Winter Cycling Gear

20 minutes after I started writing yesterdays post about winter riding I realized that it was more of a clothing and gear discussion than a how to and where to discussion, so I shelved this post for another day (today’s the day) and re-wrote the post for yesterday. As I learn more about this blogging/writing bit, I might learn to be more efficient….or not.
As I mentioned before, I think winter mountain biking is a bunch of fun. I mean, I don’t like freezing any more than the next person does, but when dressed right, there’s a lot of fun to be had. My favorite winter riding is on a trail in the snow. It’s a great work-out and can be really refreshing. There’s really only a couple of clothing and gear tricks to really having fun.
First, your apparel matters. Like any winter sport, ‘they make clothes for that’. They also ‘make clothes for something else that I use for biking.’ I have a hodgepodge of clothing because I have a longer torso (if not slightly wider) for my height making most bike tops too short for me. That really hasn’t been an issue keeping warm, though. I find that my feet and head are the toughest to get right, but I have friends who have trouble with fingers, too.
For my feet I wear a pair of wool cycling socks, my regular biking shoes with the clip less cleats, and then a full insulated over-the-shoe bootie. The bootie does three things really: blocks the wind; provides insulation to keep heat in; and helps keep water/snow out (they’re not water proof, but they help). I’ve tried several different types of wool socks from SmartWool cycling specific socks, to DeFeet’s Woolie Boolies, and am now wearing a pair of Specialized wool trainer socks. They’re a bit thinner than the others which give my feet room to move around and allow blood circulation. They’ve been really warm so far. Some people ride with those chemical foot warmers, but I just find that they squeeze my toes, run out of oxygen, and then go cold on me. But, some people swear by them and I’ve used them successfully skiing so maybe it’s just my cycling shoes.
On my head I have different set-ups, but once temps drop below 40, I’m wearing a lightly insulated cycling beanie and then an UnderArmour ColdGear baklava over top. It keeps the wind off my face and neck but breaths really well when I sweat. I have a problem of overheating with heavier neck warmers so this year’s addition of the UA baklava has been a welcome resolution (thanks to my sister-in-law for that Christmas gift). Oh, and of course I’m wearing my helmet.
For my hands I’m wearing a pair of The North Face Apex gloves which are really quite thin for the warmth they provide and allows me the ability to grab the brakes with one finger. While I’m currently riding a single speed and don’t need to shift, I’ve worn these gloves with a fully geared rig and found that shifting is easily accomplished with these on as well. Again, this is not a cycling specific glove, but I’ve found something that works and have just adapted it to my need. Another option that a friend wears in the winter and swears by are the Marmot Windstopper gloves. Both options incorporate wind-breaker technology to go along with the insulation which I think is the key.
For the rest of my body I simply layer. I start with an UnderArmour ColdGear mock turtle long sleeve compression shirt and a pair of The North Face insulated running pants (over my padded biking shorts). I prefer a separate padded short over an integrated pad with the pants so that I can interchange the shorts to wash the sweaty ones. Then, depending on the temperature, I’ll add a short-sleeve cycling jersey finished up by an insulated Pearl Izumi Select Thermal Jersey cycling jacket and my baggy mountain bike shorts.
I think its important to start out a bit cold and gradually warm up during your ride. If you start toasty warm, you’re going to overheat, sweat, get wet, and then get really cold in your wet clothes. Finding the right set-up for your body might take a few rides, but its well worth finding the right gear.
Second, most of my winter riding happens in the dark simply because winter days are shorter. Lights are a critical tool if you’re going to do any amount of winter riding because of the shorter days. Now, I like night riding with lights anyway, so I get a lot of use out of my lights throughout the year. If possible, ride with as many lumens as possible, but I would probably suggest a minimum of 300 total lumens. I ride with a 120 lumen Stella light on my helmet and a 250 lumen NiteRider on my handle bar. The Stella has a little bit more of a narrow beam which works well as my point-of-view light while my brighter, wider beam NiteRider casts a nice big general beam. If you only ride with one light, I think its best to mount it on your helmet so that where ever you look you have light. The light on your handle bar will only point in the direction of your bike which doesn’t allow you to anticipate corners as well. I’m tempted to try a new light called a MagicShine. They’re really cheap for the amount of light you get (around $1.00 per 10 lumens compared to ranges of $1.00 per 1-3 lumens with other brands). I’ve been waiting to hear from some friends on its durability, but early indicators are that they’re at least worth the money.
I also ride with a bright flashing red tail light to be visible to vehicles if I’m not on the trail. Most of my clothing has some reflective pieces or accents on them as well, but I’ll also wear Velcro reflector wraps around my ankles on top of my booties.
Third (and last for the stuff you wear), even though its cold, you will need to hydrate while you ride. Ride with whatever hydration tools you normally use. Just remember to take regular sips as even sports drinks will freeze on you if you’re not moving fluid through the openings.
So now that you’re dressed right, make sure you’re bike’s ready. To make my bike winter ready I just set my butt on it and go. I run a pretty aggressive tire even during the summer, so I haven’t had much of an issue sliding around on the snow or ice. But, if you want to be sure that you’re not going to slide, you can purchase (or make) a set of studded tires. I hear YouTube is good for the DIY editions. You’ll just want to make sure to switch back to regular tires if you’re going to ride any totally cleared pavement for an entire ride as it will be both loud and a lot of work. Other than that, you should be ready to go.
Finally, as I mentioned above, I prefer to run a single speed in the winter. The geared bike I’ve ridden the past couple of years ended up shifting poorly after about 45 minutes anyway because the rear derailleur would collect snow and ice up. Getting the right gearing might take a bit of experience, but my 29er is currently set up as 35:18 (chain ring to cassette tooth ratio) which is nearly a 2:1. Really, whatever gear ratio lets you move and have fun (the opposite of getting frustrated with too much work) is perfect. The other advantage to riding a single speed in the winter is that you can ride your single speed in the summer  and that’s what I keep my legs moving in the winter for anyway!

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2 thoughts on “Winter Cycling Gear

  1. how long does it take you to get ready? seems like it would take a bit. that’s a lot of stuff to put on… but I am sure you have it down by now and I know it’s all necessary for your ride.

    • Yeah, it takes a little longer to get out the door in the winter. I can be out the door in 5 minutes unless I forget my Heart Rate Monitor (which goes on under my upper body gear). Usually that’s a two step process too because I keep my clothes in the basement so I put everything but my thermal jersey, shoes and booties on in the basement and then step into the cold garage to put the rest on so I don’t get too hot and sweat before I even start.

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