If your local trails are starting to look like this, that doesn't mean you have to stop. Ryan Dunfee photo.
It’s that time of year. It’s getting frosty, we can’t roll out in shorts and a t-shirt anymore, but we DON’T want to stop riding. At least I don’t. Being cold is terrible, but too many layers leave you warm, clammy and possibly dehydrated. Check the thermometer, suit up properly as part of your pre-ride routine and keep cranking as long as you like.
Maybe this trail will be easier in the cold? Kitsbow photo.
First, a few universal rules:
No matter what the temperature, avoid cotton. Your layers must be breathable and wick moisture away from your body. Stay dry and stay in the game.
If you’re warm when you start, you’ll be too hot once your heart rate reaches 150 bpm. In this regard, we’re a lot like cross-country (or nordic) skiers.
The more you spin, the warmer you'll be. Steamboat photo.
Structure layers the way you would in any other active sport: base layer wicks moisture, mid layer insulates and outer layer blocks wind and elements.
If you’re riding below 32 degrees; Firm trails feel nice and fast but a lot of freeze/thaw, and maybe a dusting of snow to hide things, mean frozen puddles of doom.
Finally; though we perceive ourselves as sweating less, our bodies use a lot of energy and water in the winter. Keep hydrated and fueled up.
Layering:When it starts to dip–50-60 degrees
Arm and kneewarmers. Winterparklodging photo.
Add arm and knee/leg warmers. They reduce the amount of exposed skin and take the chill off joints on days when temps are still bearable.
Keep knee and elbow pads on, if you wear them, as they’ll also help. Throw a light shell in your pack just in case.
Can’t fake it–40 degrees
Add something to take out the wind's bite. Sugoi photo.
Bring out the windproof undershirt (Pearl Izumi makes a nice one), swap those legwarmers for tights under the baggies, and think about a vest.
Don’t go too nuts and break out the expedition-weight insulation yet, it'll make you too hot. Regular long-fingered cycling gloves still work for me here.
Freezing–30 degrees: Time to get serious
Well... semi-serious. Kitsbow photo.
Add Thinsulate gloves (maybe the guy above has burlier hands), and an insulation layer between shell and base layers (I to cover my neck, too).
Feeling good. Kitsbow photo.
I also add a tight wool cap under the helmet, mostly to cover my ears. Upper thirties still feel nice and warm if you’re pedaling high cadence or pushing hard.
Damn it, I’m GOING!–20 degrees
Getting hairy. Cloud city wheelers photo.
You’ll need the above-mentioned Thinsulate gloves or even lobster-boy mittens. Use base, insulation and outer layers top and bottom–though some folks are still okay without windproof pants depending on wind. Maybe full balaclava rather than just a hat under your helmet. If you don’t have winter shoes, and plan on riding a lot in winter, think about getting some–or shoe covers.
My leather Five Ten shoes still work in these temps, with a thin wicking layer and wool sock. But it’ll get borderline if I have to dab down or walk much.
EPIC WINTER CONDITIONS–10 Degrees
Sure looks like fun... Iditarod Trail Invitational photo.
You’re a hard man/woman, and ride arctic conditions as a test of your will and humanity. My own recommendation is to hit the gym, cross-train, and live to fight another day. Or go skiing. At these temps, you’ll need insulated upper and lower layers, hand gaiters, insulated shoes, balaclava and helmet cover, and an maybe an insulating outer layer.
Also, consequences of a mechanical deep in the woods can be dire, and battery life on cellphones is much shorter. Keep your rides short and manageable enough to hike out - just in case. Unless you’re experienced in cold weather, don’t just jump into temps like this.
Finally, like the pirate code, these are all more like guidelines. Everybody has their own tolerance for temperatures–you might need a bit less or more than recommended above. It's always wise to keep an item or two in your pack and level up if you need.