Cold weather cycling gear for people who don’t like riding in the cold
Apparel and layering strategies for protecting against the cold to keep riding all winter long.
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The daylight shrinks until December 21 as winter falls upon the north. And with it, lower temperatures make riding outdoors challenging, especially for those who are not fond of cold.
Here are my picks for each piece of winter cycling gear, and what I look for when I’m shopping.
Cap: MAAP + New Era: This cap is designed to breathe and is also seam-sealed against penetrating moisture. Caps are like chimney tops; they keep the heat in. The brim on the MAAP + New Era cap is clutch for visibility in rain or snow.
Ear warmers: Mine is the ten-dollar generic, thermal variety. I have a Gore thermal headband as well that’s wider, but thinner. I tend to choose thickness as the weather dictates, and layer it with a neck warmer or balaclava as needed.
Balaclava and/or gaiter: Gaiters — stretchy neck warmers — and cotton bandanas are my go-tos as soon as the leaves start to fall and the mercury starts to drop. They’re both versatile, little pieces of fabric that can make the difference between comfortable and cold. I have a variety in different colors and weights, from the cheap kind you find on eBay or AliExpress to the thicker quality or Merino blend ones by cycling specific or outdoor companies Ostroy and Smartwool, for example. My thermal balaclava from Northface is so old they don’t make it anymore. I prefer to just use multiple thin gaiters unless it’s under 20F degrees because of my hair which makes the balaclava hard to manage.
Arm warmers: Assos EVO7 thermal arm warmers also offer a little wind protection. My Cuore thermal warmers are a little thicker, and therefore, more wind resistant. If I want true windproof, I use my Spexcel’s but they have no thermal insulating properties.
Gloves: I use two layers: the Northwave Active Contact gloves, and the Hirzl Finger Jackets over on top. The Northwaves are insulating, while the Finger Jackets protect from the wind. When it’s colder than the Active Contacts can handle, I upgrade to an old pair of Castelli heavy-duty gloves that aren’t made anymore. And when it’s really chilly, I add a hand warmer to the inside of the Finger Jackets.
Baselayer: I used to shun summer base layers — I thought they were a waste of money — but a good thin one really does help keep me dry, and thus warm. As the weather cools, the baselayers get heavier and grow sleeves and turtlenecks. My thinnest is probably from Verge, like a gossamer net for sweat; my heaviest is an UnderArmour cold gear mock turtleneck. The two combine when the weather is brutal, or I use a Nike cold gear thermal over the thin baselayer — sweat management is key to staying dry, and a thin baselayer under a thermal one works for me.
Bibs: Bibs or bib tights are the next weather-dependent choice. I have a pair of “Explorts” thermal bib tights from Rodeo Adventure Labs, and they get the job done on chilly days with a healthy helping of embrocation or leg warmers for my legs. I personally prefer bib-tights without a chamois to the thermal-bib plus leg-warmer combo, and I don’t prefer knickers at all. The temperature niche they fill is too small for me to warrant their purchase.
Leg warmers: Assos RS leg warmers use a solid modern upper gripper design, and as such, are an exception to my general dislike of legwarmers. Most leg warmers sag and fall down because they employ a narrow silicone band to hold them against the thigh. By comparison, the Assos RS warmers have a wide, almost trapezoidal-shaped band that both keep the warmers in place and prevent that hideous line that can make my thighs look like a tied roast.
Windbreaker: Assos UMA GT Wind Jacket is the most useful wind-specific jacket design I have, specifically because of how one accesses the rear pocket openings — the design is pretty handy to have when I want to keep my jacket zipped. But, I wish it had dual zippers and longer sleeves. Still, a wind jacket with a thin thermal jersey and baselayer underneath gets me from temps in the low 50s to high 30s.
Windex vest: It’s heavier than a windbreaker, so I use it for colder days. I swear by my Ostroy windex Floral Vest. With a dual zipper and three rear pockets, it can turn a long-sleeve thermal layer into a useful jersey, or layer it over a jersey and still allow access to the jersey pockets.
Thermal jacket: I use a No Trainer jacket from Ostroy, having destroyed my Castelli Motirolo 3 from 2016. Whatever thermal jacket I choose, I want it to have pockets so that I never have to open it to access pockets while on a ride. If it’s cold enough for the thermal jacket, it’s cold enough not to want to open it.
Insulated jacket: My Pearl Izumi Prima reversible jacket is only for the coldest rides, below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It is way warmer than its light weight would indicate and it could pass for “normal” clothing. It’s one of my favorite winter items across the board, and unfortunately, I don’t think Pearl makes it anymore. If you’re looking for something similar keep an eye out for Primaloft material.
Oversocks or shoe covers: I have a pair of oversocks from La Passione, and a pair of heavier Neoprene Nylon shoe covers from DHB. The oversocks are for fall, and as it gets colder I layer underneath (either plastic, or a toe cover), and I don’t wear them in the wet. The DHB covers are for deeper winter and are one step up from a full winter cycling shoe. At the time of writing I don’t have winter cycling shoes, so when it gets cold enough, I’m riding a bike with flat pedals and wearing a pair of insulated Sorel duck boots.
Everyone has their preferences, some people ride with their ears and legs out when the mercury dips down into the 40s. Others, like me, start covering up in the low 60s. If you’re looking for gear, all you need do is keep in mind the basic principle of layers: thin and as warm as possible; trap warm air, keep the windproof later on the outside and an absorptive layer next to the skin, and thermal in between for happy, warm winter rides.