to the upper 30s, and a rain jacket as a shell. The rain jacket has vented armpits that I can unzip, which helps a lot.

Here's a page of tips from Chicago Bike Winter. They also have ideas on how to do it on the cheap.
posted by hydrophonic at 3:35 PM on September 10, 2009

I wear a Giro G10MX skiing helmet + goggles when it gets down to -20C here in Toronto. It's surprisingly comfortable as a bike helmet, and gets you out of having to fuss with hats and microfleece caps, etc.

Only really an option if you like to ski/snowboard as well as bike!
posted by anthill at 4:55 PM on September 12, 2009

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