Layering For Cold Weather Cycling

The important thing is that you are out there training-yes, got that. However, when the weather decides to challenge our desire to train by throwing rain or wind or sleet or heat at us, it is important to understand how to dress so that you can complete you workouts in comfort, warmth, and safety. If you have ever wondered what a complete cycling wardrobe looks like for fall, winter, and spring riding then you’ll want to read on.

What you wear does matter. Period. My first suggestion is to leave the cotton for every daywear, not cycling. Yes, the material matters. Actually, it’s most important. You want your cycling clothing to perform and that means choosing the best fabric for the job. So, if not cotton, then what? Most technical cycling apparel is made of a wicking polyester fabric designed to transport moisture away from your skin and to stay light when wet. You will find most major cycling companies produce high quality garments specifically designed for athletes to be comfortable when training outside in less than spectacular weather. This is not a marketing gimmick. It makes good sense.

Core Layering

Cold Weather Layering animation

First and foremost, it is important to layer clothing for your upper body. Layering is important-especially in colder weather. “Layering” refers to the idea of wearing more than one layer of clothing. For some, you may do this instinctually and for others this may seem a foreign concept. However, at the root of layering is a garment specifically designed to keep you warm and it “hugs” your skin tight. This garment will wick away moisture and keep you warm. This idea of layering goes out the window if you decide to wear cotton as your first layer (the layer closest to your skin), as cotton loses its insulative properties once it gets wet. It holds water and becomes heavy, thus increasing the chance of chaffing and a chill. Make sure to choose a wicking garment that fits snug, but not necessarily tight. If your first layer is too loose, then not only will it bunch, but it will not be able to do its job. For a wicking garment to work, it needs to be in contact with your skin. A loose garment that is not touching your skin will not be able to effectively transport moisture away from your skin. If the first layer is ineffective whatever is on top of it is effectively useless.

The middle layers are important in maintaining warmth and continuing to transfer moisture away from the skin. In these layers you may be looking for something a little heavier than your first layer and something with a zipped neck is great in case you get a little too warm during your workout. Generally this layer will be a long-sleeved jersey and it should be a little looser fitting than your first layer, although nothing should be baggy. This is the layer that will hold in your body heat close to your core and it will also allow the moisture to escape. Depending on the temperature and terrain (climbing/descending hills) you may need a couple middle layers, but generally one layer will be sufficient as the amount of heat your body generates while in motion will help to keep you warm. The outer layers of clothing are predominantly light jackets or vests and they should have some sort of reflective material on them.

The outer layer is important for a few reasons. Since this layer is your protection from the elements, it needs to be durable, a bit water resistant and not slow you down (you don't need a parachute while riding). This is the layer that is breaking the wind and keeping the cold and rain from seeping into your bones. While the outer layer keeps the rain out, it also needs to allow for release of the moisture that your body heat is creating. The outer layer should also be easily visible and or reflective so others can see you on the road, especially if you train at night. If you do train at night, you’ll want a front and rear light on your bike. These can be purchased at most bike shops.

Legs and Feet

Layering is most important on your upper body, but don't forget your “bottom line” seat, feet, and legs. Knees should be covered in temps below 55. There’s not much circulation that occurs in the knee area and they can get cold and stiff. Invest in a light pair of cycling tights and/or a pair of cycling pants to break the cold and wind. I have one of each because if it’s really cold, cycling pants keep your legs much warmer. Cycling shorts (with padding) are essential and a very wise investment. You will feel “time in the saddle” in places you don’t want to if you don’t have the proper cushioning in the right places.

Cover your feet with a good warm pair of cycling socks (wool is great for winter) For extra warmth there are always “shoe booties” to keep your cycling toes warm. There are a number of functional accessories such as gloves, (to protect your hands and provide cushioning for your palms), cycling booties, waterproof gloves, finger length gloves, arm warmers and knickers, all of which will allow you train in more comfort and keep your extremities warm.

Layering your cycling clothes for cold weather will keep you warmer and happier on the bike and you’ll have a much easier time keeping the cold away! You’ll most likely be more comfortable while training because you have the right attire for a good, good ride! So go out into the brisk weather and ride, and before you do, dress for success!