Winter Cycling: More Preparation, More Fun

Although it might look simple, winter cycling can be among the most challenging outdoor pursuits available in the Midwest.

Consider a raw, windy morning; it’s 35°F outside and the humidity gives the air a bitter edge. There’s a 10-mph north wind, something you’d hardly notice in July but potentially miserable from November to March. Add 20 or 30 mph going downhill and you could face single-digit wind chills. With the sweat you generated climbing that hill, you could be a candidate for hypothermia.

But winter riding offers everything from stunning beauty to a great way to maintain off-season fitness. It’s also a way to hone old skills or develop new ones while building strengths that will pay dividends the rest of the year.

Winter cycling definitely involves some challenges. The biggest is the clothing you put on before leaving your home. The answers involve layering, not overdressing, and covering those areas where you get chilled easily.

Fortunately, clothing and equipment manufacturers offer a lot of answers. “It’s amazing what they’ve come up with,” explained Christina Decker of Midwest Cyclery. She recommends starting with gloves, perhaps a neck gaiter, leg warmers or tights, and a thin skullcap under the helmet. “Then upgrade as you go. Start with what you need the most and add layers.” Many cyclists overlook their knees, which may not feel that cold but can be damaged if unprotected.

Kinda cold—When temperatures hover around 50°F, start with a short-sleeve jersey and bibs. Arm and leg warmers are easily pushed down if you get too warm.
Pretty cold—When windchill is a concern, protect yourself with a long-sleeved jersey, thermal jacket, long-fingered gloves, and a warm cap.
Really cold—For temperatures down to 33°F, bundle up with thermal bib tights, a long-sleeved thermal jersey, long-fingered gloves, a neck gator, and a wind jacket. All clothing courtesy of Midwest Cyclery. Photos by Rick Mayo / Mile 90 Photography

The heaviest items may even be counterproductive. “I’ve found that by buying the thinner options, you have a lot more temperatures you can dress for,” noted Jason Starforth of the Bicycle Shack in Lee’s Summit. “That’s usually better than one thick garment. Multiple layers are a key.”

Nearly everyone who exercises in winter now knows something about layering. You start with a warm, moisture-wicking layer next to your skin—usually a synthetic underwear top and cycling shorts. Depending on conditions, you may add additional insulation like a fleece pullover. If it’s still colder, a breathable outer windbreaker may be needed.

Your extremities may need special attention. Are your head or ears easily chilled? Your hands or feet turn to ice blocks? You’ll likely need some special equipment, like “lobster claw” mittens that let you brake safely while keeping your hands warm. Biking gear comes in many levels of protection and cost, from simple toe covers that clip over the end of your shoes, to full shoe covers made of water- and wind-resistant products like neoprene.

Other Strategies

Depending on your priorities, buying all of this up front can be daunting. Even serious cyclists may want to space out their purchases as they learn what they need most. Not everything needs to be expensive, either. That old polyester turtleneck sweater hanging in the back of your closet can serve well as a mid-layer.

The biggest mistake many new cyclists make is starting with too much clothing. They’ve not yet learned an important rule: you should be cool or even cold while waiting for the ride to start or pedaling the first few blocks.

“If you’re comfortable when you start, you’re probably wearing too much,” said rider Vincent Valentino, who also serves as treasurer for the Cycling Kansas City club.

Others agreed. “It really isn’t that cold once you get going,” added Greg Goat of Epic Bike and Sport, Kansas City, North. “If you wear something that’s too heavy, you’ll overheat and that’s bad because later you’ll get chilled.”

This is also why winter cycling can be tricky: it’s often a series of hard efforts uphill, followed by windswept rides down. Or you’ll face an extended push into a headwind that at first is bitter, but soon generates surprising heat from the steady effort.

Veteran rider Dave Mathews enjoys rides of several hundred miles at a clip. He recommends a surprising piece of equipment that can help. “When it starts looking cold or rainy, I put a big saddle bag on my bike to have room for extra clothing,” he explains. “You don’t want to get overheated.”

A group of hardy cyclists leave Wyandotte County Lake Park in Kansas City, Kansas en route for Weston, Missouri. Held the third Saturday of every month, George’s Weston Ride covers 58 miles of challenging hills and long flats, and welcomes riders of all levels. Photo by Kristi Mayo

Other simple tricks can help. Even top racers are known to stick a sheet of newspaper under their jersey or jacket for extra chest insulation. Another sheet of newspaper inside your helmet to block air vents is another easy fix. Cheap shoe covers can be fashioned from old socks with a slot cut to accommodate cleats. Wool or synthetic works best—and never use cotton. In fact, cotton is something winter cyclists should avoid everywhere because it easily becomes wet and holds moisture.

Special bike clothing is hard to beat for other reasons. One example involves wind jackets with solid fronts and mesh backs, which places the wind protection only where it’s needed. Another example involves long-fingered gloves with a hidden pouch that opens to create a windproof mitten for colder weather.

Off the Road

All of this is especially true for road riding, where cyclists are apt to face the coldest wind chills from higher speeds and open roads. Riding off-road or off of paved roads is an alternative. The difference in “real feel” between the open road and a wooded trail can be dramatic. Even a gravel road on a cross bike offers a warmer ride. The area’s growing list of paved and chip bike trails are another option where a good workout is available with more warmth.

“Mountain bikes in the winter are definitely warmer,” Mathews noted. “Sometimes you even want it to be cold to keep the trails frozen. But down in the woods, it is warmer.”

Decker at Midwest Cyclery agrees. “We sell more mountain bikes than anything,” she said. “There are also (cyclo) cross bikes and adventure bikes that work better on trails and gravel roads. There are more variations every day.”

Other equipment suggestions deal with where the rubber hits the road—or trail. “You might also think of your tire selection,” noted Javier Diaz at Bike America in Overland Park. “In some conditions, you might consider a winter, ‘grippy’ compound or dedicated, studded tires.”

The ultimate off-road is indoors, on a wind trainer, rollers or special exercise bike. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but a common problem may be mental: boredom. That’s why group events like spin classes or electronic perks like digital “courses” on a smart trainer or computer tablet are popular. They reduce the “sitting and grinding” that can make indoor training mentally tough.

“If I didn’t have a class to hold me accountable, I would not ride to that intensity,” explained Jason Starforth of the Bicycle Shack in Lee’s Summit. “Something to motivate you can be really important.”

Back outside, Valentino recommends another piece of gear: good bike lights to ensure safety with winter’s early darkness. “If you are going to ride in winter, lights are essential,” he said. Other equipment might include fenders to reduce splashing snowmelt. Riders should also remember to clean their bike after a messy winter ride. Although aluminum or carbon bikes aren’t as susceptible to winter salt and grit, moving parts are.

And most of all, get out, ride and get acclimated. “Fifty degrees in the fall feels cold, but in the springtime, it feels pretty good,” explained Jason Starforth of the Bicycle Shack in Lee’s Summit. “If you keep riding as it gets cooler, you’ll find it a lot easier when it’s really cold.”

Valentino added that winter riding also offers something summer riding may not. “It’s a great time to get out in a group,” he noted. “You’re not out to prove anything. You’re just trying to get out, slow down and socialize. That’s one of the great things about winter riding.”

About the Author

Dale Garrison has been writing professionally since the early 1970s, and riding bikes nearly as long. He has always enjoyed long rides and qualified for Paris-Brest-Paris, raced for several years and still enjoys recreational riding. He and his wife live in Liberty, Mo.