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Article by: Cameron Chambers
The trick to winter riding is to starting with clothing—layering is the name of the game. The hardest rule to follow but perhaps the key to winter time adventures is that if you are warm standing outside before you start riding, you have too much clothing on. I nearly always ride with a hydration pack in the winter so as to carry layers to add as the temperature drops or I turn for a long downhill run. A lightweight long sleeve jersey with a pack on your back will likely be plenty to push off in even quite chilly weather. Then I will carry a second windbreaker/riding jacket to throw on if the mercury drops.
If you anticipate it being real cold, then having a vest waiting in the wings is often a good plan as well. Regulating your core temperature is important…and a precarious balance. You want to be warm enough that it helps the extremities out further from your heart stay warm, but you must keep a close eye that you do not begin sweating profusely, which can lead to that deep chill in another 30 minutes. From there you are on a death march home—and that is what we want to avoid.
As for my lower body, I find that with just bibs and knee warmers on, I will be warm enough even down into the teens. Although I own thermal tights, I think I would have to ride in the arctic to truly need them consistently! On super cold rides or venturing out at night, I will pull on baggies over my bibs to give me an extra wind block. We are all likely a bit different here, so you may well need to experiment to find what works for you. But again it is better to start light and pull on more as you need.
Your digits are the toughest thing to keep warm. Nothing will zap the zen of a good ride quicker than crawling home with your fingers balled up in fists, fighting for the last drop of warmth. I have a friend who is an ice climber that calls it “the frozen barfies”—that is when you are in so much pain you feel like you are going to throw up. That is not pleasant, and to be avoided at all cost.
Wool is the best resource you have in this battle. I always have my SmartWool glove liners on first and then use varying thicknesses of gloves to pull on over the top, depending on just how frigid it is. Pay close attention; if your hands start to feel like they are getting sweaty, quickly get the gloves off and ride in the wool liners only. Sometimes I will be out in sub 30 degrees riding only in the liners and am perfectly warm.
It is basically the same story with your toes, which for me is the place I struggle the most. Thick wool socks are a must for the harsh biting cold days. I believe it is a wise investment to purchase a pair of winter cycling shoes. You will blow through pair after pair of shoe covers, especially if you ride off-road at all. Be sure to spend some time trying sizes on with the thick socks that you would potentially be riding with. Keeping some wiggle room is a must—you will be uncomfortable and cold when the circulation is compromised even a little.
Winter is a good time to work on improving your bike handling skills. The number one mantra to repeat over and over is, “Stay loose stay relaxed.” When you are plowing through snow or navigating a slick patch on the road, the worst thing you can do is go for the death grip and ride with your body and arms as rigid as a beam. Be loose and supple on the bike, trusting in its momentum and letting it go where it wants. Your bike wants to stay upright; just be calm and let it do its thing. For practice, just begin with mountain bike rides around the neighborhood. Navigate the icy patches and maybe bust through a few snow drifts.
So there you have it—nothing too complicated, just put it all together and get out there for some fun! Riding in winter presents hurdles that the summer does not, but you will find that if you can overcome some of those obstacles, you introduce yourself to a whole new wonderland of play. When your ride is over, do not neglect some hot cocoa and visions of how you are going to be ripping cranks off come summer time.