Part 1 of a 2 part series on winterizing yourself and your bike. Read part 2 to learn how to winterize your bike.
Commuting by bicycle is absolutely AMAZING. Pumping pedals, rather than gas, is a natural energy boost that leaves you feeling exhilarated when you enter the office. However, it’s that time of year when the temperatures drop, clothing is layered, and bikes are often put away. Don’t let the cold deter you from continuing to commute or even starting to commute by bike this winter.
It may seem daunting, but buying the appropriate gear to safely ride in the winter can be done frugally. The key is assessing your commute distance and personal tolerability for winter conditions, and then supplementing your current winter wardrobe. When shopping for pieces of your bike commute ensemble, look for limited and lifetime warranties, shop end of season sales and check out consignment shops. There are also many local, bicycle-related Facebook groups where fellow cyclists sell their gently-used or new bike apparel.
There are three components you need to tackle when dressing for winter conditions: keeping warm, keeping the wind off your skin, and staying dry (on the outside as well as the inside). But first, there is a lot of jargon when it comes to cycling gear. So, here is a little break down of the key words:
Sweat Wicking – The ability of material to move sweat from your skin to the fabric's surface where it can evaporate.
Breathable – The ability of a material to allow perspiration vapor to be transmitted through the material.
Water Resistant/Water Repellent – Water resistant materials, sometimes called water repellent, repel water from the surface either due to the weave of the fabric or because they are treated with a water-repellent coating.
Waterproof – Waterproof materials won’t let water in or out. Fully waterproof items are made with a waterproof membrane (a thin water-repellent membrane woven into the material) and have taped or sealed seams that prevent water coming in from either direction.
Now, how does one stay dry (inside and outside) as well as staying warm while keeping the wind off? The answer: (Base)layer, (Mid)layer, (Outer)layer!
Despite the cold, your body will generate heat while cycling and you will sweat. Sweat in the winter will chill you to the bone if it is not wicked away. So, it is important to wear a sweat wicking base-layer to help keep you dry underneath all of your layers.
Base-layers are designed to fit snug against the body. They are not meant to be your primary protection against cold, wind or rain. Base-layers are available as tops and bottoms. There are also many types sweat-wicking materials. Picking the best one for you is simply a matter of preference. Cotton is not a good base-layer because it has no sweat-wicking ability. Here is a breakdown on the two most popular materials for base-layers:
Merino Wool – Compared to traditional wool, which is also sweat wicking, but notoriously itchy, Merino wool is made of fine yarns that make it feel soft against the skin. It keeps your skin dry by absorbing sweat into the fabric away from the skin. Merino wool is known to be warmer than synthetic material and can keep its thermal properties when wet. However, it takes longer to dry than synthetic materials. Wool is naturally resistant to the bacterial growth, so it will not smell after an extended period of use. It is also naturally resistant to UV rays. Additionally, Merino wool is a natural, renewable resource.
The price range for a top or bottom is $34 - $100.
Synthetic – Most synthetic base layers are made from polypropylene or polyester. Synthetic base layers are known to be lighter, dry faster and less expensive than wool. Synthetic materials do not absorb moisture. They move moisture from your skin to the outer surface where it will evaporate. These materials will require more care because they are not very resistant to body odor build up.
The price range for a top or bottom is $20 - $100.
The mid-layer is an insulating layer that traps the air between the base-layer and outer-layer. Mid-layers come in a variety of styles, such as pull-over, zip-up, and vest. The most popular materials for the mid-layer are fleece, down/synthetic down and wool because they are light, insulating and breathable. There are many outdoors brands that design mid-layers with varying degrees of weight and weather protection like windproof. The weight of your mid-layer depends on the temperature and how far you are riding. Lightweight mid-layers are typically made for aerobic activity or mild climates, midweight is for moderate activities and climates, and expedition-weight is for low activity or cold climates. Features to look out for include high collar and tight cuffs.
Price Range: Free from your closet to $300.
The outer-layer, also known as a shell, is designed to protect you from the elements, such as wind, rain or snow. Your shell should be able to fit easily over other layers and not restrict your movement. Hard shells are waterproof jackets and pants that do not have insulation. Soft shells are water resistant jackets that are somewhat insulated, are generally less expensive, and more breathable than waterproof jackets. Over time water resistant jackets can lose their water resistant capabilities and will need a new water repellent coating to be applied.
When shopping for outer-layers look for bike specific shells. They are available in bright colors and include reflective tape to help increase your visibility at night. Bike specific jackets offer high collars, tight cuffs, and are extended in the back for extra coverage. Perhaps you have a very pliable and warm jacket, but it is not bike specific? You can increase the visibility of your jacket with reflective tape for fabrics. Reflective tape is available as an adhesive, sew-on and heat transfer.
Shell Price Range: $70 - $300
Reflective Tape Price Range: $.99 per yard - $3.99 per yard
Whether you decide to battle precipitation or not, wind will burn your face, bite your ears, and cause your eyes to water. Much of your regular winter gear can be used on your bike commute to protect against this. Here are some ways to help protect your extremities:
Head/Ears (make sure your headwear can fit under your helmet!):
Even something as simple as a bandanna or cloth layer that covers your face makes a big difference
Clear glasses/Safety glasses for overcast days
Bicycle Handlebar Mittens
Socks - Sweat wicking, breathable material such as wool. Depending on the climate and your base layer situation, you may want to get a pair of knee-length socks for added warmth.
Shoes - Windproof material, perhaps even waterproof. Canvas sneakers will not keep your feet warm or dry. Leather is naturally windproof and is available in waterproof and water resistant. Hiking boots are a good option too.
To get a sense of what a seasoned winter commuting cyclist wears, read how Larkin S. battles elements during her commute:
What type of industry do you work in:
Gearing Up, a bicycle advocacy group.
How many miles do you commute one way to work:
6 miles - 15 miles, depending on the duties on deck on any particular workday.
How many winters have you been cycling to work:
Embarking on my 3rd.
Are there any weather conditions will you not bike in:
I don’t mess with temperatures below freezing. I learned that lesson the hard way when I got lost on a 22-degree ride and my phone was so cold it died. Day by day, I try to be really aware of the ice conditions of the route. For example, along Spruce and Pine streets, the bike lane can be rendered totally obsolete because plows push all of the ice and snow into the bike lane where it gets compounded as winter progresses. I tend to stay off the bike on days that are pouring.
What is your go to winter cycling apparel:
Merino Wool everything. Merino base-layers are essential. It is incredibly cozy, warm and sweat-wicking, so you don’t get clammy once you’ve arrived at work. It does get toasty fast though, so I reserve my wool jersey for days I will really need extra heat in my layers. Last year, I grabbed a pair of clearance wind and water resistant track pants. They are great to throw over my spandex or bib shorts as one more barrier against the elements. For commutes under 10 miles, I love my fleece lined waterproof coat with double zip. In low light conditions, I break out my incredibly ostentatious reflective jacket to ensure I am a visible.
Head & Face:
I cannot live without my Bern helmet and fantastic winter insert, which protects my noggin while keeping the cold from biting my ears. Layers are essential. I also prefer a neck warmer to a full face/head gaiter because it’s easy to adjust it according to my changing body temperature needs while I ride.
I wear fleece gloves of varying weights. I’ve tried to do regular gloves and not cycling-specific and it was not been great. There’s really something to be said for the proper padding and silicone grippiness of cycling gloves.
All the wool socks. Sometimes two pairs layered. I have a few pairs that are knee-high, but mostly I just do regular, shin-height socks. Big, bad boots, with the laces VERY carefully tightened and secured. If it’s a wretchedly cold day, I wear toe warmers too.
Any suggestions for first time winter cyclists:
Take it slow! Give yourself a lot of extra time and know your options to bail. Carry SEPTA tokens, get a tutorial on the bus rack and know SEPTA’s bus, train and subway hours. Most importantly, don’t forget your lights! It’s dark out there! The amazing thing about Philly is that the bicycle community is incredibly supportive. There are always amazing people to turn to from your favorite shop, to Women Bike PHL, to rad coaches willing to work with you!
Read the second part of this blog series to learn how to winterize your bike and maintain it throughout the winter.