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Winter Riding Tips

Outer Layers

We have established the need for layering and have some tips for base layers. But so far, global warming hasn't completely eliminated the need for a few extra layers in the winter, so I will now talk about additional layering.

Arm and leg warmers are great for those rides that start out cool, but warm up enough to expose some flesh. Warmers are easy to push down or pull off on the move. They tend to be pretty compact so can be stored in a pocket or seat bag when not in use.

Tights, being both more complicated to remove on the move and taking up a bit more space when stored, tend to work better for a ride with a fairly constant temperature, or where the temperature doesn't rise enough to justify removal.

As mentioned in the previous section, bib tights are nice since they cover the back leaving no gaps, but they do make quick roadside bathroom stops tough for gals. I find that my bladder becomes more active in cold weather, so it's a tough call for me and bibs! Windproof or rain pants can be added over legwarmers or tights to provide another level of warmth for really bitter cold or cold wet conditions.

I love my wool knee and leg warmers, as well as my windproof softshell pants from Ibex. These are another staple of my cold weather gear.

For wet or windy conditions I may supplement with a pair of Paclite rain pants. The model I have doesn't seem to be made anymore, but a search on the Goretex site revealed loads of others. Providing both wind and rain protection, as well as packing up small when no longer needed, the Paclite pants work well to extend the comfort range.

For the worst conditions, either bitter cold, or very wet, I use insulated waterproof pants from Showers Pass, pictured above. If it's too cold for them, I'll just buy a plane ticket to somewhere warm!

Onto the upper body...

As a petite woman with skinny arms, I have a tough time finding arm warmers that will stay up. I have some from Ibex that I can only use as a second layer, since they won't stay up without help! The only arm warmers I have found that will stay put on my bare arms are made by Rapha - and they are so tight that I needed a medium arm warmer, even though I take a small jersey!

A wind-vest is invaluable for varying conditions. It's great when a jacket is too much, and can be folded quite small for stuffing in a pocket. There are loads of different models out there, some lighter or heavier than others, with and without pockets and different levels of visibility. My current favorite vest is high-viz with pockets. We've had a lot of fog lately, and when the sun is out, it tends to be low in the sky, possibly making it harder for drivers to see. It's also easy to get caught out in waning light in the shorter daylight of winter, so I try to keep some sort of high-viz vest with me all the time.

My most used and most versatile winter cycling garment has to be my Rapha Ladies winter softshell. When I looked back at photos from last winter, I seemed to have this jacket on 95% of the time! It has two large rear pockets, plus a third smaller one in the middle. I keep my lightweight high viz vest in the middle pocket. I keep my wallet in the waterproof zippered pocket. The other rear pockets are good for my camera and phone. The softshell fabric provides insulation, protection from the wind and is somewhat water-resistant. The large pit vents make it easy to regulate temperature as conditions vary. It has a fold away bum flap that can help with some amount of road spray should I be fender-free (although that never happens). The bum-flap also has a big reflective logo, useful when caught out at dusk or later. Last year I found myself using this jacket in conditions ranging from 20F up to 50F, mainly by varying the weight of my chosen base-layer. I used a much heavier base-layer for the coldest of days, along with an extra layer on the legs, neck warmer, heavy gloves, and winter boots. Using the various zippers to create some ventilation, makes the jacket comfortable in less severe conditions. It is by far the most expensive piece of clothing I own, but its versatility makes it worth the price. Had I not won it at the Fixies take over 11-11-11 party at Ride Studio Cafe a year ago, I would have bought it anyway!

I talked about wool a lot as a base-layer, but I should also mention my other favorite insulating fabric: Polar fleece. Polar fleece is a synthetic that is quite popular for winter sport clothing. It has similar insulating properties to wool, and dries quickly. In my experience it doesn't retain odor as much as many other synthetics, but fleece garmets still should be laundered frequently.

A few years ago fleece was combined with technology from the folks at Gore to produce windstopper fleece, and I must say this seems to be another recurrent theme in my wardrobe. I have windstopper gloves, socks, overshoes, pants, hats, headbands, vests, and jackets. The windstopper technology is available without fleece as well.

I also have one super insulated fleecy windproof jacket for really cold commutes from Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada. Unfortunately like many of my favorite items, it isn't made anymore, but they have lots of other good cycling stuff and I recommend checking them out.

I have learned the hard way to always have a rain jacket or rain cape with me in the winter. New England weather is so unpredictable, and I don't ever want to be caught in a 35 degree rainstorm without protection! The coldest cold you'll ever experience is rainy 35 F without rain gear, far colder than dry -5 F.

I own a few Goretex rain jackets, which I use quite a bit in the winter, especially in windy conditions and lighter rain. The features I look for in a jacket are underarm pit zips, longer back or drop down flap to cover the bum, Velcro closure on the sleeves, high visibility color and reflective piping or material. One can spend an exorbitant amount on a good rain jacket but on that day that it saves your ride, you will be happy you did! The technology and construction has improved a lot over the years. If you tried a Goretex jacket years ago with disappointing results, it may be worth another go. 

And finally, I would be remiss to not mention that a cycling cape works well in heavy rain. The really nice thing about a cape is that it covers the hands, so gloves don't get wet. It also covers your bum, saddle, and forms a little tent over the legs. When combined with fenders, one can stay amazingly dry. I've found a cape quite handy for commuting, when I really want to keep my clothes dry. A cape can be a bit unruly in high winds, but in moderate and light wind, capes work very well. Capes are also good for summer rain, since they allow air to circulate and won't cause one to overheat as much as a jacket. Carradice make a couple of models, one made from wax cotton, the other is a florescent yellow nylon model. The waxed cotton version is much roomier and works better for me. The yellow model is just too tight on me to get the thumb loops properly situated on the bars (and I'm a pixie). Harris Cyclery, Rivendell and Wallingford Bicycle Parts, among others, all carry rain capes.

Stay tuned. There's more to come about hats, gloves and shoes...

Base Layers