Winter Road Cycling Essentials

Lester Perry | Tue 28th Apr 2020 09:01

Save yourself from another chilly winter and look into getting some warm and comfortable riding gear. Winter riding gear can change your whole mindset on riding in less than ideal weather conditions.

After 20-plus years of dabbling in all things bike and suffering through winter riding by layering up summer apparel, in preparation for this winter I decided to follow the old adage, “there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. I topped up the pile of winter “garb” and got new gear that will make some of my excuses not to ride irrelevant. New Zealand’s changeable weather can mean you’re hot at one point and ten minutes later your teeth are chattering from the cold, so I’m a big fan of layering!

Here’s what I've learned over the past few winters and some bad clothing decisions:

Jackets

Jackets come in all shapes, sizes, colours, “so many millimetres” of waterproofing and “that many millimetres” of breathability. Bottom line is, in an ideal world, buy two jackets.

Two winter jackets are ideal for riding in the cold and wet months.
Fleece lined jackets provide extra warmth in a wide range of riding conditions.

One should be thermal style (see blue jacket, above), but not necessarily waterproof, and have a good wind-blocking layer. This will probably have a fleece lining and be somewhat bulky compared to a regular lycra-style long-sleeve top. 

This jacket, combined with some layering, should see you right for any dry weather riding. The lack of a waterproof jacket will help everything breathe a bit, stop too much sweat from condensing within the layers, and ultimately help you stay warmer for longer.

The beauty of a thermal-style jacket is its versatility. This guy has you covered on everything from early autumn jaunts, with just a base layer underneath, to the depths of a sunless, foggy day with multiple layers underneath or on top.

Jacket number two (red jacket in above image) is ideally a low-profile, waterproof, lightweight shell. The higher the waterproof rating the better. Try not to wear this jacket when it’s not raining, regardless of how good it’s breathability numbers look (although the higher this number, the better). Chances are, if you’re exerting some effort you’ll get wet on the inside from perspiration and this will eventually cool you down, so unless it’s wet on the outside, it’s not worth becoming damp underneath if you can avoid it.

Make sure the jacket has a cut that suits your body shape so as not to have too much excess. You want it to be fitted to avoid flapping at speed and the jacket should ideally have a dropped tail, covering your backside when you’re bent over in the drops.

If you can only afford one jacket, go for the waterproof shell unless you’re truly a fair-weather rider. It blocks the wind and is compact enough to roll into a jersey pocket for when you need a bit of extra warmth or waterproofing.

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Tights

Depending on how committed you are to riding in near-zero temperatures, a Belgian-style pair of full-length tights is a great investment. Most of these will have a nice fleece-backed fabric, often a water-repellent finish, and possibly extra wind-blocking material over the front.

Slipping into a pair of these will make you feel like you’re wearing a warm hug around your legs, but be warned – you’ll want it to be pretty cold to be sliding into a pair of these! They are hard to beat when it’s truly bone-chilling outside, and are a worthy addition to any serious winter cyclist’s kit drawer.

If you’re not ready to commit to the full-blown “Euroness” that is winter tights, combine a pair of leg warmers and winter bib-shorts (see images below)

Shop Tights
Fleece lined for added warthm and comfort.
Added length gives you versatility for whatever the temperature is.

Winter Bib Shorts & Bib Longs

These are just like your summer bibs, with added fleece, length and wind blocking. They’re for those days when it’s brisk but not freezing, I can’t believe I waited so long for these, having just purchased a pair! Combine them with leg warmers for that chilly dawn raid before sun-up, and drop the leg warmers once the sun's rays appear. Winter bib shorts are super versatile and an often overlooked option. No more doubling up your summer bibs to try and get warmth!

Shop Winter Bibs

Leg, Arm and Knee Warmers

Like the packet says, these fleecy tubes of lycra goodness keep your limbs warm. The pairs I run have been kicking around for nearly 10 years, so invest wisely and you’ll have these a long, long time. No fancy tech on my ones, just honest warmers that do exactly that.

The modern, high-end options have a bit more tech to repel the elements. Couple the leg warmers with a pair of winter bibs and I'm ready for all conditions. And don’t feel you have to reserve them for deep winter – leg warmers are good to slip into even on a chilly summer morning. Just roll them into a jersey pocket once you’ve warmed up. If you’re only concerned about cold knees, knee warmers are a good option and depending on how vigorous your ride is going to be, these are great even in the middle of winter.

Arm warmers are super versatile and can help get you going on a brisk spring morning while coupled with a vest or as added layering under a winter jacket. Better to start comfortable and warm, and then remove once you’re heating up.

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High cuffs and good water proofing stops the elements from hitting your skin..
Road bike winter gloves provide excellent wind resistance for higher speeds.

Gloves

Thinking my old full-finger MTB gloves were good for road riding probably went against the Velominati rules. While they offered some warmth, the cold air cut right through – after all, regular MTB gloves are generally designed to breathe and keep your hands from overheating in summer.

With a much higher average speed on a road bike, the cold air slips through the fabric straight to your digits. A few winters ago after braving near-frostbite on a few too many sunless Waikato winter mornings, I bit the bullet and bought some proper full-fingered winter gloves (again, why did it take me so long?).

The ideal glove strikes a balance of bulk, warmth and waterproofing. I opted for a water-resistant mid-weight pair with good wind resistance. If I wanted to go much warmer I’d have had to move to something a bit more bulky and lose some “bike feel”, not ideal in my book.

A good cold-weather glove should have a high cuff, as Old Man Winter's icy fingers will slice through glove-to-jacket gaps in no time!

Shop Winter Gloves
Gilet's/vests are versatile and lightweight.
Easily removable and great to keep on you for dodgy looking weather.

Gilet / Vest

Possibly the handiest item in my kit draw was a basic shell-style vest, then I upgraded and the new one’s getting even more use than the old! Lightweight but effective, a cycling vest’s wind-breaking properties help keep your core warm and it’s easily removable while on the bike, should you warm up too much. Look for a high neck to keep the elements out if you intend to wear this layer in winter. Can be worn as your top layer over a jacket to fine-tune your warmth on the-go, or stashed in a back pocket as a backup for a dodgy-looking summer day.

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Base layers wick and help evaporate sweat.
Different fabrics and insulation help in different weather conditions

Base Layer

A good cycling-specific base layer, worn against your skin, is a worthy buy for both winter and summer, and will quickly become a staple in your layering. Base layers regulate your core temperature by wicking sweat off your skin and helping it evaporate, meaning you won’t get as “clammy”. Ideally you’ll find one with flat seams and no bunching to keep it comfortable and effective. Base layers are designed for different temperatures, with sleeveless, short, or long-sleeve, and some with added insulation (ie. Merino), so keep this in mind when selecting one. I’ve gone for middle-of-the-road options temperature-wise, as they double as winter and summer items. Specific winter options won’t breathe as well as their lighter counterparts, but do mean fewer layers are required if you’re aiming for extra warmth when riding in near-Arctic temperatures. The base layer also offers an extra layer of protection when, heaven forbid, you take a spill on the road with only the base layer and a jersey.

Eyewear

A good pair of cycling glasses is a worthy investment, and as with any accessory, they’re available in myriad frame and lens options. Photochromic-lensed glasses are perfect for the mixed light of most winter days, as they automatically adjust their level of tint.They’ll be near to completely clear on a dark day and like magic, they’ll darken up when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in the cold, the added protection of glasses means your eyes won’t water as much during descents, and if it’s wet out, you’ll be glad you’ve got something covering your eyes. There's nothing worse than trying to pick wet road grime out of your eyes with near-frozen fingers.

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Lights with external batteries are brighter and have better battery capacity.
Daytime lights are excellent for making you more visible and keeping you safe.

Lights

If the sun is low, the days are short and you’ve got something to do other than riding, you’re probably going to be out at dawn or dusk (or if it’s a really big day on the bike, both!) Bike lights are a must, even during the day. It’s proven that drivers give riders with daytime lights a wider berth, and if it’s the start or end of a day they’ll help make you more visible. Your best option is to grab a set (front and rear) of USB rechargeable lights Add a higher-powered front light for night riding or longer outings where you need the battery capacity. In this scenario, keep your smaller, rechargeable front as a backup (ever tried riding home under iPhone light after dark when your main light goes flat?). I run an older Gemini light as my main unit, and it’s never missed a beat after four winters. It goes well on the helmet for winter MTB use, too.

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Miscellaneous handy bits

There are a few extra items to help make you even more comfortable as the warm temperatures retreat.

Shoe covers, toe covers, neck gaters, headbands, caps and skull caps can all play a part in keeping you out riding over the winter. Generally cycling shoes are made to breathe and keep your feet cool, which is not ideal if you want to feel your feet after an early-morning winter ride, so grab a set of shoe covers to help insulate against the elements.

If you’re aiming for maximum warmth, make sure the shoe covers are designed for warmth rather than to add aero properties, although aero booties do aid in blocking the wind.

Toe Covers are similar to full shoe covers but literally just cover the toes of your shoe.

And if your head gets overly cold, grab some sort of under-layer to keep the ice-cream headaches at bay! Helpful options range from insulated headbands to caps or full-on insulated skull-caps.

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