What cycle clothing to wear when it's cold

There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong cycling clothes

What cycle clothing to wear when it's cold

Don't get cold when you are riding this winter. Cycling journalist and Cycling UK member Matt Lamy explains how to layer up and choose the right winter cycle clothing.

There’s nothing wrong with being a fair weather cyclist and the attraction is obvious — pedalling around in the sun is an idyllic way to spend your time. However, riding in cold and even wet weather can be incredibly invigorating and with the right kit, perfectly comfortable, too.

The secret to all-year-round cycle clothing success, both on or off road, is layering. It might be tempting to go and buy the most all-singing-and-dancing cycling jacket but that alone won’t provide enough performance to keep you truly comfortable in all weathers. What every cyclist needs to do is dress in a way that can deal with changing external conditions and even changing levels of personal exertion.

Base layers

Let’s start at the first garment, which will sit next to your skin: the base layer. Funnily enough, buying a really good base layer at just a fraction of the price of that über-expensive multi-seasonal jacket may actually provide more benefit. Base layers are made from man-made fibres or merino wool and wick sweat away from your skin while also keeping you warm. So a good base layer will help you stay cool and dry in summer, but warm and insulated in winter. Short or long-sleeve versions are available — we’d suggest having at least one of each type, and wear whichever suits the prevailing temperature best.

Bib shorts or tights 

Over the base layer sit either shorts or tights. In both cases, bib shorts or bib tights with shoulder straps offer a far more secure fit than waist garments, which can dig in uncomfortably around your midriff. There are female-specific bib shorts too. Again, at least one pair of each length is good during winter — bib tights are great at keeping legs warm but might feel a bit too much on a mild day. As always with shorts and tights, buy versions with sensible padded inserts for comfy riding. For mountain bikers who might not want the full Lycra look, wearing baggy shorts over bib tights will reap all the comfort benefits without suffering from roadie styling issues.

Cycling jersey

The final garment in the first stage of our layering system is the cycling jersey. You may well have a collection of short-sleeve jerseys from summer. These can certainly be worn in winter as part of your layering system, although if it’s looking like a very cold day ahead, a long-sleeve jersey is also an option. 

Arm and leg warmers

Now we come to our first clothing decision. You’ve decided to wear shorts and a short-sleeve jersey because the weather forecast promises warmer temperatures later on, but right now as you set out it’s pretty nippy. What do you do? The answer is to use arm warmers and leg warmers. These are simple tubes of insulating Lycra material that can be worn on the arms and legs but which are easily removed when the sun appears. Arm and leg warmers are inexpensive, they can be easily rolled up and carried in a jersey pocket, and are a very handy option for changeable temperatures.

So far, all the kit we’ve looked at will suit fair weather rides from late spring through to early autumn. In very cold and poor weather, though, we’ll need other layers on top of our jersey, tights and base layer.

Gilet

The first option is a gilet. Gilets are effectively jackets without arms, rather like body warmers, which keep the torso warm and protect it particularly from wind chill. They are often made from windproof material and can be easily rolled and stored in a jersey when not needed. In situations where you aren’t worried about arm warmth or complete waterproofing, gilets offer a very convenient added layer. 

Soft shell jacket 

For more warmth, a soft shell jacket or jersey is an even better option. With wind-stopping material to protect the front, a good selection of rear pockets, and often some element of rain-resistance, a good soft shell is often your first line of defence against true winter riding elements. Don’t forget high-visibility and reflectivity, not only for riding at night but also for times when you might be cycling under trees or in heavily overcast conditions. And if you’re planning full-on training rides where you’ll be sweating profusely, do make sure your soft shell is made from advanced breathable fabric as well. 

Waterproof jacket

Very few soft shells offer complete waterproofing but there is a simple solution. The packable rain jacket or rain cape has long been a staple of cyclists everywhere and modern waterproof jackets are better than ever. They can be kept in a jersey or jacket’s rear pocket and provide breathable rainproofing if the heavens open. Also, with their long tail flaps, they stop the back of your tights or shorts getting uncomfortably wet from wheel spray. Again, because the rain jacket will form your outermost layer, don’t forget visibility and reflectivity for riding in dark conditions. 

Stop getting cold hands and feet

Nothing has the ability to create quite as much pain on the bike than wet and cold feet or hands, so make sure your extremities are protected. On the hands, swap fingerless mitts for full-finger gloves, preferably with sticky silicone grip sections for secure contact with the bike’s controls. Then, on the feet, use overshoes or oversocks to help keep toes warm and prevent any water getting into your shoe. If you ever find yourself in a situation wishing you’d fitted overshoes, you’ll realise why they’re worth every penny!

Hat or skull cap

Don’t forget your head. Road helmets these days are perfect studies in air cooling, which is great in summer but no help in winter. Mountain bike helmets tend to have a bit better coverage but they’re still far from insulating. Use a thermal skull cap — some even have ear sections — or the experienced cyclist’s traditional favourite, an old team cycling cap, to keep your head a little warmer. 

Neck warmer

Finally we reach the very last area where a chill can seep in and leave you uncomfortable: the neck. A good neck warmer or snood will mean only your face is exposed to the elements. In fact, a stretchy, lightweight thermal snood can help protect your face, too, and can turned into a scarf, lower face mask, balaclava, headband, beanie hat or bandana. 

Conclusion

Layering up can work if you cycle to work or are going out for a longer ride. What you wear will depend on what the temperature is, where you are riding and how long you will be cycling for. It might seem that there’s a lot of kit suggested here but it’s worth remembering that all these garments are the types of products that will stand up to many years of riding. Also, layering is a total cycling clothing solution, suitable for all conditions. So invest in a few quality pieces of clothing now and you’ll be able to enjoy your bike all-year-round, not just during summer.

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