It is a weird time of year to be a mountain biker. Depending on where you live, you could either be trying to get up the determination to brave the chill and ride, or putting away your bike and waxing up the downhill skis.
Here in the southeast, most of us tend to mountain bike year round since the cold weather isn’t that severe and we don’t get enough snow to ski on. I say “most of us” because the cold inevitably scares a number of riders off of their bikes and into the gym or onto the trainer. However, after growing up in central Wisconsin and living in Montana, I have learned that you can enjoyexercisingoutdoors in just about any conditions.
The trick is to dress for the weather.
An insulated long-sleeve jersey is the first logical defense against the deepening chill of winter. My go-to jersey from Pearl Izumi isn’t very thick at all, but it does an excellent job of trapping my body heat. After I’ve been exerting myself on the bike for a couple of minutes and my body heats up, the insulated jersey captures that heat and holds it close, warding off the cold.. By having a jersey specially designed to do this, I can stay warm without the bulk of a big jacket.
Personally, I’ll just ride with shorts until it gets down into the low 40s. But once the mercury drops to 39 degrees and below, it’s time for me to break out the tights. When I first started cold-weather riding, I would simply wear long underwear and other loose layers over my chamois (and under my outer shorts so I wouldn’t look like too much of a dweeb).
I didn’t understand the benefits of a set of cycling-specific thermal tights until I bought a pair at an REI scratch and dent sale. Cycling-specific cold-weather tights are designed to do the same thing as the thermal jersey I mentioned above: trap your body heat and keep you warm without excess bulk.
Honestly, they do an amazing job! To date, I have yet to go on a ride where my one pair of tights does not feel adequate. I have ridden with simply that one pair of tights in temperatures nearing the teens, and still that one layer has done an amazing job of conserving my own body heat that I have been comfortable throughout my whole ride. Sure, at that temperature you’ll feel the chill when you start out, but once you are generating some heat by pushing those cranks, you’ll feel toasty and be tearing it up on rock-solid singletrack.
The extremities are the hardest part of the body to keep warm when mountain biking. Add in the fact that you’re gripping the handlebars and need your thumbs to shift and your fingers to brake, and keeping your fingers toasty but not sweaty all while maintaining functionality can become an art form.
Many different factors come into play: air temperature, wind speed (how fast you’re riding), and moisture.Realistically, you may need several different pairs of gloves for different temperature ranges. I recently picked up the Fox gloves pictured above and they’re great for weather in about the 35ish-60ish degree range, due to the vents on the back. When temperatures dip below 30, I’ll go with a significantly heavier glove. Many bike companies make gloves for lower temperature ranges, but I find that some ski gloves work just as well.
As I mentioned above, the extremities are the hardest part of the body to keep warm. Swap out your cycling socks for a heavier-weight wool sock. They may be a little bulkier, but a little discomfort is way better than frost bite!
One piece of essential gear that I have largely ignored until recently (much to the detriment of my frozen toes) are shoe covers.
The average mountain bike shoe is designed with large vents to channel air into the shoe to keep your feet from sweating excessively during the hot summer months and to drain water after deep creek crossings. But these features work against you once the weather turns cold.
While you may look funny wearing them, plastic covers solve the problem of shoes designed for the desert by keeping the cold air and snowy/slushy muck out and your body heat in.
Large Hydration Pack
While you might not need to carry as much water during the winter as you do during the blazing hot days of the summer, I always carry a large-capacity Camelback that features a large storage compartment. Since the weather outside and your internal temperature can fluctuate so much over the course of a ride, I find that a large pack is convenient for carrying extra layers in case I need them, or storing layers that I’ve chosen to take off.
Cycing Beanie: For When it Gets Really Cold
When the temperatures start getting seriously cold and your ears start freezing solid, try on a cycling-specific beanie to keep your noggin warm. The greatest loss of body heat occurs through your head (and specifically your ears), so buying a beanie will help you in extra-cold conditions. Personally, I don’t usually feel a need to put a hat on while riding until the temps are at least into the 20’s. Trek7k wrote an article about cold weather cycling clothes about 2 years ago, and he talked specifically about cycling beanies. There’s more great info there, so be sure to check it out!
If you live at a higher latitude and have to deal with subzero temperatures and significant amounts of snow, these same principles still apply. Just add thicker and more numerous layers!
Hopefully these clothing tips will help prepare you for a fun winter season filled with frozen singletrack instead of several mundane months spent on the trainer. Get out there and rip it up!
Your Turn: Do you have any cold weather mountain biking tips to share? If so, please add them in the comments section below!