There are a lot of ways to go wrong. Baggy clothing. Bulky clothing. Materials that don’t block the wind or that soak up moisture and leave you marinating in your own sweat, which can make you even colder. If you’re planning on braving the elements, bike-specific winter gear is well worth the investment.
If you dissect a bundled-up Austin bike racer from the top down, this is what you’re likely to find.
The ears catch a lot of wind. Even when you’re riding hard and the rest of your body feels comfortable, they can still be quite cold.
A headband is a good choice for in-between weather or for cyclists who tend to overheat. A skull cap that covers your whole head is best for really cold days.
What everyone says about heat escaping through your head—well, it’s true. A hat can make a surprising amount of difference in overall comfort. Headbands and hats are also easy to remove and put in your pocket if the weather warms up. Try a balaclava if you’re going out in truly arctic conditions.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that one thin layer of fabric can make you so much warmer...and yet, it does. A base layer, designed to shield you from the wind, should fit fairly tight and be made of a sweat-wicking material. Some options, like the lightweight Louis Garneau SF-2 Plastron, offer a wind-breaking surface in the front and a breathable material at the back.
A good base layer is essential for winter cycling. You can go with a long-sleeved base layer or sleeveless base layer, or wear both on especially cold days.
Typically, a long-sleeved or short-sleeved jersey is worn over the base layer, giving you another layer of warmth as well as easily accessible pockets.
Some riders like to wear a vest over a jersey or over a jersey and base layer. This offers extra wind protection and warmth for your core, and it can easily be removed and carried in a pocket. Clear vests eliminate the (pressing, we know) worry of color coordination and keep your jersey and race numbers visible.
A thin, long-sleeved windbreaker can be good for really cold days, but you’ll want one that fits snugly—not only does a baggy jacket feel like a parachute and make an annoying flapping sound, but it also can create a constant ballooning of cold air around your core. Many cycling jackets also help protect against rain.
Cycling-specific jackets typically have a tailored fit, good ventilation, and pockets. Convertible jackets with removable sleeves are practical for Texas weather; the Cannondale Morphis, with sleeves that attach with magnets, is popular.
Arm warmers are especially nice when it’s just a little cold out or when you expect it to warm up significantly. If you get too hot, you can roll them down onto your wrists or stuff them in your pockets without getting off the bike.
In combination with a sleeveless base layer and jersey, arm warmers cover up all the exposed skin on your arms but let your armpits breathe. Worn over the top of a long-sleeved base layer, they offer another non-bulky, easily removable layer of warmth and wind protection.
Frozen fingers can make shifting difficult and turn an otherwise pleasant ride into a death march. Wool gloves (try the DeFeet Wool DuraGloves on for size) keep your hands warm while also letting your skin breathe. You might also want heavier-duty gloves, such as the Louis Garneau Gel Ex, on standby for very cold days. Some cyclists swear by “lobster gloves,” which sandwich your fingers together rather than separating them individually, allowing your body to do some of the work in conserving heat. The Louis Garneau Super Prestige or Cannondale 3 Season Plus are great choices, with removable “lobster” pockets that can be tucked away when not needed.
Pants/Knee warmers/Leg warmers
|Leg warmers vs. knee warmers|
Some tights have a built-in chamois, but you can also layer your regular shorts under or over long tights or knickers without a built-in chamois. ATC has a big selection of 2XU compression tights, which work great for this type of layering.
Wool is the secret. Also, don’t go too thick—you don’t want to impair blood circulation in your feet, so often a thin(ish) wool sock will do the trick better.
Shoe booties are nothing short of miraculous. Not only do you avoid the feeling of feet frozen solid, but your whole body feels warmer. They largely serve to protect your feet from the wind, so they don’t tend to cause you to overheat. Booties also work very well in the rain. However, you can also go with toe covers, which are effective against the cold and wind, though less so.
Finding the right combination
You’ll want to mix and match the above items according to the conditions and the effort. Generally, the less you can wear and be comfortable, the better. Being way too hot seems to negatively affect performance more than being a little cold. It’s also no fun to lug around bulky gear in your jersey pocket for most of the ride.
In chilly weather, if your core and your extremities are warm, you can afford to show some skin. A good rule of thumb—if you’re going to want to take off an item of clothing 15 or 20 minutes into the ride, it’s probably not worth putting it on. Start out a little cold and pedal hard to warm up!