An Expert Guide to Winter Cycling Gear: Part I
Want to keep biking through the winter? Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine shares how to make the most of your winter cycling and how to stay warm while doing so!
The mercury is dropping, the weather clouds are gray and full of snow, and you want to ride. You have three options — buy a ticket to Hawaii, ride the trainer, or brave the cold. Okay, so the answer is to buy a ticket to Hawaii, but for most of us, we can't leave home so suddenly and we still want to go outside and enjoy the outdoors. Cycling in the winter and fall can either be one of the most fun experiences or a complete nightmare. This article will help you avoid the latter. I will break the winter into three sections and tell you what apparel and gear you’ll need for each section.
- Early Spring and Fall: The weather is a little chilly, around 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and rainy but it’s nothing too serious. You will only need a few articles of clothing to keep riding.
- Mid-Fall and Early Winter: The temperature is between 39 and 50 degrees and the weather is getting more serious now. You will have to strategically plan how to train, routes, clothing, bike choices, and equipment. You will also have inclement weather such as snow and freezing rain to deal with.
- Deep Winter: The temperature is 39 degrees to freezing. Riding in the deep winter is for the dedicated and hardened, true cyclists. This section is for the cyclist who refuses to ride on the trainer and will deal with deep snow, ice, and bitter conditions.
Early Spring and Fall
Early spring and fall are some of the best times for riding. It is not too cold and not too hot. When it is hot outside (above 80 degrees), your heart rate is elevated and your perceived exertion is higher. If you are climbing a mountain pass or something equally challenging, your effort will seem easier when it is cooler out because your body is creating a lot of heat and the weather is cooling you down.
I generally like to ride when it is between 50 to 70 degrees outside. It feels amazing! The best riding happens when you can climb a shady mountain pass, around 2,000 meters high, to cooler temperatures and then descend to warmer temperatures in the valley.
Normally, you want to dress ten degrees warmer when you’re cycling than you would if you were walking around because you will be generating a lot of heat. If you wear too many layers while climbing, for example, you will sweat more than normal and you’ll be freezing while descending because you are not putting any effort in and are facing a lot of wind.
When it’s above 60 degrees, I normally carry a cycling gilet or a wind vest for my descent. Wind vests are convenient because many of them are designed to roll up and fit into your pack pocket. When it gets colder, you will appreciate having more space in your pockets — you only have three pockets and they have to carry your warmers, food, phone, wallet, tube, and anything else. Wind vests generally have no insulation; they just have a windproof and/or waterproof layer to keep your core warm when you are descending a mountain at 30 miles per hour or cruising on the bike trail on a windy day.
Also, this may be a faux-pas for most cyclists, but I always wear high-visibility (high-vis) colors in the spring, fall, and winter. Cyclists are harder to see in the colder, gloomier months and many motorists are not looking for cyclists on the roads because they think of cycling as a summer sport. High-vis gilets are designed to be seen more than a mile away — I would rather be seen than not seen! There is a reason road construction workers wear high-vis clothing.
When it’s in the 50- to 60-degree range, I carry arm warmers, leg/knee warmers, and light gloves. Arm, leg, and knee warmers are lyric fleeced tubes so you can put them on when it is cold and take them off when it gets warm. This is perfect for situations when you are riding in the morning and it is 50 degrees for the first hour, and then it goes up to 60 degrees by midday — with these, you are not stuck being overdressed or underdressed!
For cool, rainy days in the early fall, I wear booties. They slip over your shoes to keep your feet from getting wet and provide warmth. They can also keep your summer shoes clean in a downpour.
To summarize, you can wear your summer kit with warmers and a gilet and you will be fine. I also sometimes wear a cycling cap to keep the cold winds off my head. The caps have bills to help keep the rain out of your eyes, and they’re stylish when you’re walking around the coffee shop!
During the early spring and fall, I just use my summer setup, so I don't change my bike.
Mid-Fall and Early Winter
Now we are getting into winter, and this is when I generally change my riding. Cycling is very psychological and you can psych yourself out in the cold. For example, if it is super cold and you know you have 50 miles to ride and the sun is going down soon, it’s easy to feel discouraged. So, I plan my rides to be shorter but more difficult. I like hitting hills closer to home, knowing that if heaven opens up, I am close to home or a coffee shop.
Moreover, you will generally have less light, decreased visibility, and fewer hours of sun by this time of year, so it’s best to plan your routes to be within 20 (or less) miles from home. Also, having pit stops at coffee shops is very nice.
Not to mention that misery loves company! When it is cold outside, riding in a group is very helpful. You have to be mentally tough to slug out a 60-mile ride in the cold alone, so it is much easier and faster to freeze with others — plus, you get the added benefit of drafting with your friends.
When the weather is between 39 and 50 degrees, you have to plan your outfits beforehand to keep warm. For your bottom half, you may want to try thick fleece leg and arm warmers with winter cycling shorts. Winter cycling shorts are just summer shorts with fleece.
When it is below 50 degrees and you are riding with summer shorts and leg warmers, you will get the weird feeling of your lower legs being warm and toasty while your upper legs and your crotch are frozen. To avoid this, you can either wear bib tights or thermal bib shorts. Thermal bib shorts are best for climates where the temperature rarely goes below freezing but it still gets cold, like in southern California. Shorts would be more useful there than somewhere like West Virginia or the Northeast where there are deep winters. For those regions, bib tights are a great choice. They come up higher, give you extra windproofing around the stomach, and keep the cold winds from freezing your legs.
Also, there are bib knickers, which are three-quarter-length bibs that come up the calf. These are great for mid-fall and can be a cheaper alternative to the thermal bib short. The only problem is that the third of your calf that isn't covered is going to be cold. You can wear higher socks, but that can be seen as a faux-pas.
I generally wear padded bib tights, but there are also bib tights without a pad. They are cheaper and you can put them over your favorite summer shorts. However, I opt out of non-padded bib tight because I don't want any extra chafing between my shorts and the tights.
Except for having cold hands, there is nothing worse than having cold feet. I generally switch to wearing merino wool socks in the fall and winter seasons. Merino wool socks are thick and they wick away sweat so your feet can stay dry.
During this period I use a thick overshoe or bootie. I generally like the three-millimeter neoprene booties because they keep your feet from getting wet and give you extra warmth. The human eye sees movement before anything else, so I generally buy high-vis booties. Your high-vis feet spinning at 80 revolutions per minute (RPMs) will catch the attention of distracted drivers. If you want to wear all black, that is fine, but at least wear high-vis colors on your feet. Some booties have built-in lights on the heel for added visibility.
I also like using mountain bike shoes for winter riding. Compared to clipless road shoes, mountain bike and gravel shoes are easier to walk in, since they have a larger rubber tread on the bottom. Both the cleats and the shoes are better at shedding mud, snow, and dirt, which makes them easier to clip in.
Keeping your core warm is one of the hardest but most important parts of cycling. If you wear too much clothing, you are burning up and then cold on the descent. If you wear too little, then you are freezing to death. The secret is to layer with full-zip jerseys and jackets so that you can take them off or unzip them on hard efforts, then zip them back up during easy efforts or descents.
In the mid-fall and early winter, I ride with a base layer. I never ride with a base layer in the summer, but I always ride with one in the winter. Base layers are worn next to the skin and go under your bib straps. They wick away sweat from your skin and keep you warm. The mesh material keeps you warm and dry, even when you stop. I used to wear a thermal jersey, but I felt a big difference when I put a base layer on. Any thermal base layer is good enough for this period.
On top of my base layer, I wear a thermal fleece jersey. The jersey has a full-length zipper, but it is generally not windproof. I like buying a few of these so that I can layer them under a coat. If you know that the temperature is going to warm up during your ride, you can wear the thermal jersey with a gilet for wind protection, then take the gilet off later in the ride.
If the temperature is in the 40s and I know that I won't be taking anything off, I wear a softshell jacket. These are nice jackets that have windproofing and they can keep you warm until the temperatures hit the 30s, generally. They can keep the rain off a little bit if you are caught in a storm on your commute home, but they are not completely waterproof.
I also have a full-length rain jacket for when it rains. These jackets generally have no insulation, but many of them have a hydrophobic layer that keeps the rain off. It is a good investment if you live in a rainy area like the Pacific Northwest.
Some brands have one-piece speed suits. Castelli pioneered the speed suit for the road in the early 2000s. It took a one-piece time trial suit, stuck pockets on the back, and changed the fit to be looser for all-day comfort. Speed suits are a great advantage when you think the majority of wind resistance comes from you as the rider and not your frame.
I generally only wear speed suits in the summer because of their comfort and aerodynamic efficiency. With a speed suit, you don't have a waistband or straps over your shoulders. They also prevent droopy jerseys when your pockets are loaded with supplies. You can feel the extra speed when you are riding over 20 miles per hour; nothing is flapping in the wind.
For the colder seasons, Castelli and other brands designed two thermal speed suits — one for cyclocross racing and another for winter riding. I wore the cyclocross suit, which had shorts for the bottoms and full-length sleeves with plenty of mesh to allow for breathing out the back of the armpits. The only problem with it was that it did not have pockets. The thermal winter version has pockets and is a jacket and bib short sewn together. This can be a great lightweight, one-piece option if you don't want a dresser full of winter cycling gear. If you are just going to ride occasionally in the winter and want something simple, I would go with a speed suit.
Cold hands are the hardest body part to heat when cycling. I have always had problems with cold hands; no matter what I did, my hands were freezing. Your hands are in the wind and they are not moving, so they can easily get cold. Hands are also what control your bike, so if you lose control of your hands, you can fall. This happened to Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas at the Tour de Suisse the other year, so it is vital to keep your hands warm.
In the early winter, I wear a liner and layer cycling gloves on top of each other. Brands make light fleece gloves and thicker gloves, but these simply don’t work for me. No matter how many times I layered liners and gloves, my hands would get cold. I even tried ski gloves and they did not work. On top of that, you lose the feeling of the bike when you add gloves, making it hard to control the bike.
The only solution for me was heated cycling gloves; nothing else worked. The gloves have a battery and heating element inside with three modes. The heating element was just enough to keep the wind off my fingers and allow them to thaw, and it was good enough for a three- to five-hour ride. I will not go back to non-heated gloves!
Depending on the length of the ride, you will need to consider putting on something to keep your head and face warm. I love growing my beard out to keep the weather off my face. Beards are amazing and they act like a scarf around your face. They are waterproof, windproof, and FREE.
If you can't grow a big, burly beard, try using a face mask. Since the pandemic began, you see a lot of people wearing cloth face masks, but we used them in cycling before the pandemic began! When you are making an effort, you can pull down the mask so you can breathe more easily and then pull it up when you are descending.
Also, I like wearing either an aerodynamic helmet or a helmet cover. I like aerodynamic helmets because they generally have fewer vents, or they allow you to close the vents for warmth and speed. If you don't want to buy another helmet, you can get a helmet cover, which is like a shower cap that goes around the helmet. They are not as fashionable these days, but if you live in a place where it rains a lot, it can be useful.
As I mentioned in the previous section, thermal cycling caps are great because they are designed to fit under a helmet without bunching up. Some have fleece on the sides and windproofing on the front, and they also have flaps to cover your ears to keep them warm and toasty.
In the mid-fall and early winter, you will want to either make changes to your road bike or use a winter bike. If you are planning to ride occasionally, you can use your summer bike, but if you are going to be logging more miles and want to save your “nice” bike, I would get a winter or “B bike.” We’ll talk more about that later in this article. If you want to keep riding your summer bike during this time, you should at least upgrade the tires and add lights. During the summer, the roads are mostly clean and there is not as much sand or cinders on the road, so most summer tires have 200-gram lightweight casings and super supple, grippy rubber for speed and handling in dry conditions. They are great for fast summer riding and racing, but they wear out quickly.
However, during the winter, you are riding base miles and your emphasis is not on speed as much as it is on flat protection and longevity. Trust me, changing a tire when it is 39 degrees out and the sun is going down is NOT fun! So, I generally replace my summer tires with winter tires. I use Continental GatorSkins or Vittoria Endurance Pros tires. They have two layers of Kevlar protection and a lower TPI — threads per inch — to increase longevity. Also, the tires provide better grip in wet conditions.
Flat protection is more important during the winter because the roads are wet, and debris will stick to your tire and work its way into the rubber to give you a flat. If you do get a flat, having a mini-pump is a great option. You’ll want a mini-pump that requires fewer strokes to fill up the tire. The Blackburn Mammoth 2 Stage mini-pump will get you up and going in less time.
Endurance tires last longer because the rubber is harder; you can easily get 5,000 miles or more out of these tires without changing them, whereas summer tires need to be changed sooner. Since the rear tire wears faster than the front tire, I buy a super endurance, long-lasting tire for the rear and a less aggressive endurance tire, like the Continental Four Seasons, for the front. I also buy a wider tire especially for the rear for more traction and longevity. With the use of disc brake technology, most modern road bikes can fit 28-millimeter tires. You should check your manufacturer's website to see the recommended max. To take off the tires from the wheel, I like Pedro’s __levers__ because they are strong and lasting (winter tires can be harder to mount).
In addition, you can try tubeless road tires, which were borrowed from the mountain-biking community. As the name states, the tire is attached to the wheel without a tube inside and sealant is used to seal small holes in the tire. With this setup, you can run much lower tire pressures for more traction in snow and gravel. Tubeless technology is becoming more accepted in the road-cycling scene since it has lower rolling resistance than a clincher or tubular tire. Maxxis, famous for their mountain bike tires, makes a tubeless gravel tire that would be great for snow and muddy commuting.
You lose daylight in the winter and if you are commuting, you might have to travel in low-light situations, so you should get good quality lights. Front lights are divided into two categories: visibility for others and your ability to see. In practice, this means that you’ll want to get a less expensive light that is purely meant for other traffic to see you, and a light for you to see better at night.
In cycling, especially in the city, you want to "Christmas Tree" it up in the winter. I ride with fork lights, multiple rear lights, and lights in the spokes of my wheels. People are not looking for you in the winter, so you want to catch a driver’s attention as soon as possible. If a car is traveling at 35 miles per hour, it will cover a football field in a few seconds — the faster they can see you, the better.
Lights less than 200 lumens are mainly meant for cars to see you. For example, with an 80-lumen rear light, you can be seen from around two miles away. I have these lights on flash; I don't like strobe lights because I don't want to disturb drivers, but I still want them to be visible. The human eye sees movement before anything else, so a flash will catch someone's attention. Serfas makes the Vulcan 350 tail light, which is 350 lumens with multiple flashing modes for visibility.
I use a 500-lumen light to see in the dead of night. I used to commute on country roads with no lights in the pitch-black dark, which I don’t recommend! Another great light is the Light and Motion 700, which has 700 lumens and multiple flashing modes. These lights are rechargeable, so you can charge them when you get to work. If you are mountain biking, you should use lights with 1,000 or more lumens so that you can see logs, rocks, and other details in the trail more clearly.
I also like to use fork lights, which are lights that attach to the fork blades for slide visibility. Blackburn has 80-lumen fork lights that I recommend. One of the most common accidents between cyclists and motorists are slide collisions, where the motorist doesn't see the cyclist. Thus, having lights on the slides helps you be seen.
Depending on your budget and how much volume you are going to ride in the winter, you might want to get a winter bike or “B bike.” The B bike is either an old summer bike or a cyclocross/gravel bike that you ride in the winter months. The Scott Speedster Gravel bike is a great example.
During the winter, the roads are covered with sand, cinders, and other gritty substances — this is very bad for your components. Grit gets into the gears, chain, brakes, and rims, wearing them out. If you have an expensive $5,000 bike, you will be wearing the components out faster in the winter, and they can be hundreds of dollars to replace. This is why many riders use a B bike to save their nice bike for the summer months. Many riders will use their previous bike as their B bike, so if you recently bought a new bike, you can use the old one as your B bike!
To convert a race/summer bike into a B bike, you will just need to change and add a few components. In the summer, your focus is speed, aerodynamics, and lightness. In the winter months, you are riding for fun and base miles — long miles spent in the early season to increase endurance and lose a few kilos.
Therefore, the emphasis on your B bike should be durability and comfort over speed and weight. The one number component to change is the tires. As we covered previously, you will want wider, heavier Kevlar tires or tubeless road tires. You may also want to add fenders in the front and rear because they protect both you and your bike components from getting dirty. I really like Ground Keeper Fenders because they mount on the saddle, are lightweight, and are easy to install.
Cyclists should also consider using a wet lube in the winter on their chains. Wet lube is much better in the winter because the lube is thicker, it will not wash away as fast as a dry lube, and it will keep your chain from rusting as quickly.
Using an old race bike as a B bike can be a great idea, but having a dedicated winter bike is best. Most race bikes, for example, do not allow for wider tires or fenders to be mounted on the frame. However, you are putting in a lot of miles, these are a must-have.
I like riding a gravel bike with Shimano 105 or GRX 600 components. GRX components are gravel-specific and designed to take a beating. They are relatively light and are cheaper to replace than a bike with Ultegra or Dura-Ace components. Many gravel bikes are also “1x,” which means you have one chainring in the front with a wide-ranging 10 to 51T, 12-speed cassette in the rear.
The larger the sprockets are in the back, the easier it is to spin up the climb. Larger sprockets in the back decrease the rollout, or how many times the wheel turns when you pedal. The size of the sprockets is measured by the number of teeth on both the front and rear sprockets. Road cassettes normally have a 28 or 32T on the back and gravel 1x cassettes have a 51T on the back, so you can have a much lower gear to cycle up steep climbs.
The geometry of a gravel bike is designed for slower riding conditions, so it is more stable. The bikes have a more slack head angle, giving you more stability in slower conditions and loose payment or snow. In addition, some gravel bikes have wider handlebars with flared drops that make the bike easier to control. Also, many gravel bikes are designed for adventure touring, so they have lots of eyelets for mounts, fenders, racks, and panniers.
In addition to having a drop-bar bike as a winter bike, you can ride a hybrid dual sport. A hybrid bike is a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. The hybrid brings the speed of a fast road bike with the comfort and upright position of a mountain bike.
Hybrid dual sports are great because they are hybrids with a suspension fork and around 63 millimeters of travel for gravel trails, but the fork can be locked out on the pavement when you don't need suspension. Great examples are the Cannondale CX and the Scott Sub Cross Lady; these bikes have a front suspension to absorb road buzz, the vibrations you get from riding along a less than perfectly smooth road, and you can attach a studded tire for more traction in the snow and ice.
Many gravel bikes can use both 700c and 650b wheels. Most 700c wheels can take a 40-millimeter tire and the 650b wheels can fit nearly a 50-millimeter tire. You can lower the tire pressure in really extreme conditions to gain more traction. You can also mount spiked tires to your bike for traction in the snow.
I also like riding with a more comfortable saddle in the winter. If you take time off from cycling for a month or two during the winter, your butt will not be used to sitting on a hard saddle! I usually ride with a Brooks saddle or something more endurance-focused.
Pro tip: The winter is the best time to get your main bike cleaned and upgraded by your local bike shop. The shops are not as busy this time of year, so you have time for a full-service fix-up to clean the bike, replace cables, housing, and chains, and clean all the grit out of the bike.
To Be Continued...
For my gear suggestions for the deep winter, check out part two of this article!
Reach out to a Cycling Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations so you can ride comfy all winter! Good luck out there!