I want to be a cool (weather) biker dude
September 27, 2012 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Help this newbie cyclist figure out what he'll need for cool weather cycling. Bonus points for: Colorado.

I'm new to regular cycling. I ride a couple times a week, but just since this spring, so I really don't know how this works as the weather turns cool. Can you tell me:

~ How cold is too cold? ie. When do cyclists hang it up for the outdoor season... If at all? I'm in Denver.
~ What will I need apparel-wise? Legs? Arms? Face?
~ Anything else I should know about pedaling around in the cold? How do you keep fit in the winter?
posted by ecorrocio to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in Portland, so add some chilly damp to the mix. When I was doing regular commuting through the winter, I found that right around 50-degrees is when I'd start putting on winter gear. Sub-44 was my warmest stuff. Of course, you want wicking, non-cotton materials and wool is great. We got one of those "weather station" things where the sensor sits outside and we can glance at the current temp and weather projection right when we get up in the morning. You can get them around $40 or less.

Anyway.... shoe covers for the damp are indispensable. They look dorky but they are great. If you have a shop, it's a good idea to check these out with your shoes as they all fit a bit differently. A neck gator is a pretty fantastic layering item -- you can pull it up over your chin or hang it loose if you get hot. Silk glove liners under whatever kind of gloves that work best for you. I wear a winter glove not cycling-specific in the winter. A thin hat under your helmet helps keep in heat, you might want one with a cycling brim since you'll probably get more sun there. Something like this.

Arm warmers and knee warmers with a thermal material on the inside are great. Everything else is all about layers. Your regular cycling gear but add a think silk shirt as a base layer. One thing I never could figure out -- my ass always got cold! But, I'd wear long, warmish cycling tights (or maybe they are for running, I forget) over my chamois shorts. I suppose I could've figured out another layer but by the time I got to thinking about it, always seemed like things started warming up.

And lights. Lots of lights. Back lights, front lights, reflectors on your bags, etc.
posted by amanda at 8:09 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Apologies for typos -- that's "thin" silk shirt as a base layer.
posted by amanda at 8:10 PM on September 27, 2012

I find that ears and hands are the first things to get cold as the weather turns chilly, so take care of those first (and gloves and something to cover your ears are cheap by comparison with other outerwear). Also, good warm socks. The rest of your body warms up pretty well and doesn't need nearly as much insulation once you get going.

Take it in stages and keep cycling as long as you feel comfortable. Keeping your extremities covered is the most important thing; if you've done that and you're still cold, you could try a thin balaclava or something like that for your face. Long underwear are pretty good, too, or a nice warm sweater if necessary.

This is my first winter in Denver cycling, too, but I've heard that it doesn't usually get too icy or snowy for long, so it may be easier than winter cycling some other places I've been. Or so I hope!
posted by asperity at 8:11 PM on September 27, 2012

I too live in Colorado and my neighbor won "Bicycle Commuter of the Year" a couple of years ago. He rides every day no matter the weather. I've seem him riding home with several inches of snow on the ground. So, by his standard it's never too cold.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:19 PM on September 27, 2012

With the right mindset, it is never too cold. Seriously. We live in Anchorage and cycle through the winter. I just do it for fun, but my fiance commutes this way. We have studded tires for the mountain bikes (they are a Thing here) which are super-stable; you can take them out on the outdoor ice rinks and still stop if you careful. Snow and ice- which we have on the trails Nov-April, depending) make you a hell of a lot slower, but all that means is it's a better workout. And it's dark a lot, so we got some really great lights. Cold is totally fine if you are dressed right; it's actually worse riding now (40 and raining) than in January (0 degrees, 0% humidity).
posted by charmedimsure at 8:39 PM on September 27, 2012

Colorado is dry compared to the west coast winter, so clothing that keeps you dry isn't such a priority. I've commuted 5 days a week with kids in tow through front range winters. Key thing is reall great gloves and something over your ears. Long underwear makes below 20F much more comfortable, but is unnecessary much above that temp.
posted by u2604ab at 8:47 PM on September 27, 2012

As long as the roads are clear you can cycle! Or have some hefty treads to help you with snow.
I personally rely heavily on wool (nature's performance fabric, as I like to call it).

When I was doing this in Wisconsin I ended up wearing insulated ski gloves for my commute because I couldn't keep my hands warm otherwise. If I wore a helmet I had a thin warm cap that fit underneath it--especially important for ears!

My biggest problem, even in LA winter nights, is cold feet. I had an askme about it that might help you.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:56 PM on September 27, 2012

I live in North Dakota, and have seen cyclists out even in the depths of our winters. I personally will hang it up and go to spin class instead once the snow flies. I am a weenie about cold and don't want to end up slipping on the ice and ending up under someone's tires.

Agree with those that mention the shoe covers, and I've found they work well at keeping out the wind even with drier conditions. They may look dorky, and I resisted for a while, but they work better than putting on two pairs of socks like I tried before.

I usually wear ear bands to keep them warm, and will huddle with my lower face under the collar of my jacket, as I haven't gotten around to getting a face mask.

I've found that more wind-proof items I have in my outer layer, the more comfortable I am. YMMV.
posted by weathergal at 10:18 PM on September 27, 2012

I certainly encourage you to ride through the winter if you're willing. I'll let others provide specific suggestions for clothing.

However let me offer some counter points:
1) all cycling gear is expensive, and the good winter gear that actually works doubly so. i.e. the stuff that is wind/water resistant yet breathable...it costs a lot of money.
2) focusing on one sport year-round can burn you out mentally, as well as result in your fitness gains plateauing. cross-training in the winter with running or nordic skiing is a great way to keep your mind and your body fresh.

But, by all means, give it a shot.
posted by wutangclan at 10:47 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hah, yeah. Hardmen will ride through Denver winters. Go as long as you can! Cycling is nothing if not an endurance sport in multiple dimensions.

Anywhere there's snow you want a long winter bib, layers (under, long-sleeved jersey, jackets), head/ear/balaclava, helmet cover, shoe covers. Long-fingered gloves and knee warmers are the first to arrive in the winter for me. And sleeves, which you should already have. Go to your local bike shop that carries this kind of bike clothing (a lot of shops skimp on clothing stuff) and see what they say.
posted by rhizome at 10:59 PM on September 27, 2012

Best answer: OK, here goes. Cycling in winter is entirely doable, but I like to cycle at pace so get warm quickly.

Feet - smartwool socks. For wet or colder days, get overshoes because wet feet is a real pain and getting shoes/socks dry again can take a while. You will probably have cold feet when you first set out, but it goes away quickly. Overshoes in cold weather keep your feet toasty by being windproof.

Body - the key is layering. Start with a good base layer. As it gets cooler you might find a gilet and arm warmers is the key. You can buy gilets at all price levels, but the more expensive ones don't necessarily work better - they just tend to be lighter. Get a good jacket. Pay the money. Make sure it fits, doesn't flap in the wind, and can seal around your neck and wrists to stop blasts of cold air. This is where I'd spend my time and cash because poor jackets just cook you if you get too warm and you end up then freezing in your own sweat when you take them off.

Hands - get a decent pair of winter gloves. However, the gap between your gloves and your sleeves is important. If not, you just get cold air up your arms. So the fit of your jacket matters. I really rate decent gloves because your hands get a lot of cold air and can get pretty cold. And you need them to work. You can also buy, cheaply, inner gloves that are gossamer thin. I have used them for motorbiking but never needed my pair for cycling.

Legs - as rhizome has recommended, a long winter bib is what you want. I've never really had an issue with cold legs. You can buy additional knee or leg warmers though if you find yourself getting cold. I'd buy them after you've tried cycling in the cold.

Head/neck - I've cycled in below freezing temperatures with just a skullcap and a helmet. A good merino skullcap will go over your ears and keep you nice and toasty while wicking sweat. I also favour a simple snood/neck warmer for really cold days.

So: essentials - winter bib, base layer, winter gloves, jacket, skullcap, smartwool socks; good to haves - overshoes, arm/leg warmers, inner gloves, snood/neck warmer, gilet.

Over and above that - cycling in snowy/icy conditions is dumb if there is going to be road ice or slush about. People do it, but I've seen a lot of people come off their bikes on patches of black ice. Finally -get a good outdoor thermometer - it makes choosing your gear much easier when you get up each morning.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:34 AM on September 28, 2012

A fender will go a long way toward keeping your tush dry and warm, even if the roads are only a little wet.

Only you can decide what your cold weather cutoff is. Mine us about 28. Any lower than that, and I am just not having fun. It took me a few years to accumulate a good stock of clothing parts: base layers (Craft anything, and wool), wool socks, lobster gloves, wool caps that fit under your helmet, booties, bibtights, and a warm jacket with a wind proof outside.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 1:28 AM on September 28, 2012

I find that when cycling in the cold (Chicago winter), the best way to keep my hands and feet warm is by keeping the rest of me slightly warmer than I'd like. It's the only thing that works for me when I'm skiing, so turns out, it's the best thing for cycling too. Goggles help me, too.

I am thinking of getting some handlebar mittens this year, but I haven't yet.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:35 AM on September 28, 2012

I bike to work year-round in Maine. It is seven miles to work each way. The coldest I've ridden in is 10 degrees below zero F.

Everyone has everything well-covered so I'll just add a couple of things:

Bike helmets are designed to draw heat away from your head. I wear a thin hat under my helmet once it gets to about 30, but below 20 I started wearing my ski helmet instead and it was a great improvement (ski helmet also rated for cycling).

Fingers and toes are the toughest for me. I've had the most luck so far with lobster gloves, but I feel they should be working better since they are rated -20. Last year I had a pants breakthrough and couldn't be happier - they are soft, form fitting but not as much as tights (so no worries about getting caught in the chain), and breathe well. I can look up the brand if you like, but they are some sort of nordic ski pants. When it gets below 10 I add an underlayer to that. In general, a lot of clothes designed for cross country skiing work well for cycling.

I have studded tires but that is more a factor of how your roads are maintained vs. temperature.

You're going to have to experiment to find your personal comfort level. For example, for today at 41 degrees I wore helmet (no hat), short-sleeved jersey, light jacket, thin leather gloves, shorts, and regular sneakers. From what I see that is a lot less than other cyclists this time of year. But my commute has very few stops, so I am able to keep a fairly steady pace of 18/20mph and keep the heat generating.
posted by mikepop at 5:56 AM on September 28, 2012

Forgot a link: Comprehensive page about studded tires
posted by mikepop at 5:58 AM on September 28, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Great stuff. I'll be ready.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:58 AM on September 28, 2012

Another thing to look for are "Roubaix" bibs and jerseys. These fit like normal kit, but are made out of slightly warmer materials. They are typically worn during the so-called "spring classic" races, and are great for days that are a bit cooler, but not cold enough for full tights and a separate jacket.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:19 AM on September 28, 2012

How far will you be biking? That's kind of key.

I grew up just outside Chicago and biked everywhere. I live in Portland, OR now and bike everywhere.

In Chicago, my daily rides were never more than 4 miles. In the coldest weather I wore a down parka, jeans, winter boots, mittens, balaclava, and ski goggles. The ski goggles were because it only takes one time for your eyeballs to freeze open before you realize the necessity of eye protection. Once I started getting hot, I'd just open the front of the parka.

In Portland, my daily rides are usually 8-24 miles. In the winter months I always carry ear warmers, gloves, rain chaps, and a rain jacket in my panniers. I only wear the rain jacket in the case of extreme downpours, since even in the regular Portland drizzle a light hoodie is usually enough. Same for the rain chaps. But when the temperature is in the 30s I'll wear the ear warmers and the gloves, although I'm usually pushing the ear warmers off 10 minutes into every ride.

For my recreational rides, even on the coldest days, I wear bib shorts and a short-sleeved jersey, full gloves, and ear warmers.

Given that I see people around here bike commuting in thick jackets, gloves, and hats when it's in the 50s in the morning, people clearly have different tolerances for temperature. I'd much rather be a little cold at the beginning of my ride than be incredibly sweaty the rest of the ride.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:56 AM on September 28, 2012

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