4 Tips on Layering for Winter Cycling
Written by Pro-Athlete Payson McElveen with Voler Apparel
On bike start lines the world over, racers compare notes on chosen tire pressures, gear ratios, and clothing. During the winter racing season, talk of clothing alone seems to dominate. Will it be sleet? Rain? Snow? None? Do we dress for the start line temperature, presumed finish line temperature, or what we may face in between?
So what processes do we use when suiting up for chilly or wet rides? Should you take a different approach when training versus racing? With my apparel partner Voler’s help, we’ve put together a list of best practices. While I’m still skeptical of the saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” I do feel strongly that, with the right gear, weather should never be your excuse.
- Gauging the forecast.
Predicting the weather is a science, but obviously not an exact one. I have several weather apps on my phone and like to check all three before making clothing choices. Also, consider the length of your ride and whether the weather is forecasted to improve or deteriorate. It may feel funny stuffing a rain shell in your back pocket on a bluebird morning, but during the monsoon season of Colorado for example, this is a very normal routine.
- Racing or Training?
The intensity and type of ride makes an enormous difference. Average speed and effort level are key factors that should be considered. While road riding, the windchill is significant, while barely noticeable while fat biking. Similarly, if you will be racing or doing an intense ride, you can often leave an entire layer at home. If you’re training though and not as concerned about bulk or weight, playing it safe and packing an extra layer won’t hurt, and could be the difference between an enjoyable ride, and not.
- The key: layering.
No matter if you’re racing or training, knowing how and why to layer is make or break. Here’s what the good folks at Voler have to say:
“It helps to think of your apparel selections as part of a layering system. As a layering system, each piece contributes to a variety of functions including moisture management, insulation, and the right fit so that you can perform at your best.”
Let’s break it down and go through each of the layering elements. I’ve included the general temperature guidelines I use as well.
- Base Layer: A nice wool base layer can take the place of multiple outer layers in terms of maintaining warmth. Some like a wicking base layer even in warmer conditions. Either way, it is critical to moisture management. Voler says: “(A core layer) draws sweat through the garment to the outer surface where it can evaporate. This keeps you dry allowing the body to warm and cool as needed.” This was a critical piece in my clothing choices this winter. At any given ride I’ll be sweating while climbing, but then shortly thereafter descending fast in frigid air. Without a wicking layer, that sweat could have a chilling effect. Personally, I leave the base layer at home when temperatures exceed 60ºF, but many riders prefer them for sweaty warm rides as well.
- Jersey and Bottoms: Voler says: “The jersey and bottom should feel and perform like a second skin allowing your body to operate without distractions.” This is one of the main reasons I opt to race in the Velocity Road Suit all year. Unless you’ve opted for a core/base layer, this is the garment that will be directly against your skin, so comfort and movement should be the first consideration.
- Insulation Layer: I opt for an added long sleeve jersey insulating layer when temperatures drop below 60ºF. As Voler mentions, fleece is the best option here, as it’s important that this layer be capable of some continued wicking and transfer of moisture as well: “Fleece insulation has gained in popularity for all the right reasons – it provides for great compression, lightweight warmth, and excellent wicking in nearly any condition.”
- Outer Layer: This is the layer I add when temperatures drop below ~55ºF, conditions are wet, or windchill is going to be a major factor, such as on road rides with prolonged descents. Voler says: “Since this layer is your protection from the elements, it needs to be durable, a bit water resistant and not slow you down (you don’t need a parachute while riding). This is the layer that is breaking the wind and keeping the cold and rain from seeping into your bones. While the outer layer keeps the rain out, it also needs to allow for release of the moisture that your body heat is creating.” For racing, I often reach for the Thermal Vest. If I’m training instead of racing, I might play it safe and throw a Wind Jacket on top.
- Arm/Leg Warmers: Arm warmers are a great option for when a short sleeve jersey isn’t enough. I like to cover my knees with leg or knee warmers anytime I’m road riding in sub 65ºF temps, or mountain biking in sub 60ºF. As Voler mentions, knees can get stiff in the cold, but your lower legs aren’t likely to overheat… it’s your upper body that’s likely to go too warm and sweaty: “While knees are prone to get cold, there’s less risk of your lower legs getting too hot and impeding performance. So, if in questions, it’s safe to err on the side of caution (and comfort) and cover your knees and legs.”
- Other considerations: Some like to ride with cycling caps nearly all the time, but I reserve them for the 40º-50º range, and reach for the thermal caps when its below 40º. Similarly, neck buffs have been a game changer for me, and I regularly ride with one when it’s sub 50º out. Gloves are a hugely important consideration too. In my experience, having a wind-breaking glove is just as important as a thermal one, as your poor little paws are what hang out there and hit the wind first. Lastly, shoe covers or booties are an excellent option when temperatures are under 50º, or when it’s wet. And, during sloppy rides, they’ll keep your shoes clean! Voler has a great selection of each of these.
- Extra tips for when it gets really gnarly: When braving sub-freezing or wet rides, a few pieces of gear can make a big difference:
- Thermal Jacket: If following all of the above steps still doesn’t keep you warm enough, reach for the thermal, wind-breaking jacket as a final outer layer.
- Install fenders on your bike to keep rain and snow slush from soaking you.
- “It’s easier to stay warm than get warm.” With that in mind, I’ll grab a warm drink and do 30-40 jumping jacks before heading out the door. It may sound minor, but can make a major difference.
To check out more of the gear that kept me comfortable all season, click here: voler.com.
About Payson: Payson McElveen is a Durango, Colorado-based professional mountain biker. He’s the current Mountain Bike Marathon National Champion, winner of the 2017 Chequamegon 40, Leadville Stage-Race, and 3rd at Leadville 100. He writes a weekly tips and tricks newsletter called The Tuesday Hand-Up, which you can subscribe to here: paysonmcelveen.com/blog.
Facebook: Payson McElveen
About Voler: Voler is a California-based cycling apparel manufacturer since 1986. They help athletes gain a competitive edge by making cycling and triathlon apparel that is well-made with only essential features so that they can train hard and perform at their best.