Secrets To Riding In The Cold

So, it’s cold outside.  Not just cold, really cold.  Cold like Milwaukee in January.  Cold like when you had your hand submerged in Uncle Jim’s 60-gallon ice-filled cooler for four minutes searching for that last diet Coke.  Cold like when you drank that entire DQ Mister Misty in three gulps.  Add to that cold some rain, maybe a several inches of snow, and a dash of wind and suddenly a two-hour session on the stationary trainer in the (heated) ‘pain cave’ doesn’t look so bad.

Yes, it’s winter and for cyclists that means hours and hours spent riding the stationary trainer, lifting weights, doing yoga, and keeping ourselves occupied while we dream of riding outside. But, every so often, when we can’t tolerate another minute of grinding away the miles on the trainer while watching the 2012 TdF DVD for the fifty-sixth time, we resolve to get outside and ride — no matter how cold, rainy, snowy, or windy it is.  Yeah, we’ve all been there.

So, you’ve decided to ride outside in the (insert unpleasant weather conditions here).  You are one tough hombre.  If Tom Boonen guy can win Paris Roubaix four times, then you can brave the elements for a couple hours and get some real riding done.  Great!  Now what?  This is where a little knowledge and experience can be really helpful.  In fact, a few good tips could make the impending slog almost enjoyable — in a masochistic kind of way.

Where to begin?  Let’s start with a few basic considerations.

Basic Consideration 1 — Protect your skin!  Harsh cold can cause skin to dry, chafe, and crack.  Ouch.  Apply lip balm to your lips and consider moisturizing any areas of exposed skin after your ride.

Basic Consideration 2 — Numbness is bad! Periodically touch your nose and your ears.  Wiggle your fingers and toes.  If any of these body parts become completely numb during your ride, stop at a warm place like a Starbucks or McDonalds (they’re everywhere and almost always open) and gently rub the numb parts until feeling returns.  Do not ride for extended periods with numb extremities.  Why?  Frostbite.  So?  Amputation.  Yeah, amputation.

Basic Consideration 3 — Keep it short!  When it is cold, your body works twice as hard.  Added to the normal exertion of riding is the  use of extra energy to regulate body temperature.  Not only is your body using energy to power your muscles to move your bike, but it is also using more energy than usual to maintain a stable core temperature and push blood into your extremities. So, while your inner Sgt. Rock says “Let’s do an even 70 miles in sub-freezing temperatures” listen to your inner Pvt. Gomer Pyle and shoot for a more modest time-based goal like one hour, rather than a distance-based goal.

Basic Consideration 4 — Stay local!  Everything changes when it’s cold or rainy.  Roads get slick with oil and gas leaked from cars.  Trails get muddy with saturated soil.  Ice forms in shaded corners.  Mud slides cover roads.  Flash floods wipe out bridges. Blowing snow limits visibility. Black ice can’t be seen until you’re sliding on it.  Hail fills the street with little marbles of ice. Fun! So, it’s important to know the route you will be taking. Think ahead and have a ‘Plan B’ in case the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Basic Consideration 5 — The body knows!  Remember that when your body gets cold, blood is drawn from the extremities into your torso and abdomen to help maintain your core temperature.  A reduction in your body’s core temperature of even a few degrees can have catastrophic consequences, so your body makes sure that all your organs are protected — even if that means that your feet and hands will get cold and numb.  Good shoe covers and gloves will help keep your extremities warm.

Basic Consideration 6 — Less is more!  No, really.  Don’t put on so many clothes that you look like the Michelin Man. Hint: if you have so many clothes on that you can’t lift your leg over the top tube to mount up, then it’s time to take off a few layers.  When it comes to piling-on the bike clothing, consider that your body will generate a good amount of heat from the exertion of riding.  Only wear one pair of tights (see below).  Only wear three layers on your torso (see below).  Only wear one pair of insulated gloves (see below).  Only wear one pair of wool socks (see below).

OK.  Now that we have the basic considerations out of the way, let’s review some of the best ways to protect the body.  How about starting with the bottom and working our way up to the top?

Let’s discuss the feet.  In particular, let’s talk about how to keep your feet warm and toasty.

The essentials for toasty feet

1. Wool socks with 6-9 cm cuffs — Wool will keep your feet warm and dry and the tall sock cuffs will help protect your ankles from the cold.  Helpful hint: the socks should not be so thick or bulky that they make it difficult to get your feet into your bike shoes.  Look for wool socks that are made specifically for cycling.  Warning: do not buy wool socks made for backpacking or trekking — these will usually be too thick.  Do not buy neoprene socks — these will trap heat and moisture against your skin.  Do not buy socks at the Swap Meet — the kind of socks that come in the “10-pairs-for-two-dollars” deal are not the kind of socks you want protecting your feet against the elements.  Trust us on this one.

2. Shoe covers — Made of heavy nylon, neoprene, or other windproof and water-resistant fabric that extends above your ankle, with a rear zippered entry, reinforced toe, heal, and underside, a velcro closure at the top, and two reinforced cutouts on the bottom (one for the cleat and one for the heel tab).  Helpful hint: these will get wet, covered in road grit, and maybe even muddy, so don’t buy white shoe covers or shoes covers made from woven, knitted, or other porous material.

Now let’s talk about the legs.  Maintaining a good range of motion while protecting them from the cold is important.

How to proctect the legs

1. Embrocation — This is a type of muscle-warming treatment similar to Ben Gay or Tiger Balm that is applied directly to the skin with vigorous rubbing.  Generally, cycling-specific embrocations are oil-based and come in two categories: warm and hot.  All are smelly. There are many different types including sprays, gels, and creams. Ask your local bicycle shop what they recommend.  If you say ‘embrocation’ and the salesperson looks at you like you just spoke in Swahili, find another shop.  Helpful hint: go easy on the application of the embrocation until you know exactly how much to use.  Another helpful hint: something very bad and uncomfortable will happen if any amount of embrocation comes in contact with your ‘special place’, so apply the embrocation after you put on your shorts or tights.  Disclaimer: not recommended for cyclists with hairy legs.

2. Leg warmers vs. bib tights — For extreme cold, it is recommended that bib tights be used rather than shorts with leg warmers.  Unless you are from Norway, riding in sub 40-degree temperatures requires full body coverage; especially the legs.  Muscles and tendons exposed to cold temperatures tend to stiffen, losing their suppleness.  This makes them more prone to straining and tearing.  This is bad.  Bib tights provide a better overall fit and consistent coverage from ankles to knees to hips — all the locations where tendons cross over cartilage, bones, and joints.  Helpful hint: when searching for a pair of bib tights, consider tights that offer ‘warmer’ fabric (smooth on the outside but fuzzy on the inside), stirrups or side zippers at the ankle, a built-in chamois (so you don’t have to wear bike shorts underneath the tights), extra fabric that covers your lower abdomen and back, flat-lock seams, and wind-proof and water-repellant fabric on the front of the thighs and at the knees. Warning: no matter how cold it is, do not wear any kind of thermal underwear underneath your bib tights as the warmer fabric and chamois needs to be in direct contact with your skin.


Next up: the upper body, including the head and hands.  This is the largest area of the cyclist’s body to cover, but perhaps the easiest to do so as the key to effective protection is layers.

Keeping the upper body warm

1. Layering — Every cyclist should have clothing items to build a three-layer system on their upper body.  This system consists of:

Base layer — a short or long sleeve insulating, moisture-wicking undershirt, usually constructed of a spun, open-weave material that should be soft to the touch.   Crew neck, zippered mock turtle neck, and full turtle neck options are available and based on the cyclist’s preference.  The function of the base layer is to wick moisture away from the skin, keeping you warm and dry.

Intermediate layer — a long sleeve jersey with rear pockets.  It is recommended that this jersey come with a full-length front zipper. The function of the intermediate layer is to help regulate your body temperature by providing a buffer between the base layer and the outer layer.

Outer layer — a wind-proof and water-resistant vest or long sleeve jacket.  It is recommended that the jacket be made with strategically-placed vents and/or panels of material that breathes (let’s heat escape but does not let cold and moisture in).  The function of the outer layer is to keep you warm and protected from the elements without causing a ‘greenhouse effect.’


2. Gloves — Full hand coverage, including above the wrist, is critical. A wind-proof fabric on the outside with a brushed fabric on the inside is best.  The palm and underside of the fingers should be made of a leather-like material that provides a good grip on the bars.  We do not recommend mittens.  It is important to have individual fingers available for things like shifting, braking, and nose-wiping. Helpful hint: Speaking of nose-wiping, look for gloves that have patches of absorbent material strategically-placed on the thumb, along the forefinger, and on the back of the hand.  Trying to wipe your runny nose on neoprene or some other insulating fabric is not recommended. Yuck.


3. Head gaiters, skull caps, and balaclavas — Protecting your head must be done carefully.  Consider that you need to maintain a wide range of motion, unobstructed vision, and good hearing.  Being the primary sensory device for your body, it is important to protect your head without compromising your ability to receive and interpret external stimuli (i.e. seeing ice on the road ahead, hearing cars coming from behind you, drinking from your water bottle).  A low-profile, insulating skull cap that fits under your helmet is one option.  A wide, insulating head band that covers your ears but leaves the top of your head uncovered is another option.  The third option is only recommended for rides in the coldest temperatures: a ski mask or balaclava that covers your head and neck while leaving the area around your eyes and nose open.  Helpful hint: remember that the vast majority of your body’s heat is dissipated through your head, so covering the top of your head limits your body’s ability to regulate its temperature — something to consider on cold, but not extra-cold, days.

Feet, legs, torso, hands, and head.  Done.  You are now ready to embark on your Arctic adventure.  Oh boy!  And remember:

Protect your skin!

Numbness is bad!

Keep it short!

Stay local!

The body knows!

Less is more!

Now get out there.  Mush!


About The Author


Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita Regional Amateur Team.  A 25-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.

Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work.  He has even won a bike race or two.

Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at:


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