For many of us, the arrival of the cold and wet puts a real damper on our riding schedule; but for others it’s the beginning of the real riding season! Here at AVT we’ve got a bit of everything, from those who love the grip of moist loam but miss the sun, to those who don’t want anything to do with the dust of summer and can’t wait for the coming of the slop.
I decided to go around the office to see what makes winter work for each of us in the hopes that it might help you enjoy your winter riding just a little bit more.
I chatted with Neil and Kellan about their tips–hence the paraphrasing–but Alex, who is arguably the authority among us on this subject jotted down some notes of his own. -Brendon
Neil is one of those who thrives in the cold weather. As a self professed year-round wearer of t-shirts and shorts, the thought of the chilly-but-usually-above-freezing temperatures that we have around here doesn’t phase him in the least, and he would much rather follow a friend down a sloppy track than be covered in someone’s dust. Obviously as a mountain-biker, having moist dirt is almost always a good thing, and given how slippery the soil gets around the Rogue Valley in the summer, it’s little wonder that those who prefer to ride dirt would prefer that dirt when it’s grippy.
As he says, some small things make all the difference, and his picks for the items that help him make the most of the winter months is a perfect illustration of that. Neil’s list of must-haves in the colder, wetter months are as follows:
- Insulated gloves, and/or multiple pairs of gloves.
Having warm hands is critical to having a good time in cold weather. If you can feel your fingers you not only have better control over your shift and brake levers, but you’re just going to be more comfortable. Bringing an extra pair or two of dry gloves is a great way to ensure that your hands will stay comfortable throughout your ride, which means you’ll have more fun!
- Warm and/or waterproof socks.
Just like cold fingers, dealing with your toes going numb or just feeling uncomfortably cold is a sure way to make most of us enjoy our time outside a whole lot less. Neil has been super-impressed by how well waterproof socks work for those rides when he knows he’s going to be getting really wet, but for rides that are just going to be cold, a thicker pair of wool socks does the job just fine.
Neil says that night riding has got to be a top reason I like winter riding. Whether you already know the thrill of riding at night or not, because the days are shorter, more rides happen after dark, and that means you're going to need lights. With good ones it's impressive how well you can see, and once you're not reliant on sunlight to determine when you can ride, suddenly a whole other world of riding time opens up. Most find a mix of on-bike and helmet mounted lights are best for mountain bikes, while just on-bike ones are usually enough for road (but if you you're riding on twisty roads, you'll appreciate a helmet mounted light even on a road bike). Luckily these days the range of high quality, rechargeable lights is very broad so it's really easy to get a lot of light for a reasonable price, and in a fairly small package. Neil keeps a couple of Nite Rider Lumina headlights on his bike for most rides in the winter, and they're a good mix of durability, value, and light quality.
Another very small item that makes a big difference is a set of brake lever covers. They’re not expensive and just keep the chill of your brake levers from transferring to your fingers. This allows you to use thinner gloves, which means you’ll have better lever feel. As a bonus, they remind me of Kooka's Racha Levers!
Every winter I’m reminded of the fact that I’m from California. The shorter days and overall lack of sun in the Rogue Valley just brings me down, so for me the biggest hurtle is just remembering how good I’ll feel once I’m out of the door. Once out, I tend to take the less-is-more approach to riding clothes because our not-frigid climate allows it, and I don't like to stop while I'm riding. Because of this, my list looks a bit like Neil’s.
- Gloves that suit the temperature.
On a mountain bike ride, I’ll often bring a second, lighter pair of gloves for the descent for better grip feel. When it comes to keeping my hands dry vs warm, I always err on the side of warmth because I haven’t found anything that really keeps me dry on a harder ride. I tend to ride DeFeet’s Dura Glove ET Wool gloves
when it’s not super cold, and a thicker pair of more heavily insulated ones for rides where I’ll be riding in the snow.
If I know I’m going to be on a ride that gets to high-elevation where the temperature will drop, or a road ride where wind-chill will be an issue, I’ll bring some warmer, well-insulated gloves because I find that keeping my fingers warm really helps with my overall enjoyment of the ride. I really like my Louis Garneau Proof gloves
, but they're not perfect. The main thing that I find important in an insulated glove is having the liner fingers sewn into the outer. If they're not sewn in, the liners had better be separate, otherwise the gloves can be a total nightmare to get back on once they're wet.
For really cold rides where I can get away with having next to no control over the shifters, I love Outdoor Research's Meteor mitts
, but they really won't work with brake/shift levers, and don't really play well with flat bar brake levers either. If you've got drop bars and barend shifters and it's really cold though, they're just the ticket!
When it’s cold out, I always wear wool socks. Oh wait, I ALWAYS wear wool socks, so actually that’s not saying much. I find the most important thing about wearing wool socks in general is their ability to help regulate moisture and temperature, and in the winter that’s especially critical for comfort. The most important thing after the material is the right thickness for the shoes I’m wearing because while I’m sometimes temped to wear a thicker sock to stay warmer, some of my shoes are on the tight side, and with a thick sock, they just become too tight and my feet get cold because of that. The lesson here is that warmth is about insulation + blood flow + wind chill + moisture management, and in finding the right balance between all of those lies comfort.
While I don’t like them for mountain biking, I’ll almost always wear neoprene shoe covers in very cold weather on the road because they just work so well and they allow me to not have dedicated winter shoes (which I’m unlikely to wear very much). Another benefit of full shoe covers is that they make cleaning up so much easier. Because of their fairly uniform, impermeable surface, dirt just washes right off, and my shoes stay a whole lot cleaner. I've been using a set of Louis Garneau Thermax shoe covers
for a couple of years, and beyond not tolerating thorns well, they've held up great, are easy to get on and off, and keep my feet incredibly cozy without feeling like they're trapped in ovens.
As I mentioned in my Best of 2020
, I love my merino wool buff, because I like being able to cover my ears in really cold weather. In less-freezing temperatures I like to wear a cycling cap to act as a bit of a wind break and because it reminds me of everything I love about road cycling.
I have yet to find a waterproof jacket that keeps me dry when riding a bike, so I just focus on something that will cut the wind a bit when I’m descending. I find that for most chilly-but-not-frigid rides the combination of a mid-weight wool layer and a lightweight windbreaker is all I need to stay comfortable, and because the shell layer is small and light, I can pack it away on long climbs and pull it out before I start descending. If it's really raining before I start riding, I'm probably staying home, and if it's really raining while I'm riding, I'm probably just wet.
My road bike has full-coverage fenders because I love the feeling of riding at full-speed on a wet road, and staying dry. I like long mudflaps too, because they keep the water low, but don't always take the time to make them. On my mountain bike, I generally just run a small front face fender (like this one from Chris King), because in our area mud isn't such a big issue, and a small fender generally does the job of keeping the odd puddle-splash and flying shred-splatter out of my face pretty well. When I see folks riding without fenders in the winter I pretty much just cringe because they just make such a huge difference to me in terms of how much I enjoy winter riding, and especially on the mountain bike, they can be so small and unobtrusive while still being effective-enough.
Kellan's list definitely shows that most of us are on approximately the same page as far as the basics, but he's got some other tips that are fun additions to the mix.
- Ride with a friend (or many friends).
As Kellan says, Suffering is better with company, and whether you agree with that at face value, it's easy to see how just having someone else there to distract you from less-than-ideal conditions could make the ride a whole lot more fun.
This is a common thread for most of us here, and I suspect that it's true for just about anyone who rides in cold weather. The fact is that when you're working harder, you're going to be warmer, and then when you head downhill, you're going to get cold. Having enough (and the right balance of) layers is critical to cold-weather enjoyment. Usually this means a breathable, wicking baselayer followed by a warmer mid-weight, but still breathable layer that you can keep on all day, followed by either another heavier warm layer or just some type of wind or water shell layer (the type will depend on the conditions).
If you're riding in really cold weather, Kellan likes a windstopper baselayer. These are good insurance when it comes to making sure you won't have to deal with wind chill on your core, which makes a huge difference–especially on road rides–where wind is a big factor.
If you can swing them, Kellan says winter shoes are a great option. In places where real winter is a thing for a good portion of the year, having real shoes that you can tromp around in is a huge help. This is especially true for mountain bikers because shoe covers have a tendency to either get destroyed or to just come off when you hike in them.
This one probably doesn't need much explanation at this point. If somehow you aren't using fenders when you're riding in the rain, or shortly after the rain, get some: they'll completely revolutionize how comfortable you'll be!
Alex's list (in his own words)
So, as a Londoner living in Oregon I think I know a bit about riding in shitty weather all winter! Maybe it's that conditioning over years that have made me adapt to it, maybe it's my dislike of the indoor trainer... but having the right gear is super important so here's a few tips that keep me rolling through the winter both on and off road.
- Fenders (for road, gravel and MTB).
Total game changer especially for road riding, full length fenders don't need to slow your bike down or add too much additional weight and the extra dryness to both your backside and your legs lets you ride in the wettest conditions while staying way drier than without them.
My fender picks:
ROAD. PNW Full Metal Fenders Some of the best road / light gravel full fenders out there with a whole range of mounting options.
GRAVEL. Ass Savers (various) A quick and simple solution to keep the worst dirt off your backside. I tuck mine between the saddle and seat pack.
MTB. ProGuard Bolt On. A step up from the standard zip tied front MTB fender, provides a far cleaner more secure fitting via the bolts on the back of your fork.
Clothing makes a huge difference to my motivation and ability to ride in the worst conditions. My 2 situations where I do stay inside are; when it's below 30degrees outside, or when it's pissing down with rain when I leave the house! Any other time it's game on.
GoreTex MTB Shorts
are a great, not too expensive option to keep your backside dry on those muddy and wet MTB or gravel rides. Typically I wear them over long bib tights (without pad), which are over a pair of regular bib shorts. I normally still wear a light knee pad in the winter over the top of my bib tights and under the shorts which gives the usual protection and keeps your knees a bit warmer too.
Gore Shakedry Stretch Jacket.
OK so this jacket is not cheap but its hands down the best rain jacket I have ever worn. Definitely a roadie piece of kit, it's tight, aero and stretchy, fits in your pocket really easy and is both super warm and dry. I wear it even on days when it's not raining just for some added warmth.
Old School Cycling Cap
. For those days when it's not super cold, a little wet and you don't need a full on ear covering warm skull cap under your helmet. Top tip, I take the front pads out of my helmet when I'm using one of these so there is a little bit of extra space for the cap, otherwise it can grip a bit tight and give you some really bad lines on your head after a ride!
I don't like overshoes on MTB shoes, they never fit right and don't really work if you gotta hike a bike so any winter MTB boot is a much better alternative. My Northwave boots I picked up pretty cheaply a few years back are still going strong and have yet to give me wet or cold feet on a ride.
OK, this one is not so easy right now.. I was fortunate to get away to Sedona (just a short 16h drive from Ashland) for a few days over Christmas for some sunnier, warmer riding.
Last but not least...if you gotta ride the trainer do it in class. My current choice is my mid-90's GIOS Compact pro neo retro build with a new-ish Dura Ace groupset and Stages LH crank.