Nonspecific cycling winterwear

There was a bit of a kerfuffle recently over what people need to cycle in winter, and it got me thinking about putting up a wee post about my choices in winterwear.

We’re blessed to have pretty mild winters, in an absolute sense (hysterics of the press and motoring public to the contrary!). It’s rare to get down even to -10C, and this can be catered to easily by a normal outdoorsy wardrobe (although you won’t find the mainstream cycling press admitting it!)

I’ve been a year-round bike commuter for a few years now, including the epic snow/ice of 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, Hurricane Bawbag and the much worse winds that followed. I’ve pretty much used the same stuff for all of it, which is to say, nothing that special:

Hands

This is pretty much the most important thing if you plan to ride through the season of the winter wonderland – it’s not like you can stuff your hands into your pockets (at least, not both at the same time!) and they’re leading the way into the worst of the conditions.

I have a couple of pairs of gloves – a windstopper fleece pair and a pair of ski gloves. Unsurprisingly I got the windstoppers for the hills / general use and the ski gloves for skiing…

I’m currently using the latter, although it’s getting hot enough now (a little above zero) that I’m planning to switch back to the lighter fleece, which has the advantage of breathing terribly well. If you only want one pair though, or tend to have cold hands – grab yourself a thick pair of ski gloves for around £15. You’ll be smiling…

Head

Buff for the win. You can pull it off on the move (wrap around your wrist if you want to park it out of the way with one hand), it can be as minimal as a bandana for your ears, something extra around the neck, or a passable balaclava.

You can get a proper fleece balaclava if you ride slowly and it’s extremely cold, but even when it was getting down to -10 the two winters before this, I found my mountaineering balaclava to be too hot!

Again, something you can wear a lot in any outdoor scenario, whether you’re walking through town, out for a run, or in the hills. Look to spend a little over £10 delivered.

Shoes

As appropriate to pedals… I’ve got a pair of Shimano trainer-style ones which cost £35. If you don’t want anything bike-specific, just wear whatever you already own.

It works for the 6.9 billion people in the world who don’t buy bike-specific shoes…

I have found in really cold weather that I sometimes get cold feet, a problem for which there are variably expensive and impractical solutions that the industry will be happy to sell you! A simple solution was recently found by co-incidence though – a 12″ slab of sheep’s wool which I cut around the shape of my insoles. It crushes down to the shape of your soles and now I’m toasty (and it’s fully natural – in fact, it supports a local business too).

Socks

I wear normal socks, in cold weather mid-weights like you’d use in walking boots.

If your shoes are OK, this should be fine. See the tip above about the sheep! (You can always add more socks if you need to, and you probably own a lot already.)

Cost: free.

Legs

Reed Chillcheater thermal trousers. Great for assorted outdoor activities in cold weather, originally winter kayaking, then mountaineering, and obviously general kicking about in frozen Edinburgh.

I bought mine in 2005 (so at today’s prices, they’ve cost £5.71 per annum) and can’t see any reason to buy a new pair yet – they have some damage from the power idler on the lowracer, but I just stitched them up.

Yes, that’s all. I don’t generally bother with padded shorts in town, and certainly not under long thermals! A good fleece like this is effectively windproof, resists all but pretty heavy rain, and is really quite warm when wet. It also dries really fast, so by lunchtime my stuff is already ready for the return trip…

Cost: £30-40

Top

First, a DHB long sleeve zipped baselayer. You could substitute any long sleeve base which you already own for the outdoors – I often use whatever Helly comes to hand, in a rush – but I find having a zip great, because even in coldest winter you will probably want to vent after the first five minutes!

Currently the DHB ones can be had for £15 down from £23, and in longevity terms, mine are about four years old, and doing OK. I own two, so I can swap if yesterday’s one fails the sniff test (which to be honest, it never really does. Social conditioning, huh?)

On top, a good “soft shell” windproof jacket. Essential hill and general outdoor wear in my opinion, and by happy coincidence excellent on the bike. Mine is by North Face and cost ~£90, but you can find suitable ones for less if you shop around.

This is a fantastically versatile piece of kit – blocking the wind means you stay toasty, but the fantastic breathability means you don’t get “boil in a bag” sweaty as you would in a waterproof.

Because these dry extremely quickly, I don’t bother with a waterproof even in heavy rain. You’ll still get to work warm (and most often, not wet even if it’s raining moderately) but even drenched, everything will be dry by lunchtime.

I can’t see any reason why you would ever need to throw one out, provided you don’t wear through it with a backpack or tear it in a fall (in which case, get it fixed at your local fixers!). After all, it’s not a waterproof so it doesn’t really rely on being intact.

One word of warning – you really just want a windproof softshell, no insulation inside. That gives you the flexibility to control how much insulation you’re wearing, as on the bike, even the thinnest base layer might be too hot under a combo insulation/windproof shell.

Look for something with a good zip too, for use with one hand on the bike wearing gloves (or just attach a grab tag yourself, it’s not rocket science :) )

Cost: I’d aim around £75-100

Conclusion

Riding around in the worst of Scottish winter is pretty straightforward, and nothing to be afraid of (or spend lots of money buying specific gear for).

Compared with £50 a month for a bus ticket, or more if I take the car, even having to buy a bunch of stuff will provide excellent value, immense advantages in health/wellbeing, and you’ll still be faster than people sitting in the jams…

Anyway, that’s my take on it. Stop making excuses, put your wallet away and get out there!

See also

2 Comments

  1. Rodger

    I suffer from cold feet in the winter and I’ve tried many things with not a lot of success. I’m intrigued by your sheep’s wool insole, all I can find are the rolls/slabs of wool insulation which seem too thick for an insole, what do you use and where did you get it?

    Thanks

  2. Dave

    Hi Roger,

    It was from a local craft business I think, I got them as a Christmas present so not completely sure.

    You could almost certainly use an offcut of wool insulation, otherwise you might need to go off-piste with your searching:

    http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/SPEAKER-INSULATING-MATERIAL-MADE-OF-SHEEPS-WOOL-20-L-GOOD-DAMPING-PROPERTIES-/180951086705?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_3&hash=item2a21867671

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