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While many of us are heading indoors as the weather gets worse, there are the hardy, the brave, the few who bike outside all winter. If you want to join their ranks, it’s not difficult (though it is hard). It just requires the right, warm winter cycling clothes and appropriate layering for your conditions. Plus some extra time for a hot shower after.
The first key to winter cycling clothing is thinking about it as a layering game and recognizing there are different levels of conditions that require different clothing; you have to add gear as you level up. Winter cycling means different things depending on where you live. How cold is cold? Wet or dry? Put on a base layer and then add from there; top off with good gloves, booties, and a neck gaiter. You don’t want to be too hot—or you risk getting sweaty and colder—but (as opposed to running) you do need to dress heavier for riding because of the speed, added windchill, and lack of movement in your upper body. Getting cold cycling can be hard to come back from and you need to take extra care of your extremities—toes and fingers! Let’s break this down into some different types of conditions before we make some winter gear recommendations for you to build on.
Winter cycling above 30 degrees and dry: Let’s be real, this is fine. You just need a long-sleeve base layer, a good top layer, and some warm gloves.
Winter cycling below 30 degrees and dry: This is where layering becomes important. Add additional layers between the base layer and jacket, thicker glovers, warm booties or overshoes, and a hat or headband. When you get below zero degrees, you can even take it up a notch with a face mask and thermal tights.
Winter cycling above 30 degrees and wet: This is actually the worst. When you get really wet in cold rain or sleet in the 30s or 40s you risk hypothermia. This is when heavy waterproof jackets are key.
Winter cycling below 30 degrees and snow: Snow is tough. If it’s light flakes, it’s actually better than rain because you won’t get as wet. If it’s heavy snow, however, you get into a whole separate issue with visibility and safety; you’ll need tires that don’t skid on ice or snow. You’ll also need a heavy-duty jacket that’s both warm, wicking, and water- and wind-resistant.
Let’s assume most of us aren’t riding through blizzards or extremely heavy snow (that’s almost a different issue), and that when we talk about winter cycling clothes what we’re primarily talking about is cold-weather clothing that will hold up in medium winter conditions—the kind of conditions you’ll ride outside in—and that will provide warmth, without trapping sweat as you get moving.
Winter Cycling Clothes: A Good Base Layer
Columbia Omni-Heat Knit Crew II Baselayer
I know we keep saying it, but: layers, layers, layers. In warmer winter weather, any light long-sleeve base—think what you wear for running—under a good jacket works like a charm for cycling. As it gets colder, I swear by this Columbia base layer for all my winter training. It comes in men’s and women’s, is fairly form-fitted so you can wear it under almost anything, yet it doesn’t have that severe base layer look that some shirts have so you can also feel completely fine wearing it by itself. It’s warm and wicks, but isn’t too warm. Perfect winter cycling clothing basically.
Winter Cycling Clothes: Thicker Mid-Layers
Velocio Alpha Long-Sleeve
This is where you can decide how many layers and what you need. A simple long-sleeve jersey could go a long way all on its own. Or put a warmer long-sleeve jersey over a base layer and thrown on a wind vest or light rain jacket on top. It all depends on what you’re looking for from a mid-layer and how intense it needs to be. This Alpha long-sleeve is designed specifically to be a mid-layer—worn with their signature jacket below. The soft fuzzy Merino wool literally makes it look warm as soon as you pull it out, plus you can put stuff under or over it.
Winter Cycling Clothes: Jackets
Rapha Classic Winter Gore-Tex Jacket
Castelli Alpha Ros Jacket
Velocio Signature Softshell Jacket
The jacket is what then really makes your winter cycling clothes succeed or fail. You can put a warm jacket on top of just a base layer—the Rapha winter jacket over a light base layer has been working wonders for me in dry 30-degree riding—or you can pile on mid-layers in between and create levels. There are also options, like this Castelli jacket, where the cycling jacket has been built to be so warm that it can stand by itself—or you can layer layer layer depending on how crazy the weather is you want to ride in.
These three jackets should satisfy most of your winter ride needs. Rapha’s classic winter jacket is versatile, very warm for being surprisingly breathable too. It’s also water resistant and reflective, and has been my go-to lately. (Rapha also makes an extremely waterproof insulated and hooded version for the most miserable and wettest conditions.) The Velocio signature jacket is almost more in the style of an amped-up jersey—more fitted and higher cut in the front (though you can still wear a base layer under it; in fact, it’s designed to be worn with the Alpha long sleeve above). It’s also water resistant and breathable. The Castelli Alpha Ros jacket is designed to be almost an all-in-one system—there’s a base layer built into the jacket. It also has two layers around the wrists for your gloves to fit in between and stay warm. The idea is you could just wear this jacket in nearly all conditions (or put a light base layer under or mid-layer depending on how much you need from your winter cycling clothes).
The extra bonus is these winter cycling jackets can also double as cross-country skiing gear or running clothes when it’s really nasty.
Winter Cycling Clothes: Warm Tights or Bibs
Gore C3 Thermo Bib Tights
Machines for Freedom Essential Cycling Pant
Yes, sure, you can get through all your winter cycling with shorts and leg warmers; I’ve done it. But it won’t be pleasant and it’ll definitely create chaffing. That’s where some nice warm fleece-lined long cycling tights or bibs are great. While we won’t solve the bib debate here, we will say: having the extra straps that come up and across your shoulder and chests does create some extra covering during the winter. These Gore thermo bib tights are fleece-lined, have windstopping tech (especially around the groin area), and in the women’s model come with a back zipper to let you pull them down and pee mid-ride.
For women, of course, peeing in bib shorts can present extra problems in the winter. Taking off all of your layers just so you can pull down your bibs in a cold port-a-potty isn’t fun. That’s where these Machines for Freedom essential cycling pants come in handy. Though they’re a bit lighter—no fleece linings or thermal fit—the pants are the longer version of their popular essential shorts, which I’m a fan of. They fit, they don’t pinch, they come in a wide range of sizes, and there’s no need to get completely naked in the snow.
A Winter Tights Alternative
Pearl Izumi AmFib Tights
Another winter option is simply to pull on thicker winter tights over your regular shorts. This allows you to keep using your whole closet all winter, without having to spend too much more money. And warm tights can also be versatile then and used across other sports not just as winter cycling clothes. These Pearl Izumi tights are the thickest tights I’ve ever worn. They’re so thick you should plan enough time to wiggle into them before you head out—in fact, I worked up a sweat just getting them on. They’re a little intense for most things, but for the coldest riding they’re perfect.
Winter Cycling Clothes: Gloves
Castelli Spettacolo Ros Gloves
Craft Siberian 2.0 Split Finger Gloves
It is a truth generally accepted that the most important thing for winter cycling are gloves. Even before you put on a heavy jacket or buff, you want good gloves. What I’ve been impressed with in these Castelli gloves in how warm they are for how small and light. What that means is they’re plenty good on their own for most conditions, and then when it gets wetter or colder you can wear them under bigger waterproof ones. (Layer layer layer!) For your top-level crazy super intense glove, there’s a reason we included these Craft lobster gloves in our Holiday Gift Guide.
Winter Cycling Clothes: Booties
Endura Road Overshoe
IMO, booties are the second most important part of your winter cycling clothing (after gloves). What you want is something that keeps the warmth in and the rain and snow out. Unfortunately, my favorite pair of booties, a thick neoprene pair made by Performance Bikes, which I still use even though the zipper broke, are no longer in stock. Fortunately, my colleagues at VeloNews suggested these neoprene ones from Endura and they’ll get the trick done. Trust me: You want to wear some thick socks and then top your shoes off with some booties (or call them “overshoes” like the Europeans) even when it doesn’t seem that cold out. Your toes will thank me.
For When It Really Gets Cold
Ororo Wear Heated Classic Vest
OK, so there are those times when it’s really really cold, like crazy cold, like you (for some reason) want to bike through a blizzard. And, sure, you’ve layered and layered your winter cycling clothes, but you need something extra warm. That’s where this heated vest comes in. (They also offer a heated jacket.) It’s battery-charged and provides heat via coils in the vest itself—up to three hours at the highest heat and 10 hours on the lowest charge. Yes, it’s water resistant, machine washable, and you can ride or run in it. I’ve tried; it works. But no, I, uh, wouldn’t ride in a rain storm. You definitely do not want to short-circuit the battery in a downpour. What it may come in even more use for, after the winter, is staying warm pre-race in those early season triathlons when you’re setting up transition in the dark and cold.
Buffs & Face Coverings & Accessories, Oh My!
On top of layers and gloves and booties and vests, there are plenty of other accessories to winter cycling. A thick good neck gaiter, like this one, will keep you warm and (bonus) helps you comply with COVID requirements right now. A nice thermal winter cycling cap, under your helmet, also provides a layer of warmth. Try this one. For women with ponytails and hair, thermal headbands can be a good substitute. And then, of course, you can always go full balaclava for when it’s really cold.
Add lights for early sunsets, a fender to keep the snow and rain from spraying up to hit you, and some solid tires, and you’re ready to become one of those winter cyclists who ride through all kinds of weather.