Cycling in Cold Weather
A Cyclist’s Winter Survival Guide
Cycling in cold weather is just as much fun as cycling in the summer sun. The challenges are different which is what makes it fun. The colder temperatures and wetter weather should not be a barrier to enjoying cycling with your kids whether commuting to school, college or on leisure rides.
Here we help you prepare with some hints and tips about what you can do to ensure fun and hassle-free rides in the colder months.
How cold are you?
Everyone feels the cold differently. Walk down a street in October or November and some people are wearing shorts and T-shirts while others are wrapped up in fleece-lined coats, bobble hats, scarves and big furry boots.
How you feel the cold will dictate what you wear – in every day life as well as when out on the bike. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. This guide will give you suggestions and options, but it’s up to you to dress for yourself and the conditions in which you are cycling.
Getting your clothing right is vital to an enjoyable ride, especially with kids who tend to quickly let you know when they feel uncomfortable. Loudly. And usually with tears.
The quick-reference table below gives you examples of what to wear at which temperatures, but remember you will need to adjust this based on how you and your kids feel the cold.
|Chill Factor Temp. (°C)||Clothing|
|18 – 21+||Baselayer|
|15 – 18||Arm warmers|
Thin full-finger gloves
|12 – 15||Leg warmers|
|10 – 12||Leg warmers|
|7 – 10||Seamless skull cap|
|5 – 7||Tights|
Long-sleeved base layer
Seamless skull cap
Rain- and windproof jacket
|2 – 5||Liner gloves|
Winter shoes or hiking boots
Thicker hat or balaclava
|0 – 2||Thicker tights|
|-3 – 0||A second long-sleeved jersey|
Mid layer sock
|-3 and below||Extra base layer|
Leg warmers under tights
The key to keeping your body warm while cycling in cold weather is thin layers.
It’s much easier to regulate your temperature by wearing several layers of thin clothing that you can take on and off as required.
The heat your body retains is contained within the thin layer of air between each layer of clothing. The more layers, the more trapped air, the warmer you are.
When we wear thick clothing we need fewer layers so there isn’t as much trapped air to keep us warm. Plus if you become a little too hot, removing a thick layer will make you much colder than removing a thin layer of clothing.
By wearing thin layers, you have a finer degree of control of your body’s temperature.
When looking at any clothing for cycling, whether cycling-specific or not, we need to look at four elements: wick, trap, hold, block.
Whether it’s hot, warm, cool or freezing cold, you will always sweat while cycling. In the colder months, wet clothing will make you even colder. The answer is wearing fabrics that wick away the sweat leaving you warm and dry. Check the clothing label for information on how effective the item is for wicking. Cotton does not wick sweat away at all, it holds moisture in. Lycra and polyesters wick much away. There’s a reason why cyclists wear lycra – you can always wear cycling clothing under your everyday clothes.
We’ve already discussed wearing thin layers to trap warm air to better regulate temperature. Some fabrics are better are trapping air than others. Woolly jumpers are a definite no, no for cycling.
Whatever you decide to wear, everyday clothing or cycling-specific, it needs to hold the warmth. It’s no good wearing a string vest under your jersey as that will do nothing to keep you warm.
The autumn and winter months bring more wind and rain. Our clothing needs to protect us from the worst of the weather. Wear clothing that will block the wind and rain. Look out for windproof and either showerproof or waterproof jackets to keep out the cold and wet.
Let’s look at what you may be wearing in the colder months of the year.
A base layer is a thin seamless layer, fitted close to the skin that will trap air to keep you warm.
Your mid layer is usually a cycling jersey, long- or short-sleeved depending upon preference and temperature.
A thicker garment which usually zips up like a cardigan, but much more form fitted.
Ideal for very windy or wet conditions to protect you from the worst of the weather and keep your other layers dry. It’s worth checking your jacket has vents to release warm air because the jacket material can cause you to sweat excessively which makes your clothing wet from the inside.
A good investment is a thin seamless skull cap which fits under your helmet. Most have enough material to cover your ears too!
A gaiter is a tube of material which can be worn in different ways. As an under-helmet layer to keep your head warm, around the neck as a scarf, or around the neck and pulled up to cover your nose and chin.
Arms and Legs
Armwarmers and Legwarmers
Temperature is not black and white. Days start off freezing and by mid-afternoon you’re in a mini heatwave. Armwarmers and legwarmers are the answer (please don’t picture those woollen monstrosities from the 80s!). A thin layer to protect you from the chill, armwarmers and legwarmers can easily be removed without undressing and roll up small enough to fit into a back pocket.
Gents, please don’t be put off by the name. We are not talking about women’s denier tights here. Cycling tights are close-fitting so no material can become entangled or snagged in the chain drive. Much like cycling shorts, but covering the whole leg, cycling tights are warm, practical and comfortable. Buy padded or unpadded to suit your preference.
Keeping your hands warm is crucial. You need your fingers to operate the brake levers and gear shifters as well as steer the bike. If you can’t feel your fingers, you’re in trouble.
Similarly to body layers and cycling tights, gloves come in various weights or thicknesses to help you manage the changeable temperature better.
Cycling gloves usually cover your wrists too so you can tuck in the sleeves of your top layer or jacket to prevent the wind and rain soaking your arms and the cold chilling your wrists and hands.
If the weather is so bad that your gloves cannot cope, add liner gloves which increase the temperature of your hands by up to an extra 3ºC. Liner gloves are worn under your gloves.
A combination of options to keep your feet warm while cycling:
- Thin socks and overshoes
- Thick socks and overshoes
- Thin socks, thick socks & overshoes
- Thin socks, plastic bag or cling film, thick socks and overshoes!
Overshoes are made of a durable material and fit over your shoes to trap a layer of warm air. There are holes in the bottom where your feet touch the pedals or clip in.
Food & Drink
Whenever you go out cycling, eat and drink appropriately to keep up energy levels and stay hydrated.
A tip for your water bottle is to boil some water and let it cool enough to put in your bottle. This will help keep off the chill and slow how quickly your water freezes.
Every cyclist loves a café stop, but even more so during the winter for a hot drink and slice of cake. Make sure you keep warm when stopped so as not to cool off too much. Warm muscles make for easier riding.
Like any vehicle, we have lights for two reasons – to see and to be seen. With bicycles, we can choose which lights to use based upon where and when we will be cycling.
Riding through the city may only require lights to be seen as nearly all streets are lit and you can see the route ahead quite easily.
Cycling in the countryside requires more powerful, brighter lights as you not only need to be seen by other road users, but for you to see the road (and any potholes or other obstacles) ahead.
There is no hard and fast rule when choosing which lights you need. Think about when and where you are likely to ride and the conditions you will be riding in. Use your common sense.
Will other road users be able to see you when riding in the rain on a country lane? What about in early morning fog in the city?
If in doubt, get some bright lights. Lights are rated for brightness in lumen. The higher the lumen, the brighter the lights.
Choosing the right tyres depends on a number of variables. Think about the surface and weather. If you are commuting by bike through ice and snow, then it may be worth investing in some studded winter tyres for additional grip. You may only need non-studded winter tyres or something with a little more grip. It depends upon where you are cycling.
It’s worth making sure your tyres are puncture resistant as you are more likely to have a puncture during autumn and winter, especially when any hedge cutting is happening. A lot of hedges are hawthorn which have some very long, sharp and strong thorns that easily puncture your tyres. Snow and debris can hide broken glass too. Make sure you carry the essentials when out cycling including spare inner tubes, puncture kit and tyre boot.
Mudguards are an optional extra depending on how you feel about getting hit by spray and road dirt. However, if you’re riding with other people then mudguards are good manners as the cyclist behind you will not appreciate the constant spray of dirt from your back wheel.
Mudguards come in various types from tie-on to bolted to the frame. Depending upon your needs, price and how effective you want the mudguard to be will dictate what you buy. Some mudguards clip onto the seat post or tie-on to your frame which are quick and easy to fit. For mudguards that bolt to your frame, you will need to check that there is enough clearance between wheel and fork (or rear wheel stay) for a mudguard to fit and that your frame has the requisite bolt eyelets.
Mudguards are available to fit every bike protecting you from road dirt.
It’s important to maintain your bike all year around, but never more so than in the winter months.
- Wash your bike more often to remove road salt from the wheels and frame which could rust your bike.
- Check for wear as it’s more likely during winter months with the increase of grit and grime, especially chain, cassette and chainset.
- Regularly lubricate your drive chain and derailleurs to ensure optimum working order.
Look after your bike and it will be far less likely to fail you. Set a regular time each week to clean and inspect your bike.
Dedicated winter bike?
Some cyclists have a specific winter bike for riding during the colder and grimier months. Usually, winter bikes are heavier with wider tyres for added grip and stability, and cheaper components too which makes replacements less likely to break the bank. Another advantage is lower gearing to make pedalling in harsher weather a little easier at lower speeds.
We’ve mentioned above about being prepared for punctures, wind, rain and snow, but what about the rider – you – who is just as important? We would recommend carrying a small first aid kit as the chances of you having an ‘off’ are more likely in autumn and winter due to the increased number of slippery surfaces and amount of debris.
Can‘t or won’t go out?
Not everyone enjoys cycling in the colder months. That’s fair enough – cycling is supposed to be fun. You’ve worked hard over the spring and summer. You’ve never been fitter. How can you keep your fitness levels up ready for the warmer weather? What about all the over-eating we do over the holidays? How do we keep it all under control?
The answer is a turbo.
A turbo fits to the rear wheel of your bike and allows you to pedal away without leaving the comfort of your own home.
Basic turbos use variable magnetic resistance which you can set to determine the difficulty of your ride. Basic turbos are great for fitness, but can be a little monotonous. We recommend music or cycling ride videos to entertain you while you pedal.
Smart turbos are more fun, but more expensive. They work a little like a video game where you have a virtual ride. The smart turbo attaches to your bike and a TV. You select the ride you want to do and the smart turbo does the rest. The image on the screen shows an ascent, it becomes harder to pedal. Your avatar comes to a steep descent, pedalling is easier. The smart turbo regulates the difficulty depending on the surface and gradients of the ride you are doing making the ride more challenging. Plus you don’t have to ride alone. Smart turbos come with an online multiplayer mode so you can join people from around the world. With a headset and microphone, you can even talk to them as you ride. The great aspect of these virtual rides is you can work to complete any ride. Want to try Alpe d’Huez? Innsbruck? What about the Tour de France route? You choose.
When using a turbo you will get hot. You don’t realise how much the air cools your body temperature when out on a real-world ride. You don’t get that on a turbo as your bike isn’t moving forward. We find using a fan and only wearing shorts and a t-shirt is enough. You will also need to drink more water regularly if turbo cycling for an extended period of time.
Cycling for leisure or commuting, it doesn’t matter. Cycling is fun no matter the weather. Dress appropriately, be prepared and turn the pedals. Enjoy yourself!