Warm Clothes for Winter Biking

The cold fall has made me want to write a few notes about wind chill and staying warm while riding during the cold months.

What I’ve done is seek out winter clothing favored by winter rock/ice climbers, backpackers and sometimes cross-country skiiers, who require: lightweight, flexible, often thin, zero-failure, temperature adaptability, somewhat abrasion resistant, highly adaptable, warm damp or dry. Also, climbers/backpackers require gear that is smooth on the back (for backpacks), so good cross-adaptability to ‘bent riders.

Generally, easy-to-find commercial bike and running gear rates well on the fashion scale, but not on the outdoor-comfort scale. By this, I mean: it tends to look great and be okay if you’re out for a few hours; but it tends to be heavy for the warmth it provides and often (nearly always) will sacrifice temperature performance for appearance.

And although I’ll sometimes wear running clothes while biking in the summer heat, runners (like X-country skiiers) generate a lot of body heat and sweat with comparatively little activity-added wind-chill, making winter running gear less than ideal for cycling. Cyclists, on the other hand, generate a lot of windchill without generating much body heat.

For backpackers and climbers, in the woods/on the cliffs, no one cares how you look, so performance rules (unless you’re on a date); for cyclists, on the roads, fashion seems to rule — maybe because everyone sees you.

Major outdoor equipment manufacturers — including, but not limited to — The North Face, Mountain Hardware, Gore, Outdoor Research, Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS), REI, and others — have clothing with “wind stopper” technology. In my exp., the windstoppers have provided excellent warmth even in situations with a high windchill.

The best place in NYC for this gear is Tent and Trails on Park Place in Manhattan. It’s a true mountaineering store, unbelievably, in NYC. However, EMS in SoHo has good wind-stopping fleeces and shells at good prices. The Rivendell MUSA pants are good wind-stopping (as well as good for cycling), but are bulky to pack.

Since, for backpacking/camping, you want gear that serves multiple purposes, e.g., if it gives warmth, even better if it also stops wind, it’s ideal for cycling. The Merino clothing companies (e.g. Ice Breaker, Smart Wool, Ibex) get close to this with tight weaves, but at some point, wool falls behind the best technical gear for the outer layers. For the base/inner layers, merino wool is the best, hand down.

Another key for staying warm during winter riding (for me) is to try both to stop the wind and maximize the warmth at the extremities — hands/wrists, feet, head/neck — I’ll maybe go to excess here. But it’s the lightest and “smallest” way to get body warmth.

I struggle with cold feet. At this time, I’m riding with 15-degree insulated hiking/climbing boots. What I like about them is they are lightweight and designed to fight windchill and cold air and protect the user in extreme conditions (as in “stay warm or die”). If I must wear bike shoes with cleats and it’s very cold, I do two things. First, I use chemical “toe warmers” (and carry along extras). Second, I seal off any holes on the bottom of the shoe (bent riders break the wind with the bottoms of their feet) and also try to create warmth in the insole. So, I use tape to cover the holes from attaching the cleats. An insulating insole is great. I also cut up an emergency “solar blanket” (a.k.a. “space blanket”) and wrap it around my feet to help keep the heat in/cold out. I’m not a fan of the cycle-shoe covers or neoprene I’ve tried. Maybe I haven’t yet found the good ones. They seem either to inadequately block the wind or else make my feet sweat and then freeze.

My favorite places are:

Online:

Backpacking Light (Rivendell for backpackers in terms of sophistication and knowledge level, but they count grams over durability and the gear is for EXPERIENCED users; know your limits.)
Moosejaw
(But maybe don’t get the packages delivered to work because they enjoy having fun with the recipient, e.g., with big kiss and heart stickers on the outside.)
The North Face
EMS
REI

Off-Line:

Tents and Trails in NYC

For beginner- to intermediate-level quality, I strongly recommend REI or EMS. They often have good bargains and are a great source for buying a full kit of gear, even if it may not be what you ultimately want after you’ve gained experience. The best gear can be rather expensive, and I believe it’s best to understand what and why you need something better, than to just spring — for example — for the world’s best coat without realizing that actually you needed to buy the world’s best base layer.

Scarf not. Please don’t wear a scarf while you cycle, lest you get it caught in your wheel or on a passing car. If you need something around your neck, wear a neck gaiter. For more about ill-fated scarf wearing (and the beginnings of modern dance), remember Isadora Duncan.

All best,

Robert

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Robert Matson
New York City Recumbent Supply (TM)
The Innovation Works, Inc.
copyright 2009 Robert Matson