In order to avoid the tedium of indoor training, I like to try and stay outside as much as I can during the winter. Even though I'm a massive wimp and dislike the cold, it's far better than riding your bike and not going anywhere. Plus, winter can be a great time to ride, it’s just that gear choices tend to be a little trickier than summer when almost anything goes.
The main concern in winter is staying warm (duh), and this is a bit of an art in itself. To be honest, the knack of finding the right balance between too warm and not warm enough is something that pretty much just involves trial and error – you’ll likely sweat and/or shiver through a ride or two before you know exactly what works for you.
But to give you a nudge in the right direction, we’ve put together a selection of things to think about when it comes to winter kit that’ll hopefully have you riding happily through until April.
Choose the correct clothing for the conditions
Now this might seem obvious – well, actually, it really is obvious – but a lot of riders still find themselves getting it wrong. Clothing choice can sometimes be a difficult one, as that famous Sean Kelly quote about only knowing how cold it is once you get back from a ride suggests, and in winter it’s just as important to make sure you don’t overheat as it is to not freeze.
The overheating one is easy to do, because looking out the window on a December morning it almost always looks freezing. Especially if you're me, as it’s fair to say I don’t exactly have an Andreas Klier-esque attitude to riding in the freezing cold and tend to assume the worst. Another part of the problem is that bike clothes aren’t all that good at keeping you warm when you’re not riding. That means the short walk from door to garage is generally quite nippy even on mild mornings and can easily (and errantly) tempt you back indoors to put on more clothing. This is a mistake, and should be avoided.
On a related note, winter is when the base layer really comes into its own. There are actually plenty of times in winter when I’ll happily ride with just a base layer and jacket, finding a jersey in between just an extra bit of unneeded bulk unless the weather really drops right down. It also means you can get away with wearing a jacket which, in normal circumstances, might be a little too insulating for that particular ride.
Another bonus of the base layer is sweat removal, or to use everyone's favourite buzz word, wicking. A base layer that wicks sweat efficiently helps to keep you dry, something you’ll be happy for when riding, but also if you stop for a coffee. When you stop, body temperature begins to drop and the cooling effect of sweating stops keeping you cool and starts making you cold. So the less sweat you have sitting next to your skin, the better.
One other superb piece of winter kit is a good set of arm warmers. The beauty of these is that if you get out and really find that it’s too warm, you can just take them off and stow them in a pocket. Alternatively, arm warmers and a base layer under a jacket mean you can always take off the arm warmers but still have a warm set of clothes on. Basically, what I’m saying is that the key to winter kit is versatility. If the weather’s anywhere near mild you’re going to want options, and the ability to cool down.
Don’t be a hero
On the other side of the temperature scale sits the wannabe hardman. While some riders constantly over estimate the quantity of clothing they’ll need on a ride, there are others who commit to wearing as little as possible even when it’s freezing. This is an equally ridiculous thing to do.
While you might read the stories about Bernard Hinault and the snowy apocalypse that disguised itself as the 1980 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, you can bet your bike that The Badger would have turned around and gone home if it wasn’t a race. The moral of the story is this: as an amateur you don’t get any bonus points for making yourself cold and miserable. You just end up cold and miserable.
Plus, you’ll ride better if you’re warm. That’s just a fact. If you’re under insulated, your body has to try and keep you warm. Your blood vessels constrict in an effort to send more warm blood back to your core and your extremities start to go numb. As anyone who’s ever tried to pull a brake lever with frozen hands will tell you, it’s not just difficult, it’s dangerously difficult.
If anything, it’s better to overdress for a winter ride than underdress because while you can always unzip a jacket, you can’t really fabricate extra clothing on the go – unless you ride past your local shop and are feeling particularly flush with cash, that is. Seriously though, once you’re cold, you’re staying cold so it’s much better to make sure you don’t get to that point by taking plenty of clothing with you. If in doubt, start with too much on an undress as you go. Things like thin waterproof/windproof race caps, gilets, Buffs, gloves and other related accessories can easily be stowed away in jacket pockets if they’re not needed once you warm up, and lots of winter jackets have optional vents you can open to improve airflow.
Look after your extremities
For reasons mentioned already, hands and feet are the first places to get it when the temperature drops. When you start to cool down, blood flow to the areas drops, resulting in them going numb.
Of the two, your hands are the most important to keep warm, because they basically dictate whether or not you’ll be able to steer and slow the bike efficiently. On the flip side, cold feet are slightly easier to deal with because they’re clipped into the pedals and you can keep them going round. But if they become too cold you’ll have trouble keeping cadence and, in more extreme circumstances, you won’t be able to get out of the saddle at all.
When it comes to keeping your feet warm, most cyclists have a set of overshoes. These can come in a whole host of different varieties to fit a variety of purposes (see our buyer’s guide for specifics) and while they’re definitely an essential piece of winter kit, many riders forget something equally important: socks.
Layering is a concept that everyone is familiar with, so think about socks and overshoes as layering for your feet. Just like sticking a mesh summer base layer under a winter jacket might not do the job, a set of lightweight summer socks under winter overshoes is missing chance to add another layer of insulation. Your feet can cool down easily, give them a helping, er, hand.
One of the most popular materials for this task is merino wool. Merino is comfy, high wicking and – most importantly, let’s be honest – it’s naturally anti-bacterial so although your socks may do thousands of winter miles, they won’t smell like it. That means your riding buddies are safe, even downwind.
Another winter tip is to tape up the vents on the soles of your shoes. It’s the one area which overshoes aren’t always brilliant at covering, and a really easy way for water to work its way in. It might not look great, but duct tape will do an excellent job and cost very little. Beware, though, it could possibly damage the lovely carbon finish of the soles so if that upsets you, maybe look for something less powerful than duct tape.
For your hands, gloves come in all varieties from slimline knitted offerings to full on sub-zero-ready thermal, bulky things that’ll keep you warm and have the added effect of making gear changes more of a challenge (doubly so if you ride Di2, have fun with telling the difference between those buttons). You can also buy liner gloves – thin gloves designed to fit under thicker gloves – to add another layer of protection to your hands on really cold days. They're especially good for when the temperature's in low single figures, or there's a harsh, cold wind.
Use your head
Or cover it, to be more precise. But that didn’t sound good as a headline. When it’s cold, your head and face cool down really bloody quickly. That’s a fact. Sure, studies may have proved that the idea your head accounts for the most body heat lost is a myth, but that doesn’t keep me warm when I ride on a cold December morning.
What does keep me warm is a hat. Or a headband. Or one of those head, face and neck covering Buff things (other brands are available). The thing is, how much heat is lost from your head doesn’t really matter. What does matter is air flow. Chances are you own one of those super summery helmets with more vents than you can count, and what that means is a constant torrent of cold air rushing past your scalp. And that’s what makes you feel so cold.
The way to combat this is to either block the vents (helmet aeroshells are a great way to doing this – they’re not just for aerodynamics) or wear something underneath. Personally, I like a headband under my helmet on all but the coldest winter days, because it offers a balance between insulation and breathability. And it keeps my ears warm. Cold ears are no fun at all.
But if you’re really feeling it a skull cap will do a great job. It does, of course, depend on how much hair you have as I’ll bet Peter Sagan doesn’t need one right now, and might not be able to fit one on even if he did. Although he’s probably riding in Mallorca or somewhere right now anyway and doesn’t need one.
And a couple of other tips...
- Put hot drinks in your water bottle. These will stay warm for a little while in a normal bottle, or a longer while in an insulated bottle like Camelbak’s Podium Chill bottle. I know it’s called the chill, but don't worry, it keeps cold things cold and hot things hot, so it works either way.
- Don’t be afraid to stop and warm up on long winter rides. And by that I mean go inside, have a hot drink and warm up, not stop by the side of the road. There’s nothing weak about stopping during a long ride, and if it makes the second two hours as enjoyable as the first rather than a war of attrition then it’s well worth it.
- Get a couple of those hand warmers that heat up when you crack them and store them in your pockets. You can always stick them inside your gloves or use them to warm the fingers during a cafe stop.
- Fix mudguards. If your dry you'll stay warm or, at least, the drier you are the easier you'll find it is to stay warm.