Riding through the winter brings lots of challenges, with shorter days, lower temperatures and inclement conditions conspiring to make it a sometimes less-than-pleasant experience. Let’s face it, freezing cold rides along the wet, debris-strewn road aren’t anyone’s idea of fun.
But if you want to maintain your fitness – and maybe take a break from the turbo trainer – getting out and about is essential. The key to enduring the winter months in comfort is getting your clothing right, and the good news is that there are a host of options available to ensure you don’t have to hibernate until springtime.
We dropped into Alan Ryan and Hugh Morrissey at The Hub | Bike for Life in Limerick to enjoy a hot cup of joe and get Alan’s expert advice on dressing for the colder months in Ireland and the UK. Watch the video below and check out our Buyers’ Guide to Autumn/Winter Clothing which we take you layer-by-layer through the essentials you need to stay dry and cozy.
Dressing for the colder months – the basics
“I always view dressing for the winter as a recipe,” explains Alan Ryan, keen cyclist and co-owner of The Hub | Bike for Life in Limerick. “The principle is the same – you have a variety of ingredients, some of which are essential at all times and form the base of your recipe, and others which can be added or removed as conditions dictate.
“You don’t need to wear everything at once, but it’s important to have enough ingredients in your cupboard to be able to make up the recipe as you need it.”
Key to the cooking process is the concept of layering – beginning with a base layer or layer(s) that perform the essential functions of moisture management (by ‘wicking’ sweat away from your skin and allowing it to escape) and heat management (keeping you at an optimum temperature for the given conditions.
These base layers are then supplemented by protective outer layers that repel wind and rain, and in colder conditions offer an element of thermal insulation to trap a layer of warm air next to your skin. You’ll also need to protect your extremities – feet, hands and head – from the worst of the cold and wet.
Wet, freezing hands and feet can make winter bike riding not only uncomfortable but also dangerous, while heat loss through your head is important to avoid.
Ideally, the recipe elements that you choose should appropriately balance protection and performance – cycle-specific gear needs to be slim and non-bulky to allow for smooth pedaling and gear/brake operation etc.
Below we’ll go through the essentials, layer-by-layer, with some key advice on what to look out for when purchasing, and a selection of garments to cover all conditions.
Starting with the base layer and Alan Ryan is adamant about one thing – a staple for any cyclist’s wardrobe summer or winter is a mesh base layer. This is an item that is often overlooked – because it stretches when worn riders see it as offering little protection from the elements – but it has a crucial role to play in heat and moisture management.
“A mesh base layer is essential for winter and summer,” Alan explains. “The structure of the mesh causes an air gap between your clothing and your skin which allows moisture transfer to occur properly.” This optimizes the ‘wicking’ properties of your outer layers, which are designed to draw sweat away from your skin to the exterior where it can evaporate.
Without this ability, a thin layer of sweat will become trapped next to your body, quickly becoming clammy and chilly. Meanwhile, in winter conditions, the mesh structure will trap a layer of warm air next to your skin, insulating you from the cold.
When conditions get cooler you may wish to supplement your mesh vest with an additional short- or long-sleeve base- or mid-layer, primarily for insulation. A variety of materials and thicknesses are available, from synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester and polypropylene (or a blend of multiple fibers) to natural fibers such as merino wool, this being soft, lightweight and having natural microbial properties which help fight unpleasant odors.
For autumn temperatures look for lighter fabrics and ‘transition’-type layers to strike a balance between wicking and insulation, but when the mercury drops a thick, thermal base- or the mid-layer garment should be your go-to.
Base layers should be snug and close-fitting to work properly, but without seams or stitching which may irritate your skin – look for flatlock seams to prevent chafing. Multi-sport base layers should be fine but be aware that cycling-specific garments will feature a cut that reflects the unique demands of the sport, often featuring stretch panels on the shoulders (to accommodate the on-bike position) and extra coverage at the rear (commonly know as a ‘drop tail’) so your lower back isn’t exposed if clothing rides up.
“Next on the menu is your lower section,” says Alan, by which we mean bib shorts and tights. Many riders, coming out of the summer months and into the cooler autumn season, continue to use their summer bib shorts during the transition but supplement them with knee, leg and arm warmers.
“Knee, leg and arm warmers provide additional warmth and coverage when the weather starts to change,” explains Alan, “with the added advantage that riders can take them off and put them into their jersey pocket if they begin to overheat.”
Temperatures can fluctuate greatly in the early part of the autumn/winter season, with a cool early start followed by a warm and sunny day, so the ability to regulate your clothing on the bike – to tinker with the recipe on the fly, as it were – is a great advantage. Much like base layers, knee, leg and arm warmers are available in a selection of synthetic and natural (merino) fibers with light models that offer minimal coverage progressing to fully thermal and waterproof versions.
Bib shorts – distinguished from ‘shorts’ by being secured by over-the-shoulder straps – that are intended for autumn/winter use will also have additional coverage in the torso area to supplement your base layer and help keep your core and kidneys warm.
You’ll also start to find thermal linings including the classic ‘Roubaix’ fleece-type insulation which helps to keep you toasty and warm, and windproof panels on exposed areas such as the thighs. As with any pair of bib shorts a close, comfortable fit is essential, as is a high-quality chamois pad which cushions, not chafes.
“For early autumn and heading into late autumn a ¾-length bib is a great option,” Alan continues. “It’s like wearing bib shorts with integrated knee warmers, for that little bit of extra protection.”
Moving forward into December and the go-to garment becomes a full-length thermal bib offering comprehensive protection from the elements and a high degree of thermoregulation courtesy of a brushed fleece inner. “The best modern garments offer full waterproofing while still being quite thin, soft and comfortable. We strongly advise investing in a quality, waterproof thermal bib as one of your primary go-to items during the depths of winter.”
With our base layers and lower sections are taken care of, we turn our attention to the outer layers, aka jerseys and jackets. The primary role of these is to protect us from wind and water ingress, but our outer layers must also be breathable to allow moisture (wicked from the surface of the skin) to evaporate.
This is achieved via a microporous membrane featuring tiny holes (pores) that allow moisture vapor (from sweat) out but prevent bigger drops (rain) from getting in. This is where a lot of budget jackets fall down, quickly becoming ‘wetted out’ in warmer conditions and coated inside with an unpleasant layer of moisture.
Again, better-quality garments which balance protection with breathability are a sound investment. Look out for an indication of your chosen garment’s water vapor transmission rate (expressed in mm per 24 hours) as a measure of how breathable it is.
“Coming out of the summer months and into the autumn, again many riders may keep riding with their summer jersey but just add a pair of arm warmers for extra coverage,” explains Alan. “When there is a little bit of a chill in the air then a great option is a sleeveless gilet – this will keep the wind off your chest so you don’t get cold and uncomfortable.
“The great advantage of a gilet, of course, is that it is lightweight enough to be taken off and packed into your jersey pocket when the sun comes out or you warm up sufficiently.”
As winter sets in and the temperature drops, your summer jersey/arm warmer combo can be replaced with a slightly heavier long-sleeved jersey. Modern versions retain the light-weight, snug fit and mobility of a summer jersey but with additional thermal/water repelling properties which make them sufficient for most late autumn/early winter conditions and more than capable of withstanding the odd shower.
For colder days and more inclement weather, a full winter jacket is the preferred option, with options ranging from either mid-weight (with windproof paneling) to fully waterproof with thermal fleece lining.
“For extreme conditions, a waterproof jacket with a Windstopper layer will stop anything getting through,” according to Alan. “And even these are available in garments that are quite light and comfortable – gone are the days when bulky, plasticky outer garments were the only option.”
Fully waterproof jackets are equipped with an external membrane called a Durable Water Repellancy layer (DWR). Jackets can be rated according to the efficacy of their DWR (e.g. how long it will keep all moisture out). With some garments, the DWR may become less effective over time and need re-treatment.
As with all cycling garments lookout for practical touches such as storm flaps (which prevent wind and rain getting in through zips), adequate storage (including zippable or fleece-lined rear pockets to protect electronics) and a cycle-specific cut that optimises on-bike comfort and protection from road spray, and doesn’t bunch up around your midriff when you are pedaling.
“As well all know from cycling, your hands and your fee do suffer – and even on a summer’s day you can get quite numb,” explains Alan. Most riders choose to use some form of hand protection, not only for warmth but also for extra grip and security in the event of a crash, and in the transition months of early autumn, a pair of fingerless summer mitts may be fine.
As the winter progresses a light pair of full-finger gloves can be used in combination with mitts as an additional barrier to the elements, but once the mercury drops a dedicated pair of winter gloves is desirable.
“The key thing with winter gloves is to ensure that they fit correctly and are not too bulky,” Alan explains. “You need to maintain dexterity in your hands to be able to operate the gears and brakes so fit and flexibility are crucial.”
The level of cushioning is a matter of personal preference, but look for gloves that have silicone grippers on the palm and fingers to avoid slippage, and in the colder months a windproof and waterproof fabric can help to head off frozen fingertips.
“My personal preference for extreme is for a neoprene glove,” says Alan. “These actually let water through but they act like a wetsuit – as the moisture gets through to your hands it stays warm from your own body heat, so your hands may be damp, but they are not cold.
The vast majority of summer-specific cycling shoes will feature an array of vents and mesh paneling to allow for adequate airflow during the warmer months, but in colder temperatures, the last thing you need is a chill wind blowing around your toes. This is where overshoes come in – stretchable fabric or neoprene booties which protect your shoes (and feet) from the cold and wet of winter.
As with most things, the choice ranges from thin, lightweight overshoes offering minimal protection – as often used in time trialing to improve aerodynamics – to mid-weight waterproof versions and finally to heavier, fleece-lined or neoprene models which will insulate your feet from the worst that winter can throw at them.
Last but not least comes headwear, which must not only perform the key functions of protecting you from wind, rain and cold but must be slim and snug enough to fit under your helmet. The classic cotton peaked cycling cap (or ‘casquette’, to those in the know) is a perennially-stylish option for summer and early autumn, which will protect your scalp from the sun and breeze but which also prevents perspiration from running into your eyes. A peak-free skullcap is another excellent under-helmet option when the colder months start to bite, with variations available that feature a short peak and even ear coverage.
And finally, for the most extreme of arctic conditions, is the option of a full-coverage balaclava. A great option for keeping cozy on the bike but remember to take it off when you get to the coffee stop!
As Alan reiterates, the best approach to dressing for winter weather is to make up your own ‘recipe’ according to your individual preferences, and the external conditions. There is something there to suit all conditions and all budgets!
“You don’t have to have everything,” he concludes. “The fundamentals are your base layers, which regulate how your body reacts when it is under heat and how it gets rid of excess moisture; your external layers which protect you from the elements; and your extremities.
“There is an abundance of different products to use, and definitely enough to cover you cycling through the winter. You do not have to be indoors watching TV or on your turbo trainer, you can definitely get out and about. And that’s the most important part of cycling!”
Thanks to Alan, Hugh and all at The Hub | Bike for Life for their time, expertise – and delicious coffee!