How to

4 October 2016

Winter Cycling - Everything You Need to Know

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Cycling is one of the best ways to stay active in the warmer months, but regardless of the time of year, you still see them. It's not an uncommon thought during winter - are they not freezing to death? A few extra layers might be outwardly obvious, and the exertion does its bit to keep the body temperature up, but the streamlined cycling look still looks like it isn't exactly weatherproof.

In fact, cycling is a great sport to carry on into winter. If you're living in a bike-friendly city like London, Amsterdam, Portland or Montreal, you probably already know this, but for anyone else who might not be so dependent on bikes, it might seem a bit more daunting. That in mind, here's everything you need to know before putting foot to pedal in the winter months.

Know Your Base Layers

As with any winter sport, having the right base layer is absolutely essential. Base layers will serve to keep warm air close to your skin and wick moisture away so that you don't get slick with sweat (which then cools down and generally makes your life unpleasant). You won't know for sure exactly how much insulation you need until you get out, but there are some basic tenets you can follow.

Always opt for long sleeved base layers for the upper body, and try to stick to man-made materials which are purpose built for moisture wicking. Thermal vests like these are ideal for the top half, as the poly fabric breathes, allows mobility and provides extra padding over the back and shoulders. If you want to take that further still, some even have windproof front panels.


Most of the time, gloves just aren't a consideration for cycling, but during the winter the worst thing you can do is allow your fingers to seize up, as you need to keep firm control of the bars. This in mind, you need to find a pair of decent, grippy gloves. They don't necessarily need to be purpose built for cycling, as long as they allow for free movement of the fingers and ideally have some level of water resistance. 

Of course, you have to consider your other outer extremities too - your feet. Peddling when your feet have succumbed to the cold is not only painful, it's actually dangerous. That in mind, regardless of the shoes you opt for, you want to consider some tight fitting thermal socks, and even some neoprene overshoes.


You might scoff at the idea of actually donning Lycra tights for a cycle, that is until you go out in a normal pair of trousers when it's 2 degrees below. Cycle shorts in the summer are good for comfort, but winter leggings or bib tights are an absolute must. Full leg coverage isn't really enough by itself, either, you need to make sure you look at fleece-lined tights.

They're easy to find, and often come without the chamois (ie - ass padding) so you can actually wear a pair of normal bike shorts (or thermal underwear) beneath and double up your warmth. It's always better to opt for bib tights over leggings just because of the greater coverage.


With winter cycling, depending on the depth of the cold, you might be wearing 2 layers or 3. It's better to make sure you have both options available so that you're prepared for anything, but if you have to only get one, it's better to get a lighter thermal jacket and then wear your normal waterproof over it if you end up need to. 

Having a proper heavyweight cycling jacket is great, but not essential. If you do have your heart set on one, the obvious things to look for are hydrophobic outer layers, windproofing and a proper hood. Something like this would be ideal. For the mid layer though, you want to get something as warm and snug fitting as possible. You can either opt for standard jackets like this or a waterproof variant, but either way you'll be plenty warm. 

Warming Up

Getting out on the bike and just setting off on a hard ride with no warm-up is a hellishly bad idea. Your muscles will seize up, cramps are far more likely and the level of exertion mixed with the cold air will give you chest pains. To avoid all this, just warm up for 10-15 minutes before you head out.

Examples of exercises you can do include crunches, jogging on the spot and a good stretching routine, as long as you're already warm before you get on the bike and build up to speed gradually when you are on it, the rest is up to you. 

Drinking Up

Staying hydrated is, if anything, more important during cold weather exercise. Of course, drinking cold water when you're already cold isn't much fun. There's a simple solution - have a hot drink in your bottle. Powedered hydration mixes with hot water, regular hot water or hot chocolate are all good options. You can even try teas, particular sweeter ones, but make sure they're decaffinated, you don't want to be caught in below zero temperatures trying to negotiate a pair of bib shorts so you can pee. 

In terms of actually containing said hot drinks, a standard plastic or polymer bottle obviously won't do, you'll burn your hands when you touch it and damage the bottle with the heat. Thankfully there are numerous kinds of aluminium and steel containers on the market which are perfect for this. These guys are pretty much top of the pile.

Pay Attention to Wind Chill

The thing that's really going to cause you problems when you're riding is the wind chill factor. However cold the standard temperature might be, wind is going to make it feel colder. Wind chill factor is easy enough to check, and you should base your attire on that, not the actual temperature.

The force of the wind is important to. If you're inexperienced and the wind is strong, reconsider riding. Not only will it cause discomfort, but riding into strong headwinds wears you out really quickly and crosswinds can either knock you onto the verge or even into the road if you're not strong enough to handle them. 

Knowing Your Limits

The worst thing you can do with any sport is overestimate your abilities. Even if you cycle regularly in the summer, start small and build your way up. Pick a short route for your first run and if you start feeling it, stop, take a rest, warm back up and head back out. If it's getting too much, turn around. There's no shame in working your way up, or recognising when you've hit the wall.

Eventually you'll be out in winter and hardly notice the cold, but it takes a long time to reach that point. Most importantly, if you feel any signs of hypothermia, get off the bike and get out of the cold immediately. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.