Winter cycling: How to get through the grim months in comfort
Winter cycling means different things to different people. Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, here’s everything you need to know
Whether you see winter cycling as an excuse to sit indoors on the trainer and get some quality structured riding in while it’s blowing a gale outside, or whether the sight of a downpour causes a masochistic grin to spread across your face, the winter months have particular requirements for both clothing and equipment.
If you take shelter indoors you’ll need specific gear to stay cool and you power through intervals or tour virtual landscapes, while if you’re heading outside staying warm and dry often takes precedence over speed.
Whether this is your first winter riding and you want to make sure you get it right, or if you’ve had a bad time in the past and want to improve things for yourself then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got you covered for clothing, equipment, training and commuting.
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Appropriate clothing is often the first port of call, but getting through the winter in style and comfort extends beyond having the best waterproof cycling jackets at your disposal. Consideration for mudguards (fenders) and a change of tyres can make a huge difference.
The more you ride the more you’ll come to know how your body reacts at different temperatures. Some riders will need the absolute best winter cycling gloves money can buy, while some pros like Heinrich Haussler eschew all hand coverings even when the mercury dips below zero.
If you’re just getting started then most clothing will have a recommended temperature range, which should give you a good indication of what to expect.
The key to staying warm and avoiding overheating is to opt for a layering system, the basis of which comes from a great base layer. The best cycling base layers for winter months will be long-sleeved and occasionally feature a roll neck, a hood, and integrated windproof panels. Some riders prefer merino, while others opt for synthetics, but in either case, wicking properties will be important to ship moisture away from your skin and avoid you feeling clammy.
Due to the movement of – and heat generated by – your legs while riding, layering on your lower half isn’t common. Instead, making sure you have a set of the best winter bib tights will ensure you stay warm and comfortable once you put your shorts and knee warmers away for a few months. It is possible to double-glaze your upper legs by opting for unpadded tights over a set of bib shorts, and if you’re really struggling to get some heat into your legs then a generous smear of embrocation, a heat-inducing cream rub, might just be what you need to stave off the cold. For the wettest of winters, a hardshell rain trouser (pant) is the port of call for some of our reviewers.
While most riders can stomach having wet legs, opinion is split on the most appropriate option for wet and cold weather for your upper half. Many, like this writer, would prefer to be warm and wet than too hot and dry, and so opt for a softshell option such as any of the best winter cycling jackets. Those who want to stay dry at all costs though should opt for a hardshell.
They say the secret to keeping your hands warm on a bike is to keep your core warm, but without winter cycling gloves, you’re putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage. The same goes for doubling up, too – two pairs of gloves isn’t necessarily warmer than one, especially if it means they’re squeezing the circulation in your fingers. The best winter cycling gloves manage the holy grail between comfort and protection without a loss in dexterity.
Gloves are notoriously difficult to keep waterproof, given their many seams and panels. Some gloves, such as neoprene ones, do away with any pretence of keeping you dry and focus on keeping your hands warm instead. If you really struggle with cold hands make sure you get a pair that covers your wrists, or insulate them further with a pair of sweatbands; all the blood to your hands passes through the inside of your wrists very close to the surface of the skin, so this is a top tip for those with icy paws.
Just like in all walks of life, your choice of socks may change with the weather, however, with the repetitive motion of cycling, a bad choice of socks can easily lead to discomfort. Add in the inevitable water ingress and that discomfort can quickly lead to blisters. Our guide to the best winter cycling socks covers the colder months, while our separate guide to the best cycling
socks covers all bases.
A word of caution – most riders opt for snug-fitting shoes that work best with lightweight summer socks. While some hyper-thick winter socks may on paper appear warmer, if they cause your foot to be so compressed as to reduce blood flow they will in all likelihood do more harm than good, and you should instead opt for additional foot insulation over your shoes.
Shoes and overshoes
When it comes to cycling in winter, there are two main options for footwear. Option one is to pair your current cycling shoes with a pair of overshoes. The best cycling overshoes will offer a level of waterproofing paired with insulation to keep the rain on the outside and the warmth inside. This is usually suitable down to around zero degrees Celcius (32 F). If you regularly ride at temperatures below this, then the second option is to invest in some winter-specific shoes. When the going gets cold don’t be afraid to experiment with unusual layering; double oversocks under a neoprene set of overshoes isn’t unheard of, and neither are layers of tin foil to reflect head inwards, or even plastic bags for the ultimate crinkly experience.
The best winter cycling shoes essentially combine a shoe and an overshoe into one sealed system, offering maximum warmth and waterproof protection, often at the detriment of weight and breathability (usually a small price to pay when riding in winter). If you find that this still doesn’t cut it, then there’s nothing to say you can’t then add a pair of overshoes on top, but expect most of the moisture to be coming from your sweating feet.
And if you’re not sure which option you prefer, check out our comparison of overshoes vs winter boots.
Whether you have a bike for every month of the year or a single trusty steed that does the job year-round, you’ll want to make sure your bike has some level of winter-appropriate tech. Not only will it keep you more comfortable, it’ll make your riding safer and stop your componentry wearing out so fast.
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