Outdoor Winter Cycling (Tips and Tricks)

Riding outside in the winter is not as complicated as it sounds and can be much more enjoyable than riding the trainer for hours on end. Usually, a pair of hardware store gloves, a softshell nordic skiing jacket, nordic pants, some warm shoe covers, and a handful of snicker bars are all you need. But if you want more details, keep reading. 


It is important to remember that temperatures are much lower than normal and roads tend to be in rough shape. So there will be a few more factors to consider when heading out for a ride. Every day in the winter brings different factors that can quickly make you cold and uncomfortable. Figuring out a few patterns of what your local climate does can be helpful to properly match your riding kit perfectly. For example, if you live by the coast or in the mountains, be prepared for extra wind by carrying a windbreaker.


Here are a few rules to always keep in mind, no matter what the temperature is. Do not stop eating and drinking. Always layer. Keep your clothes loose. Make sure you have good fenders if the roads are wet, do not get wet. Avoid high winds. Keep extremities warm at all costs. Avoid any roads that have tendencies to be icy unless you have studded tires. 


Keep eating and drinking. It can be hard to consume a partially frozen energy bar and frozen water especially when you are on the verge of being cold, however, to stay warm you must keep eating and drinking. Keeping your body well-fueled is important to prevent any vital organs from breaking down. Many athletes find chocolate-based energy bars to be great for staying warm. Without speaking about the science or psychology behind chocolate bars, I can attest to the fact that they will keep you warm and satiated. If you find your bottles are icing up, turn your water into some kind of aqueous solution to drop the freezing point. Whether you just add salt and/or sugar to your water or you put in a fancy drink mix, you will be better fuel and able to drink.


From my experience, wearing hard shells, both top and bottom never work great. Because hard shells do not allow your body to wick moisture, the rider becomes rather wet from their own body fluids. Wearing soft shells allows the rider to get rid of liquids whether from the road or from their body. It can be helpful to wear summer cycling clothing underneath your added winter layers. Cycling jerseys are super useful for transporting extra clothing or gloves. If you have extra gloves or a hat, put them in a plastic bag to keep them dry for when you need them. 


Keeping the warmer layers loose helps prevent pain and keeps you warmer. While road cycling style has always been in favor of super tight clothing, making sure your knees are not pulled in one direction or another is crucial to preventing knee pain. While many cyclists will get away with tight layers around the legs, but I have found that on longer riders it can start to hurt. Wearing two pairs of knee warmers at the same time will be awkward and hard to cycling in. Loose clothing also allows your body to breathe better, which will keep you dry and warm. Nordic skiing training/warm-up pants can be a great bottom choice. 


If you are uncertain about the weather, try to layer as much as possible. Wearing layers means dressing in thin garments that are easy to unzip or take off. This allows the rider to undress when getting hot and redress when getting cold. Layering is a great technique for thermoregulating, but also for staying dry. If a base layer gets wet from sweat or road moisture, the rider can get rid of the wet layers and continue riding comfortably. Cycling in the winter is hard to dress for because of the combination of physically working hard while your upper body stays still and the speed at which you are traveling. Many cyclists will find themselves overheating at one point and then quickly getting cold from the sweat they just produced. Wearing layers that are easy to unzip allows a rider to quickly cool off when starting to heat up. I always look for winter riding clothing that has large zipper pulls and big plastic tooth zippers. It goes a long way when you are constantly zipping and unzipping.


Wet roads are the highway to becoming hypothermic. Unless you have amazing fenders that keep every drop of road water off of you, do not ride on wet roads. The amount of water wicked up by your tires will instantly soak you. Even if the roads are not wet, I always try to ride with fenders in the winter. With the snow melting, salt, and other junk on the road it is nice to keep your body clean. Even on the dry days, it is dry, I still find moisture on my fenders. The fenders you use do not have to be high-scale at all. Many of the cheap folded plastic fenders do a great job and are very easy to take off for cleaning.


Depending on where you live, the winds in the winter can be much more violent. With worse road conditions, the margin for error is also smaller. Thus, if the wind is blowing over twenty-five miles per hour, think twice before you head out for your ride. Winds can quickly throw a rider off balance or push them into the road. If the winds are really bad, they can also affect how cars respond, which can make riding on the roads super dangerous. As for comfort, we all know how wind can cause somewhat mild temperatures to be far worse. 


Your head, hands, and feet are the gateway to your core getting cold. Allowing your head, hands, and feet to get cold is distracting and more importantly a huge waste of energy. As these parts of your body start to get cold, the rest of your body goes into overdrive to try to warm you up. This increases calorie consumption, reduces your overall energy, and will quickly end your ride. This is not to mention the long-term effects on your skin and nerves. Usually, cheap hardware store gloves, like Kinkos, do a great job. However, many nordic gloves do a great job with some added performance and better grip. I have found that biathlon gloves do a great job at keeping your hands warm while allowing you to toggle the controls in your cockpit. While a five-finger glove is ultimately the best option, sometimes they are not warm enough.


The most expensive part of winter cycling usually is the winter-specific shoes. Winter-specific shoes are a super nice upgrade but can be very expensive. Shoe covers and toe warmers can be a cheap way to get out of buying winter cycling shoes, but if you find yourself riding outside a lot, getting proper winter shoes goes a long way. It also can keep your fancy cycling shoes fresh and away from nasty road salt. If you do decide to make your normal cycling shoes work, here are some ‘hacks’ that will keep your feet warm and dry. Wrapping tin-foil around your sock before putting it in your shoe can ad a sold layer of warmth. If it is wet out but you need to squeeze that ride in, put each foot in a plastic shopping (over your sock) before putting your shoe on. Try these out and see what works for you, everyone responds to the cold differently. 


In recent years, buffs (neck gators) have become extremely popular in many sports. Bring one on your neck and one in the back pocket can save your head and neck from getting super cold. I like to wear one like a du-rag and one stretched from my chin to the back of my head. This does a great job at keeping my head warm. Some buffs are really thin and others are a bit thicker. Having a few to choose from before heading out can help optimize your comfort. 


Sunglasses are super helpful for keeping your face warm and also protecting your eyes. Protecting your eyes is important for you will certainly be riding through lots of debris. Every time I ride in the winter my eyewear is totally caked with particles from the road. Even if nothing is getting kicked up off the road, the cold and dry weather can make your eyes hurt. You definitely want to keep your eyes in good shape. 


It is generally a good idea to stick to roads you know. Some roads tend to have water build-up or a super narrow shoulder, knowing what you are going to have to ride through can help mitigate becoming extremely uncomfortable. When approaching bridges make sure to check for signs of ice and if possible ride where cars have been. Like we know from driving, bridges tend to ice faster. 


Riding when cold and uncomfortable generally causes a rider of any level to lose their power and motivation, so always try to remain comfortable when riding outside in the winter. Follow this guide to get those base miles in when the days are colder. 

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