Bicycling in the winter, what to wear

Guest post from veteran KC urban bicyclist Shawn Tolivar

Winter bicycling at first might seem like a daunting task, It’s cold, dark, wet, and miserable. Why would anyone in their right mind do this? For many, bicycling seems like a Spring, Summer and Fall activity, and it’s only natural to store the bike for the winter. For others, winter bicycling is a necessity, a challenge, or just another day.   Let’s dive into the why, the how, and the what to wear.

The Why:

Winter in Kansas City is everything from zero-degree days to highs In the 50’s and 60’s, and sometimes both in the same day. Winter provides another season to get out and stay active. Winter cycling doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can pick your comfort level, but by putting your bike away for the season, you are going to miss many great days of cycling.

The How:

Pick your own comfort level. You may choose to ride on snow/ice free days and take the bus or drive on days when you feel it is too slippery or dangerous to ride.  How about combining public transportation with your ride?  Even just a day or two a week will help keep you in shape and energized.

Be mindful of snow, slush and ice.  Your bike should be in top condition, and you will want fenders or some way to keep water and grime from getting all over your clothes.  For a bit more grip, you might let a little air out of your tires. Lower pressure tires puts a bit more rubber on the road which can mean more grip.  I run mine about 10-20 psi lower in the winter. 

Lights and reflectivity are critical. You will want lights to light your way and to be visible to traffic. As the sun rises later in the morning and earlier in the evening, it is not uncommon for commutes to be in the dark both ways.

Bags, or Panniers. If your commute is more that a couple of miles, or work requires a certain dress code, you are going to need a good bag. I suggest either a waterproof backpack or waterproof Panniers such as Ortlieb Back Rollers to carry your change of clothes. A little trick I found is to also carry a large plastic shopping back inside to put in your wet cycling clothes. This keeps your wet clothes and shoes from getting the inside of your bag wet for when you change out of your day clothes for your commute home.

Clothes:

Let’s hear from three year-round commuters, Zeke, Matthew, and Maggie

Zeke:

Dress for the LAST mile, not the first, and lots of wool.  I have wool or wool blend underwear, socks, t-shirts, caps, arm warmers, leg warmers, gloves, and jerseys.

Protect your core, ears, fingers, & toes. (I have a bigger issue with my toes getting cold than I do with my fingers. There have been times that even in my winter shoes my toes are cold but I’ve taken my gloves off because my hands are so hot)

Layers and a bag (prefer on the bike vs on your back) to shed layers into if need be.

Oh, and a Positive Attitude. Sometimes the hardest part of the ride is getting out the door to do it.  

Matthew:

Wool, anything wool is good.

Hands: Wool glove liners for not so cold days, below 30° liners inside of Pearl Izumi Amfib lobster gloves, 30-40° liners with Specialized gloves

Head: 30-40° helmet liner, below 30, Walz wool cap with ear flaps, below 15 balaclava

Feet: Layer wool socks. 40° and above thin wool socks, 30-40° medium wool socks, below 30° heavier wool socks. As temps get colder, I layer thin wool socks with heavy or medium over them, and below 10° all three. This way when I ride home and its 20° warmer, I have some flexibility.

Thorax: 40° and above short sleeve wool jersey and windbreaker. 30°-40° long sleeve wool jersey with windbreaker. Below 30° I add a wool t-shirt to the above. Below 15 I add a polar fleece vest under shell.

Legs: Down to about 30° I wear bike shorts with 3/4 length pants, 20°-30° I wear full length shell pants,Below 20° I wear a pair of long underwear under a shell., Below 10° I would go with my Amfib tights.

Maggie:

Legs: Leggings or THICK tights (with a dress or skirt). Leggings or liners under dress pants (take off when get to work). Wool socks (ALWAYS– there are some taller wool knee socks that work well with skirts/dresses).  Leg warmers over socks and leggings (can coordinate with a dress/skirt)

Core: Top/dress + cardigan + thick coat (for a 3-4 mile commute). For a longer commute, you would burn up in a thick winter coat, so LAYER UP. Shirt + sweater/cardigan + one more layer + windbreaker jacket and a scarf.

Head: Ear band + scarf when it’s above 25°. Balaclava + scarf when less than 25°, and eye protection. I have not found a pair of goggles that I like, but when it dips into single digits, having eye protection is huge because the eyes get super cold and weird (plus your eye makeup freezes off)  

Hands. I bought thick snow gloves from Costco last year and they work well for my 3-4 mile commute. There is enough room to also put on a glove liner underneath as a second layer when it’s really cold. 

Shoes: I tend to ride in whatever shoe I wanna wear for the day but commuting in snow boots isn’t so bad. Plus, snow boots tend to be water resistant. Pack your work shoes in your bag or leave them at work.

Zeke, Matthew and Maggie have given us several things to think about.  A lot depends upon how far your commute is, what type of commute you have and what expectations you have when you get to your destination.  Sweat is you worst enemy in winter commuting. It makes you uncomfortable, and can cause a rapid cool down at stops which can make it hard to get warm again.  Experiment with what makes you comfortable, keeps you warm, but not over-heating and enjoy your winter bicycling.

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