With the growth in popularity of fat / snow biking, more riders are venturing out in below freezing temperatures. I started winter riding about 5 seasons ago. In that time, I’ve had some of my most memorable rides and also some of the most painful! A great ride can be ruined, or cut short, by wearing the wrong clothing. Below is a description of the setup that works well for me.
Some important notes about my typical winter rides are that I get cold easily, and I don’t like to stand around. I usually ride for 1-3 hours on trails with sustained climbing and descending. I find it important to be able to regulate my temperature, sweat is the enemy (in winter).
Pedals and Boots: The first question to consider here is if you will be using flat’s or clipless pedals. A lot of riders use flats in the winter, but in my opinion clipless is the way to go. I find that having the ability to spin (providing even, smooth power) is key to riding in deeper snow conditions. Flats force you to stand up and mash at times which leads to spinning out. However, starting up in the snow with clips can be a pain, and flats give you the freedom to stick a leg out and “rally” in slippery conditions. To me the best of both worlds are the CrankBros Mallet Pedals. It’s like having two pedals in one. If you don’t mind the weight get the Mallet DH’s they are beefy.
Assuming you are clipping-in, I think it is well worth it to invest in a nice pair of winter cycling boots. For the first year, I tried using regular cycling shoes with booties, bags inside, tin foil soles, etc. None of these modifications was even close to as comfortable or warm as a good cycling boot. Both Lake and 45NRTH make a great product. I have used the 45NRTH Wolvhammers for several years with zero complaints. I’ve never had cold feet when wearing them, they are extremely comfortable, and have a great sole when you need to hike a bike. Winter boots can be expensive, but they will last many years and anything that gets you riding more is worth it, right?
Lower Body: For the lower body, I wear a pair of bib tights (or knickers) with a pair of Pearl Izumi Elite AmFIB Tights. I tried wind pants and they weren’t enough, and snow pants are bulky and way to warm. The AmFIB tights are just right, they really make this setup work. They are wind and water resistant and their thermal lining provides serious warmth.
There can be a meshing / overlapping issue around the ankles when using the bib tights and thick socks. One fix I have found is to use a pair of bib knickers, instead of tights, as my base layer. The socks and knickers don’t overlap so no area is more than 2 layers thick.
Upper Body: I use 3 layers on my upper body: a base layer, long sleeve cycling jersey, and a wind proof shell. A note of caution, I really have to keep moving for this to be enough warmth. Also, I have to manage sweat because once you get damp, it’s easy to get cold. I find that being able to zip down the shell and jersey is essential to regulating temperature. On extended uphills I typically zip both about halfway down. If I’m rolling on even terrain I’ll leave the jersey all the way up and just open the shell. On the downhills I zip everything up.
I think the key piece of clothing here is the shell. You have to find one that knocks the wind down, but still breathes. Mine doesn’t have the waxy feel that many of them do. It seems like a strange test, but try to suck air through the shell. If you can but just barely you are probably on the right track.
Hands: I have used several pairs of gloves over the years, some bike specific some not. I can safely say that one of the worst feelings is having your hands go numb, then thaw then repeat during a ride. At times you don’t even want to pull the brakes, it feels like your fingers will break off. Hand warmers solve this problem, but who wants to shell out for them every ride. Bulky mittens do the trick too, but make it hard to shift, brake, and steer. I have settled on a pair from Sugoi that is a glove / mitten hybrid. The finger split is 1/3 which is nice if you are a single finger braker. I think any of the lobster style gloves is a good option. Let your fingers use the buddy system, except the thumb…he’s on his own.
Head: Up top I wear a Bern Watts HardHat. I like that it has very few vents, and is roomy enough for a hat. Additionally, it is a highly visible yellow which is great when riding on snowmobile trails. Under the helmet I usually wear a thin ski cap, or wool cycling cap. You don’t want anything too thick or you will get too warm.
I use a buff around my neck and face. This gives me the option of pulling it up over my mouth or down. I tried one of those ski mask looking face protectors, and it always felt strange when pulled down. I also experimented with a mask from inside a snowmobile helmet (it was supposed to push the hot air away from my glasses to avoid fogging). It was simply too much. The buff covers the face and neck, and can be tucked into the jersey, plus you look like a ninja!
I hope this was helpful information. If you have questions, or would like to share your own tips please comment. Thanks for reading!