The question I hear most often from non-cyclists is “What do you when it…[rains, snows, sleets, simply gets cold out]?” Those of you who get around by bicycle already know what I’m going to say.
There’s no such thing as “bad” weather; only inadequate gear.
One of the beautiful secrets you discover once you start riding a lot is that weather just isn’t that big a deal. In fact, one of the things I love most about my life on the bike is the feeling that I live outdoors. For at least a part of every day, I experience what’s actually going on out there. Sometimes that means challenges. There’s ice stinging my face, the ground is slippery, I’m getting splashed with mud, I’m getting wet, I’m getting blown around and have to muscle the bike to maintain control. I love that.
I’ve raced a storm, lost, and gotten soaked. I’ve been knocked off the bike by a gust of wind, jumped free, and landed on my feet. I’ve ridden onto a bridge on a rainy day and realized, just in time, that the bridge does indeed “freeze before roadway.” It was a sheet of glass, and I had to walk the entire span, holding the guardrail with one hand, with the bike sliding out from under my other hand.
I’ll never forget my first ride on studded tires one night on a solidly iced Manhattan Bridge. That time I was thrilled when I saw the ice (if you have studs, you want to use them!), and I laughed the entire way. There was the New Year’s Eve ride in ice pellets and fancy dresses. The ride through the blizzard to the dance party. You get the idea.
Most of the time I just ride on, having very few problems at all.
Having said that, over the years, I’ve developed some strategies for winter clothing that others may find helpful.
Cold-Weather Clothing Strategies
First of all, there’s cold and there’s cold. And then there’s Minneapolis. If you live in the snowbelt (or heck, Alaska), you already know, probably better than I do, how to keep yourself warm (and your brake cables operational). If you’re newer to this winter riding thing, however, read on. And when you’re done, go check out these awesome people for tips on handling the various surfaces winter may throw at you.
Layering. Yes, everybody says this, but it’s important to know which layers to use for specific conditions.
Layer 1: Baselayer. The basic idea is to have a thin layer next to your skin that will wick moisture (yes, we still sweat in winter) away from the skin. That means either synthetic, silk, or wool. Cotton is evil. Put the cotton away until spring. Your non-hypothermic self will thank you.
Layer 2: Midlayer(s). Rule of thumb: Two thin layers are warmer and more versatile than one thick one. Warmer because two layers will trap a little air between them, and air is insulating (that’s what makes down warm; the fibers are hollow). More versatile because cycling produces a surprising amount of heat, and if you’re overdressed, you’ll get sweaty, and then the sweat will do what sweat does – cool you off. Which is not ideal when it’s 10F out. Put on, peel off, it’s the winter two-step. My personal favorite midlayers are wafer-thin merino wool sweaters.
Layer 3: Outer shell. Depending on your local climate, this should be wind-blocking, and/or waterproof. (Waterproof layers generally cut the wind pretty well, too.) In cold, dry weather, I wear a softshell jacket. When the temp drops below the teens, I may add a down vest outside of the jacket (the better to take on and off easily). In cool, wet weather, my outer layers are a rain jacket and rain pants (and rain socks, damnit! I hate wet feet).
Dress evenly. Many bicyclists overdress their top half and underdress their legs. This is a recipe for getting sweaty and chilly. Your legs are going to get you home; treat them nicely! Below about 30F, I’ll add a lightweight baselayer bottom under my cycling tights (if I’m wearing those), or under whatever else I may be wearing on the bottom. I’m also a huge fan of knitted legwarmers. I find that my ankles & lower legs are always happier in them, and I can stuff a hanky into a legwarmer for easy access when I come to a stop and have to contend with a river of snot.
Those are the basics, but most of keeping warm happens in the details, namely the extremities. Hands, feet, face, ears, neck. So let’s devote some time to the most susceptible parts of us.
Head/face: Hat, neckwarmer, balaclava (or as we used to say in #bikeNYC, baklava) – you’ll want some or all of these. I prefer a simple tube-style neckwarmer (also called a cowl) to a scarf because it’s easier to pull up or push down on the fly, and won’t come unwrapped and then get tangled in some part of me or the bike. I wear either a knitted cap with earflaps that tie under the chin (over my neckwarmer to keep out drafts), or a wool cycling cap with earflaps I can tuck the neckwarmer into.
Some folks go full balaclava, and I have no quarrel with that (I’ve been known to do a thin balaclava with a cap on top for extreme cold), but I find that a tall neckwarmer plus earflap cap allows me more flexibility and is almost as warm. Pull neckwarmer over nose when needed, scrunch down when my glasses fog up, etc.
Hands: Obviously you’re going to need gloves, mittens, or lobster claws. As with most things bikey, there are various schools of thought. Mittens are the warmest and give the crappiest control. Gloves give most control, but you’ll lose digits when it’s seriously cold out. Lobster-claw style gloves give some of the benefits of each. In my experience, any glove or mitten made for bicycling is not going to be as warm or as waterproof as something made for skiing. It will also cost about twice as much. Don’t ask me why. So go to the ski shop.
Also, as with anything else, when the temperature gets seriously cold, adding liners will often make more of a difference than you expect. Liner gloves also mean you have something between your bare hands and cold metal when you pull off your big gloves to lock up. I use a variety of options, including silk liners and wool liners in cycling gloves, lobster claws with an added silk liner, and ski mittens for when it’s fucking serious out. Ski gloves and mittens typically lack a terry patch for wiping your nose, so stuff a hanky in your sleeve, legwarmer, or back pocket. Military surplus stores are great places to find cheap knitted wool gloves for liners.
Pogies: These kooky-looking things are a great option if you have one bike or a dedicated “winter bike” and don’t want to mess about with sixteen layers of gloves. I haven’t used them, but icebikey friends of mine swear by them.
Feet: I will be honest with you; feet are my bete noir. Everybody’s got something that’s an extra challenge to keep warm. With me, it’s my toes. I have a whole bag of tricks for my feet. The basic rule is wool socks rule. I start with tall wool socks (lightweight or midweight ski or snowboard socks), and depending on the weather, there may be a wicking liner sock inside the wool sock, or two layers of wool socks, with or without a chemical toewarmer pack sandwiched in between (or on top). If it’s raining, I wear lightweight ski socks with rain socks over them (Rocky makes some good ones). Or I may just ride in waterproof boots. A nice setup for snowy weather is waterproof hiking boots and BMX pedals with Hold Fast straps. That way, when the inevitable happens, and the bike starts to slide out, you have decent traction on the foot you put down to catch yourself (ask me how I know).
If you simply must ride clipless, you’ll have to invest the damn money in Lake Winter Boots. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Eyes: Cold wind will not only sting your eyes but also make them tear up, and then your tears freeze and you have eyelashcicles. Cycling glasses are helpful until they fog up (hence my neckwarmer maneuvers), and in deeply cold weather you may need to move into vented ski goggle territory.
One last tip: If, despite your best efforts, you’ve miscalculated and find yourself getting sleepy after having been cold (especially cold and wet) for a while, pull the fuck over and get yourself into a bodega, mini-mart, anything indoors to thaw out for a few minutes. Getting sleepy or disoriented are signs of hypothermia, and you don’t want to fuck with hypothermia. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)
After reading all this, you’re probably thinking, screw it, I’ll drive/take the train/bus. Don’t. You’ll be missing out on some awesome riding, and the incomparable feeling of being able to get around under your own power in almost any circumstances. Plus, if it’s super-cold, your car isn’t gonna start anyway.
The thing about winter is, you very quickly get to know what you need to wear for specific conditions. Gearing up becomes automatic, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting the layers just right, and feeling comfortable on the bike, arriving at your destination an invigorated, rosy-cheeked superhero.