Biking in Cold Weather

Many road bike riders feel that once the temperature drops below 50F, they are finished riding outdoors for the season. With a little preparation and a ‘can do’ attitude, you can continue riding all throughout winter. The hardy rider pictured above is using over size tires in the snow. Now, I’m not suggesting riding on snow or ice covered roads. Once the temperature is at or below freezing, even wet roads can be dangerous for skinny road bike tires. Here in Arkansas there are not many days when there is snow and ice on the roads, but the temperature can drop into the teens and even rarely into single digits. I pick days with dry roads and then choose my layers according to the temperature (recalculated for wind chill).

Most importantly, all layers need to be moisture wicking. You will need to experiment on your own to find what layering scheme works best for you. My rule of thumb is 1 extra layer for every 10 degrees below 60F. I have never used more than 5 layers, although I have never ridden in┬átemperatures below 0F. At 5 layers, your movement becomes somewhat restricted so I don’t think I would ever consider more. For my legs and as the first base layer, I have 2 pair of full leg bibs. Both are fleece lined, but one has a ‘wind proof’ layer on the front side for days that are not only cold but windy as well. I also have lighter vs. heavier base layers. The lighter base layers are usually crew neck and the heavier mock turtleneck styles. I use heavier base layers for the coldest temps and also taking into account sunny vs. overcast. Full sun days allow me to either use 1 less or lighter layers. Conversely, overcast days will often prompt me to add another or a heavier layer. Humidity and wind chill also are factors. High humidity will make colder temps feel warmer with low humidity making colder temps feel more so. There are calculators on the internet to help you determine wind chill values.

The layering I’ve mostly been discussing until now is for chest/core. Your core is the most critical, but the extremities have to be taken care of as well. For me, my ears, hands, face and feet get cold and in that order. Even with temps in the 50’s, I find I need to cover my ears. If I cover my ears then I also wear gloves. Just like off the bike, mittens or the bike specific ‘lobster claws’ are better at keeping your fingers warm than those with individual fingers. I start covering my face when the temperature approaches or is below freezing. Once the temperature falls to 20F or below, I make sure that there is no exposed skin. My head, neck, nose and mouth are covered with a balaclava (my ear covers underneath) and some eye protection to eliminate the tears that come normally in the cold wind. I use inexpensive light weight ski goggles. You will want something that has anti-fogging properties. Almost everything works fine while you are moving, but as soon as you stop the fogging will render you blind. I’ve never needed them, but many people find they want shoe covers because their feet/toes are more sensitive to the cold.

Here are a few important tips I can offer as a regular cold weather rider:

  1. Finish putting on your final layers in the garage (balaclava, gloves, jacket, etc.). Nothing is worse than getting completely layered inside and you are already sweating before you even get outside.
  2. You should feel cool when starting out. If you are warm or comfortable starting out, you have too many layers and will sweat too much. This will cause your layers to become saturated and as the sweat cools it will chill you to the bone.
  3. Ride every cold weather ride as if it is a recovery ride. Easy spinning will generate all the heat you need and minimize sweating. Some sweating is normal, but if you recognize you are breathing hard or sweating a lot then back off on your effort.
  4. When the temperature is 20F or below, it is imperative that your effort be minimal and your breathing shallow until your lungs can acclimate to the frigid temperatures. Breathing frigid air deeply before your lungs acclimate can in some cases stop your heart. At the very least, it puts a lot of unnecessary stress on your heart. Use caution and acclimate slowly. My rule of thumb is that after the first mile I can begin regular breathing. Again, I want to stress regular breathing. If you are breathing hard or notice your throat is feeling raw you are working too hard and I refer you again to tip 3.
  5. Keep your rides to half (or less) of your regular summer rides. I usually keep my cold weather rides in the 15-25 mile range, but at times I only do 6 or 7 miles.

Obviously cold weather riding is not for those that lack physical conditioning. You should not attempt it if you are unable to tolerate strenuous activity. Even easy spinning in cold temperatures is considerably more strenuous than riding in moderate temperatures. Listen to your body. The first few times you may only want to do a few miles to see if it is something you might enjoy. It is not for everyone, but I find it far more preferable to indoor trainers or stationary bikes. Organize a ride for a group and make a coffee shop your halfway point. Grab a hot cocoa or cup of java to warm up and then finish off the ride. Happy trails!