Winter Cycling: Thoughts, Musings, and Insights

After spending part the winter commuting by bike, I wanted to do a post about some of my experiences along the way. There seems more and more people riding every year, and if you are interested, it is not as difficult as you might think.

Clothing

Getting geared up for winter riding does not have to be a big investment. Sure, there is a lot of winter riding specific gear out there, but if you are the type of person who already enjoys a winter activity or two, you likely already have more than enough clothing options in your closet. By utilizing different pieces in a layering system, I was able to develop a system that can keep me comfortable in any wither conditions.

When it comes to a clothing system, it is all about regulating temperature and moisture. In winter, this is especially important; no one wants to be cold, and too warm gets you sweaty and wet, which can be quite dangerous. Finding the right level of clothing to fit the temperature and the activity can be difficult. Everyone has a different base level of temperature, and respond differently to activity, so there is no one system for everyone. One of the keys things to remember is that cycling is a medium output activity with lots of wind exposure. Staying protected from the wind will go a long way to keeping you warm.

A couple of years ago I started a ‘winter activity clothing log’ after spending way too much time figuring out what to wear every time we wanted to go do something outside. It is basically a spreadsheet where I can track what I did, what I wore, the temperature and conditions, and how it all worked. After a couple season of data, I have a personalized reference for what I need for a December run in -12C, or a Spring ski tour at +2C, and everything in between. If you are going to start riding through a variety of conditions, I highly recommend starting one for yourself. It should keep you comfortable and happy on the bike.

Headware

Not enough venting for this cat.

Not enough venting for this cat.

It has become a common practice for people to wear a ski helmet and goggles in cold temperatures. I tried this on a few occasion, and I found it was far too hot in all but the coldest of days (-20C and lower). The helmet and goggle interface felt really nice to start, but there is just not enough venting to keep the moisture down. My head would be really sweaty by the time I got to work. Most days I wear either a thin beanie or a balaclava under my cycling helmet.

Hands and Feet

Not quite warm enough when temperatures really drop

Not quite warm enough when temperatures really drop

In most cases, you really can’t overdo it when it comes keeping your hands warm. Warm hands and feet can be the difference between a good ride and a bad ride. I find that my hands get colder on the bike than almost any other activity. I assume that this is because your upper body is fairly static when riding, and your hand are exposed to lots of wind. I have a really good pair of Gore-tex ski gloves I wear when temperatures get below -10C, but they are still not really enough for -20C. I will likely look into some mitts or pogies for next season.

Early in the season, I was getting by with my cycling shoes with a good pair of covers. However, once the temperature was consistently going below -10C, and there was snow and ice on the road, I switched out my hard plastic soles for winter boots. This also meant the switch to flat pedals. I definitely missed the efficiency of clipless pedals, but I wasn’t ready to spend a couple hundred dollars on winter cycling boots just yet (maybe next year). I have not had any issues with cold feet this winter.

The Rest

Most days I wear a pair of winter running tights over my cycling shorts. They are really quite warm for how thin they are and have just the right amount of breathability. If conditions are going to be wet or really cold, I will switch to a pair of softshell hiking pants.

On my upper body, I wear a thin synthetic baselayer with a light weight merino hoody. Most days I wear a cheap polyester cycling jacket with pit zips for venting. On colder days I will add an lightly insulated vest under the jacket, which is easily warm enough for -20C.

Other Gear

You can't do any sort of winter riding without having a good set of lights. For winter riding, you want a front light that with do more than allow you to be seen. In the deepest parts of winter, I would rider to and from work in the dark/dusk, so having a good front light was essential to riding some of the dark trails on my commute. I prefer USB rechargeable lights as I can charge them at my desk while I am at work. I have been using a Cygo-lite Metro 550 light, and it has served me well throughout the season.

I am happy to report that the Nokian Gazza Extreme tires have been great it what seems to be an especially icy year. I haven't had any falls (yet) and I have to assume that these tires played a big role in that. As I mentioned in an earlier post, they are quite heavy and their weight is noticeable on the bike, but my gearing is low enough that it isn't an issue. They seem to hold air really well, and I only have to check the pressure about once per week. After about 1500km, both tires still have all of their studs in place.

Motivation

This is the true secret to successful winter riding, for me at least. I have found that I have ridden to work about 60% of the time this season. This is not as high as I would have hoped. I think that my biggest downfall is having an alternative option. If I know that our car is available, I am more likely to stay up a little later, or sleep in a little later, knowing that if I need to, I can always just drive.

However, when biking is my only option, it is easy to get up and get going without it feeling like a chore, no matter the weather. Today, for example, it was -25C with the wind chill. That would have been an easy excuse to skip the ride and drive to work, but my Girlfriend needed the car, so I was biking. While it was a little cold, I made it to work just fine and got a little morning exercise along the way. What more can you ask for?