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Winter is coming and often times it sneaks in unexpectedly and catches you by surprise. It’s a tough time of year for bicycle enthusiasts: For many people, it’s a time to hang up the bike and explore other passions, while for some, their trusty stead goes onto the indoor stationary trainer for winter workouts, while other, brave souls venture out into the cold, day after day all winter long.
I grew up in Southern California. I remember doing some “cold rides” there and now I laugh at the fact that I even owned a thermal jacket back then. In 2014 I moved to Missouri and spent four cold winters in the humid, bone-chilling cold of the Midwest before moving to the dry cold of Salt Lake City, Utah.
I’ve spent almost every winter for the last eight years riding outside in freezing temperatures. I’ve experienced the excruciating hand thaw more times than I care to count and I’ve squinted to see the road through the sleet. I don’t think I’ve built up any sort of tolerance over the years, but I’ve learned a lot and I’ve found a way to make winter riding, dare I say, enjoyable.
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Here are my best tips for conquering the cold:
1. Layer up
It’s so tempting to just grab the biggest jacket you can find, but most of the time, this is not the best decision. It’s absolutely critical to leave the house with multiple layers so that you can shed layers as your body heats up, or add layers when the temperature drops or the wind picks up. If you layer up appropriately, each layer should serve a very specific purpose, too.
Begin by picking a light base layer that will help to wick moisture away from your body. Then add a light layer of warmth in the form of a jersey or long sleeve jersey. On top of that, consider a thermal layer for your primary source of warmth. After that, you can add a wind jacket to protect you from harsh winter wind and/or a rain jacket to protect you from the precipitation. Don’t be afraid to add and remove these layers multiple times during your rides. Roll them up and stick them in your pocket.
2. Don’t sweat
Breaking a sweat can be your breaking point on a cold winter day. This is harder to abide by than you may think. When you start your ride, you will feel cold and when you begin to feel your body temperature heat up, it will feel good. The problem is that eventually that sweat just becomes wet clothing.
This is why it is important to layer up and adjust for the terrain. If you have too many layers or too big of a jacket on when you are climbing then you will sweat and all of that moisture will freeze over on the descent down. You need to find that sweet spot where you are at a tolerable temperature but not sweating.
3. Protect your hands and feet
We all know that it is important to keep your core and head warm, but it’s usually my extremities that feel like my limiting factor when I’m out on my bike. While the rest of your body is moving and your muscles are pumping, your hands might feel like little windshields for the cold winter air. Look for warm gloves that offer wind protection. Neoprene gloves are usually great for the coldest winter days.
The same goes for your toes. Many cycling shoes will have small holes in them to allow for ventilation. In the winter, we want to seal that up. Make sure you have a quality set of shoe covers and wool socks.
4. Last-minute layers
Put on your final layers or gloves when you are walking out of the door. Especially when you are waiting on other people or tinkering with your bike, it’s all too easy to put on all of your warm layers and still spend several minutes inside heating up. Even though you might feel ok, moisture is accumulating on your skin. You likely won’t notice that you are sweating, but you will feel colder during your ride.
5. Check the windchill
Always check the windchill. The actual temperature that you see on your weather app can be very deceiving. Always make sure you check what the windchill is because that is the sensation that you will experience when out on the bike. Additionally, remember that you will be creating your own wind chill as you fly around on the roads and trails. Even on a completely still day, you will feel the wind ripping through the holes in your helmet when descending at 30 miles per hour.
6. Eat and drink
When it’s cold outside, you burn more calories due to shivering and non-shivering thermogenesis. That means that your need for nutrition actually increases in the winter. Unfortunately, most of us are less likely to eat because our hunger and thirst responses are often muted in the cold. It’s important to make a nutrition plan for cold rides and stick to it — whether you feel like you need the calories or not.
7. Make it easy to reach
Another reason many people forgo food on cold rides is that it can be hard to reach. People will pack food in their pockets and then cover it up with an additional layer or two. It can be really hard to reach for your nutrition when you have to take your jacket off to find it. During the winter months, consider making everything you need easily accessible all of the time with a bar bag. You can have food, extra layers, extra gloves, and even repair items in a bar bag.
8. Leave prepared
In the winter, more than any other time, always leave the house prepared. It’s much more enjoyable to make small adjustments to your bike in the comfort of your home than it is when your hands are freezing and you can barely hold a multi-tool. It’s very challenging to take a tire off of the rim and put a tube in when your hands are frozen solid. Make sure your sealant is topped off and that you have some tire levers if needed. Check and double-check everything before you leave the house on a cold day.
Embrace the winter
Every year in the blazing summer heat I try to remember the freezing cold winter days, and every year on the coldest day I try to remember what the blistering heat feels like. I think experiencing all seasons makes us more thankful and variety is what makes life interesting.