When winter rolls in, it tests your commitment as a cyclist. In northern areas, especially, the cold air and brisk winds can make it tempting to hang up the bike for a few months. Even for those who try to push through it, a few rides facing a biting cold wind can be enough to send them indoors for the season.
“You really don’t want to have damage to your skin,” notes longtime cycling coach — and veteran of over 30 Canadian winters — Darryl MacKenzie. “Frostbite is not something to risk.”
Winter doesn’t have to put a stop to your cycling for the year, though. It may be tougher to stick to riding, but you can push through if you know how to stay well covered and protected from the cold during those long rides.
To keep riding safely and comfortably in the winter, you have to layer up. However, it’s not just about adding layers — it’s also about covering the areas most susceptible to winter’s bone-chilling effects. Coach Darryl recommends focusing on three spots in particular, and we’ll explore them below.
The Cyclist’s Windchill Factor
Before we get to what to cover, let’s consider why the cold can be such an issue for the cyclist. In part, it’s simply because cyclists spend a long time outside. The longer you’re out there, the more of a risk frostbite can be. Even more important, though, is the windchill factor.
We’re all acquainted with the powerful effect of the wind on a cold day. The windchill factor can make a mild autumn afternoon feel like a frosty January morning in just a few quick gusts. As a cyclist, though, you make your own windchill factor. Even the calmest winter day will become blustery and brisk when you’re on the bike.
There’s actually a formula you can use to estimate just how much the wind will affect you on a ride. To gauge what the air temperature will feel like, multiply your speed by 70% (0.7), then subtract that amount from the air temperature. So, for example, if you’re pedaling at 20 miles an hour in 40-degree weather, you’d subtract 14 (20 mph * 0.7) from 40 to get 26 degrees, which is what the air actually feels like.
Considering that a cyclist can easily go 20 mph on a bike, you can see why those cold rides can become an issue!
3 Key Areas To Cover in the Cold
Given how much a cold wind can affect a ride, it’s critical to plan accordingly. But, more than simply going for general coverage, thinking cyclists consider the areas that are most vulnerable to the cold wind they create.
“The areas that feel the cold the most are the parts of the body where your skin is visible and directly in contact with cold, moving air,” says Coach Darryl. “And these parts are on the leading edge going into the air when you ride.”
Ultimately, it comes down to three parts: your hands, your knees, and your face.
Every cyclist thinks about their hands in the cold. This is the most obvious area of exposure and discomfort because your fingers truly take the brunt of the wind and they chill easily.
If you’re hanging onto those fingerless gloves you love to ride with in summertime, winter is the time to let go and make an upgrade. Any cyclist who rides in winter needs full-finger coverage.
Of course, you can go with standard gloves that have full-length fingers or use a mitten if you’d rather group your fingers together for more warmth. A better option, though, is a glove that’s made especially for cyclists. These hybrid gloves have three compartments — one for the thumb, one for the index finger, and one for the other three. This makes it much easier to shift but also keeps more of your fingers warm, and you can even slide your forefinger in with the other three if you’re riding the flats and don’t need to shift much.
This second area is often an afterthought, but Darryl argues it may actually be the most important.
“Your knees need to be protected because you can actually damage them if they get too cold,” he explains.
Even if you’re relatively heavy and well insulated elsewhere, your knees have very little fat to protect them on their own. Consistent exposure to the cold can eventually result in lingering pain and discomfort in your knees, impacting your daily life.
To ensure your knees are protected, you have a few options:
- Leg warmers are an easy and obvious one, but these tend to slide down your thighs over the course of a ride.
- Cycling tights stretch from your ankles to your waist and easily slide over your bike shorts, making them a great option if you know the ride could eventually get too warm.
- Insulated pants are also an option for especially cold climates, but these can be too floppy and may get caught in your chain.
Last but not least, there’s your face. This includes a lot of sensitive skin surfaces that take a steady, direct hit from the wind throughout your ride. It’s important to keep your nose, mouth, ears and neck covered in the cold, but it’s critical to be sure you do it right.
“The face is where you see, breathe and hear, so whatever you use can’t affect those three things,” says Darryl.
That means when you’re choosing your face mask, you’ve got to make sure it fits well. Nothing should flop around loosely or make its way into your field of vision. You also don’t want anything so thick that it makes it difficult to breathe.
Finally, it’s also important to know how to deal with foggy glasses when you’re wearing a face mask for winter warmth. You can read up on that in our full article on the topic, but here’s a hint: Simply slide your glasses down a bit.
Keep Everything Warm
The winter months can make riding a bit more challenging, but they don’t have to throw off your cycling routine. Be sure you’ve got coverage for these three key areas and look for the best cold-weather cycling gear for the job. When you’re well covered, you can ride year-round with no trouble.