It’s tough to know how to dress when conditions change during your ride, especially in the spring and fall months. Temperature changes can leave you sweating and freezing during the same ride. You may start out just right but overheat and/or freeze later in your ride. If you’re new to cycling, it will help to talk to some more experienced riders and they will be able to tell you what clothing works best for them. It’s hard to tell someone how warm their clothing needs to be, because our tolerance to cold varies from person to person. A guy in my neighborhood rides in freezing temps with nothing covering his ears, while I would need a balaclava or two.
But to begin with, dress for your cool weather ride with a wicking base layer (tank top, short sleeve T-shirt, or long sleeve shirt, depending on temps and other clothing choices). If you buy only one wicking layer, go for a wicking tee or tank top; either can be used in most temperatures, adding other layers as needed.
While people new to cycling might already own a wicking base layer, they probably don’t have cycling-specific clothing. Riding in cold weather or changing conditions is much more comfortable with the few pieces of cycling-specific clothing listed below. Our sponsors Dick Sonne’s and Trek Store of New Hartford carry a variety of items at competitive prices that you can try on to ensure they fit.
I have found the first 2 items (vest and arm warmers) are the most used, followed closely by overmitts or long fingered gloves, ear band or multipurpose neck gaitor, leg warmers, toe covers, and a windbreaker.
Lightweight vest with mesh or well-vented back. Pockets are always nice to stash a nutrition bar, phone, spare gloves, etc. You can start out wearing this or carry it in a jersey pocket.
Arm warmers. These can be pulled up or down as temps change. A mesh back vest and arm warmers are the best clothing investments I ever made.
Long-fingered gloves or wind mitts. There are many good choices for gloves in a wide variety of materials and weights; not so many for mitts, which I need due to chronic cold hands. Having something that will fit over your regular bike gloves that can be removed and stuffed in the pocket can be a lifesaver. For temperatures over 45 degrees, my preference is lightweight mittens I can put over a pair of gloves. Lightweight thin over mitts such as those made by Sugoi and Pearl izumi provide some windbreak and warmth with little bulk if you need to stash them. Bontrager/Trek sells a midweight mitt. When you want something heavier, there are many choices including your regular winter gloves or ski mittens. Split finger or “lobster” gloves (which keep a couple fingers together) can make it easier to use your shifters. All the cycling brands offer many choices of cycling specific gloves, which tend to factor in finger dexterity. Fit is especially crucial for hand coverings so you can shift and brake properly. Hand coverings that are too snug restrict circulation. If they are way too big you will have a hard time shifting or braking. For really cold conditions, there are neoprene enclosures for your handlebars called BarMitts. These are the only things that work for me when it gets below the upper thirties.
Ear band/neck gaitor/head covering. My ears get cold pretty easily so I always have a wide wicking sweatband I can pull down over them when it gets below the low sixties. Neck gaiters are very versatile. When it’s any cooler than sixty degrees, I use a lightweight neck gaiter that can be folded over to provide two layers over my ears as needed and takes up little space if it warms up and I need to stash it. Handkerchief bandanas (think bald biker dude) work well and will fit under your helmet. There are specific cycling head covers and caps also. Consider whether your helmet will accommodate the covering you need. You might be able to loosen your straps to allow for any head covering, or get an inexpensive helmet in a larger size to use in cold conditions.
Knee warmers. These can be pulled down or up as needed. Start out on a cool morning with them up and pull down or take off as it warms up.
Toe warmers and shoe covers. Toe warmers are not as warm as full shoe covers but do the job into the forties for most. Full shoe covers are warmer. Velcro closures make it less of a workout to put them on. Trying them on to see if they are big enough to get over your shoes will save many an expletive from being used. If you need maximum warmth, consider a pair of larger shoes for winter that will accept thick wool socks (make sure your covers fit). Taping over shoe vents will help some too. And there are winter-specific cycling shoes.
Wind jacket. A lightweight windbreaker is a wonderful thing, especially if it can be stuffed in a pocket when you no longer need it. When it is cold enough to wear one, I find if I take it off before a long climb and throw it back on at the top of the climb it reduces the sweating/freezing cycles.
Tights, or knickers. When you know it will be consistently cold, tights or knickers (bib or non-bib) are great. They come in various weights and can be layered with long underwear if needed. The bib varieties help keep your lower back and core warm and are my go-to for cool conditions. I rode many years in cold conditions without bibs, but since trying them, I always use them when it is cool.
Rainproof jacket. This is bulkier and harder to stash but is great for consistently cold or wet conditions. They range from bare-bones, plastic-like, non-wicking waterproof jackets, to multifeatured Gore-Tex varieties. Pit Zips are a great feature to have, as are back vents. If you want to add Pit Zips to a jacket you already have, a local seamstress can do it.
Where to carry extra stuff? You may be able to stuff spare gloves and a windbreaker in a back pocket, but multiple clothing items for changing conditions might not fit. You can wrap and tie a windbreaker around your waist. But if you want someplace else to store your gear, there are handlebar bags and some seat bags that may do the trick. Or if you have a bike that accepts a rear rack, use that in cold weather and strap your extra stuff to it. Whatever you can think of. Having extra clothing makes it much more comfortable to ride in changing conditions. While carrying extra clothing may not look “cool,” it will keep you from being uncomfortably cold.
Mom’s advice. I almost forgot about Vaseline. My Mom used duct tape and Vaseline for many things. A coating of Vaseline on your nose, lips, and cheeks will protect you when it gets really cold by reducing windchill and reducing the chance of frostbite. Duct tape over any vents in your shoes helps keep the cold out. Thanks, Mom!