Winter presents challenges to cyclists that CrossFitters will never have to deal with. There is never rain inside The Box, making it possible to flip the same tire over and over, all year long, with no need for all-weather tread or puncture protection during the wet months. Plus, the same pair of gloves will do for any condition encountered in The Box; there’s no reason to own Summer gloves, Fall/Spring gloves, Winter gloves, rain gloves, and maybe even snow mitts.
You and I don’t live inside a Box, however, and have to use every means at our disposal to maintain motivation and fitness when the weather turns cold and wet. When the weather is foul enough to chase even the bravest souls inside, we do have the option of indoor trainer workouts, but still, nothing beats riding en plain air, feeling the (biting) wind, enjoying the (heavily cloud-filtered) sunshine, and hearing the sound of tires (splashing) across the pavement. Even though CrossFit has a huge following of rabid exercisers, cycling has centuries of evolution, leading to the vast array of knowledge and products available to keep you riding, out of doors, throughout the coldest months of the year.
As this winter is forecasted to provide plentiful amounts of precipitation, along with cold temps in the appropriate parts of the country, we present part two of our Winter Survival Guide: Apparel. In order to beat back the wet roads and frigid air of Winter, proper selection of armor, both for yourself and your bike, is imperative. Hopefully this edition of the Guide helps empower you to get your miles in and resist the disease of corporal softening and swelling so prevalent during the winter season.
With the proper gear, not only will you be riding comfortably all winter long, you’ll actually be looking forward to the opportunity to ride on the coldest days of the year.
Building a winter cycling kit with several layers will keep you on the road (or dirt if your trails can handle the wet) even when conditions are at their worst. As the air gets colder, just add an appropriate layer. You may or may not be hardcore enough to need an insulated, waterproof, fleeced jacket, but if you have a couple base layers, a thermal jersey, and maybe a vest (all of which will get plenty of use), then a light weight rain shell will top that off nicely, keeping you dry without costing much.
Stay warmer by wearing fitted apparel, as looser cut garments move around more, letting warm air escape and cold air to replace it.
Base layers are the foundation upon which your insulative shell is built (there are warm weather base layers also, intended to enhance ventilation and sweat evaporation, but for our purposes any references made to “base layers” indicate the cold-weather variety). A good base layer garment has a high warmth to weight ratio, keeping you toasty without introducing much bulk, weight, or restriction. Fitting snugly and worn against the body, cold-weather base layers are made from fabrics that are designed to trap heat and wick moisture off the skin. This is accomplished through fabric construction, type of fabric used, and coverage area of the garment. Base layers add temperature range to any apparel piece, though exactly how much temperature range is added depends on the base layer’s thickness and coverage.
Select your base layers according to the weather you’ll encounter on a ride. Sleeveless base layers are versatile and quite effective when paired with arm warmers. This combo provides crucial core warmth but leaves open the possibility for ventilation by removing the warmers. If it’s cold enough to wear a long sleeve jersey for an entire ride, then a long sleeve base layer will be much more convenient than a sleeveless layer plus arm warmers. If you need extra warmth without much more bulk, try combining a tank top-style over a long sleeve base layer.
Winter jerseys run the range from simply thicker versions of your favorite summer jersey, to essentially light weight jackets: fleece-lined, ultra-stretchy, windproof, and waterproof. What you will need depends on the conditions you ride in. If 50-degrees F is as cold as you’ll ever see, then a long sleeve base layer coupled with an insulated jersey is all you’ll ever need. As temperatures drop and if you’re feeling the need to ride, add another base layer and a vest. If you ride in very cold conditions regularly, then a well-insulated, windproof jersey with all the bells and whistles is worth it. This will save you time compared to layering up with multiple base layers, lighter jerseys, and a wind shell. Plus, fewer layers is less restrictive.
When selecting winter jerseys, look for a high collar, full-length zipper, and hems with elastic or grippers to keep cold air out.
For cold-weather riding, bibs or tights are essential. If you go with tights that don’t have a pad or chamois, always wear them over your normal bibs. However, a few manufacturers offer tights that feature a chamois built-in and if this is the case, there’s no need to double up with your regular bib shorts as well. The extra coverage of bibs prevents exposed skin, and insulated shorts just don’t exist. While many cyclists have never used winter-specific bibs, (a good pair of leg warmers can stretch the usability of regular bibs) they are missing out on a lot of early morning—or mid-day, depending on where you live—ride opportunities. Even though there’s just a little bit of uninsulated area with a leg warmer/regular bib combo, that area is not one to be neglected on a cold morning, especially with the wind chill factor of a descent figured in.
Winter bibs/tights feature thicker fabric, brushed or fleeced interiors, and legs that extend to either below the knee or all the way to the ankle. Besides the above-mentioned benefits of full-coverage insulation, including wind-blocking, you’ll never have to worry about slipping warmers, or keeping track of extra kit after rides. While full- and knicker-length bibs may seem like a luxury, once you experience the ease and joy of a chill-free lower body, even on frigid mornings, it is a purchase you will never regret.
Like jerseys, jackets, vests, and shells range from super-light and packable, to insulated and waterproof/breathable. With enough layering, if you don’t mind the added bulkiness you can get away with a windproof vest and long sleeve rain shell. However, if you find yourself unable to ever pass up a ride, even when the forecast calls for rain and cold, then investing in an insulated, waterproof/breathable jacket is worth it. Suiting up with several layers day after day will eventually lessen your enthusiasm for the ride, not to mention the laundry it creates! The convenience and comfort of an “all-in-one” jacket is a big positive. Even though they may cost a bit more, anything that will help motivate you to ride in inhospitable conditions is worth it.
Even with one of those high-end jackets in your kit, there will be days when the humble rain cape will be the best bet, thanks to its supreme waterproofing (at the expense of breathability) and ability to pack down into a jersey pocket. At the very least, every cyclist should have a windproof vest and a rain shell. These are light enough to be used all year round when needed, and can top off a pile of layers for the colder rides on your schedule. Convertible jackets are very convenient, as you can start off with a jacket, then zip off the sleeves and stash them in an integrated storage pocket once you’re warmed up.
Winter accessories are absolutely critical to your ability to enjoy riding in cold weather. Besides the ubiquitous arm, knee, and leg warmers, shoe covers, socks, headbands, skull caps, and insulated gloves must be part of your kit as well.
Every cold-weather cyclist will need a full complement of warmers. Fleece-lined knee and arm warmers are preferred, and if it’s cold enough to wear leg warmers, they had better be fleece-lined as well. Warmers are worn closest to the skin, with jersey sleeves or leg hems going over them.
Chilly fingers will make shifting and braking actions less fluid, reducing your reaction time in pivotal situations. And, as the saying goes, hands (and feet) are the thermostats of the body: keep them warm and you’ll stay warm. With little muscle or insulation, hands and feet lose heat very quickly and have a hard time staying warm when forced to battle with cold ambient temps and colder wind chill. Regular, uninsulated cycling gloves, even long finger gloves, are useless in winter. You might as well dip your digits in cold water before you head out if you don’t have some insulated, and preferably windproof, protection on your hands. Most situations (and people) will be adequately served with beefed up, windproof, full finger gloves, but for extreme conditions, mittens and waterproofing are necessary.
Frozen toes will also make any ride miserable, so don’t forget to keep your tarsals wrapped up and cozy. The first line of defense is a good wool sock, but care needs to be taken in finding the correct thickness. Too thick and your toes will get cramped, reducing circulation and inhibiting warmth. Layering with an appropriate wool sock and some form of shoe cover, will keep your feet warm and comfortable. Shoe covers stretch over either the front half of the foot (called toe covers), or the entire shoe and ankle, like a sock. Full shoe covers are usually reserved for rainy or very cold conditions, but thin versions are seen on the feet of time trialists to reduce aerodynamic drag. Usually, the convenience of a thicker sock/toe cover combo gives enough warmth to forgo the use of a full shoe cover.
Unfortunately, that well-ventilated helmet that keeps you cool during the summer months only adds to your brain freeze when the temperature drops. Besides the constant flow of heat-robbing cold air across your head, your ears are hung out to freeze in the breeze with no insulation to protect them. For these reasons, headbands and skull caps are essential to your winter kit, and both will find their way under your helmet eventually.
A headband’s prime objective is to keep your ears warm, but also blocks wind from hitting your forehead, which helps keep your whole head warm. Many cyclists, especially those with thick manes, will be fine with a lined or windproof headband all winter long. If you lose heat easily, ride in very cold conditions, or have a very well-ventilated helmet, a skull cap is the way to go. Skull caps provide coverage from your crown to your earlobes, and keep you warm and toasting matter what the conditions are.
When winter tries to curl its icy fingers around your body, respond with a thorough and well-planned apparel system. From head to toes, the details will make the difference. Don’t miss out on the thing we all live for—the ride. Wrap up and get out there, enjoying the well-earned sense of accomplishment for the rest of the day, week and winter.