You don’t want to stop going out on your bike just because of cold weather. But, if you don’t have the right winter cycling kit basics, you’re going to be pretty miserable for a few months of the year.
The trick to cold weather cycling is layering because your body heat warms the air between the layers, keeping you much warmer than a single, thicker layer. But the other reason layering is a good idea is that you can remove layers as you ride to stop you overheating on the ascent and to keep you warm on descents.
The main thing with winter kit is not to hand over 100% of the work of keeping you warm to a single winter-weight jersey as it won’t be enough on its own. But neither should you bundle up in so many layers that you feel toasty when you set out as you’ll be too hot once you start riding.
Experiment with how many layers work for you as it’s a highly individual thing. Some people just run hotter than others so what works for one rider might boil someone else.
The main job of the base layer isn’t really keeping you warm. It’s to wick sweat away from your skin otherwise you’ll be wet. On a cold day, that moisture will transport heat away from your body. Choose your base layer for its thinness and ability to wick sweat away from your body and towards your other layers, rather than its insulating properties.
Your base layer wants to be as close-fitting as possible and, ideally, long-sleeved so it comes into contact with everywhere sweat comes from. A synthetic base layer wicks sweat far more efficiently than cotton or wool, which both tend to retain moisture.
The next layer follows on from some of the principles of the base layer. If cotton or woollen, the mid layer will attract the moisture from the base layer and help keep it away from your skin.
How heavy and breathable this mid layer needs to be depends on how cold the weather is and how long and hard the ride. You’ll want to mix and match lightweight or medium weight jerseys, medium weight jackets and thermal layers according to the conditions and ride.
If you’re not sure whether to go for long sleeves or short sleeves plus arm warmers, we discuss that in this post.
This is the layer that will deal directly with the external weather elements so might need to be extra warm, windproof or waterproof, or a high tech combination. But this is where it gets complicated as the outer layer also needs to be able to wick the moisture coming up through the base and mid layers.
Essentially, match your outer layer to the prevailing weather conditions, for example a windproof gilet or a hardshell rain jacket. For more extreme cold, shop around for a heavier jacket that has some kind of ventilation so your skin can breathe.
Your legs bear the brunt of cold weather, especially your knees and quads so don’t think that if your core is warm your legs will automatically be OK. The problem is that you can’t layer up with leg-wear, unless it’s by adding leg-warmers under shorts, as you reduce movement and add potential friction in the saddle area. Avoiding this friction, is one plus of the combination of shorts and leg warmers and it means you can take the leg warmers off if you’re getting too hot.
Alternatively, full length tights with a fleece lining are great for keeping the wind out and you can also opt for cycling tights with multiple layers built into the fabric. If you go for bib tights, remember that the front and back function as another layer keeping your core warm, especially if there are pockets too. Factor that in when you’re adding torso layers since the bib can’t be taken off, or choose bib tights with mesh waists.
Now you’ve got your cycling kit winter basics sorted, there are a few bits and pieces you might want to add on to keep the cold from your extremities. As the old saying goes, keep your head, hands and feet warm. Check out our post on winter kit add ons here.