Winter Riding Essentials
Kitting up for Cold Weather Miles
Winter is coming. Days become short, nights become long, and both become downright frigid. For those who keep the flame through months when the snow falls, the rain pounds, and the sun virtually disappears, there’s a method to the madness, and a small catalog of equipment purpose-built for life in the frost.
My name’s Max, and I’m a road cyclist, who ventures onto gravel and singletrack. I ride throughout the Wasatch Range in Utah, where snow, ice, and canyon winds make up this high desert winter. I’ve come to learn that winter cycling can be a type II kind of fun: we layer up as best we can and roll into uncomfortable conditions we hope to outlast. Knowing we’ll take to the open roads and frozen trails year after year, an investment in cold weather cycling gear sets us up to perform and enjoy the season on two wheels.
Winterizing Your Bike
With some TLC between rides, your bike will survive winter miles just fine. There are a few pieces of equipment that elevate your ride and your comfort, too.
Fenders are making a splash (pun intended) and fast becoming standard for the modern rider. We’re no longer surprised when we find even top-end road and gravel bikes with integrated fender mounts. If your ride doesn’t have mounts, not to worry. Many fenders clamp onto your bike, seat, downtube, or fork to keep wheel spray off both you and those easily corroded bearings in the headtube.
Fender style is up to you and what fits your machine; you may prefer more slender, racing-fit style blades or you may want a super simple seat clamp fender that’s a snap to install and remove. Here are some of our favorite options for both on and off-road.
Close-fitting Road Bike Fender: SKS Raceblade Pro
Seatpost Clamp Fender: Portland Design Works Origami Fender
Lightweight & Minimalist MTB Fender: RockShox MTB Fender
There are a few camps when it comes to the preferred winter tire choice. A few things to ask yourself: Do the tires you’ve been using meet your expectations and perform well? Are you planning to ride in heavy rain? And are you going to ride on different terrain—like switching from road to gravel?
If you aren’t changing your riding routine or locations and like the tires you’ve been using, I don’t recommend changing them—unless you begin experiencing more frequent flats or less control on the road. I ride the same all-terrain tires in winter as I do in summer—Panaracer GravelKing Tire—but I take caution when coming across a snow patch and don’t seek out icy areas to ride over. If you want a more dedicated snow-type tire that is designed for more grip and stability, I’d recommend tires with more knobs and bite (read below).
If you are a road cyclist and winter miles enthusiast—no matter the conditions—be sure to have some water-shedding tread on your tires. Continental Gatorskin and Grand Prix 4-Season tires do very well year-round.
If you are changing conditions and terrain altogether—say road to off-road or dry singletrack to snow—I’d recommend a reliable all-around tire and one with deeper, more dispersed knobs to shed mud, grip the wet, and punch deeper into the snow. So ditch the file-treads and go for a tread pattern that has some claws to it.
Road Winter Tire: Continental Grand Prix 4 Season Tire
All-round Mixed Terrain Tire: Donnelly MXP Tire
Wet & Muddy MTB Tire: Specialized Hillbilly Grid Gravity 2Bliss T9 Tire
There isn’t less time to ride in winter than in summer; there’s simply less time to roll without lights. Fortunately, bike lights have evolved to such a level that you can not only commute safely, but you can also beam out over 2,000 brilliant lumens to illuminate any darkness on your path. When choosing the best lights for your rides, the primary considerations are the amount of light you need, whether you need to look around (i.e., the advantage of a helmet mount), and how long your rides run. We’d recommend these front and rear pairs for your low-light riding.
Dusk & Twilight Urban Commuting: Light & Motion Vis 500 And Vya Light Combo
Night Road Riding: Light & Motion Urban 1000 And Vis 180 Pro Light Combo
Trail Riding: NiteRider Pro 2200 Race Headlight
Winterizing Your Wardrobe
You’re only as warm as your weakest layer. And there’s no point in battling the cold if the cold will win as soon as you press on the pedals.
If your innermost layer does one thing well, it’s wick sweat away from your skin to keep you dry—the key to warmth. But where baselayers differ is in thickness, fit, and materials. You may have to do some trial and error to find which baselayer works the best for you and your layering system. But most baselayers are listed as summerweight, midweight, or heavy “winter” weight, making it easier to decide which you need for your local conditions and how cold or warm you run. Here’s one baselayer we love for winter rides:
If you live in climates that stay mild in winter, a thermal cycling jersey may become your favorite and most frequently worn outer layer. But if you live in a cold climate, you may find that a winter baselayer, paired with your summer-weight jersey and a winter jacket is the best system. Here are a couple of our favorites.
Each panel of a good riding jacket has a purpose. Front layers typically block wind and rain, while side panels and the back provide breathable warmth. I recommend two standout performers: the Castelli Alpha RoS 2 and the Castelli Alpha Ros 2 Light. With a “rain or shine” designation, these jackets repel winter storms with ease, and can even make sub-freezing rides feel quite warm.
Tights & Thermal Shorts
Thermal tights are a one-piece design that essentially combine legwarmers and regular-length bibs—and the weather protection is astounding. The alternate option is thermal bib shorts paired with thermal leg warmers. I rarely ride in the rain, so for my comfort, I choose to ride thermal bibs with thermal leg warmers so I can remove the leg warmers if needed. However, if frigid windchill is a principal concern on your rides or there is often inclement weather where you live, the protection offered by full-length thermal tights is invaluable. Here are our choices for both.
Hands are often the limiting factor for winter rides. Depending on the terrain where you ride, you may find yourself climbing and generating heat only to descend and feel bitterly cold. A few pairs of gloves in your arsenal will help ensure your hands stay warm, but not too warm, for any weather. From lightly windproof to fully insulated lobster-claw style gloves, there are heaps of options to consider.
So when choosing a winter glove, keep in mind what temperatures you’ll be riding in, whether you’ll want full-fingered or mitten-style gloves, and whether you’ll need DWR treatment layers in case of a storm. Check out our selection of gloves here.
Thin, wool skull caps are my go-to for most winter rides. They insulate while remaining dry, can cover my forehead on chilly descents, and don’t require much adjustment to my helmet fit. Some riders prefer a cycling cap with a bill to help with rain spray and nail that heritage aesthetic. And on exceptionally cold rides, when you can’t chance skin exposure, a balaclava is the go-to move.
Castelli Estremo WS Skully Cap — (has flip-down ear protection)
Socks & Shoe Covers
When riding in winter, merino wool or merino wool blend socks are ideal. The thickness you’ll want depends on where you ride and if you’re using booties. I’ll ride into early winter with just thermal socks. They are thin enough to provide warmth without requiring a larger shoe size to fit. Then in mid to late winter, I’ll add shoe covers, which provide the protection I need for rides under 35-degrees Fahrenheit, as well as some resistance to rain and snowmelt spray on the roads. If you only have summer-weight cycling shoes—constructed mostly of mesh or knit—you’ll likely need shoe covers earlier in the year.