What I wear when riding my bike during a Durham winter

Warning: talk of winter clothing follows, in a similar vein to last year’s post about being lit up for night riding. If you don’t care, feel free to stop reading right now 🙂

Somebody on the BPAC mailing list recently linked to a post from a man going to extreme measures to stay warm on a bike. He was using lots of layers of really expensive cycling gear. I’m sure he was really warm, but I couldn’t help but think that it was complete overkill for this area; you really don’t need anything fancy in the winter around here, you just need a bit of planning.

It’s been cold here this week, but not that cold, and it’ll never be that cold here in your lifetime (barring some really nasty climate change side effects… but I’m sure our top men and women will have that little SNAFU sorted out soon, right?). In my 10+ years of bike commuting in the Triangle, I think I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what I actually do need.

For starters, you don’t need any “cycling” clothing. Dedicated cycling gear is obscenely overpriced. Sometimes that price is worth paying if you’re a true bike nerd, but if you just want to ride a bike in the cold weather it’s completely unnecessary. There’s some nice stuff, sure, but under no circumstances do you need a $450 Rapha coat to do the job (although, if you gave me one, I wouldn’t turn it down…).

Dressing for a bike ride is a bit more challenging than dressing for walking around on the streets, and even a bit more challenging than dressing for e.g. running. This is because:

  • You’re exercising, which means your core will get really warm due to body heat, so you need to carefully choose clothing which will both keep you warm at the start and let in more cool air once you get going. This is shared with running, of course, but…
  • You’ll need to be prepared for wind. Riding downhill can result in 30MPH+ speeds, not to mention the possibility of riding into a headwind, so you can face gusts over 40MPH. But since you have to go up hills slowly and make stops along with traffic, that wind can disappear from time to time too.
  • You can’t keep your hands in your pockets (unless you’ve got incredible balance and ride fixed gear, but most of us do need brakes and steering). Your hands need to be kept warm by gloves alone.

There’s one big thing to realize: as you ride, your core will get warmer and your extremities will get colder. So, at the beginning of a ride, you should feel slightly underdressed on your core and slightly overdressed on the extremities (or have provisions to modify that balance as you go).

This is what I wear in weather like we’ve had this week:

  • Denim or khaki pants, same that I use pretty much year round. I wear Levi’s cycling jeans and pants, but they’re absolutely not required; any thick-ish cotton or wool pants will work (the Levi’s Commuters tend to hold up better to long term riding, in my experience). If I were to wear dress pants (or if it were 10 degrees colder), I’d supplement with long underwear (I have a merino/synthetic blend from Costco for this purpose).
  • Wool socks, Kirkland Signature. One layer of wool socks is all that’s needed above about 25F or for short rides; two layers of wool socks will get you through the worst the Triangle will ever offer.
  • Any shoes will work (assuming they have room for your possible double-layer wool socks). No need for technical bike shoes. I usually wear DZR clipless shoes because I am in fact a bike nerd, but I’ve worn dress shoes and Chuck Taylors and Doc Martins, and they’ve all been fine.
  • An Under Armour balaclava. You don’t need much on your head, because you actually generate a lot of heat there, but you do need something (especially to cover up your face and ears, which get exposed to the wind). A thin synthetic balaclava is the best option I’ve found; make sure to get one that can be adjusted for multiple configurations, and then you can wear it even when it’s much warmer.
  • Wool sweater. Same thing you’d wear anywhere when it gets cold. Just needs to be wool, with sleeves long enough to reach your gloves, and long enough to cover your back when you lean forward on the bike.
  • Long sleeve under shirt, whatever sort you prefer (again, Costco tends to have such things). This is not required for anything over about 25F, but if you use a cheap sweater and don’t like its feel directly on your skin this can be worn even when it’s warmer.
  • Wool coat. Just a regular wool coat. Same deal as the sweater, just make sure it covers your back and arms fully when in cycling mode, and make sure its fit allows you full range of motion. Also, ideally ensure that you can unbutton it while riding once your core starts to get warm.
  • Wool scarf. Optional and mostly just for looks, the scarf can make me too warm if I’m not careful. It’s really nice to have when it gets below 20F or so, since you can tuck it under your jacket for an extra, easily peeled away layer on your core.
  • Gloves… well, I’ve splurged on gloves. Yeah, GoreTex, really expensive, water proof, bike specific, the whole nine yards. Those are good down to the high 20s, but I need to add some silk glove liners to help when it’s colder or for longer rides. These aren’t required, of course; in the past I’ve used $20 ice fishing gloves with good results. Basically, you want something that stops wind, and anything that’s “water proof” will do that. The issues with most really cheap water proof gloves are that they 1) tend to not be very flexible, so shifting can get a little tricky, and 2) they don’t breathe at all, so if your hands get too warm you have sweat issues.
  • Sunglasses. You want glasses big enough to cover your eyes totally and ideally overlap with the balaclava. You can use any generic “wraparound” style sunglasses that provide enough coverage. It never gets cold enough to warrant full on ski goggles around here, but you do need sunglasses to keep the wind from freezing your eyeballs out. You can get an extra set of clear glasses or safety goggles for those night rides, if applicable.

See? No big deal. Unless… it rains.

Cold/freezing rain is where you start to really push the boundaries of what you can wear, and fancy/expensive things become really attractive. This is when I resort to the technological marvel that is Gore-Tex.

I have a pair of Gore-Tex rain pants and a Gore-Tex raincoat, both from the “GORE Bike Wear” line, which I use in freezing rain or rain under 40F. It’s also such a complete wind stop that you can wear it instead of a wool coat; a wool sweater and a Gore-Tex rain jacket will handle pretty much anything over 20F. I’ve worn basically that, along with a light denim jacket, in Chicago in negative temps with wind and been fine.

Do you need that stuff? No, definitely not. Wool will work OK for a while, but it will eventually soak through. You can also try wearing a generic, low cost rain suit instead. I find the main benefits of Gore-Tex to be flexibility and breathability; cheap rain gear offers neither.

So, I think that just about does it. If you stay well clothed and stay lit, you can ride year round in comfort. Give it a shot!

2 thoughts on “What I wear when riding my bike during a Durham winter”

  1. yo yo D.IO: I just want to add thought about keeping my neck warm. You’re right, a scarf can make you too hot, and scarves are bulky. Recently I discovered this thing called a “buff” which is a little like a balaclava w/o the confinement. Back in the old days, my dad called it a dickie. But it’s not quite that either. It’s really more like a tube sock for you neck-head extremity. You can pull it up over your whole head, exposing only your eyes, or lower it down to just keep the chill from escaping down your coat collar and into your cold-sensitive upper chest. Or, a midway use is to cover my ears and neck. And since buffs made out of a micro-fiber fabric, I keep mine in a jacket pocket. They’re easy to stow, have uber-flexible uses/styles, are wind resistant, and they keep the chill away. Remember what Grandma said when you complained you are cold? She said, put a hat on. The modern version for bikers is, get a buff and use it any darn way you want.

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