Getting dressed for winter riding can be a real chore. Not only can it take ages to decide what you’re going to wear based on the weather forecast and concerned glances out of the window, it can take an equal amount of time to just get it all on.
Then, fully dressed, you start worrying about whether you’ve made the right choices, having spotted a slightly darker cloud or sliver of blue among the overcast skies that you’re sure wasn’t there before. A full re-assessment ensues, usually resulting in you emptying vast swathes of your accumulated kit onto your bedroom floor as you search for the day’s ensemble.
It can be a real challenge, with some not bothering at all and sticking to the turbo trainer instead of risking being caught out. Everyone’s perfect solution is different, so we’ve identified eight common mistakes made with winter cycling clothing and spoken to two experts to find out what you should be doing.
1) Not wearing enough
Not just not wearing enough, but also not packing enough so that when things do turn out colder than you expect, you’re not caught short. Paul Whitfield, an experience cyclist and UK account manager of apparel brand Sportful, says that carrying a ‘just in case’ jacket is vital in the UK’s often-unpredictable weather.
"An additional layer can be a lifesaver in the wintertime"
“An additional layer can be a lifesaver in the wintertime," he says. “Just because the forecast didn’t predict rain is of little comfort when you’re stood at the side of the road mending a puncture and the heavens open.
“You also need to make sure that you’re covered up in general. In 15 degrees and below I advise wearing knee warmers, then progress to leg warmers as the mercury continues to drop."
Meanwhile, Andy Storey of clothing gurus Prendas Ciclismo says that instead of leg warmers, you may prefer to opt for full winter tights instead to guarantee coverage.
“Bib tights generally come in a Roubaix-type material that is fleece-backed to provide added warmth on winter rides," says Storey. "My own personal preference is to have bib tights with their own chamois as these will provide a better fit than having to wear shorts underneath tights without a pad.
“Bear in mind that using a windproof fabric on bib tights tends to interfere with the flexibility and comfort of the garment, so they are best only used for when it’s sub-zero."
2) Wearing too much
Conversely, donning too many items of clothing can be just as big a mistake as not wearing enough. This normally happens because we wrap up warm before heading out, not taking into account the fact that our bodies generate heat as we ride, or that the temperature might also rise.
That heat can build up, causing excess sweating and with the added complication of the moisture being unable to escape through the layers. You’re effectively wet, which makes fending off cold air far harder and you’re likely to catch a chill. Storey says that experience plays its part here.
“After years of riding, you get used to what you’ll need for each type of ride in each type of weather," he says. “The old adage that ‘if you are comfortable after the first 15 minutes of riding, you’ve got it right’ is usually accurate.
Whitfield adds: “You should generally aim to roll out feeling slightly underdressed. Therefore, you’re aiming to choose the right apparel for the duration of your ride, instead of the first 15 minutes. This should help you to avoid the sweat-drenched feeling you get from being overdressed and the onset of being chilled by the winter elements."
3) Using non-technical fabrics
Fabrics are designed for specific purposes in cycling. Whether it’s a windproof fabric to fend of a cutting wind, a fully breathable and waterproof membrane, or the use of materials such as merino wool for its thermal benefits, technical fabrics can be for more effective than standard clothing.
To this end, Whitfield recommends leaving items like an old cotton t-shirt, often used in place of a technical base layer as a cheaper alternative, at home.
“Leave the cotton T-shirt for the post-ride pint," he says. “A decent winter base layer is fundamental to feeling comfortable for the duration of your ride. You can opt for synthetic polypropylene and polyester blends or merino wool, the choice is yours – but you’ll benefit from having fit-for-purpose fabrics."
4) Not wearing a base layer
We’ve already mentioned the base layer, but Storey rates it as the most important piece of cycling clothing you can buy. It’s the layer that sits in contact with your body, so is responsible for wicking moisture away from your skin (where the cooling effect is most potent).
“Without a suitable base layer, everything else will be more difficult to get right," he says. "By selecting the correct garment for the temperature conditions and, importantly, your effort level during the ride, your outer layers are easier to decide upon.
“Having three to four different choices of base layers that don’t need to be massively expensive will often extend the lifespan of more expensive outer layers.
“I know that three to four sounds excessive, but base layers are not usually sport-specific, so there’s added utility here. Mine get used for a variety of activities including running, walking, stand up paddle boarding and a whole host of other activities."
5) Wearing one single thick layer
A heavyweight jacket can seem like the ideal solution to all your problems, especially if it’s marketed as being breathable and waterproof. Perhaps it’s even got a Roubaix lining for added warmth too. The problem here is that you’re committed to wearing it, especially if it’s not packable and you’re likely only going to be wearing a base layer underneath.
Wearing multiple thin layers instead offers flexibility – you can add or remove those layers on the go as required, while they can also contribute to your spring and autumn attire, too.
“Go for the combo deal," says Whitfield. “For example, a thermal jersey and gilet are two pieces of kit that you’ll be using year-round. Together they’ll offer insulation and wind protection against the winter chill, while you can also wear the thermal jersey on its own when it turns milder, or even match the gilet with a summer jersey."
6) Forgetting about essential accessories
During the summer, your accessory decisions are easy to make, in that there aren’t many. Usually, you only have to decide whether you’re going to start out with a gilet and arm warmers on a cool morning, or whether to take a packable shell if there are showers about. Not so in the winter, and not fully accessorising can wreck your ride, says Whitfield.
“Simple accessories can go along way to adding warmth and comfort to your winter rides, protecting the extremities that often suffer first," he says. “The humble cycling cap, for example, offers additional coverage and helps to retain heat, fitting nicely under a helmet.
“Simple accessories can go along way to adding warmth and comfort to your winter rides"
“Cold hands could well be the cyclist kryptonite that’ll see even the most hardened of cyclist turn home early, so an invaluable investment that’s worth spending some money on is a good pair of winter gloves."
As many cyclists will know, finding the right set of winter gloves is no easy task. The key, Storey says, is balancing warmth with dexterity.
“You have to balance the need for proper feel when braking and shifting with keeping your hands warm," warns Storey, who recommends adding a liner glove when the temperature gets truly cold.
“Other items that are easier to get right are an easily-removable neck warmer to keep out draughts and proper thermal winter socks," adds Storey, “but it’s important that they are not too thick - this can affect the fit of your cycling shoes and restrict important circulation."
You can further protect your feet with a set of overshoes, which like gloves are a key winter riding accessory.
“They’re a good first step to stop your toes from going blue when the temperatures plummet," Whitfield says. “If your feet continue to feel like blocks of ice when wearing overshoes, you can also try sealing the vents in the soles of your shoes that keep the air circulating the summer time. By simply blocking up these outlets with electrical tape, your feet will feel instantly warmer next ride – promise!"
7) Not caring for waterproof clothing
Waterproof clothing can be a godsend, but it needs to be maintained to keep functioning at its best. Many people buy a waterproof jacket or water repellent clothing and assume that washing it as normal will be enough to maintain it. Not so.
“There are three big things that can stop your garment from being water repellent and breathable," says Tom Willox of Nikwax. "First is dirt, which can attract water, second are normal household detergents and third is general wear."
As a result, he recommends using a technical wash to help maintain your waterproof items.
“Technical detergents have been formulated for use on waterproof fabrics, whereas household laundry detergents can leave an invisible layer of detergent on a waterproof, which draws water back into the fabric," he says. “They can also use ingredients like bleaches and brighteners that can hinder waterproof capabilities."
8) Not washing the rest of your carefully
It’s not just waterproof clothing that needs to be looked after carefully. While you might not be prepared to pay top dollar for the most technically-advanced fabrics and prestigious brands, it makes good sense to look after all your winter kit so that it stands the test of time. After all, it comes into contact with all sorts of muck during the winter, and just like your bike’s components, that dirt can corrode and reduce life.
“Decent cycling kit is an investment worth looking after," says Whitfield. “Post-ride, make sure you rinse off any excess dirt or mud before putting it in the washing machine immediately.
“This will not only prolong the life of your kit but your washing machine, too. It’s also good practise to make sure all zips are zipped up, while you should avoid the use of fabric softeners and use a minimal amount of a non-bio liquid detergent on a cool, low spin cycle. Hang drying is preferable to tumble drying too."
Whitfield also recommends using a laundry bag to isolate items of winter clothing that have Velcro. “Other than hitting the tarmac, nothing will damage cycling apparel faster than velcro getting stuck and ripping in the cycle," he says.