The wicked winter weather is here but don't let that stop you from enjoying the trails, you just need to dress for it. I like to talk to guys that ride regularly in the cold and hear about what they wear and what actually works for them. Thinking back to my first frozen riding adventures, they involved sweat pants with a duct taped pant leg to keep in out of my chain ring. Back then there really wasn't much available and people really weren't even thinking seriously about winter riding.
You need a good clothing strategy before you get out. Don't overdress. The general rule is you should feel a little chilly at the start and from there you'll warm up and be comfortable. I use a pretty basic three part strategy. A thin outer layer that breaks the wind and keeps the wet off, a snug fitting under layer next to my skin that wicks away moisture, and from there I bulk up with synthetics appropriately (wool works well too). The wind breaker/base layer strategy works so well for me that anything mid thirties and up this is all I need. If I wear any more than this I'm too hot.
Ok for my base layer, I use one of two sets of long underwear. For really cold days I use the expedition weight duofold long underwear ($40 each piece) and and on days that hover around freezing or warmer I have a set of mid weight duofold ($30 each piece). What I like about the tops is they can zip up like a mock turtle neck or zip way down my chest. This helps regulate heat, a critical aspect of riding in the cold. It is important the base layer is stretchy and fits snug up against your skin. Originally my base layer's were XLs and they were just not very effective.
The warmest piece of clothing in my cold weather arsenal is a long sleeve under armour shirt. It's my very first layer, it's very thin and fits tight against my skin. The shirt is designed to wick the moisture away and it's unbelievably warm. So warm that I only wear on cold cold days.
Up top I use a lot of 'Fitness Gear' brand clothing. Dick's Sporting Goods carries it. Comparatively it's very inexpensive and it does the job.
So next up top goes a fitness gear polyester shirt with zip up neck. This shirt has extra long sleeves with thumb holes; the thumb holes are sweet, they do a lot for keeping your wrists and hands warm and they keep the wind from blowing up my sleeves. Next a fitness gear long sleeve polyester cotton t-shirt ($15), a medium weight rayon sweater and if it's really cold a fleece. The key to these layers; they are snug but non restrictive. I've also found that if the layers are over sized the warm air is vented out.
On top of the layers is a Fitness Gear wind breaker ($30). The wind breaker features a vent on the back and a draw string around the waste. The draw string is key on both on the wind breaker and the fleece under layer. You need the draw string to keep things tight and keep the heat from venting out. Another great apsect of this is when you overheat you can open the draw string to let the heat escape. Being able to regulate is important because overheating makes you sweat and being wet makes you cold. The only thing I could wish for on this jacket is some pit zips.
Here's a trick for finding a breathable but wind resistant outer layer. Cup it up against your face and blow through it. If you can't blow through it, it's more like rain gear. I.e. you'll be wearing a plastic bag. If your breath travels easily through it, so will the wind.
So what about the pants. Well I'm not really keen on the bike specific pants. I bought a pair with the wind panels on the front for $70. The front stops the wind but I find with the material on the back there's just too much venting and in wet winter weather the back of your legss just get soaked. What I like to use is a pair of fitness gear wind breaker jogging pants ($20) and long underwear bottoms. That is it, nothing else. The expedition weight long underwear will keep you warm in the really cold stuff and I use the mid weight on warmer days. Simple and versatile. Ok the jogging pants do present a problem; the loose pant leg gets caught in my chain ring. I've tried a variety of unsuccessful methods to correct this; velcro strips around my ankle, a leg warmers over my pants, in desperation tucking the pant legs down my sock, they all slide down the slick polyester. Eventually I found a pair of tough nylon boot gaiters at Gander Mountain. I wear over the pant leg and a velcro strap up top secures it. It does the trick. I don't win an award for style and fashion but I stay warm.
I've also heard good things about the Trek AMFib cycling tights.
On my head I wear a very thin rayon knit cap made for wearing under a helmet. I have a couple of them; one from centre ski and the other I found at Dicks with the snowboard and ski gear. This is my favorite piece of cold weather gear. When you overheat it's easy to take off and cool down and it slips right into your pocket. I tend not to wear it more often that I do but I always make sure I have it. Beside being a good way to regulate it's a small but critical bit of emergency clothing. If my bike breaks down or god forbid I need to limp back to the trail head; I've got a critical piece of clothing to keep me warm and ward off hypothermia.
On my neck I wear a turtle fur collar (works like a scarf) again it conveniently tucks into a pocket but the neck warmer is usually over kill.
I have a pair of Pearl Izumi Gavia gloves with the pearl glove liners but in the cold stuff Pearl Izumi let's me down. Anything much below freezing and these are inadequate. There's not many options for light weight gloves so your best finding yourself a pair of ski gloves. They are bulky but they still allow you to operate your shifters and brakes.
Ok what about your feet. I know what doesn't work for me: A pair of Pearl Izumi mountain bike shoes with Pearl Izumi shoe covers. Even with two pair of warm socks they only kept my feet warm enough to ward off frost bite. I road with some seriously cold feet last year. Really don't bother with the shoe covers; they don't fit very well over mountain bike shoes and eventually they tear and rip and they do little to keep your feet dry or warm.
Lake mountain biking boots are the defacto clothing item for riding in winter. Talking to many winter riders nothing beats them or comes close. Expensive but look at it as a life time investment. Another less expensive alternative are flat pedals and boots. I've also been told the Shimano's cold weather shoe and the Pearl Izumi Barriers work very well too. I own a pair of Specialized Defrosters and I give them a big thumbs down. Another recommendation is foot warmers placed in your shoes on top of your feet.
Ok that's what works for me in the cold stuff. Don't let the weather deter you. Once you start pumping the pedals you heat up in no time and your enjoying the trials and temperature becomes an after thought.
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