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Biking in Colder Weather - Getting Started

It's late October and the weather is getting colder. In many ways, this is my favorite time of the year to bike to work. The cooler temperatures are more pleasant for commuting, the lakefront bike path is less crowded, and the views on the ride are beautiful. However, the changing season and cooler days also require a change of clothing for the commute.

​As the days get colder, wearing the proper clothing can make all the difference between an enjoyable and a miserable ride. So what is the proper clothing for colder weather riding?

Biking in the Cold

For purposes of this article colder weather includes riding in temperatures between 35-55 degrees Fahrenheit. In Chicago the average daily low drops below 35 degrees in late November. So use the advice in this article to help you commute through Thanksgiving. Riding in temperatures below 35 degrees requires additional considerations which I'll cover in a future post.

Clothing and gear options to protect your face and head. Starting from upper left: balaclava, helmet, helmet cover, headband. Goggles in center.

Start at the Top

For many years, we were told that the majority of heat loss occurs through your head. Recent studies have shown a more modest 7-10% of loss of body heat through the head. None-the-less, a cold head and face are very uncomfortable. ​

I use a cover to add a wind-resistant, water-proof layer to my helmet. It covers the vents on the helmet, reduces exposure and blocks the wind.

Under my helmet, I wear a synthetic, stretchable headband. It covers my ears, wicks away moisture and easily fits under my helmet. A fleece fabric is too thick and creates problems with fit.

Protect Your Face

When the weather drops into the lower 40's, I use a balaclava instead of a headband. It offers added protection by covering the top of my head and my neck, and prevents cold air from penetrating over the top of my jacket. A balaclava is a wonderful head covering since it also provides an option to cover my chin, mouth and nose when the conditions get worse.

In general, I wear glasses whenever I ride to avoid bugs and dirt from flying into my eyes. In the colder weather, however, it's imperative to block the wind and prevent drying of your eyes. I use eye-protection in the form of clear googles. A cheap pair of racket-ball goggles work wonderfully.


Cover Your Body (but not too much)

Keeping your head, face, hands and feet warm are a challenge. Conversely, keeping your body warm is much easier. Depending on the length of your commute, you can generate a substantial amount of heat during your ride. For your core, it's important not to overdress since you can easily become sweaty and get a chill once you stop riding.

For my torso, I use a wind-breaker over a long-sleeve fleece jersey. The shirt is tight-fitting and provides insulation while the wind-breaker provides adequate wind protection. On colder days, I reverse the arrangement and wear a long-sleeve insulated jacket (with wind-proof exterior and fleece liner) over a short-sleeve synthetic jersey. I use short-sleeve shirt to avoid sweating under the jacket which does a great job of retaining heat since it is insulated.

For my legs, I wear capri pants over bike shorts. As the temperature dips into the lower 40's, I wear a pair of running tights under the capri pants. This is a matter of personal preference as I know some riders who never cover their legs until it starts snowing!

4 Tips for Biking in Cold Weather

  • Dress in layers so you can change with the conditions

  • Ensure your outer layer is wind-resistant

  • Wear tight-fitting clothing on the layer next to your body

  • Bring extra clothing in case the weather changes

​In the next post, I'll cover what to wear on your hands and feet.

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