Ins and Outs of Winter Cycling

SO we're in the dead of winter, and that means that people who bike all winter are in their most extreme season. Jeff over at BikeJerks has posted a rundown of his gear, which I find very interesting. He seems to do that yearly, and it's always fun to see what others are riding. If you already have a few winters of riding under your belt, his gear choices may make more sense to you, but if you're just starting, you might find the cost of his stuff prohibitive. Heck, I find it prohibitive. But Jeff works in the bike industry, and with that comes the perks of using really nice stuff that he can buy at close to wholesale cost (or cheaper). Most of us can't do that. So I want to give a walk-through of my gear to show what it looks like for someone who doesn't have industry access to buy clothes warm enough for riding through the winter. 
Keep in mind that cycling clothing is extremely specific to the individual, and what works for me may not work for you. What I am trying to do here is show how to choose wisely when deciding how to keep warm. How you go about keeping warm may look different, but the general principles of how to keep warm are, I think, generally similar. On the day I took these pictures it was -6F outside in Minneapolis, with a windchill of -24F. I apologize in advance for the crappy phone pictures.

We'll start with my base layer. I use an UnderArmor longsleeve turtleneck thermal (heatgear) on top. It has compression, which boosts circulation. This stuff is not cheap, but it is only for extreme cold, by which I mean below -3F windchill. Above -3F I use a C9 longsleeve thermal (cheaper), and if the mercury reads above 12F windchill, I use a regular old cotton waffle-pattern thermal. But it is cold now, so on goes the UnderArmor. Down under I am wearing a pair of ASICS windproof boxers. These also are not cheap, but there's nothing worse than having to pee when your plumbing is too cold to perform. The boxers prevent that. My feet are clad in some SockGuy WTF socks, because, wtf, it is so cold out right now.

Now at Level 2, I put on a cycling jersey, cotton longjohns, and military-surplus wool socks. The jersey is a mountain biking jersey with a quarter zipper, keeps me reasonably warm and does not bunch up, and has three pockets in the back (one in the middle, with one on either side). The pockets can be useful for carrying extra gear, like granola bars or extra inner tubes or a phone, but I want them primarily for if I need to fill the side pockets with handwarmers. This is a trick I learned from ice divers, the type of guys who do this for fun and profit. Ice divers need to stay warm, too, and one way they do that is to have heating packs over their kidneys. The kidneys are close to the surface of your skin and all your blood passes through them as it circulates through your body. Having heating packs (or, in my case, handwarmers) directly over the kidneys heats up all your blood as it goes around. It really is surprising the difference this makes.

Next, Level 3, is when I put on my Carhartt two-layer beanie, cotton turtle-neck fleece, and wool cargo pants. The pants are made by The Gap and cost me $4 at Goodwill. I wear wool pants because they keep me warm even when wet (important when the roads are slushy or the weather is sleety!) and because they don't show dirt. Pants can get really dirty in the winter, and I want to look as presentable as possible, even if I should slip on ice and fall into slush. The fleece has a drawstring around the bottom so I can cinch it up close to my body to keep wind out. My loins are girded with a (not pictured) Galco reinforced nylon belt, which is a pretty solid system for keeping your pants where you need them.

Before I can put my gloves on, I need to lace up my boots! I wear black combat boots that I bought from a surplus store. They are leather and take a long time to put on. 

The soles are not great - they are rubber and get very hard when exposed to cold. This reduces traction and makes it harder to pedal. Right now I use disposable plastic pedals, which are slippery. If I shelled out and got some metal pedals with spikes, this problem might go away. Once laced up, with my wool pants tucked inside, the boots look like this.

Now I may put on my base layer gloves, which are a pair of Novara Statos'

I like the reflective material on this glove, the snot patch on the thumb, and the drawstring on the cuff. The lobster-like combination of the fourth and pinky fingers is a good idea, but on the inside the fingers are separated, just like a regular glove, and thus cannot rub together to keep warm. What were they thinking? The gloves are also only moderately windproof.

Here's the cuff cinched down.

It's important that I cinch this glove down now, because otherwise my wrist may get cold. If you turn your palm face up and bend your fingers away from you, you should be able to see a bunch of blood vessels right by the surface of your wrist. These need to stay very warm and protected, or else your fingers will get very cold. Over the fleece then I can put my bright yellow Adidas windbreaker shell. 

I bought this over three years ago, and to this day it is the best $2 I ever spent at Goodwill. It keeps the wind out, my body heat in, glows in the daytime, and adds visibility at night. It actually defines what it means to be visible. No, it does not need batteries. 

Next I don my favorite new piece of gear, the 45NRTH Lung Cookie "technical balaclava". This thing is not cheap, either, but boy, is it great. Merino wool means it wicks moisture away. It only comes in one size, but that's OK because it's wool, so if you put it in the dryer for 15 minutes, it will shrink to your my head size. The balaclava gets tucked into the collar of the fleece.

What really sets it apart from other balaclavas, though, is the adjustable facemask. It has a tab so you can move it up and down with big mittens on (this is so key), and is separate from the balaclava itself, sewed on by the ear. This means that when you raise it up over your face, you get a double swath of fabric over your ears, keeping them toasty. It also means that you can fasten a helmet strap under your chip and then raise the mask up and over the straps, i.e. fastening your helmet doesn't lock your facemask in place. I didn't wear a helmet today, so you don't get to see that - sorry.

With the mask in place, I can put on my canvas, military surplus outer mitten.

These are canvas with a leather palm. They have an independent pointer-finger slot, or you can just use them as mittens, which is what I do. The straps on the back allow me to tighten them close to my wrist once I put them on. They are dirty because sometimes in the winter I drop my chain, and I have to put a greasy grimy chain back on. If you want a picture of how the Stratos looks in comparison, here you go.

To this I add a pair of Oakley goggles... 

...and I look like this.

Now to grab the messenger bag. I'm still using the TrashBag that I bought over two years ago, which has served me very well and given me a great deal of sore vertebrae happiness. This is what was inside it today. 

Clockwise from the top: Extra wool socks, tool pouch (with tire levers/patch kit/extra chain links), Lezine micro floor drive pump, adjustable wrench, 15mm wrench, extra inner tube, Crank Bros M17 multi-tool, extra gloves, neck warmer, knife. There's other stuff too, like floss, chapstick, wallet, phone, keys, mints, etc., but nobody wants to see that crap. The tool pouch actually came in really handy this day because I had my first flat tire in over a year. 

Lately I've been riding this machine, my super-dandy Surly Steamroller, maroon, 59cm. 

700x23 tires, 170mm cranks, vintage Unicanitor on a zero-setback post, pink LizardSkin tape
The handlebar mount is for a Niterider Lumina 500. In addition to being obnoxiously bright, the Lumina is also rechargeable. This is good for winter because sometimes normal batteries inside lights have trouble with the extreme cold, what with not wanting to run and other shenanigans like that. Since the sun sets around 4:30, you need light for most evening commutes.

The bike is a fixed-gear. I ride a fixed gear in the winter for several reasons. First is simplicity. I only need a front brake, no derailleurs, and a shorter chain. This means less maintenance and less things to brake break. Oh, and not having to shift is really nice when wearing huge gloves. Riding fixed also means that I have a direct connection to my back wheel and can feel immediately if I start to lose traction. I can also slow down with my legs, which is handy when/if my front brake should take extra time to grab because of a wet rim/cold pads. 

Here's a close-up of the drivetrain. I'm running a 46x18 gear ratio for a development of 66 gear inches. I run cheap cogs and chainrings because I usually replace them after winter.

I like a spinny gear for two reasons. More spinning means I pedal more, which means I heat up faster. I also have to keep pedaling, meaning I stay warm. Pedaling faster means my legs are going around faster, and that circular motion has a gyroscopic effect, making me more stable in the snow and slush. Should I warble, I can recover my balance more quickly than if my legs were lumbering around at 45 rpm. 

Gratuitous winter grime shot
 So that was an overview of what I ride and how I dress. It's exciting to see more and more cyclists out and about in the MPLS winters. Remember to dress warm, ride hard, and enjoy the scenery!

_DZ submit to reddit