Winter Cycling

What you need to know to be safe and have a blast!

Winter cycling, on the road or in the mountains, is enjoyed by many. Having the knowledge to ensure your rides are safe and comfortable is essential, especially if you're an inexperienced winter cyclist! A ride in sub-freezing temperatures can be miserable, but also dangerous. Here we will discuss some of the most common hazards and some advice on how to combat them while riding in cold winter conditions.

Hypothermia is the top concern when riding in the cold winter months.

Hypothermia is brought on when your body loses heat faster than it can produce, causing a dangerously low body temperature. When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can't work normally. Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete organ and respiratory system failure and finally to death. It does not have to be freezing outside for you to get hypothermia; normal body temperature averages 98.6 degrees. With hypothermia, your core temperature drops below 95 degrees. In severe hypothermia, your core body temperature can drop to 82 degrees or lower.

Improper dress for the activity is the leading contributor to hypothermia. When clothing worn does not wick moisture away from your skin and allows cold air to blow onto your wet skin, it will cause your core body temperature to lower quicker than it can heat. Symptoms include uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, and confusion. As the core body temperature drops, the symptoms become more severe and life-threatening.

Frostbite is an injury most often caused by improper clothing.

It is the actual freezing of the skin, and for cyclists, the face, fingers, and toes are the most vulnerable to the cold. The early symptoms of frostbite of the fingers or toes include numbness and a tingling feeling. For the ears, nose, and cheeks, a burning sensation will be felt. Severe frostbite will require surgery to remove the affected skin.

The key to preventing hypothermia and frostbite is to dress appropriately. Cycling brings an additional problem to the equation due to the need for clothing made of lightweight material that does not restrict movement. Dressing like an Eskimo is going to keep you warm and protected, but it is not practical for cycling. It can be somewhat of a complicated matter to get the right clothing dialed in, so having a few different choices of clothing available is essential to ensure proper protection.

Keeping your core body temperature normal is going to be the first priority to avoid hypothermia, and layering is the key. Depending on the temperature, most rides will either be with two or three layers. A ride may begin with two layers and end with three or vice versus, so having a backpack is important to store extra clothing along with other safety items. The base layer next to the skin must be a material designed to wick moisture away from the skin and keep your skin warm even when wet. There are several brands and designs specifically for cold weather athletics, personally I like Merino Wool. Cycling jerseys are also available with this type of technology, and it is equally important that they are designed for winter riding. The outer layer jacket and outer layer pants needs to be both wind resistant and waterproof and designed for activities such as cycling. A good jacket will have zippered vents to allow for temperature adjustments.

The biggest problem inexperienced riders face in cold weather is they overdress with no means of adjusting during the ride. This will cause you to overheat and sweat too much, which leads to hypothermia. Before a ride, you should dress in your riding apparel and stand outside in the cold for 15 minutes. If you are completely warm after 15 minutes, then you are overdressed! You should be somewhat cold, but not too cold to be uncomfortable. Any combination of the three layers described earlier may be used to dress appropriately to keep the core body warm but not get too hot once riding. The need to keep adjusting while riding is quite typical on longer rides, especially on the climbs and descents.

To protect your head, ears, and face a balaclava with moisture-wicking technology should be used. A barrier cap over this that fits under the helmet can be added as the temperatures dictate. Some of the other required items include:

  • Windproof gloves; ordinary cycling gloves are usually inadequate for winter riding. Ski type gloves are an excellent choice so long as they allow for braking and shifting without interference.
  • Eye protection is essential all year, and in winter months, standard riding glasses are fine, but when it is too cold for these to be effective, ski goggles can be used.
  • For the feet, if you don't have winter riding boots, layering is essential. The base layer should be a thin moisture-wicking sock, and then insulating wool as an outer layer. Many riders also prefer the use of neoprene booties on the outside of the shoe to block the wind.
  • Always carry chemical warmers for your hands and feet. They are very cheap and work very well for hours.

These are the basics of proper protection to protect cyclists in sub-freezing temperatures; however, winter months can bring several other hazards. If unsure always seek advice and ride with an experienced rider to learn more about safe winter riding, your local bike shop would be an excellent place to start.

Winter Cycling in Colorado

Chris Sgaraglino

Over the past 37 years of my adult life, I have gained a very diverse portfolio of adventures from which I have been blessed to be a participant. This wealth of experience and knowledge has defined my character, my morals and values, and my healthy respect for people and the great outdoors. It is a true definition of an Outdoorsman!