The Clothing Treatise

One of the significant barriers to cold weather athletics, biking in particular, is dress. How do you dress for an adventure on a really cold day? Folks in the know speak of three clothing layers: Base, Insulation and Protection. I’ll write a little bit about what these layers are, what I use, why I use it and what you might want to consider. (Quick aside: I’m going to talk about a lot of stuff, and it’ll look like I’m talking about thousands of dollars of clothing. Heck, maybe I am, but no one expects anyone to develop an entire full-year cycling wardrobe in one shot. My own has developed over many years and I’m still adding and subtracting items all the time.)

Base Layer. This can be helpful in the warmer months, but is critical once it gets cold. Likely you’ll start to sweat a little bit once you get going, and it’s your base layer’s job to get that moisture off your skin. Modern base layers fit snugly and give you a nice warm feeling, too. A base layer is the foundation of any cool (or cold) weather dressing strategy.

Insulation Layer. This is rather like the pink stuff in the walls of your home. It creates a dead air space to buffer your body from the cold. Modern layers aren’t very bulky and work with the base layer to move moisture away from your body. Personally, I only use an insulation layer on the very coldest days. Long-sleeve jerseys and maybe that old fleece thing in your closet make good insulation layers.

A long-sleeve jersey is nice when it’s cool and is a good insulation layer when it’s quite cold.

Protection Layer. On a bike in the winter this layer needs to be pretty darn windproof and perhaps waterproof as well. Breathability is also very important, otherwise everything inside the jacket turns into a soggy mess once you get going. It is the combination of these things (windproof, waterproof, breathable) and the degree to which a protection layer takes on attributes of the insulation layer that differentiate various garments. I’m a sucker for a good protection garment and (as mentioned above) typically just wear a base layer and a protection layer unless is it some kinda cold. A jacket that you wear to work out is slightly different than a jacket you wear for commuting. A commuting jacket tends to have a more relaxed fit to provide room for a greater variety of clothes underneath. A workout jacket may have less windproof material on the back, while a commuting jacket should be completely wind and waterproof. If your commute *is* your workout, there are garments that fit right in the middle.

A fully wind- and waterproof jacket with a trim fit. It’s tough to see all of the ventilation zippers, but there are many.
A waterproof commuting style jacket. The cut is more relaxed and the vibrant colors are good for being noticed.
A waterproof commuting style jacket. The cut is more relaxed and the vibrant colors are good for being noticed. Ventilation zippers abound on this guy, too.

That’s the theory — and good theory it is. When riding a bike, the three-layer system works perfectly for your upper body. Things that I have in my personal arsenal of upper-body riding attire include:

  • Base layers of various weights, both long- and short-sleeve. Historically one of my favorite things has been a nice base layer with a windproof chest panel. Lately I’ve modified my thinking such that I wear more of a base + protection combo.
  • Arm warmers are perfect for a cool day, perhaps a cold race if you’re working hard or a day in which the temperature might fluctuate a great deal. They’re easy to remove and store in a pocket.
  • A long sleeve jersey or two is nice to have on a cool day or for an insulation layer on a cold day.
  • I have three cycling jackets, but only one is my favorite. It has a windproof chest and arms, but not the back. It’s just the right amount of snug; it doesn’t flap in the breeze, but it has enough room so that I don’t look too much like a selection of sausage links if I have a long sleeve jersey under it on a really cold day. It’s cut rather long in the rear so it doesn’t ride up when I’m in the drops. All in all, a superior piece of clothing. One of my not-quite-as-favorite jacket is wool with a windproof chest. It’s very nice and terribly well cut, but it doesn’t work in as broad a temperature range as my favorite. My other is very similar to my favorite with an important exception — it’s not snug enough around the waist, allowing cold, nasty wind to blow up my back and make me miserable. I give this third jacket the stink eye sometimes.

On your lower body, things get more interesting. Because a pretty high range of motion is required and fabric bunching is a serious no-no, the three layers are typically combined to one degree or another in a single garment. Cycling tights are pretty much a de-facto base layer. Thick tights are a base layer and insulation layer. Windproof tights… You get the picture. Garments that I have, use and enjoy include:

  • Knee warmers. Combined with the cycling shorts you wear year round, knee warmers keep me going well into the 50s. My personal philosophy is to keep my knees covered when it’s under 70 degrees. Overkill? Maybe, but I’d like these knees to last me a lifetime.
  • Leg Warmers. Knee warmers’ big brother. If I had to pick between one pair of warmers, knee or leg, I’d take leg, as they often have big zippers toward the foot and can be rolled up if you get a tad warm, but not warm enough to warrant removal. Leg warmers can be windproof, which is pretty darn nice.
  • Windproof underpants. While I typically argue against underwear when cycling (bunching is bad!), snug windproof undies can make life bearable. I’ll say no more.
  • Tights. Tights are great, and the big question is whether to buy tights with a pad (cycling-specific) or buy tights without a pad and wear ’em over your bike shorts. I have both, but prefer to bike in tights with a pad. I like to have two pair of tights, winter tights and really serious winter tights. Some years I never wear my serious tights. This winter they’re gotten quite a bit of use. I have had my serious tights for eight years, so although they were rather expensive, the investment has actually been quite good.
  • Knickers. I am a full-on sucker for knickers. Yes, it’s like shorts and knee warmers, but you never have to worry about your warmers slipping down. Knickers are usually constructed of a more weatherproof fabric than the stuff I wear in the summer, and can thus be worn in cooler temperatures than a shorts/warmer combo.
  • If you’re more into commuting or mountain biking, windproof, waterproof pants are available to wear over your lycra short or over your regular clothes. I don’t have these personally, but a couple of guys in the shop like them quite a bit.

I hate a cold head, cold hands and cold feet. Each of these areas requires something specific.

I have a lot of hats. Two of my favorites are a merino wool cycling cap with fold-down ears and a similar cycling cap with a windproof forehead. The merino cap is good for all but the coldest days. In addition to these, I have a skullcaps of various weights and windproofness, a balaclava and some crazy neoprene thing I bought for snowboarding that covers my face below the nose.

Merino cycling cap with fold-down ear flaps.
Merino cycling cap with fold-down ear flaps.

Hands can be a challenge to keep warm. I like a pair of windproof gloves for the fall and early winter season. When racing hard, these work down to very close to freezing. The next thing would be an insulated glove. It probably goes without saying that the insulation makes these a bit more bulky than a merely windproof glove, but they are certainly warmer. The warmest thing is windproof, probably waterproof and very well insulated. “Lobster claw” gloves can be quite warm — sometimes too warm. It can be rather unpleasant to have your sweaty hands slowly become colder and colder.

Windproof gloves are an important part of any cycling wardrobe.
Windproof gloves are an important part of any cycling wardrobe.

Feet can also be tough — and potentially quite expensive — to keep warm. Start with good socks that wick away sweat and provide a nice level of insulation. Wool is considered the benchmark. Don’t get them so thick that it cuts off circulation; you need blood flowing to keep you warm. After socks you have essentially three options: toe covers, shoe covers and bona-fide winter riding boots.

  • Toe covers are great when it’s cool. They’re typically windproof, often neoprene and work great until, for me, around fifty degrees. I went through a period in which I didn’t have toe covers, but would apply duct tape to the toes of my cycling shoes. Hobo chic aside, duct tape is not as effective as a good pair of toe warmers.
  • Shoe covers are available in various thicknesses and materials. These work great down to Pretty Ding Dang Cold, and I haven friends who cycle happily on the coldest days with shoe covers. However, it’s not enough for some people, which brings us to…
  • Boots are pretty serious and typically expensive. They can also be difficult to locate. If bicycling is a specialty item, boots for cycling in really cold weather represent something quite niche indeed. I’ve personally purchased two pair of boots. One just wasn’t warm enough and frustrated the heck out of me, while the other is pretty amazing in its ability to keep my toes warm.

Other little tips that might help:

  • Those chemical hand- and toe-warmers that you often see at hunting and fishing stores can be lifesavers. Use as directed.
  • Winter insoles for your cycling shoes can help a lot. High-performance shoes are often designed to help keep your feet cool, so a better-insulating insole can be very helpful.
  • If you’re going to get wet, either via perspiration or the elements, embrocation can be very helpful.
  • Dryer sheets are bad news for performance clothing, as are most liquid detergents. Those things have additives that’ll clog the pores of performance fabrics and make your expensive stuff perform in a substandard fashion.

And that’s just about everything I know about clothing. I’d encourage you to work with some of the stuff you already own (that old fleece in the closet for an insulation layer, running tights for a bike ride) and add garments as you need them and as your willingness to go out in ever colder temperatures increases. I’ve heard people say that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I don’t know about that, but appropriate clothing can certainly extend your cycling season and allow you get enjoy a bit more Pure Michigan.

Base layers under long-sleeve jerseys. Tights or knickers. Warm shoe covers. Windproof gloves in front, lobsters in rear. Cap on the guy in front, hair on the stoker.
A day around freezing temperatures. Base layers under long-sleeve jerseys. Tights or knickers. Warm shoe covers. Windproof gloves in front, lobsters in rear. Cap on the guy in front, hair on the stoker.