Cold Weather Cycling Gear Checklist

With my mileage goals in my sights as I begin the year, I run the risk of turning into a popsicle on rides without the proper gear to kick off my cycling for 2021. I reached out a few of my favorite brands to ask them what they recommend to wear for cold weather riding, and gave a lot of different products a try. Over the last few months of riding, I remained aware of how my body reacted to the cold; for me, my toes, ears, and arms feel the chill first, with my fingers and core following behind. Keeping both the recommendations from brands, and my personal experience, in mind, I’m ranking seasonal gear from least to most essential.

Leg Warmers
If you’re in love with a pair of shorts (or several pairs) that you ride in three seasons out of the year, these might actually be one of your most essential items. Personally, my legs get cold last, and being nearly 5’11, the length of leg warmers can be a pain because they’re tucked under your shorts, and have the ability to shift around on a ride. My preference would be for full length bibs over leg warmers, but these are a budget friendly option.

Windproof Gilet (Vest)
Style-wise, a gilet is actually one of my favorite garments, but from a functionality standpoint in cold weather, it’s just not as practical. While a good selection for early Spring and late Fall riding, if you’re looking to invest in an outerwear piece and you plan on riding in weather cooler than 45 degrees, don’t let this be your first.

Toe Covers
When I got these, I actually thought that they would be my go-to for Fall riding, but I soon realized that if I was going through the trouble of putting toe covers on, I might as well just put on full shoe covers. Toe covers don’t offer any visibility, waterproofing, or warmth beyond mid-foot.

Rain Coat
While this is packed in my back pocket for a lot of Fall and Spring rides, it’s a great additional layer on windy or snowy days in the winter as well. I especially like this one (above) from Sugoi that has zap technology for increased visibility. It’s infinitely more visible than any of my thermal jackets. If you’re carrying a lot of electronics on you, a rain coat is the way to go, and it’s an easy layer to peel off in variable conditions.

Arm Warmers
Have short sleeve jersey or base layers that you love?? Then arm warmers are the way to go for winter. The other advantage to arm warmers is to make micro adjustments in your level of warmth on your extremities without having to sacrifice a layer across your chest. For example, if you have a short sleeve jersey under your jacket, and you feel yourself warming up a bit after a cold start, you don’t have to make the choice between the jacket or the jersey, just rip off the sleeves. Sleeves photographed above are linked here.

Merino Bike Socks
Bike-specific merino socks aren’t necessary, but merino socks in general likely are. As a natural fibre, it wicks sweat better than any synthetic, keeping you cool and dry in the summer and warm in colder weather. Merino is also naturally anti-bacterial so, unlike polyester, the socks won’t smell after repeated use – win! Look for socks that have hand-locked seems to prevent any discomfort around the toes.

A Toque
A hat under your helmet is nothing new, and finding one that covers your ears and gives an added layer of protection from the vents in your helmet is going to feel nice and toasty. I prefer ones that have a hole for my ponytail; I find it keeps it in place better.

Long Sleeve Jersey
When I got these, I actually thought that they would be my go-to for Fall riding, but I soon realized that if I was going through the trouble of putting toe covers on, I might as well just put on full shoe covers. Toe covers don’t offer any visibility, waterproofing, or warmth beyond mid-foot.

Thermal Bibs
One of the first things my mom gifted me when I started taking cycling more seriously was a pair of thermal pants. Prior, I had just been wearing regular running tights/leggings over my shorts, but it never quite did the trick. The problem with pants versus bibs is that I found them sliding down, especially on rides that got a little damp. They’re a heavy piece of clothing, so bibs ultimately are the way to go. If you’re buying for the first time, I recommend sticking with a brand that you find the most comfortable shorts/bibs, and seeing if they have an option for cold weather. My two favorites are from Giordana and Pedla.

Base Layers
I was chatting with some fellow cyclists the other day, and several selected base layers as one of their top must-haves for cold rides. For winter, many lean toward merino, but it doesn’t work for everyone. For me, I like to use a combination of merino, with a tank or short sleeve microfiber. On really cold days, you can find me also adding another layer; I’m partial to the ceramic base layer from Giordana, which has high heat-insulating properties allowing body temperature to remain constant even in extremely cold conditions. Other favorites can be found here, here, and here.

For a lot of riders, their hands suffer first on chilly days. Mine, not so much, but I still need a thin full-finger glove on days that run below 45F degrees. I do venture to using thicker gloves when looking at rides below 20F degrees, but my hands get sweaty and I usually end up swapping them out. Regardless, having coverage for the part of your body that controls you most of your ride is crucial. See my top picks for gloves from warm to hot, hot, hot below:

Also, consider getting Bar Mitts if you prefer to have your hands in something thinner for dexterity, but still want decent protection.

Shoe Covers (Overshoes)
Cold toes are the worst on a ride, and this is probably a subject that you’ll hear people chat about most when it comes to cold weather gear. I’ve heard all sorts of stories of people putting plastic bags over their feet, single-use warmers between two pairs of socks, etc. If you invest in one thing for riding in cooler weather, this would be my top recommendation to 95% of people. There are varying types of shoe covers: neoprene, waterproof, aerodynamic, or oversocks (which are better for fair conditions and offer more breathability). Waterproof would be the first that I would go for because you can adjust the layers in your shoe underneath for the weather, with neoprene as a close second because they are great for super cold weather. Here are some of my favorite shoe coversL

Thermal Headband
My ears are incredibly sensitive, so I have to take extra care to keep them covered, even on what some would consider “milder” days. I mentioned a toque earlier, which covers your entire head, but sometimes they will ride up and your ears will become exposed. The pain of cold ears becomes super distracting for me, so I won’t leave the house without this cold-weather staple.

Softshell Thermal Jacket
If you have the funds to spend, then a high-quality jacket is the key piece to have in your cycling closet. Characteristics to look for are a sleek fit that still allows for layers underneath, waterproofing, reflective/safety features, and packing size for when you may be moving from warmer to colder environments and vice versa. My top two jackets are here (above) and here. If budgets are tight, you can use a combination of less expensive items earlier in the list, but I can confidently say that I wear jackets like the one above three seasons out of the year in New England, and it is one of the items I reach for most when temps dip.

So, there you have it, everything you could possibly think to buy for winter riding! Bear in mind “gear” has become a four letter word in a lot of outdoor sports, but what type of gear you have doesn’t equate how much fun you have on your bike. When thinking about what investments to make, consider your body, the types of rides you’ll be going on, and how often you plan to ride. With those three things in mind, you can’t lose.

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