Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cold Weather Cycling

In the past couple of years I have become a more-or-less year-round cyclist. It wasn't always so. When I first started commuting to work by bicycle on a regular basis, I wasn't sure how long into the winter I'd be able to go. People would ask me "How long are you going to keep this up?" -- and at least some of them probably didn't intend their question to imply that I was going through some kind of awkward or rebellious phase that they were hoping I'd "outgrow." And I didn't really know the answer. I didn't know what my own limits were.

At first, I thought I'd be able to ride until maybe November. Before I knew it, it was December and I was still riding. Then January. I'd think maybe I would ride until the temperatures fell into the 30s -- maybe 35 at the lowest -- next thing I knew it was 30 degrees and I was out on my bike. Every time I'd contemplate a certain limit, before I knew it, I'd gone past it -- often without even realizing it until afterwards. Eventually I did find my limit: 25 degrees F. Below that, I just couldn't keep my fingers and toes warm, even with the thickest gloves with liners, and with the best thermal socks and neoprene "booties" over my shoes plus an extra covering over my toe clips. I know there are products, like battery powered toe warmers, etc. that might let me ride when it's even colder -- but I don't want to go that route. I've decided that there IS such a thing as "too cold to ride," and for me that's below 25 degrees. I don't feel too bad about that.

Riding in the winter can be great -- but having the right clothing is very important. As much of a Retrogrouch as I am, and as much as I love classic wool jerseys, the fact is that I happily embrace modern "technical" clothing materials when temperatures get into the 30s or lower.

Allow me to share some of the clothing I've been using for my cold-weather commuting. You'll probably notice that most of it comes from Pearl Izumi. That's partly because my favorite local bike shop (CC) mostly carries PI clothing and I like to support them whenever I can (the bike shop, that is), but also my experience with PI's clothing has been very good. I actually wrote some full-length reviews of a couple of these products for the bike shop's blog, and I'll include a link in those instances.

Pearl Izumi AmFib Tights: When temperatures dipped down to the the freezing mark, I'd find myself doubling up on tights, which isn't very comfortable and can be pretty restricting of movement. The AmFib tights are as warm as doubled-up tights -- without doubling up. They have a thick, fleecy interior which makes them very warm -- plus they have a wind-stopping material completely covering the front half of the tights. They are also cut in such a way as to fit well on the bike. There are a couple of different versions of the tights -- with or without a chamois; with a drawstring waist, or in a bib-design. I use the drawstring waist without the chamois, and I wear them over a pair of cycling shorts. I typically wear these for temperatures between 25 - 35 degrees. (full review at CC blog)

Pearl Izumi Select Thermal Jersey: I love these. Full zip front. High collar. Soft, fleecy interior. Good cut for cycling. The fit works well for me -- PI calls it "semi-form fitting," which fits fairly close to the body but not "too" close. I can wear it over a base layer, but it also fits easily under a cycling jacket. I like the design of the sleeves and cuffs in that the cuffs are cut a little longer on the front/top of the wrist, slightly shorter underneath, so they cover the wrists well when on the bike without the use of elastic. They come in some high-vis colors (which I like for dark winter mornings), but they are also available in "normal" colors like red and blue. Overall, it's a very versatile jersey -- wear it alone, or combine it with other pieces as conditions demand. (full review at CC blog)

Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier Convertible Jacket: This is another versatile piece of clothing. It is a very light, packable shell that is nice to have during those changeable months -- late fall, early spring -- where temperatures may change dramatically through the day -- but I use it for all but the coldest winter rides. It fits close enough to the body that it doesn't flap much in the wind, and it also fits over layers well. When paired with the thermal jersey mentioned above and maybe a base layer, it works for me down to the mid 30s. Later in the day, if temperatures warm up, I can zip off the sleeves (they'll pack into a pocket easily) and it becomes a vest. The barrier fabric is listed by PI as water resistant but not water proof. My experience tells me that is pretty accurate. I've been caught in light sprinkles without trouble. But if the rain really starts to fall, it is no substitute for dedicated rain wear. (full review)

Pearl Izumi Elite Softshell Jacket: This is the jacket I go to when temperatures drop to freezing or below. The Elite Softshell is essentially like the jacket version of the AmFib tights -- surprisingly warm for its lightness and lack of bulk. It is insulated with a soft fleecy material on the inside with wind-blocking material over the front of the jacket and front half of the sleeves. In terms of style and fit, it looks almost more like a jersey than a jacket -- it has a very sporty look to it. I find that it fits pretty close to the body, but I have no trouble getting it over the thermal jersey with a base layer (I'm a pretty slim guy -- I don't know if the fit would be as good for a guy with more around the middle). It has a good cut for cycling with sleeves that are plenty long, and the design of the sleeve cuffs is similar to the cuffs on the jersey mentioned above -- no elastic. Some might want to have some kind of elastic cuff to keep out the cold, but I have not found it to be a problem -- and when I think of how many jackets I've had where the elastic in the cuffs was the first thing to go, I'm happy enough not to have it. For convenience there is a zippered pocket in the chest, plus another zippered pocket in the back. One thing I like about the jacket is the color. On those dark morning rides, I want to be visible, but so many "sporting" cycling jackets (as opposed to those designed specifically for the commuting crowd) always seem to be black. The PI Softshell is available in a bunch of different colors, including a high-vis yellow. Mine is a very cool-looking orange (nicely visible -- but not like a traffic-cone). There are also plenty of little reflective details. Worn over a jersey and base layer, I wear this right down to 25 degrees.

Under Armour ColdGear Compression Mock Neck: These are not a cycling-specific item, and are available at most sporting goods stores as well as a lot of regular department stores. The ColdGear Mock Neck makes a good base layer for those extra cold mornings. Essentially these have smooth lycra outer surface, with a nice soft brushed fleece inside layer. There are different fits available from UA, including "Fitted" but for cycling I like the "Compression" which fits closely in the same way that good lycra cycling shorts do -- like a second skin. For that reason, it adds a lot of warmth, plus good wicking, while fitting under even a snug jersey really well. Plus, with that smooth outer surface, any jersey will slip right over it easily. The sleeves are plenty long enough for cycling, and there is a band of silicone-type of elastic at the waist so it doesn't ride up while in the cycling position. Not made for cycling, but works well for riding regardless.

Pearl Izumi AmFib Neoprene Shoe Covers: There are a lot of different types and brands of shoe covers available, and I've used a few of them. But these ones from PI seem to be holding up well and are working about the best for me. With a full-length zipper up the entire back and with a fairly generous cut and shape, these fit over most of the cycling shoes I have, including my traditional-styled touring shoes (which have some fairly thick soles). There is also a MTB version that should fit over shoes with big knobby soles. These have 3mm neoprene for warmth, plus an insulated (not neoprene) ankle. They come up high enough to cover my ankles well and minimize exposure. There are also holes in the sole to accommodate pedal cleats. With well-insulated wool socks inside my shoes, and with these shoe covers on the outside, I manage to keep my feet warm down to around 30 degrees.

Kucharik Toe Warmers/Toe-clip Covers: I still use traditional toe-clip and strap pedals. Besides the fact that I simply like traditional pedals, when the weather gets really cold, I've found another advantage to using them. After one has already put on the warmest socks they can fit inside their shoes, and putting insulating booties on over their shoes, what else can be done to keep toes warm when it gets down below freezing? With traditional pedals, I've discovered that I can add yet one more layer over my toes by using these toe-clip covers from Kucharik. They are not exactly insulated, but they are a thick, windproof nylon material that fits over the front of the pedals -- over the toe clips, and attaching with velcro straps -- adding just a bit more warmth for those vulnerable extremities. Available in only one size, they are large enough to fit even over large shoes and clips. Prior to finding these easy-on/easy-off covers, I used to make something similar for myself using plastic bags and duct tape. These work as well, but look much better, and can be easily removed when not needed. Combined with the booties shown above, I can keep riding down to my 25 degree limit. Available direct from Kucharik.

Giro "Proof" Winter Gloves (with liners): Giro says their Proof winter gloves are good for "near-freezing" rides, but I've found them to work pretty well even a little below freezing. These are a 2-glove set -- that is, there is a thin liner glove, with a thicker thinsulate-insulated weather-proof glove to go over them. Mine are actually slightly different than the ones that are available now (shown right), as they've been re-designed a little since I purchased mine. But on the whole, they don't seem that different, and the overall specs seem to be about the same. Giro claims the newer version is even more waterproof than the previous version. One thing I like about the 2-glove concept is that if I need to get into my saddlebags to find something, or get something out of my pockets, I can remove the outer glove (for a bit more dexterity), but keep the inner glove on so my hands still stay warm. These have large cuffs that are nice in that they'll cover jacket cuffs easily. Something worth noting is that the Giro gloves seem to fit much smaller than their listed size -- so I recommend buying them in person from your local bike shop so you can try them on. For instance, I normally wear medium gloves, but in the Giros, I ended up with XL. Go figure.

Pearl Izumi PRO Softshell Lobster Gloves: The Giro gloves listed above are good down to around 30 degrees. When it gets colder than that, I find that by the time I get to work (about 50 minutes typically) my fingers start getting a bit numb. My friends at the bike shop suggested that I try "lobster" gloves. In terms of insulation value, etc., the PI Softshell Lobster Gloves probably aren't much thicker than the Giro Proof winter gloves I've been using -- but the lobster design is supposed to help keep those digits warmer by keeping them paired up together. It does seem to make enough of a difference to keep me riding down to my 25 degree limit. In fact, wearing these gloves at around the freezing mark, I found they were almost too warm, so I reserve these just for those coldest mornings. Cuffs on these could be bigger -- it's nice when the cuffs on the gloves are big enough to go easily over the cuffs on the jacket -- these don't, but I also don't get any icy blasts on my wrists, either, so they must be OK. The lobster design does take a little getting used to, but braking and shifting do work just fine. When wearing them, though, I do sometimes find that I miss having that middle digit available. I'll leave it at that.

Well, those are some of the items I've been using to help me get through cold winter rides comfortably. I do have some other clothing pieces -- different kinds and brands, etc. -- but all of these are the ones I go to again and again because I like them and they work well for me. My experiences with all of them have been good and I'd buy them again -- and in the case of the jerseys, I liked them enough that I've bought several.


  1. I have a couple smartwool shirts and some polypropylene leggings that I wear as a base layer, and then on top of that I typically wear your standard cold weather apparel/whatever blocks the wind. I've found the worst part is when you get too warm and begin to sweat, because its one thing to add/remove layers while hiking, but incredibly inconvenient to do so while riding.

  2. Getting too hot is always an issue -- I do find that by the time I get to work, the front of my base layer is pretty wet with sweat -- but the layer wicks it away to the outside -- so on the inside it is still warm. Thanks for writing!