It was a dark and stormy night . . . and I went for a bike ride.
It happens regularly this time of year; That moment when someone makes a statement disguised as a question: “You don’t ride in this weather.” Their voice goes down at the end, not up, so you can tell they think they know the answer.
Some of these same people happily pack up their skis and head to the mountains to shiver on a lift, gear up for a hike in the woods, or get out the ice-fishing equipment and go chop holes in frozen water so they can sit for hours waiting for a bite. Somehow getting cold or wet in the name of transportation is different from getting cold for recreation.
The beauty of bicycling is that it can be both practical transportation and a healthy activity of the “brisk and bracing” variety on a cold day.
Staying warm and dry(ish) enough to enjoy the ride is no more complicated than getting dressed to walk your dog. How long will you be out for? How far are you going? How fast will you be moving? If you took your dog for an hour-long walk you’d warm up from movement but be exposed to factors like rain or wind chill for longer. Ditto for riding for an hour.
Considering that the vast majority of trips made by car in the United States are three miles or less and that’s about a 15-20 minute bike ride, you could ride a fair number of winter miles over time without even being exposed for that long on any one ride. But who wants to feel miserable while doing something that’s so much fun? Gearing up makes for a happier ride all around.
I’m rounding up some of the tips I’ve received and passed along over the years.
ABCs of Bicycling in Cold Weather
A is for Appendages.
That is to say, riding in the winter warms your core but those fingers, toes, ears, and other appendages will suffer most from cold temperatures and diminished circulation. Make sure they’re covered, preferably with some windproofing as well as insulation.
Wool socks. Wool. Socks. WOOL SOCKS.
Wear two layers on really cold days, as long as your shoes have enough room so the extra bulk doesn’t constrict circulation. My go-to for years has been merino wool stockings for warmth all the way up with a second pair of wool socks on my feet. I keep that on all day long, not just for the ride.
You can ride in regular boots. Toe caps on the fronts of your shoes or full booties that zip on can provide additional protection against both wind and moisture; booties will help trap warmth.
Lobster-claw gloves are great if you live where it’s cold enough to need them. You’ll be able to give the Vulcan greeting and fingers will be warmer because they’re together, while you still have enough dexterity to shift.
I found moving from Spokane to Seattle that it’s almost never cold enough near the coast to need this much warmth, though — they make my hands sweat.
“Pogies” are another option — like big kitchen mitts that stay on your handlebars. Wear a pair of regular gloves below them to keep your hands warm when you have to pull them out of the cozy nest.
Neck, Chin, Nose
I wear at least one scarf every day in the winter–sometimes two–to serve as both neck and face cover on my ride, stylish accessory once I’m inside.
Neck gaiter. Keeps your neck warm and can be pulled up to cover the lower part of your face and warm the air a bit before it enters your nose. Drop off your face if that gets too warm.
Face mask. Borrow from the world of skiing; get one that covers your face from the nose down and you won’t freeze your nose hairs as you inhale and exhale a bit more heavily than someone sitting in a car.
Balaclava. Some find these uncomfortable under a helmet. I’m one of those; for me, the edge around the face opening squishes into my forehead and it’s uncomfortable. If that’s a thickly welted seam that’s going to leave a mark. The bank-robber look can also create unwanted and potentially dangerous attention from law enforcement (not a facetious comment, especially for those who may be the target of differential policing practices).
Ears and Head
Helmet strap or ear covers. Knitters and crocheters can find patterns for helmet earwarmers on sites like Ravelry. Love my helmet strap — a gift from knitting bicycling Spokane friend Wilma Gyswyt Flanagan — and I don’t leave home without it in winter.
Helmet cover. Worn on the outside of the helmet, this helps block wind and moisture. On the down side, I like to have lights on my helmet to increase what I can see of the road ahead and the helmet cover interferes with this.
Hat. Wool is your friend here too. Get a thin one so it fits beneath the helmet and let your chin strap out a bit.
B is for Base layers.
Wearing layers traps body heat and lets you adjust easily as you warm up from riding. Merino wool provides warmth even when damp, whereas cotton will stay wet and suck the heat out of you. No cotton.
C is for Cranking and Covering.
Movement chases the cold away. Dress so you feel a little too cool as you leave your home; you’ll warm up as you ride.
If you’re going to be coasting down a hill you’ll increase the windchill factor, though. Cover your chest with a wind-block of some kind. In a pinch you could use my dad’s Boy Scout trick of stuffing newspapers inside his jacket. (This also meant he won the award for fastest fire-starting when the time came. Their motto is “Be prepared.”)
You don’t want to be so warm that you get super sweaty, because that will result in evaporative cooling and you don’t want that. Wool is your friend here too. I could never wear wool until I discovered the magic of merino. I live in it in the dark, cold months.
What are your go-to tips staying reasonably comfortable when the weather isn’t?