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Read The Weather

Wicking Fabrics

What to Avoid

What Else to Avoid

Links to Other Strategy Pages

Pam Blalock' Winter Tips'97

Joe's ICEBIKE Gear Article.

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Dressing Strategy

Depending on the duration of the ride, there are several different strategies of dress that can be used.


Layering is a outdoor clothing strategy that is probably already familiar to you, using layers of clothing that can be added and subtracted as the temperature and your activity change.

You might start out with a warm wicking garment close to the skin, a warmth pile above that and a wind proof outer layer. As you start out on a winter ride, the temperature may be cold, and you will feel fine. As you heat up, or the day warms up you may want to remove a layer to keep from over heating.

You might want to add layers too, so carrying compact extra layer garments is wise. This may come in handy when you stop to eat or rest, and find that you are chilling. It is important to add clothing or subtract it before you get too cold or too hot.

You will find that you can control heat loss quite well by removing or adding headgear as your head is a very good radiator of heat.

One Shot

The problem with Layering in Winter Cycling is that it just doesn't work very well. Many cyclists on the ICEBIKE mailing list report that they just don't use the layering method at all. Here are some reasons:

  1. Cyclists are loath to stop and change layers because it is often the under layers that must be changed, seldom the top layer. If you are getting too warm, you will still want your wind proof layer (the top layer), so what you have to do is remove that, then remove one of the under layers, find some place to stash it, then get back on the bike and get moving before you get too cold.

    This is easy for a hiker, or cross country skier, they can usually just add or subtract the outer layer, but a cyclist moving at 15 to 20mph can't spare the wind shell.

    Then there is the problem of storing the removed layer. Unless you have a backpack or panniers this is a hassle. Of course, we aren't even mentioning the problems involved in undressing and redressing in public or in a howling wind.

  2. Cyclists generate a lot of sweat. By the time you realize you are too hot, you are already wet. (A wicking underlayer helps a lot. See below). If you don't remove the wet garment, you will chill yourself more than you think as upper layers are removed.

  3. Cyclists can regulate temperature by level of effort. Too cold? Work harder! Over heating? Drop 2mph for the next mile and it makes a big difference, almost immediately.

  4. Winter commuters learn to dress for the temperature. They will start out slightly underdressed, and therefore feeling a little cold. In a couple miles they are warmed up and cranking along.

  5. Once underway, most winter commuters will regulate temperature by work level rather than stop and change. Long range commuters (an hour or more enroute) report more frequent use of layering. Rain gear is the exception. Most ICEBIKERS will stop and don raingear if it starts to rain enroute.

  6. Recreational riders tend to be out longer, and have stops planned, to eat, chat or whatever. In these cases, where major changes of activity are planned, the layering principal comes on strong. Unlike commuters, trail riders can not plan on ducking into a store to warm up and must be prepared for breakdowns and changes in the weather.

Learning to "Read The Weather"

I'm not about to suggest you enroll in a meteorology class, but there is a great deal to be said for just paying attention to what works for you. If one ride is too cold, learn to think of what you wore as something that need the assistance of another layer. This almost implies that you will make a few mistakes along the way, and over dress or under dress a few times till you get it all figured out.

Get in the habit of noticing if you are comfortable. Often I find myself riding along in some wicked cold weather saying to myself (yes, I do talk to myself and the bike too) "This is alright - This feels great". I make a note of the temperature and what combinations of clothing I am wearing and store it away.

I get so I can just read the thermometer and know instinctively what to wear. I don't often get surprised by poor decisions any more. If you are new to winter cycling, it might take a year to figure out the right combinations of layers and fabrics.

Don't be too stubborn to back track a mile or two to get an extra layer. It means the difference between an enjoyable outing and a discouraging ride.

I'd would like to recommend something as simple as a thermometer. These things are the greatest - you get up in the morning and look at the temperature and think "-12degC - ok, that means I only need my polypro undershirt and my polarfleece jacket, but I need the balaclava and the polypro layer on the bottom too". The nice thing about cycling is that you don't have to adjust for varying wind-chill - once you're cycling the wind chill is there even on a calm day. All you really need to know is the precipitation situation and the temperature - one glance out my window and I know it all. The radio stations, TV, Internet etc. give temperatures that vary by +-2degC (about +-4degF) over my thermometer - the effect of different locations within and around the city and/or lags in reporting temperature changes. So my own thermometer is much better.
John E. Abraham

Wicking Fabrics

One of the great boons to winter cycling, especially below freezing temperature, is the advent of wicking fabric. Sold under various trade names (Capilene, Thermax, etc) these are usually a blend of polyester and perhaps up to 10 percent lycra thrown in for fit.   Check the Fabrics Page.

With these fabrics it is not unusual to go out for a fast ride on a very cold day and have your outer layer be wet (not from rain) but the layer next to your skin be quite dry. The polyester fabric wicks the moisture to outer layers where it condenses. The important thing is that you are warm and dry.

The North Face, Patagnia, DuoFold are all manufactures of "poly" fabrics.

What to Avoid

  • The general advice is to avoid cotton next to the skin. Some folks get downright adamant about this. Others just avoid it on long rides.

    The problem is that cotton soaks up perspiration and just hangs on to it, keeping it right on your skin. The minutes you slow down or stop working you get very cold very quickly.

  • Avoid over dressing. Start out a little cold. If you are worried about freezing take along another garment, but don't go out over dressed.

  • Avoid the idea that if it wasn't made for cycling it isn't any good. In fact, you will find relatively few "made for cycling" products that work well in winter.

    There are just now beginning to come available cycling tights that are warm enough, or gloves that keep your hands warm when they are in the same position for hours. Often ski equipment works well.

  • Clipless pedals and shoes generally don't cut it in really cold winters.  Even if they did not get packed with snow and work poorly, the cleats are generally bolted to a steel plate directly under your foot. This sucks the heat right out through the cleat and freezes the sole of your foot in no time. Clips and straps work better. A lightweight winter boot or hiking boot keeps you warmer. If they aren't "bikey" enough for you, feel free to cover them with garish spray paint.

What Else to Avoid

Ok, so you're ready to go.  But you need to be aware of when you are ready to stop.

Unfortunately this is not always easy to know.  Biology conspires against you.   One of the really insidious things about cold weather is Hypothermia. 

It's not that it sneaks up on you.  You will know you are getting cold. You will be shivering.  The next thing you know you have your hat off, your jacket unzipped and you think you are too warm.   You don't seem to care about the cold anymore.

The bad part is by that time you may be too far gone to recognise the problem.   You need to pay attention to the EARLY warning signs, those in the first two rows below.  And watch your riding partners too.

Eat and drink.  It takes energy to fight the cold.  Don't go on long treks alone unless you are well prepared. 


Degree of Hypothermia Signs and Symptoms Cardiorespiratory Response Level of Consciousness
95 F Mild Shivering
Foot Stamping
90 F Mild Loss of Coordination Confused
85 F Moderate Lethargy Slow Pulse Sleepy
80 F Severe Coma Weak Pulse
Slow respirations
78 F Severe Apparent Death Ventricular Fibrillation
Cardiac Arrest
Last Updated 12/08/01 09:43:05 PM