Jim is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and has raced in more than 35 USAT-certified races. He is also an avid trail runner and endurance gravel bike rider. Jim is a founder of Complete Tri and frequent writer on triathlon and cycling.
I’ve done my share of cold weather rides, be it pure winter rides on a fat bike or those fall or spring rides when it looks warmer than it really is. I’ve learned it is a delicate balance of being cold or overdressing, neither of which are good.
The art and science involved in dressing for colder-weather cycling is something that takes a while to develop, but I want to share with you what I’ve learned over many years of dialing-in my cold weather riding system.
I’ll go body part by body part, which seems like the best way to do it.
What to Wear for Cold Weather Cycling
Core Warmth: Base Layer and Jacket
It all starts with the core. Keeping your core warm is essential for cold weather cycling. If your core can’t stay warm, you will have a hard time being comfortable on the ride. At the same time, overdressing on the core can very quickly cause you to overheat.
Start with a moisture-wicking base layer to keep sweat away from your skin. For me, this is often a synthetic t-shirt. Then, I often add another long-sleeved base layer if it is a cold day, but one that is thin enough to not be bulky.
Once I feel I have my core heat taken care of, I add a windproof jacket, but one without too much insulation. I’d rather rely on layers than a heavy outer layer. Look for jackets with vents to prevent overheating. I like my jacket to be design specifically for cycling, with a svelte cut and pockets in the back.
Recommendation: The Pearl Izumi Amfib jacket is great. It is quite warm for how low-profile it is.
Legs: Knee Warmers or Cycling Tights
Next up, those legs. Your legs will actually stay warmer than you think, but you still need to take care of covering them.
For your legs, you have two options: knee warmers or cycling tights. it is usually an either-or, I don’t use them together.
Knee warmers are a great option for milder temperatures. They are just what they sound like, meant to be worn over your knees to keep the joint and ligaments warm. You might be tempted to use them for running, too, but they really don’t work for that. The running motion makes them jostle down your leg. But they are great for cycling. Best of all, they are small enough so if it warms up and you want to take them off, you can just toss them in your jacket or jersey pocket or your bike bag.
Cycling tights provide more insulation for colder weather, along with full coverage (knee warmers leave some exposed skin.) Look for tights with a sheen that will break the wind. They key is to not get thick or cloth tights – it is hard to explain, but you don’t want them to double-up on your bike shorts in the saddle. That would cause discomfort over a long ride.
I prefer to wear my regular cycling shorts with both knee warmers or cycling tights, so I don’t choose the tights with a chamois. Just thin ones that can go over my bike shorts.
Recommendation: The Castelli brand Knee Warmer is comfortable and you will be shocked how effective it is down to relatively low temps. It is only for cycling, not running, though. When running, it will work its way down off your knee.
Your hands are one of the most vulnerable parts of your body in cold weather. Look for cycling-specific gloves with insulation and windproof material to keep your hands warm and dry. Consider getting gloves with touchscreen compatibility so you can use your phone without taking them off.
Be sure that when you gloves are on with your preferred cycling jacket, you don’t have a gap of exposed skin between the glove cuff and the jacket cuff. This might mean either having a longer jacket or a longer glove cuff.
Every cyclist should have multiples pairs of bike gloves, because this is one area where you will want to be able to choose based on conditions. 10 degrees can make a huge difference.
Recommended: For colder weather rides, I really like the Pearl Izumi Lobster Evo gloves. They are a cross between a glove and a mitt, and are extremely effective against the cold even without any additional layers or handwarmers.
Feet: Heavy Socks, Maybe Shoe Covers
Far and away, the body part that gives me the most trouble on rides are my feet. Specifically, my toes. Even on rides that aren’t brutally cold, my toes freeze before any other body part. I think it is because the toes are cutting into the wind the entire ride, with little break.
Most cycling shoes are designed for warmer weather, so what makes them breathable when it is 90 degrees out makes then not great when it is 25.
Keeping your feet warm is crucial for a comfortable ride. Wear heavy socks made of wool or synthetic material to keep your feet dry and warm, and ideally socks that extend well up your shin and calf.
If you ride when it is quite cold or have a history of freezing toes, you can also consider wearing shoe covers to protect your shoes from the elements. They provide just enough coverage to keep some of the windchill off your toes.
Neck: Gaiter or Balaclava
It is often forgotten, but I really like to keep my neck warm on a ride. I use a neck gaiter on 90% of our colder rides, and a full balaclava on the other 10%. You can pull the gaiter up over your chin, mouth, or even most of your face if you need to.
A balaclava is a more complete way to keep your neck and face from the cold. It’s a good option if you are worried about your face getting cold, but I usually am OK on the face, I just need my neck and chin to stay warmer.
Look for options made of breathable material to prevent overheating, and be sure it provides enough coverage to tuck in to your shirt or jacket.
Recommendation: I go with a simple REI Merino wool gaiter. Super comfy and keeps wind off your skin.
Head and Ear: Hat, Headband, or Both
One thing I learned during my cold weather rides was that keeping your head warm, and keeping your ears warm, are often two different things. I have had time when my head is sweating under a hat, but my ears are freezing!
I usually wear a thin hat that fits nicely under my helmet if the temp is above, say, 40 degrees. If below, I wear that same hat, but add a headband that covers my ears, in order to keep them from freezing.
Recommendation: Have a Smartwool Active Headband around at all times. You will find yourself using it alot, not just on cold rides.
Essentials of Cycling Clothing for Cold Weather
When it comes to cycling in cold weather, there are a few things you will learn with experience. Many of the concepts are shared with the rules for cold weather running clothing, but there are a few notable differences when it comes to cycling.
Layering is the answer when it comes to cycling in cold weather. I don’t like to wear bulky clothes, which means having a few thing layers is usually much better.
Start with a base layer made of moisture-wicking material to keep you dry. Then, add whatever mid-layer you need for insulation, such as an athletic long-sleeved thermal layer. Finally, I top it off with a windproof or if needed waterproof outer layer to protect me from the windchill or any precip.
Here are a few rules to keep in mind when it comes to cold weather cycling gear material:
- Lighter is better, even if it means layering
- Active-wear synthetics and wool are good. They will wick away moisture and keep you warm.
- For outer shells and tights, I like synthetics with a poly finish which can act like a shield against the wind
Fit and Comfort
Having clothing that fits well and is comfortable is important for any cyclist, but it’s especially crucial in cold weather because you are going to be layering up and need to be sure you have the right balance of coverage without being bulky. I make sure to choose clothing that is designed for cycling and fits snugly without being too tight. I also pay attention to details such as cuffs, collars, and zippers to ensure that they don’t cause irritation or discomfort while I’m riding.
It’s About More Than the Temp
When it comes to cycling in cold weather, too many riders focus solely on the temperature. That’s just one small piece of the overall equation, though.
One of the biggest factors when it comes to cold weather cycling is wind. Riding into a strong headwind can make a ride feel much colder. Wind can also cause body heat to dissipate more quickly, and can help the cold penetrate things like your shoes and socks, making it feel colder than the actual temperature.
Windchill is how wind and temp comes together, and it is a good indicator of what you need to wear. Even on a relatively mild day, the windchill can make it feel much colder than the actual temperature. It’s important to dress appropriately for the windchill, not just the temperature.
The sun can also play a role in how cold a ride feels. On a sunny day, the sun can provide some much-needed warmth, while on a cloudy day, it can feel much colder. It’s important to dress in layers that can be easily removed or added depending on the amount of sun. You might start a ride at 9am and it feel quite cold, but by 11am, if the sun is out, things are getting toasty.
Finally, don’t overlook the road surface. Even if the temp is do-able, if the trails are soggy and muddy you might get quite wet and cold. Or if there is ice on your typical routes, that can be dangerous. You might be better off riding indoors than risking it on a snowy and ice road shoulder, for example.