I recently had a friend reach out and ask me if I’d share what I wear while cycling on really cold days. He lives in Mississippi and he said that it’s sometimes uncomfortable for him to cycle when it gets cold. He knows what I ride through and so he asked if I’d share how I dress for it.
Let me start by setting the stage. I rode about 25 miles the day I shot the video below. It was in January, 2018…a particularly tough month around here. The temperature was about +10°F. The wind was blowing out of the northwest (330° compass heading – straight over the top from Siberia via the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Dakotas) steady at 20 mph with gusts to 30 mph. Wind chill? Beats me. I don’t do wind chill. If I did, I’d probably cry. Suffice it to say that it was cold…but not all that unusual around here. Now you know.
I was actually pretty comfortable The ride home from this point was six miles into the teeth of that wind. That which does not kill me, yada, yada. It was slow going, but I made it…no worse for the wear. Those of you who know my story know that I don’t let this sort of thing stop me. I haven’t missed a day of cycling in over two years now. I ride no matter the weather, and not just a little. Some people think that’s tough. I appreciate the sentiment, but I honestly don’t think it’s that big of a deal. It seems like it used to be bigger than it is now. Like most things, the more you do it the easier it becomes.
But still… a lot of people want to know why anyone would do such a thing. That’s a fair question. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is why I do it.
Winter in these parts is breathtakingly beautiful. Nobody’s out there in it except for me. It’s all mine. If Iowa was Colorado, Minnesota or Utah, this would not be the case. In those places, people don’t let winter stop them. Here they do and that’s fine with me. In an increasingly crowded and resentful world, I have solitude. Rilke wrote that “it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” Either you understand this way of thinking or you don’t. Either way is fine. I’m not trying to convince you to do anything you don’t want to do.
Let’s leave the really cold out of it for purposes of this post. Let’s talk instead about how I dress for what I consider to be a normal winter day around here, which is to say around +20°F with the wind blowing out of the northwest between 5-15 mph. For those of you who like wind chill, that’s zero to ten above.
So how do I dress for success in weather like this? Well, for me, it all starts and ends with the feet, hands and head in that order. These areas get colder faster because of limited blood flow. They’re a long way from the power plant. Keep them warm and toasty and you will be comfortable. If any one of them gets cold, you’re in for a miserable time. You might even be putting yourself at risk for some serious harm, so that’s where I’m going to focus.
Take your feet, for example. The first thing I’m going to suggest is that perhaps you should stop dressing like a competitive cyclist. You don’t need to wear cycling shoes on really cold days. Put some platform pedals on your bike and wear boots. I wish this was my original idea but it wasn’t. It came from a friend in Minnesota. For a long time, I tried sophisticated sock and bootie combinations to keep my feet warm while I kept on clipping in. Now it seems kind of funny in hindsight. The stuff cost a fortune and none of it worked. I’d get home and my feet would be uncomfortably numb. Frostbite was close more than a time or two. Not good. Ridiculous, in fact. I switched to boots and my feet haven’t been cold since.
These are my boots. They’re nothing fancy, but they’re comfortable and they don’t restrict movement while pedaling. They’re made by Salomon, a company better known for ski boots. My feet have never been cold while skiing. Hmmm. They’re rated to something like -30°F. Better still, they only cost about $60 and they’re as durable as the day is long. I wear one pair of Merino wool work socks underneath. They were $8 at a place named Theisen’s. You probably don’t have Theisen’s where you live, but you probably have somebody else just like them. Here’s a tip. Even if you don’t have snowmobilers and ice fisherpeople where you live, you probably have hunters and farmers. These folks stay outdoors all day long. Buy your gear where they buy theirs and chances are good that it will keep you warm. One more thing on socks. My feet never sweat when I wear Merino wool. If I wear synthetics, they do. You don’t want your feet to sweat on cold days. Just saying…
Hands are next. Here I prefer lobster mitts. They offer the warmth of mittens yet allow the manual dexterity of gloves. I have two pair. The first ones were from a Swedish company named Craft. I recently added a second pair from Giro. Both are wonderful. They are all I need down to about +10°F. I also have a pair of Pogies on my fatbike. I typically find that I don’t need them until it gets really cold. Mine are BarMitts. I highly recommend them.
As far as my head goes, I typically just wear a beanie under my helmet. I have two that I really like. One is Alaskan Hardgear brand from Duluth Trading. I also have two Outdoor Research beanies with Gore bands around the ears. All of them are comfortable. They cost around $20 each on sale. The Alaskan Hardgear beanie is newer. It has been my go to this winter. We’ll see how it lasts. The Outdoor Research beanies are indestructible.
When the temperature falls below +20°F or if it’s especially windy, I add a Hoo-Rag (aka Tubular Bandana) under the beanie. Somebody (don’t remember who) was giving them away at their booth at the Iowa Bike Expo last year. I didn’t know what to do with it. Fortunately, my wife explained it all with easy to follow Ikea-like precision. Now I love my Hoo-Rag. It covers my ears and I can pull it up over the bottom part of my face while going into the wind. It also gives me serious winter mountain biker cred which is a good thing when you’re my age. Best of all, it eliminates the need for a balaclava unless it’s sub-zero. I am not a fan of the balaclava, but when it gets really cold I tend to wear one anyway.
As far as everything else goes, it’s just layers. Critical components are a quality base layer and a windproof shell. My preferred base layer is UnderArmour ColdGear. I wear a pair of lycra shorts over the bottoms…that’s it. Up top, I add a thermal layer. This is nothing fancy…usually just a thermal undershirt like the ones they used to wear back in the day . On top of that goes a Nike Dri-FIT pullover and a windproof shell as the final layer.
My shell this year is a PearlIzumi Select Escape softshell jacket. PI has it discounted from $125 to $93 on their website, but I got mine on closeout at BikeWorld in DesMoines for around $50 thanks to my wife’s keen eye. At first I was going to pass, but I really, really like this shell. I intentionally sized up since it goes over all the other layers and I’m really very happy with it, though I suspect it would be too warm for me at any temperature above freezing. That said, this is one area where I’d stick to a bike product. The fit on this shell is really nice and it doesn’t constrict movement in any way. It’s well put together and I think it will probably serve me well for years to come.
That’s pretty much it as far as clothing goes. I hope it helps. If you think you want to do this, let me share a couple of other things with you that I think are important. First and foremost, you’re probably not going to like it the first few times you go. Just being honest. It’s not the same as cycling in the summer. You don’t go as fast. It takes twenty minutes to dress and another twenty to undress. People you pass look at you as if you have a loose screw. Here in Iowa, they used to stop and ask me if I was okay. Now they know me, so they don’t bother.
You’re also going to have to experiment. Just because something works for me doesn’t mean it will work for anyone else. As long as you remember to focus on your feet, hands and head, you should be just fine. Get that right and then you can tweak everything else if you stick with it.
And I hope you do stick with it. Winter cycling is an acquired taste, but like a lot of acquired tastes, it’s very special. I can’t really put my finger on just what makes it so, but I do know this…When the day comes that I can no longer do it, I suspect that I’m really going to miss it.