How to Dress for Fall Weather Rides
The right clothing mix can make the difference between an exhilarating winter ride and frost bite. Wear multiple layers of clothing with breathable, wicking fibers to help keep perspiration away from your body. Select clothing that blocks wind from the front, but vents under the arms or through a back flap. This prevents sweat from dampening your clothes, which will make you colder. Multiple zippers on multiple layers of clothing allow for different levels of venting, providing more precise temperature adjustment.
Your outer layer should be as bright and reflective as possible. If there was ever a time for neon, winter is it. Depending on the climate where you live, the best outer layer may be a wind jacket that fits over other layers, or a light vest that can be worn over a jersey. Arm, leg and knee warmers provide flexible outer layer options, because they are easy to remove and stash in a pocket if you get too warm.
No matter how well your body is insulated, if your fingers and toes get cold, you’re in trouble. Never skimp on gloves. Look for a pair that blocks cold and moisture from your fingers and knuckles, yet aren’t so bulky that you can’t operate your shifters or brake levers. Also, invest in booties or toe covers to protect your shoes and block the wind. Wear a thin hat, skull cap or balaclava under your helmet and over your ears, taking care that you can still hear traffic.
Also, remember that though the sun may not be out in full force, sunscreen and eye protection from UV rays, road debris, and splatter is as important as in the summer. Sunglass lenses for winter riding are offered in dark, amber and clear, and can be easily swapped-out to accommodate various light levels.
Winter baselayers are designed to be a next-to-skin garment that goes under you mid and outer layers. The baselayers primary purpose is to pull moisture away from the skin and move it to the mid layer where it can evaporate more effectively. This serves two purposes: 1) it keeps your clothing from becoming wet, and cold, and 2) helps to regulate your body temperature to keep you from getting too cold or two hot.
There are two basic types of base layers, insulating and non-insulating. Both are moisture-wicking; insulating layers offer the added winter-time benefit of extra warmth. Insulating base layers are typically made from polypropylene, fleece or a thin wool blend, and are available in both tops and bottoms. They function by holding in heated air created by your body, while at the same time moving moisture away from your skin. Just remember that no matter which type of insulating fabric you choose, make sure you have a full-length zipper up front so you can regulate temperature during your ride.
The mid layer is arguably the most important element of the cyclist’s layering system, because it’s the one that allows you to fine tune how warm you feel while riding. The mid layer primarily acts as an insulating layer between the base and the outer garment. By creating two pockets of warm air (one between the base and mid, and the mid and outer layers), the mid layer makes it easier to more effectively regulate your body temperature and comfort level during cold weather riding. The mid layer also makes your baselayer more effective by helping to move moisture even further away from your body.
Which kind of mid layer you use will depend on the temperature, wind, how long you plan on riding, and how you like to feel when you ride. You can use a second baselayer as a mid layer on relatively milder days, or a light-,mid-, or heavyweight long sleeve jersey to help keep you warmer and more comfortable on colder days.
Outer Layer Shell
Say you’re traveling down the road at a moderate 18 miles per hour, and there is a 10mph head wind. Well, even though the thermometer reads 45 degrees, due to wind chill factor it’s going to feel a lot colder. Now add a little rain and, well you get the idea. It can get cold quick out on your bike. To avoiding coming home hypothermic, make sure to always stuff a wind-resistant, waterproof shell or vest in your jersey pocket before you head out the door—even if you’re already wearing a thermal jacket.
Whether you’re seeking wind protection, or complete all-weather outerwear, there’s a material designed to do the job. Just make sure the material you choose is breathable. Otherwise you’ll hinder the ability of your base layer to wick moisture away from your skin.
Softshell jackets are heavier weight, warm jackets with a brushed fleece interior and a water- and wind-resistant outer membrane. These jackets are best for the coldest days of the year, especially if conditions will be variable. Temperature range: 35 F or colder.
Pair with: long sleeve baselayer, WindStopper tights, helmet liner, winter gloves, wool socks and overshoes.
Thermal jackets are almost like very heavy weight jerseys. They have a brushed fleece lining, but are not water- or wind-resistant. Best for cold but dry days. Temperature range: 55-35 F.
Pair with: long or short sleeve baselayer, long sleeve jersey, thermal tights, overshoes, winter gloves, wind jacket or vest.
Wind jackets are thin nylon shells that help block the wind. Most are somewhat water-resistant, but won’t replace a rain jacket. Most are designed to pack up small enough to fit in a jersey pocket. Temperature range: 65-55 F; 55 F or colder when paired with thermal jacket.
Pair with: Thermal jacket, long sleeve jersey.
The vest is among the most versatile garments in a cyclist’s arsenal. Also known as a gilet, the vest helps block wind and hold in heat on cool, windy days. They pack up small, and can be stored in a jersey pocket if you get too hot, or until they are needed—like during a descent or later in the evening. Temperature range: 70-20 F (depending on other layers)
Pair with: Pretty much anything.
Rain Jackets are waterproof outer garments that are best for riding in the rain. While they can help in the worst weather, it’ best to avoid wearing these in winter unless you really need one. They don’t breathe especially well, and the last thing you want to do in winter is sweat too much, because then you’ll just be cold and damp, instead of just cold. If the sky looks threatening though, bring one in a pocket to prevent yourself getting thoroughly soaked.
These heavy-weight tights feature windproof panels on the front to help cut the chilling effect of the wind, while a brushed fleece lining keeps in the warmth. WindStopper is the Gore brand windproof membrane, but other companies have their own materials. Temperature range: 35 F or colder
Pair with: Softshell jacket, long sleeve baselayer, helmet liner, winter gloves, wool socks, overshoes.
Thermal tights feature a heavy-weight fabric with a brushed fleece interior to trap in heat. They won’t cut the wind much, but are good for calm, cold days. Temperature range: 55-35 F (or colder if the wind isn’t bad).
Pair with: baselayer, long sleeve jersey, thermal jacket, overshoes and winter gloves.
Non-thermal tights are ideal for riders who don’t want like to use leg warmers. They aren’t as warm, but will also help keep you from overheating on more moderate days. Temperature range: 60-45 F
Pair with: Long sleeve jersey, vest or wind jacket, wool socks, long finger gloves.
Leg warmers are designed to extend the riding season of your favorite shorts by giving them full length coverage. Essential, the leg warmer is a sleeve that goes from ankle to mid-thigh, and tucks under your shorts. Most leg warmers are good for temps down into the 30’s, but some WindStopper models can go down even further.
Pair with: shorts, long sleeve jersey, vest, long finger gloves.
In cooler temps, sometimes just your knees need to be kept warm instead of the whole leg. Knee warmers go from the top of the calf to mid-thigh, and tuck under the leg of your shorts to help protect your knees from wind and cold air. Knee warmers can be worn down into the 40’s for most, or the 30’s for some. They fold up small though, so if you get too warm you can always take them off and store them in a pocket.
Pair with: shorts, jersey, arm warmers, vest, long finger gloves.
Arm warmers are designed to extend the riding season of your short sleeve jerseys. They are essentially a sleeve that goes from the wrist to the upper arm, and usually features a brushed fleece interior to help you retain heat. These are probably the most versatile accessory any cyclist can own. Their small size makes them easy to remove and store in a pocket, and they’ll keep you warm down into the 40’s.
Pair with: Short sleeve jersey, shorts, knee warmers, vest.
Skull Caps help keep your head warm on the coldest days. Look for models that have windproof material in the front to protect against the wind. On longer rides it might be a good idea to bring a spare helmet liner so you can change into a dry one at the half way point.
Headbands are ideal for days that might start out chilly, but warm up later. The headband will keep your forehead and ears warm and out of the wind. Their extremely small size means they easily fit into jersey pocket. They can also be layered with a regular cycling cap or under a helmet liner cap
Cycling Shoe Covers or Overshoes are covers that go over your cycling shoes, with a cut out for the cleat. They are used to keep your feet warm during cold, wet, windy days. There are options that are waterproof, some that are warm, and some that help you gain an aerodynamic advantage. It’s best to use overshoes instead of thicker socks, since giving your toes room to wiggle and circulate blood will help them stay warmer. For extra cold days, try wrapping your toes in a bit of tin foil to keep in more heat. Best for: cold, wet, windy days.
Toe warmers are ideal for cooler days, or days that will start cold and then warm up. Like overshoes they go over your cycling shoes to help keep in heat and keep your toes warm. Unlike overshoes, which can be difficult to get on and take off, toe warmers are pretty easy to get on and off, so if your feet feel too warm, they can be removed and easily stored in a pocket.
Winter here in central NC is relatively mild. While it does get chilly, snow on the grand is somewhat rare, maybe we’ll see it for a week or two, but that’s about it. However, for those of you in colder climates, here are some last tips/thoughts about truly cold weather:
Rain, leaves, ice and snow can all make for slick riding surfaces. The key is to stay relaxed. Avoiding tensing arms and shoulders and you’ll be able to react quicker and more fluidly to unexpected obstacles. When negotiating wet or icy streets or trails, take extra care to slow down on descents and corners, and shift your weight back when braking to prevent the rear tire from losing traction. Allow more distance for braking, and remember that cars and trucks must do the same. Invest in a helmet- or handlebar-mounted mirror to keep an eye on what’s behind you. On thawing days, beware of shadowed portions of the road; black ice may be lurking there.