Follow or subscribe to our blog to get notifications of updates to this site
as well as more frequent insightful, pithy commentary


bike logo



Winter Riding Tips


One of the biggest mistakes that people make is overdressing. Exercise generates heat (and sweat). There is nothing more bone-chilling than wind blowing through damp clothing! So avoiding overheating and sweating is as important as keeping the cold at bay. It's a Goldilocks dilemma, but it is not impossible to get it right. If I am slightly cool when I step outside for my ride, I'll likely be comfortable when riding. I'll add the caveat that it also depends on how hard I will be riding. I can dress lighter for a hard or spirited ride than I would for a slower casual one. And all day rides are different from a one hour sprint.

For an all day ride, I use layers and use zippers to regulate temperature throughout the ride. As it warms up, I can remove layers. When it starts to cool down as the sun goes down, I put them back on. Zippers provide one of the best means of temperature regulation. Tops with long front zippers and jackets with pit zips allow a rider to be comfortable through a varied range of temperatures, simply by opening or closing the zippers.

Base layers that wick moisture away from the body will keep one dryer and therefore warmer. Many years ago wool was a staple of any cyclist's wardrobe. Wool wicks well and stays resilient when it gets wet. It's warm in cool weather, and is surprisingly comfortable in warmer conditions. It's also one of the best fabrics to wear in rainy conditions, since it will keep one warm even when wet. Unfortunately, in the old days, most wool cycling apparel was quite itchy and many cyclists, myself included, moved to synthetics like polypropylene and fleece.

In the past, I used various synthetics with good luck, with one important exception: The down side of most synthetics is their tendency to retain odor, even after washing. Fortunately merino wool has come to my rescue. Merino wool fibers are much finer and therefore less itchy than the wool I had as a youngster. I wear merino wool right next to my skin with no problems. And I can practically wear the same top for a week on a bike tour without washing it and without it smelling like a toxic waste dump. Wool simply does not retain odor like synthetics. Wool is now the staple of my wardrobe.

Base layers need not be cycling specific. It's amazing how much rear pockets (or trendy logos) add to the price of a garment!  One of my favorite sources for merino wool clothing (both sport and casual) is Ibex. I order a lot directly from them and make an annual pilgrimage to the Tent Sale held near Woodstock, Vermont over Columbus Day weekend. Smartwool make some nice zipped wool t-necks, which work quite well as a base layer. They also make nice wool socks. New Zealand, home of 44 million sheep and 4 million people, is also home to several makers of high quality merino wool clothing, including Icebreaker. This list could go on.

And thanks to the comfort and versatility of merino wool, it has become very popular choice for cycling tops, i.e. tops with pockets in the back!  There are so many folks making wool jerseys and other wool cycling apparel that these days that it is pretty easy to find with a simple google search. 

As I mentioned, wool, unlike synthetics, doesn't retain odor, and can be used many times between washings without getting stinky. But it does take a little extra care versus synthetics when washing. For years I used Woolite, but then was surprised to see recommendations against using it for wool clothes. Woolite is a detergent, a gentle detergent, but nonetheless, a detergent. Detergents strip wool fibers and cause wool garments to full - puff up and get fuzzy. We now use Ivory Snow Liquid (a soap versus a detergent) for all our woolies. We also have a front loading washing machine with a delicate cycle that makes machine washing all that wool clothing a bit easier than hand-washing . We then hang our woolies on racks to dry. Dryers are the enemy of wool. (I also wash and dry my good bike shorts the exact same way).

Speaking of shorts, and not spending a fortune on clothing. When my shorts get a bit thin at the back, but the chamois is still good, I mark the tag with a big red X - which indicates these shorts should only be worn under tights!

I've talked about my love/hate relationship with bib tights here. It's tricky, balancing the added warmth and comfort of the bib tights with the hassle of taking stuff off when stopping for a pee break.

Bibs do an excellent job of keeping cold away from the lower back. There is no chance of a gap letting cold air blow up on to the back. For this reason, bibs tend to be my choice when it's colder. But they present an obvious challenge for cycling jerseys and accessing pockets. My solution is to go with a base-layer top under the bibs, and a top with a full zip and pockets on top, avoiding anything without a full zip that would mean pulling it over my head. Fortunately my favorite jacket has pockets. I'll discuss it more in the post on outerwear. I still have to take off the outer layer when nature calls, but it's easier and faster, which is important when it's cold! For more moderate temperatures, I use legwarmers, eliminating the need to undress so much when making those nature breaks. But as I say it's a real Goldilocks dilemma, convenience versus extra warmth!

Despite the amazing amount of merino wool clothing in NZ (heaps of long and short and no sleeve tops, tights, undies, caps), finding cycle-specific items like arm or knee warmers when we lived there was an exercise in futility. I actually ordered a pair of NZ made knee warmers from Salsa, a US company, to be shipped back to NZ! I did find that I could easily get things made if I provided samples. I literally walked down to our local Saturday market and went to one of the booths that had wool tops. I took an old pair of leg warmers and they made me two new pair based on the old ones! One of the great things about NZ was how easy it is to get things made to order. Fortunately I can get my current favorite wool warmers (arm, leg and knee) from Ibex.

Those love/hate tights are the ladies model from Rapha. They are very form-fitting (they are called tights for a reason). The ladies model has full coverage in the front, with a long zipper to make it easier to get them on and off, and surprisingly a very high-viz white stripe on the back of the left leg, which given that Rapha are a UK company, is quite visible to cars coming up behind me in America, driving on the right side of the road. They do not have a chamois, so they are worn over that thinning in the back pair of shorts that must never be worn without a second layer, to avoid ridicule. This means I can wear the tights several times between washing, as opposed to tights with a chamois.

Locally, Ride Studio Cafe carries Rapha, which helps us tremendously with shipping and makes being able to look at, touch and try things on easier.

So I'm now dressed in my base layer (long sleeve wool t-shirt, shorts and bib tights), but I'm more than a little chilly when I step outside. I'll need to add a jacket, socks, shoes, gloves and hat.