Riding your bike in winter: stay warm, dry, and alive

14 November 2023
Okay, anyone can browse Rapha or PNS catalogue to get the idea of what winter clothes comprises, and everyone understands that reflective fabric returns light. I will only give real tips.
drawing demonstrating chain stay length measurement
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1. Make your large parts vivid

It is not enough that drivers would see you. You want them to perceive you as something that they need to react to — and give them time to do so. Trust me, don’t rely on the idea that a human life is precious, and everyone should respect that fact and be careful on the road, blah-blah-blah.

Given it’s often a fraction of second that separate you and the moving car — you are either immediately perceived as a significant obstacle, or you may get hit.

In the winter this is exaggerated: drivers not always expect to encounter cyclists, and the visibility is generally worse. Moreover, the way some cyclists dress when it’s cold doesn’t play well with how human (driver :) brain works.
drawing demonstrating horizontal chain stay length measurement
See, you understand that this is a human after just a second or so. But within milliseconds that’s more like a bug or something. Even if at the last moment I see an insect coming towards my windshield, I will not try and save its life by performing a risky maneuver. That may feel weird, but psychology.

Also, not only bigger things are inherently more significant, but the larger the visible part the more the chances that it won’t be covered by Little Trees® or something.
drawing demonstrating auxiliary chain stay length measurement
To make yourself seen as more human — as well as just seen — I suggest that you would look like one. And better yet, an important one.
track bicycle with short chain stays and split seat tube
Not only a police officer is one of, if not the, most attention-drawing figure for drivers, but he or she also wears the uniform that has been extensively studied visibility-wise and is more or less the same all over the world. Dark legs/feet, hi-visibility yellow jacket or vest, white helmet — is the proven formula.
road bicycle with short chain stays and split seat tube
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2. Create some contrast

Okay, veteran road cyclists know that not all helmets are white because some are black — but the former are prevalent for a good reason. To be visible in all conditions even the most vivid of colours is not enough. Black is not seen in the dark, but white may blend in with bright overcast sky — and even hi-vis can sometimes fall short on its own.
close-up of road bicycle with short chain stays and split seat tube
However, if you mix at least three colours — one dark, one vivid, and one light — between your largest visible parts — legs, torso/arms, and helmet — you most certainly cover any lighting and background scenario.

And if you don’t fancy impersonating a police officer — well, cosplaying the TDF Yellow Jersey is always an option. I mean, being visible does not necessarily mean looking unstylish.
bicycle with dropper seat post
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3. Use fenders. Wait, visibility? Yep!

Speaking of law enforcement and stuff, I reviewed visibility-related traffic rules for cyclists in some legally developed jurisdictions where it also gets cold. You know, the rules written with blood.

Among the obvious things like front and back lights, reflective elements, hi-vis jackets/vests, there is one thing curiously prescribed in some countries: mudguards to prevent mud from reducing the visibility of lights and reflectors.
bicycle with thin seat tube and integrated seat post
I’ve never thought about fenders that way but cannot recommend them enough for winter riding. In the wet, the wheels produce a constant flow of water. The stream from the back wheel not only hinders the lights, but also makes your bottom wet. (Moreover, it makes your mates wet as well — hence why some cycling clubs do not allow people without fenders to winter group rides.)

Even worse for you, the water from the front wheel hits the frame and sprays all over your feet, making them wet. This brings us on how to dress to stay dry & warm — but I assure you: whatever you do with your footwear, you will have puddles in your shoes if you ride in the proper wet without mudguards that extend sufficiently close to the ground (hence the flaps on the picture above).

Full disclosure: I’ve never cycled in really cold conditions, but I did rides up to 300+ km in borderline freezing/slushy weather and apart from cycling have same 25+ years of experience with snowboarding, so I know a thing or two about winter apparel.
bicycle with bent and slack seat tube
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4. Warm-up the peripherals

When road/gravel cycling you can regulate your overall warmth pretty much all the time, provided you intake enough calories — the harder you work aerobically, the warmer your core (where the heart and lungs are) and leg muscles. However, this doesn’t apply to the extremities of your body, especially hands and feet. Depending on your individual thermal regulation, the neck and head may also require extra protection, as well as pelvis area.

(A) Hands

Out of traditional options, mittens are generally warmer than gloves. However, on a bicycle you need to use brakes without losing grip on your bars, so full mittens don’t work. Thus, your warmest regular option are lobster mitts. Depending on your preferred grip there are variants with 2—2 fingers or 1—3.
bicycle with steep seat tube
Remember, these are not product recommendations, but real tips. You will need to remove any warm glove/mitten to use your phone and such. Thus, I advise to make sure that putting-on/off is easy and that you have enough room inside to use thin internal gloves — those make briefly removing your main glove/mitt so much less unpleasant.
bicycle with 650b wheels and wide tyres
Next, you can use chemical warmers. Sometimes there are separate pockets for that, but just putting a warming pad inside the glove/mitt is fine. The pads can usually be found in hunting/outdoor stores. They are single-use and cost some couple of dollars, so better suited for longer but rarer riding — good ones will last several hours, and the costs/sustainability would be more substantiated.
drawing demonstrating bottom bracket drop measurement
Next step are electrically heated gloves. I was in doubt if that was a gimmick before buying them (and they are not cheap) but cannot imagine my winter riding without them since. Same as with chemical pads, they only heat-up the back of your palm, but not fingers — which is enough to make the blood passing trough the palm towards fingers warmer and solve the problem of cold-numb fingertips.

Compared to chemical pads, electric heating has a few intensities, so it may not only work moderately well for several hours, but also really heat up your hands for a shorter period. This makes short intensive rides much more comfortable, as you can dress light enough to not overheat, but still keep your hands nice and toasty.

Unlike regular gloves/mitts, the electrical heated ones cannot be washed with water. Thus, the thin internal gloves not only will make taking-off the main thing less irritating, but also is more hygienic.
bicycle with very long chain stays and no bottom bracket drop
Finally, there is nothing warmer than pogies. They limit your grip options, but who cares at minus XX°C.
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(B) Feet

There are all sorts of winter cycling shoes and boots. In my experience, they work only with fenders, as explained above — otherwise the water slowly gets down between your leg and the shoe cuff. I tried all sorts of socks, separate neoprene cuffs, winter overshoes, and all that in different layups with long tights. Heck, I even tried wrapping plastic film around my ankles.
drawing demonstrating chainline and q-factor and stance width measurements
Some say that this can be solved by wearing non-tight trousers over the shoes. But I’d rather use good-looking mudguards than ride a drop-bar bike in pants (and you need the former anyway to keep your bottom dry and the transmission reasonably clean).

In any case, I suggest paying attention to the cuff — the higher the better and it should have some system to tighten it up against the ankle. Also, consider that you may want to be able to wear thick merino socks and/or chemically heated insoles — so, same as with gloves/mitts, some extra room won’t hurt.

There exist cycling boots with cleats that look extremely warm, but I have no experience with those. Apparently, they limit your ankle mobility, and look as ugly for a bike shoe as they are supposedly warm — extremely.
bicycle for purposes of demonstrating mtb geometry
(C) Neck/head

Your winter helmet should be roomy enough to accommodate balaclava/buff/whatever you put underneath it. Also, aero-shaped helmets that have less ventilation slots are generally warmer.
close-up of bicycle chain stay with 3d-printed element
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5. Layer, layer, layer

I’ve mentioned pelvis area, and that’s where the layering begins. You may have several summer bib shorts — and it only makes sense to keep using them instead of purchasing several winter bib tights at once (which may be somewhat costly provided quality chamois).

For that, there are cycling tights without chamois that you can put on over your bib shorts — that way you can only wash the latter but keep using same tights if only the last ride was not too dirty. This is as hygienic as not washing your jeans every day (or ever, for you denimheads :) and allows for having just one or two tights in addition to the summer bibs. Plus, extra layer around your pelvis to add warmth.

No-chamois tights can be less stretchy, hence thicker, and thus warmer. Also, unlike summer bibs, the torso straps are optional.
close-up of bicycle chain stay with cnc-machined element
Layering around your core gets more sophisticated. In general, there may be three layers: baselayer, insulating layer, and elements-protection layer. The virtue of layers is that depending on the weather and intensity of your ride you can choose more or less warm garments, or skip (or even add) layers. Just remember that each next layer should be able to fit inside it all the previous ones, on the one hand, but be as snug as possible at that.
The function of a baselayer is to move sweat away from the body. Thus, it should fit tight around your torso and arms and be made of hydroscopic material. The cheaper option is synthetics, but merino wool blends are way better in resisting odor — you can even use them more than once in a row without washing, as quality merino garments remain fresh after a single use. They may also add some warmth if the material is thicker, but that’s what the second layer is for.
Second is insulating layer. This may be made of fleece, artificial down, or similar synthetic material (natural down loses its insulating properties when wet, which it will inevitably be, unless it’s the upmarket kind with additional treatment). The function of this layer is to make you warm, but it usually doesn’t protect from wind or elements. That may be a good thing for a garment that makes you cozy while stationary but cools down when actively moving.
However, for winter riding usually an external (shell) layer is required, which protects from both wind and water, but is not warm on its own. There are inexpensive shells that act as plastic film sealing your body, and there are membrane ones, the function of which is to not let gusts or droplets in, but let out humidity so that you would not be soaked in your own sweat in a matter of minutes.

Obviously, the membranes are superior — but make sure to renew the DWR treatment. Otherwise, water will form a film on the surface of the jacket which would not allow it to breathe anyway. DWR sprays can be purchased separately, usually in outdoor or winter sports stores. Note that membranes never let water in, but their breathability depends on how cold and humid the air is. They breathe best in cold and dry conditions, but loose efficiency dramatically in warm-ish and humid environments. Thus, it makes little sense to use them as summer rain jackets — that’s what the cheaper stuff is just enough for.
Source: https://www.bikepartners.net/servicepack-bike-into-box-or-travel-case.html
MINIMAP | VividnessContrastFendersHandsFeetLayers — Summary

• obviously, use lights and as many reflective elements as possible,
• use vivid colours on your large surfaces (mainly, torso/arms),
• use contrasting (black/white) colours on your remaining surfaces,
• use fenders for staying both visible and dry/clean,
• keep your hands warm,
• keep your feet dry/warm,
• layer up.