A few years ago, I was headed to a cyclocross race in Bend, Oregon late in the season. My teammate and I got stranded in Portland, Oregon when our second flight got cancelled due to weather. We had to book a last-minute rental car and drive five hours in a snowstorm, not arriving in Bend until 2:30 am. A few hours later when I awoke to get ready for the race, the temperatures were in the single digits and the ground was thickly covered in snow. Fortunately, I have always embraced riding in all kinds of weather, and love the challenge of winter conditions. I kept my pre-ride limited and “warmed up” for the race by sitting in the car with the heat on! It ended up being one of my best race performances against the best riders in the country. Yes, my hands hurt so badly after the race that I bawled uncontrollably for 15 minutes, but I was prepared to handle the inclement weather because I regularly make a practice of it.
Why bike outside in the winter?
Not all of us will encounter dire winter biking conditions, but the idea of adapting to the weather and being able to handle training adversity with a positive attitude is something that can transfer to any unexpected race conditions, and to life in general. Rather than wishing the weather were different, why not embrace the elements and see just what you are made of! After all, in a race, when you encounter a mechanical or crash or other misfortune, you’re far more likely to turn things around if you make a habit of resiliency.
The funny thing is, sometimes the worst conditions end up having more bark than bite anyway. If you can get yourself out the door in appropriate gear, and get past the initial “ugh!” moment, you might just find it to be oddly serene or excitingly adventurous. Many times when I’m riding in rain or snow, and I take a moment to be present, I realize I’m actually not in any discomfort at all.
Also, riding with friends in tough conditions can form strong bonds through a memorable experience together. The stories you tell years from now are going to be the ones about the snowy trudge that turned your eyelashes into icicles, the century you splashed through in driving rain, the slip-n-slide cyclocross race in deep mud.
Five things to consider when cycling in cold weather
Since I don’t own a trainer, and train year-round, I have gathered a lot of tricks for staying warm in winter weather. Here are my top five.
1. Pre-ride routine
Eat or drink something hot before you go for your ride to make sure you are as warm as possible before heading out. Warming from the inside is preferable to warming from the outside. If you sit somewhere super hot like a sauna, or do an indoor trainer warm-up, you’ll likely get sweaty and you may get chilled when your sweat hits the cold air. Oatmeal, hot coffee or cocoa, or soup will not only warm you from the inside, but also pre-hydrate you.
2. Hydration and nutrition
Staying hydrated and fueled are two very important and often overlooked methods for staying warm. When it’s cold, we are less likely to crave water while riding, and it is certainly more difficult to extract a bar and unwrap it when you’ve got thick gloves on, but both dehydration and lack of calories can lead to getting chilled. You’ll be surprised: keeping your hydration and your glycogen topped off makes a huge difference.
The palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, and your face are the three places that conduct heat in or out of your body most quickly. Keeping those areas warm are essential to maintaining your body temperature.
Battery-powered gloves: these are a lifesaver for cold days. They are bulky and you have to remember to charge them, but when it’s really cold, they are worth it.
Hand warmers: actually, I prefer to use the flatter toe warmers, and to place them on the underside of my wrist to heat the blood as it flows into my hands. This also avoids the warmers from bunching up in your gloves and obstructing your braking and shifting.
Latex gloves: wearing a pair of thin latex gloves under your cycling gloves can keep your hands incredibly warm due to the wind blocking, heat-trapping properties of the latex. Note that this trick is only for shorter rides <90 minutes (like a cyclocross race). Anything longer and sweat will build up and start to be counterproductive.
Bar mitts: insulated bar mitts attach to your handlebars and encompass your hands when you grip the bars. These allow you to wear normal, non-bulky gloves that make shifting and braking easier.
Winter cycling shoes: many brands make an insulated cycling boot. They are bulkier than regular shoes but worth it for the extra warmth and waterproofing.
Toe warmers: putting toe warmers inside your cycling shoes is a good way to keep your toes from freezing. You may need to take out the insole in order to allow enough room for the toe warmer without cramping your feet, especially if you’re wearing thick socks.
Shoe covers: a windproof and waterproof, insulated shoe cover can transform your regular cycling shoes into a more winterized version.
Plastic bags: putting a cheap plastic shopping bag over your socks and inside your shoes can generate a great barrier to cold and wind that keeps your feet warm for a very low price point.
Flat pedals: swapping your clipless pedals for flat pedals so that you can wear actual winter boots is another option when it is really, extremely cold!
Balaclava: a balaclava can keep you warmer than a hat combined with a neck gator because it eliminates the gaps between material and holds the heat in better.
Vaseline: covering your face with vaseline can create a shield from the wind and cold and also keep your skin from drying out.
Glasses: bigger glasses and/or goggles can provide even more wind and cold protection.
4. Bike choice
A slower, heavier bike will help you stay warmer for a few reasons. First, it will extend the time you spend pedaling uphill. This helps you stay warmer because climbing is slow and requires a lot of effort. Second, it will force you to work harder to pedal in general because it is heavier and has more rolling resistance. Third, it will either reduce the time you spend downhill on the trail because it handles the chunk better, or it will just go slower on pavement because of the increased rolling resistance. You either spend less time coasting downhill or you go slower which reduces the wind chill. When you have a choice, pick your heaviest, slowest bike.
5. Venue choice
The woods are always warmer than the roads. For one thing, the trees block the wind which is often the element that chills us the most. Also, speeds on trails are slower than speeds on roads, reducing the wind chill. If you do not have woods available or if they are unrideable due to weather, pick paved or gravel roads that have plenty of sunlight when possible. Also, plan your ride so that you face the headwind on the way out and have a tailwind on the way back. You are more likely to get colder the longer you are out, so avoiding a bitter headwind late in your ride can help.
When should you just ride inside?
Safety when riding in the winter should always take precedence. Less daylight, narrower streets due to snow banks, icy road conditions, negative wind chills, as well as other winter hazards are factors to consider when planning your training. Your health is always the priority, so if conditions are in fact dangerous, it’s better to ride inside. Also, if your coach has prescribed you specific intervals, it may be more effective to do them in a controlled environment so that you can focus on hitting your targets. Your coach will be able to guide you on that decision.