How to Keep Warm on a Winter Cycle Ride

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I have to admit to not being a particularly hardy sort. I like to think of myself as a pseudo iron man who will go out in all sorts of inclement weather, man against the elements, smile in the face of all meteorological adversity and all of that but actually I like to be warm, comfortable and dry!

However, there’s really nothing better at this time of year than getting out the bike on a bright frosty morning. Keeping warm on a winter cycle ride is a bit of a challenge but the rewards of cycling through frosty lanes, having the warming sun on your back, a clear blue sky above your head and watching your breath hanging in the air are worth a (little!) bit of suffering!

The other great thing is getting back to a warm house, having a warming coffee and enjoying that warming smug feeling of virtuous satisfaction envelope your tingling body! Nice!

So, despite my rather wimpish natural disposition, I have been cycling in temperatures hovering around freezing point this week and looking at a number of different ways to keep warm. Cycling is certainly very possible in this type of weather and certainly very enjoyable. It really is worth braving the cold and getting out there so here are a few ideas to help keep you warm on your winter cycle rides and to come home feeling envigorated and warm rather than frozen stiff!!

Set off warm

Firstly there’s absolutely no way you’re going to get warm on a bike in the cold weather if you set off feeling cold in the first place. Make sure that you wear relatively light clothes in the house for a while before you go out so that you can “feel the benefit” of the extra layers as you get dressed to go out and also try doing some light stretching and maybe even some aerobic exercises before hand so that you are at a good temperature to begin with.

It’s important not to over do this as, if you get on the bike in the cold already sweating the moisture around your body and clothing may well turn cold very quickly and become extremely unpleasant! The key is to get you core temperature up a little and make sure that you are comfortable and certainly not shivering before you set off!

You might find that having a hot drink also works well just before you leave. This can, of course, be great for warming you up but also a strategy that may well be regretted half an hour down the road when you need to pee desperately. There’s something very unpleasant about peeing in the frost whilst dressed in lycra cycling gear. The practicalities for a man are pretty tricky, if you are a woman they are, well I think even more unpleasant and difficult!

keep warm on a winter cycle ride

Keep your head warm

You lose a lot of heat through your head and, to a certain extent if the top of your head is warm the rest of you will keep warmer as well. Modern cycling helmets are usually cut with helpful air vents in them and advertised as keeping your head cool and increasing airflow. This is great in the summer but there’s nothing like a cutting 20 mph 0 degree wind whistling through your helmet to chill you through and the knock on effect is that it will make it harder to keep your extremities like your fingers and toes warm as well.

It’s possible to buy winter cycling helmets that are more enclosed and stop the wind getting in and also to get waterproof covers for helmets that will also stop the breeze! You can also get skull caps in varying sizes and styles that will keep your head and ears warm which you wear underneath your helmet and a little lower down merino wool buff would be a good thing to keep your neck warm.

Ok, so I’ve just done a bit of research on this as I’ve just come across a new word – “buff” – that’s a funny one! Apparently a buff is a bit like a bandana, so it goes around your neck a bit like a one piece scarf. Ok, I think I want one of those! Merino wool is also well known for being extremely warm and light weight.

I cycled yesterday in fairly harsh frost probably with the temperature at 1 or 2 degrees below freezing. I currently don’t have a skull cap or buff and just wear a standard well ventilated helmet. For the first ten minutes or so my face, head and ears particularly were uncomfortably cold and the air was really feeling quite harsh and cutting. Once I had warmed up I didn’t notice it any more and was completely warm around my head. I guess the ideal would be a buff or skull cap that could be easily removed and was small enough to fold and be stored in a back pocket once you had got warm.

Look after your extremities!

Logically enough, when put under a bit of stress in a cold environment, your body will prioritise keeping your brain and your vital organs nice and toasty warm at the expense of letting your fingers and toes drop off with the cold! If you add to this the fact that both your fingers and toes are very vulnerable to the wind and are essentially not really moving around to keep warm it’s not surprising that they feel the cold!

Feet-wise, wearing two pairs of thin socks will always be warmer than one pair of thick ones. Specialist winter cycling socks can be a good idea and getting some cycling over shoes will help to keep the cold out as well. These are usually made of neoprene which is wind and water proof and will help to keep your toes toasty and warm. At least this is what all of the adverts say but, in my experience, that’s a bit of an overstatement to say the least! You can get overshoes to cover the whole shoe or just the toes and they are basically elasticated and easy to slip on and off. I currently have some toe covers and I think they do make a bit of difference. They also collect the dirt really badly and wear really quickly so I don’t know if it’s worth buying cheap ones and replacing them frequently or whether more expensive ones last a bit longer.

You can also put kitchen foil around your toes in your shoes, the theory being that the foil will keep the cold wind out and reflect the heat back. You do feel a bit of a turkey (ha, ha) wrapping your feet up but…….well I did a little experiment involving very scientifically wrapping one foot and not the other and comparing how they felt during a cold cycle ride……it does make a bit of difference…….and it’s extremely cheap!

The only other thing to be done is to keep wiggling your toes whilst riding and, if you make the effort to systematically do this for five minutes or so on each pedal stroke you will find that your toes do warm up quite effectively!

Hands are much harder to keep warm and I have a real problem with this. I’m currently wearing a reasonably expensive pair of winter cycling gloves underneath a large pair of normal gloves and suffering with cold hands quite a lot. I have heard that the only real way to keep your hands warm is to use ski gloves or to use hand warmers in the gloves as well. My concern is that both of these might prevent effective movement and, whilst it’s nice to have warm hands, you also need to be able to use your brakes effectively. Having said that though if your hands are so cold that you can’t grip the levers quickly there’s little point!

Again though, once my core temperature has risen and I am thoroughly warm myself the problem is much less severe. It’s just a case of riding out the first 20 minutes or so and, once the blood starts flowing (as it were!) things are much better.

Layer up to keep warm

It’s a well known fact that three thin layers, for example, will be warmer than one thick one! With this in mind it’s always worth wearing a thin, insulating base layer followed by another two or three layers on top. Again, you can of course, just take these off as you warm up and stuff them into your back pockets.

There are also a number of ways to keep your legs warm. Full length padded cycling tights can work well or you can buy the equivalent of bib shorts but with the legs full length rather than being short. The bib style has the advantage of keeping a nice warm seal around your middle as the shoulder streps keep them up. Yes, they do look a bit odd, particularly on their own or when you aren’t on a bike (does anyone actually wear then not on a bike!?) but they are very practical and very warm!

If you don’t feel like splashing out for a full length set of bibs you can continue using your summer bib shorts in combination with the rather glamorous solution of leg warmers! These are basically tights that you wear on the lower part of your leg, they have an elasticated top (a bit like stockings!) and go underneath your shorts to keep your legs warm. Again these are generally made of wind and waterproof neoprene and some of them have a fleecy lining as well. I guess a specialist warm set of full length bibs might be a bit warmer but I use a standard pair of bibs in conjunction with a relatively inexpensive pair of leg warmers and, apart from being a bit weird to put on, they do a great job!

Warm up quickly

Ok, so all kitted out for the winter weather it’s onto the bike and out into the cold! I have to say that the first ten minutes or so are the worst and after that, as your body aclimatises things do get a little more comfortable.

You need to get your body as warm as possible as quickly as possible so it’s really important to do a good warm up once in the saddle. Equally when the weather is cold your muscles take a little longer to get warm an supple so it’s important not to strain too hard too early on. Starting out by cycling in a low gear, with a high cadence will mean that your legs are pumping around, not straining too hard and will effectively get you warmed up. Also, in a low gear you won’t be going too fast so the cold wind will be kept to a minimum for a start as well.

Gradually, as you warm up, you can get into your normal rhythm and you will find that the cold becomes less noticeable but it’s really important, tempting though it may seem in the cold weather, to start gently and let you body gradually acclimatise.

Think about the route

A sheltered route with lots of long downhill sections may well sound like a fun ride but on a cold morning sheltered, shady roads can be much more icy and slippery and freewheeling downhill can be a cold experience as the cold air whips through you as you sit there not putting in any pedalling effort!

Be realistic and look for a route that might catch the sunshine, will have the least potentially slippery conditions and will also allow you to do some warming pedalling work as well. Also a road with a bit more traffic on it than you would ideally choose will be warmer, less icy and possibly safer to navigate.

Similarly the novelty of the cold may well wear off reasonably quickly and it’s much better to go for an hour long ride and really enjoy it than to freeze your extremities off just for the sake of it! In my experience cycling in the cold is far more tiring than in more temperate conditions and it’s worth considering not venturing quite as far and, if you do go for any time or distance making sure that you take some food with you as well to keep your body well fuelled.

Be safe

Finally try to let common sense prevail! No matter how keen a cyclist you are and how important your training plan is it’s not worth the risk of cycling in treacherous conditions when there might be black ice and fog, visibility is poor or there is a serious risk of hyporthermia.

You should always carry emergency kit and a phone with you but this is much more important in very cold weather. A long road side stop to mend a puncture in skimpy cycling gear in very cold weather is potentially dangerous and it’s much less of an issue if you can make an emergency phone call and you are not that far from warmth and safety. It doesn’t make sense to cycle alone in the middle of nowhere in this type of weather so be aware of the risks and always let someone know where you are going and what time you expect to be back.

Revel in the smug tingling glory!

Getting home after any adventurous cycle ride is rewarding but arriving home after a bracing cold ride in the frosty sunshine is fantastic! I would highly recommend an instant hot shower, warm snuggly clothes and a hot drink and hot food.

You will feel amazing! Sitting in the warm with a steaming mug of tea in your hands with some frosty miles under your belt, your legs tingling and your toes finally warm is one of the best feelings in cycling!

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