Obstacles and Opportunities: Cold

Whether you are a “20 degrees is cold” rider or “40 degrees is cold” rider, we can all agree that if you aren’t dressed for the weather you won’t be happy. Cold weather riding comes with its own set of restrictions, especially for those with circulation issues. But with a little preparation, you too can be riding in the cold.


Layering can be KEY to getting through a cold ride. A base layer next to your skin – wool, technical fabric, silk – helps to move sweat away from your body and keep you warm (or, in the case of wool, will still be wet but will retain warmth). You don’t want to be like the kid brother in A Christmas Story with too many thick layers of clothing – it won’t help you with movement and handling of your bike, and chances are you will actually get overheated if you’re moving at a good clip. A windbreaking layer on top helps to keep the sting of cold air from your body – and, of course, you will be moving and creating your own wind (even if there isn’t a breeze to be found). (Edited to add shout-out for Patagonia’s wind shirts, a/k/a super lightweight jackets – Houdini for men and Houdini for women.)


Hands and feet are the most vulnerable parts of your body during a ride – some might argue that the face and ears can get pretty miserable, and I’ll concur with that, though I’ve personally never felt like my face was going to fall off the way I’ve felt about my toes. Your head functions similarly to your core (neck to waist) in terms of temperature regulation, which makes sense as it’s your control center for the rest of your body.

For a 40 degree ride, I will generally have on 2 layers of socks and a thin glove underneath fingerless bike gloves. If you have circulation conditions to consider, you may want to invest in a few toe warmers or hand warmers to carry with you in your saddlebag or jacket pocket for dropping temperatures on a ride. (What’s the difference between toe warmers and hand warmers? Toe warmers run at a lower temperature than hand warmers do.)

Glommets - funny name, great gear
Glommets – funny name, great gear

Types of gloves to consider are glommets (fingerless gloves with a flip-over mitten cover, so you can have access to dexterity as needed); lobster mittens (thumb and forefinger separated from middle-to-little finger, giving you pinching and shifting dexterity); and windbreaker gloves (sometimes, you don’t need a thick layer on your hands, you just need to alleviate the sensation of cold wind on your fingers). Note – just saw a review of Briskers, which look like an interesting technical glove to check into.

Body Heat

If you’re commuting or doing errands under 5 miles or so round trip, you may actually need to bundle yourself up more than someone who is going out for longer distances at a harder or faster pace. Everyone’s body is different (and still normal and awesome!) which means that every body heats up to different comfort levels. A general rule of thumb is that for typical exertion where you are raising your cardio levels, your body heats up and can make the ambient temperature feel up to 20 degrees warmer. This accounts for the “runners in shorts” phenomenon that you may witness in cooler weather – they are generating massive amounts of energy, and too many layers may make them overheat.

On a bike, the added bonus of self-generated wind means that shorts are usually not a great idea in colder weather, but that you don’t have to be 100% warm when you start out – because you will generate body heat that will maintain your warmth.

Coldest Ride?

KJ in Minneapolis in February 2017

The coldest temperature I will ride in – well, I don’t know yet, since I haven’t been able to really test out super cold locales. (See update below!)

The coldest ride I have been on was somewhere between 15-20 degrees (see the featured picture, myself and my friend Dave on a night ride a few years ago).  I had a beanie hat, a base layer with a hood, a t-shirt, and a top thermal layer; thermal pants, a base layer, and fishnets (for visibility, natch). I was wearing glommets but my hands started to get hot, so I was able to flip the mitten over and vent them as needed. Dave was wearing a Bern helmet that has earmuff inserts, which is also something to consider when you are shopping for helmets and other accessories. (Note: coldest ride as of February 2017 is -10 in Minneapolis – see accompanying picture for how I bundled up there!)

So, what’s the coldest weather you’re comfortable riding in? What are your cold weather riding goals?


    1. YES! Shoe covers can be like small windbreakers for your feet. I was trying to not go *too* cycling specific, but those are one specific that can help. Also wearing waterproof and windproof boots can be helpful.

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