Tutorial: Dressing for Winter Riding

femLEPRECHAUN-(1)Presented by Scott’s Bicycle Centre, Cleveland, TN.

Ahhh yes, winter is here… or is coming quickly. We shouldn’t have to give up our sport just because it’s cold out! Believe you me, I’m the weeniest of all weenies when it comes to riding in the cold. I notoriously over-dress, sweat my brains out refusing to de-layer, and freeze my little fingers off on my way back down the mountain. But I’m a terrible example, and it doesn’t have to be like this. Read below to get your warm winter riding on!

Three concepts to consider before we get to talking about clothes:

1. We lose heat 4 different ways: Convection (flow of heat from body surface to cooler air, natural process when we are outside in cold weather without proper clothing, process is expedited in wind), Radiation (loss of heat from body to a cooler solid surface not in direct contact, like standing in the freezer section of the grocery store),Evaporation (loss of heat when liquid is converted to a vapor, like sweat evaporating from the body), & Conduction(loss of heat from the body when it is in direct contact with a cooler surface, like sitting on a cold rock without an insulating pad). We need to manage all of these when outside in extreme temperatures!

2. Because mountain biking is high-intensity and can be quite anaerobic sometimes (like riding at the Whitewater Center – climbing for a couple miles, then descending for awhile, and so on), we want to make sure we are regulating our temperature so as not to get too toasty, resulting in sweat that is now susceptible to evaporation and increased cooling on the body. To help with this, many outdoor athletes in various sports have found layering is the best way to regulate temperature. The basic layering system looks like this:

– Your Skin

– Baselayer [made of synthetic or natural fibers, like polypropelene or merino wool; worn next-to-skin snuggly in order to increase moisture-wicking properties; removing the moisture from the body and allowing it to evaporate off of the material, rather than your skin, will help keep you dry and comfortable; *this layer does not necessarily need to be a “warm” layer* (see Patagonia Capilene 2), but it can be in cold or very cold conditions (see Smartwool or Icebreaker 250/260 weight merino wool)]

– Insulating Mid-Layer [made of synthetic or natural fibers, like fleece or higher-weight merino wool; this is your most-reliable warm layer. Fleece with hi-pile (fuzzy) or loose weaves will be more breatheable and warmer only if worn under a hard shell. Fleece with tight, thick weaves (like micro fleece) will be warmer without a hard shell; this layer needs to maintain warming properties even if wet (so that knocks out any cotton!)]

– Hard Shell [Your weather-proof layer, windproof (or highly wind resistant) and/or waterproof (or highly water resistant); hood optional. This is what’s going to really keep the elements at bay – only in the coldest or wildest of conditions will folks wear this for the entirety of the ride, usually removing this at the top of the first climb or so, and reapplying at the descents; Lightweight and packable, here, is key!]

3. Natural fiber vs. Synthetic fiber:

Natural fibers (like merino wool) are naturally anti-microbial, and don’t take up the “forever stink” that your synthetic shirts do. Merino, specifically, is a thermo-regulator – it has a large threshold of thermo-regulation, meaning at 40* and 60*, the same shirt will help you stay comfortable. When wet, it dries slower than synthetic fibers, but still maintains its warming properties. Merino is all-natural & biodegradeable, but expensive.

Synthetic fibers (like polypropelene, Patagonia’s Capliene, etc.) are usually treated with an anti-microbial that will, inevitably, wash away. The material grabs on to your “stink” that never really seems to go away, even after a wash. Sports washes help here. Synthetic materials have a narrower range of thermo-regulation, meaning you may need several pieces in your wardrobe for different types of weather. When wet, sythetic material dries super fast, while maintaining warming properties (if it has warming properties). Synthetic materials are usually made out of plastic, melting in extreme heat, but are far less expensive than their natural counterparts.

Is one better than the other? It depends on you; your needs, your budget, etc. Both will work just fine for our purposes.


Ok, you ready? Here we go…!

You need to consider where, when, and “how cold” you will go riding…

There are a couple options for warming the bottom half. All of the above come in different “thicknesses” (ie un-lined, fleece-lined, etc.) and you can also get them with a wind-proof (or wind-resistant) fabric (usually just on the front side):

1. Knee warmers or leg warmers: Easily removable for more mild temps. Knee warmers cover just your knee, leg warmers cover the entire leg. For folks who are warm-natured, or sweat a lot (like my husband), this might be all they need for winter riding. These are my fall & spring go-to.

2. Tights w/o chamois: To be worn over or under your shorts w/ chamois pad. I wear these for various other outdoor sports as well – a great universal piece to your outdoor wardrobe.

3. Tights/bibs w/ chamois: Clearly, used for cycling specifically. These tend to be some of the most expensive, but are made with the cyclist in mind. It also cuts down on any extra friction caused by wearing your tights under your chamois shorts. These are awesome!

I highly recommend investing in (or adding to, pairing down, designing, etc.) your layering system, especially if you’re an “outdoor person/family” that doesn’t like to stay inside just because it’s cold. If it is exceptionally cold, I may not even wear a cycling-specific “jersey”, but just layer as I’ve stated above. If I do decide to wear a jersey (like if I know I’ll need or want access to my pockets), I’ll still layer as above. Here are the types of things that exist:

1. Arm warmers: Similar situation as the knee/leg warmers above. Just cover your arms, easily removeable; Great for folks who get hot easily, sweat a lot, or ride in mild temps.

2. Long sleeve jerseys: Come in varying materials and designs (ie un-lined, fleece-lined, hooded, partially wind-proof or resistant, etc.). Think about what else you have or may be wearing before making a final decision. In reality, a cycling wardrobe may have 2 or 3 of these in varying weights, thicknesses & materials… but this will come with time as you decide just how “cold” you want to go 🙂

3. Vests: Insulating (fleece, synthetic fill, or down fill) or hard shell (wind/water-resistant or -proof); Many people don’t feel “cold” on their legs or arms, and just need some protection on their core. A shell vest is great for fall/spring riding, an insulating vest is fabulous for cold rides under a shell.

4. Jackets: Soft shell (water resistant, wind proof; softer material on the outside, usually micro-fleece lined on the inside) or Hard shell (water-proof & wind-proof nylon layer with no insulating properties; purely exists as protection from the elements) -> both of these can be used outside of riding as well! Come hooded or not hooded.

You can’t forget about these essentials! Least often thought about, these could truly make or break your comfort and your ride!

1. Hats & Balaclavas: You’ve gotta protect your noggin. Wearing a hat, even a thin one, under your helmet will greatly reduce the wind (and resulting heat loss) impact on your head.


2. Buffs, Neck Gaiters, etc:  Fabulous, multi-use cylindrical-shaped fabric thingies. I seriously love these. Use it for your whole head, just your ears, your nose & neck, or as an emergency hair band. HOW RAD! This guy doesn’t have to be thick, but a little material goes a long way. Synthetic fabric and natural fibers (merino wool) are available.

How to wear a Buff!

3. Gloves: I’m convinced there’s not a single glove out there that will actually keep my fingers warm while maintaining my dexterity. Now if riding in mittens were a possibility, that’d be legit… but it’s not. That said, you just gotta find something that’ll do the trick. A glove that has an insulating layer built into the glove (or wearing a separate liner) and has weather-proof capabilities (wind-resistance at a minimum!) will make you happiest… but don’t forget about maintaining dexterity! *A cyclist extra: Find a glove that has a soft terry or fleece patch on the outside of the thumbs to wipe the snot off your nose. You’ll use it and you’ll love it, trust me!*

4. Socks: People, you’ve gotta go synthetic or natural fiber here. Having wet, cold feet isn’t any more fun than jumping into a lake at 20*… in fact, it’s quite debilitating! Wear dry, warm socks that will maintain their warming properties if a creek-crossing is in your future.

5. Toe/Shoe Covers: The magic! Covering as little as your toes, or as much as your whole foot and ankle, toe/shoe covers are worn over the shoe (so make sure you find some that fit your shoes!) and are made of Neoprene all the way up to insulating, wind-proof & water-proof fabrics!

Whew! Did your head explode? Does that give you some ideas of what to look for? The best thing: go to your shop to see what they have to offer. Consider what you already have in your closet and add to it. You don’t necessarily need to buy a whole new cycling-only wardrobe (but I won’t stop you if that’s the route you want to take). Read reviews, ask your friends, and try stuff out! You won’t know ’til you try. My final tip/trick? Start cold (or at least cooler than “comfortably warm”). As painful as it is, it will help you keep from overheating, which leads to sweat, which leads to evaporation, which leads to coldER.

Happy warm winter riding!

Love, The Women at Scott’s Bikes


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