Regular readers know that I ride year ’round here in Chicago. Through November, we barely cracked 40 degrees F which didn’t call for much extra prep beyond gloves and ear covering. Come December, however, with the advent of the 30s and below a whole new dimension of cycling wear opens up. Whether you ride a bike or not, I think you will find some useful info here.A recent Wall Street Journal had a cleverly written item on Your Outdoor Sports Survival Guide, by Jason Gay. He aptly describes “the maniacal joy of Survival Season,” and observes “Nobody looks suave playing sports in the freezing cold. If you are doing it correctly, you look a little unhinged and suspicious. Are you going to play golf…or rob the Bank of Alaska?”
(Nov 2015 Update) Sam Champion of The Weather Channel offers this summary of the three types of material you can wear outdoors: cotton, synthetics and wool. Cotton is fine as long as conditions remain dry. It traps warm air, but when it gets wet everything changes. Cotton can trap up to 27 times its own weight in liquid. That is very bad for cold weather. Our bodies lose heat 25 times faster when we are wet. Polyester synthetics are very thin and light weight. That prevents it from holding heat close to the body. But because polyester is a product of petroleum, it repels water. So, it dries three times faster than cotton. What about wool? Wool fibers are three layers thick which keep heat from entering or leaving when it is dry. When wet, magic happens. There is a chemical reaction between wool and water that actually generates heat. In wet conditions this process can increase the temp of the wool by over 20 degrees. This is why wool has warming characteristics. So wool is the best insulator for exercising in cold weather.
The use of theword ‘tips’ in the headline was really a play on words. I was referring to my fingertips and toe tips. That is my first line of vulnerability. In cold weather, our body feels under siege and reduces blood circulation to our extremities flooding our vital organs to keep us alive. I counter the frozen toes attack with two pairs of socks. Here also is a really important first rule. Try to avoid cotton against your skin on the first layer. Cotton absorbs perspiration and when you slow down or take a break you are going to freeze those parts that are wet with sweat. So, my first pair of socks is silk and I cover them with a pair of wool ones. 2013 Update: I recently discovered shiny silver insoles which reflect the heat from my feet upward and do a great job in keeping my feet and toes warm. You can also use aluminum foil for this.
Now for those icey dicey digits. Last year I met a fellow rider on a cold day who was wearing a pair of expensive ski gloves. They were down-filled and he swore by them. I went out and paid $65 for a pair. They worked fairly well, but were thick and I never felt comfortable in them. I actually stumbled upon the solution walking my dog. A friend of mine was wearing a pair of ‘glove-mitts.’
If aren’t familiar with them, they are fingerless gloves that have a mitten flap that slips over your bare fingers. You could call them convertible mittens, too. I saw a pair this season at Target called ‘texting gloves.’
The glove-mitts actually worked better than the ski gloves as they were more flexible and my fingers stayed warmer. It seems to be a neat principle of safety in numbers. Only in this case it was the fingers huddled together that translated into warmth in numbers. I feel I have more control shifting gears and also I can stop and work my iPhone without having to completely strip off my gloves in freezing weather.
I wear two pairs of synthetic ‘base-layers’ on my legs. In the old days, we called these long johns but they have been upgraded to base layers.
On top for temps down to the 20’s I wear 5 layers comprised of two base layers of synthetic long sleeve undershirts, one long-sleeved cycling jersey, a hoodie and a windbreaker that is vented. The venting is relevant because much of dressing for cold weather cycling is management of your body heat. You generate plenty of heat pedaling the bike, so you need to vent out the excess or you will be dripping wet under your clothes which will be uncomfortable while riding and cold when you stop.
One of the fine points of cold weather cycling is the Eddie Bauer Multi-clava. Not easy to describe, here it is in the Amazon website listing. EB describes it as, “Simple. Ingenious. Essential. This seamless, quick-drying microfiber tube just might be the most versatile piece of gear in your pack. As First Ascent Guide Seth Waterfall says, you can use it “as a hat, a neck gaiter, a balaclava, a sunshade. Even an eye mask when you’re sleeping.” In fact, we’ve counted at least 12 ways the Multi-clava can be worn on a climb. Machine wash.” (2021 update: you can use a ‘neck gaitor’ for this which many people have adopted as masks for the pandemic)
I love my Multi-clava and use it on all cold weather rides. It also helps for the freezing cold dog walks typical of Chicago.
Keep in mind that you want as small an area as possible of your bare skin exposed to the cold. Also, remember the law of conduction. You want to employ several layers because they trap dead air between them and dead air is the absolute worst conductor of heat therefore the absolute best insulation against cold. Your synthetic base layers let your skin breathe and wick out perspiration to the outer surface.
As you can probably tell, what I have put forward here is the result of several years of riding in the cold. Unlike some, I draw the line at riding in snow and over ice. I have fallen in the past and broken bones. I am a senior citizen and have no wish to lose several months of cycling wearing a cast and doing rehab.
I consider cold weather gear to be as much art as science. Please feel free to share your tips here.
One final tip: below 32F slow down and be wary of ice patches. They can take your tires right out from under you.