Layering: How to dress for cold winter cycling
Here's the science behind staying comfortable during cold weather rides.
Here's the science behind staying comfortable during cold weather rides.
Winter miles make summer smiles, as the saying goes. Here, the suggestion/reality is that winter riding conditions are quite challenging for most of us, less enjoyable and more like a chore than summer miles. But winter miles are necessary if you want the condition to enjoy your summer riding to the fullest.
Is there a way to make winter miles equally smiley? If we apply Eddy Merckx logic here, then more miles will make summer smiles even bigger. If we could make winter miles more comfortable perhaps we could ride more of them?
This got me thinking about another age-old saying I’ve had hurled at me, and I have regurgitated to others numerous times – “there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”, or something along those lines. Is the secret to being able to do more winter miles as simple as choosing the right clothing? Perhaps the answer is more to do with the right layers of clothing.
Layering is the art of using multiple garments, each with a specific function, to moderate body temperature and protect from external elements. I say “the art” when referring to layering because although it seems like a simple process, it can be a tricky thing to get right. Personal preference and individual response rates have a significant impact on the layers you will choose. Equally, experience and know-how play a vital role in getting your layering right.
So how might one go about layering for winter riding? While I set out to offer an explanation of layering and a list of recommended garments, I ended up on a deep dive into how exactly layering works. This guide will help you develop your decision-making process for which layers to choose and how to choose layers that will work best.
It is essential, first of all, to understand why we layer. While it is true that layers of clothing can trap air between each, which the body can then heat up providing thermal insulation, that is just one small aspect of the benefits of layering. By layering correctly, we can use multiple garments, layered one on top of the other, to help keep us warm and protected from external elements without overheating.
It is perhaps easier to think of the opposite of layering to fully appreciate the multilayer approach. Robert Pickels, a physiologist who is now the Advanced Development Project manager at Pearl Izumi, likened layering to having a toolbox full of tools so you can tackle any job, versus having just one 5mm hex key. “Sure, the 5mm will be perfect for some jobs, but it will be horribly inadequate for others.” In cycling terms, this is much like having one winter garment and expecting it to perform adequately in all conditions.
How then does one decide on which tools should come out of the box on any given day? While it would be great to have a straightforward guide which riders could reference based on temperature, unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Sure, as the temperature decreases, you will likely end up wearing more layers, especially if we chuck some rain into the mix. Still, personal comfort preferences and planned ride intensity will be a significant factor in your layering choices. If you tend to “run hot” and are about to head off for a steady endurance ride, you might get away with fewer layers than someone more sensitive to the cold and planning a ride with climbs and intervals.
Paul Whitfield of Sportful suggests a mix of weather forecasting apps and experience should be riders go-to resources here. Weather apps can now give us a host of information including temperature, wind speeds, wind chill, real feel temperature, precipitation levels and likelihood, and humidity, all of which can influence your layering choices. Coupling this with experience of riding in a host of different conditions, understanding your personal preferences, and a plan for the ride ahead can all help with ensuring you are protected from the elements but also keeping body temperature regulated.
So if there is no go-to guide, is there a formula for making these layering decisions? Well, sort of. Rather than a formula, the key here is to understand the function each layer can perform and the properties it provides. The goal is to layer our clothing, and even the fabrics used in each layer, in a way that regulates body temperature, wicks sweat away from the skin and to the exterior where it can evaporate. All while keeping the external elements out. It’s no easy task.
Let’s start by breaking down layers into key areas and looking at the key considerations for each.
Although a base layer is the starting point for almost any ride, the right base layer is especially key to layering. Your base layer is the only layer directly in contact with your upper body skin. As such, this thin layer can be the difference between perfectly regulated temperature and a bone-numbing chill.
The traditional train of thought here is that the base layer is the first place to add thermal insulation and retain heat within the body. While there is undoubtedly a comforting aspect to the thickest and heaviest winter base layers, Rob Pickels offers a different approach. Pickels suggests that “a base layer’s job shouldn’t be to keep you warm or protect you from the elements’, “a base layers job is to get moisture off your skin”. Pickels explains that if a base layer is trying to do more than wick sweat away from your skin, then its capacity to carry out this important role will be reduced. Pickels’ suggestion here is to opt for a thin, skin-tight, lightweight base layer.
Having been an avid winter base layer fan for years and having invested in quite a few, I was quite sceptical of this suggestion until Robert explained the rationale behind his thinking. It goes back to a base layer’s primary function: to get moisture off the skin and transport it to the outer layers for evaporation. If a base layer is too heavy or made of more absorbent fabrics, it is more likely to retain the moisture lifted from our skin. Pickels explains that “once wet, a base layer will only increase thermal conductivity and act as a bridge taking the heat out of the body and leaving us much colder”.
That is not to say you have to trash your thermal winter base layers. While the suggestion here is to use a lightweight base layer for the layer in contact with your body, your heavier base layers may find a home in one of the layers above this—more on this in the mid-layer section below.
The fit of the base layer is also essential. While not required to be restrictive or even compressive, a base layer must be skin tight. When the layer closest to the skin is loose-fitting, there will inevitably be areas where the base layer is not touching the skin and cannot lift the skin’s moisture as desired. That is why a long sleeve is optimal even for a lightweight base layer, when paired with long-sleeved winter outer garments. Anyone who has ever ridden in a long sleeve winter jacket with a sleeveless or short-sleeved base layer will likely be able to relate to the feeling of a chill on the loose-fitting areas outer sleeves cannot wick the sweat away from the bare skin below.
Lastly, the fabric used to construct the base layer is also essential. While this obviously cannot be changed for your current base layers, it will be worth considering the next time you invest in a base layer.
Fabrics such as polyester, polyamide and polypropylene perform best for this sweat-wicking role. In contrast, materials such as cotton and wool are inferior at transporting moisture and can retain quite a lot of water. This is especially the case when it comes to thicker base layers, which may be quite warm when dry but have the opposite effect once wet.
Perhaps the easiest way to think of this is to imagine dunking base layers into a bucket of water. The lightweight, thin base layer made mostly from polyester will not absorb much water compared to the heavier, thicker options that can retain much more water and almost act as a sponge.
Pro Tip: “Invest in a good base layer and a good rain cape, you can layer appropriately with other garments above or below these two essential items.”Peter Stetina – former world tour rider and now gravel extraordinaire
With the mid-layers, we can start tailoring layers to your running temperatures and the weather conditions on the day. As mentioned earlier, layering is using multiple layers, each with specific functions to protect and insulate. The mid-layer’s specific functions are in dialling up or down the thermal properties of your layering system depending on the temperatures you are likely to face that day.
The garments most often used for mid-layers include:
Heavier and warmer mid-layers will work best for colder days or more leisurely paced rides. Whereas, a lighter, more breathable mid-layer will work best for days with a large temperature swing or for rides that include intervals.
Ideally, the mid-layers should continue the moisture-wicking process. However, with a dry base layer against the skin, we can afford to sacrifice some moisture-wicking properties in return for some added warmth.
That said, if you can be selective with garments in your mid-layer, or more specifically, the fabrics within the garments, we can further improve this moisture-wicking process. A mid-layer featuring a large proportion of wool can act as a sponge, lifting said moisture off the base layer increasing transfer outward. This is where your heavier base layers mentioned earlier can find their new home.
To jump one step ahead, if your next layer then contains polyester, polyamide, or nylon; these materials can improve this sweat-wicking process further again lifting sweat from the woollen mid-layer.
The outer layer is where we get to add our protection against the elements. Wind-blocking and water-resistance with protective membranes are the target functions here. The outer layer has perhaps the most the difficult job in your layering system, facilitating the moisture-wicking process while also blocking out the external elements such as wind, rain and cold.
Again the decision-making process here heavily depends on the conditions on the day, so matching your outermost garment to the conditions you will face is the first step. On dry, windy days, your outer garment will be a wind-blocking vest/gilet to give your core that protection from the wind it needs to keep warm. For more variable and extreme conditions look for more technical jackets with protective membranes like Gore-Tex.
In rain, your outer layer will be a hardshell rain jacket, unless the ride will see considerable high-intensity riding, in which case some of the water-resistant soft fabrics like Castelli Nanoflex are a good option.
As a general rule of thumb for cold and dry days, focus on knit fabrics and maximum breathability with just the additional wind blocking in the form of a vest/gilet if required.
For wetter or more extreme conditions, things get more complicated. While breathability is still important here, especially for moisture-wicking, protection from external elements is also essential. Typically this protection comes from multilayer membranes in the fabric. While the breathability of protective membranes has improved of late, the fact is that breathability is still an issue, so getting the balance right is the challenge.
We asked Ryan White, senior product designer at Pactimo, to give some insight into what to look for in an outer jacket. Ryan reiterated that no jacket could be perfect for all conditions, but that modern jackets and vests/gilets are becoming more versatile. Ryan began by explaining, “brands will now often dial in the fabrics used and the position of these fabrics on a jacket to increase its versatility. For winter jackets and vests this allows designers to include protection from the elements on the leading edge of a garment while adding lighter, more breathable panels on the trailing edges. All the while, membranes development is continuing and breathability is improving”.
Most of us will likely only invest in one dedicated heavy winter jacket. While these often come at a significant investment and carry a certain level of expectation, it is the layering above and below these jackets that can bring out the best in these technical pieces. Look for the features White referred to, such as lighter more breathable fabrics on the trailing edges of the arms and the back. Vented areas to increase breathability in heavier jackets featuring more protection. Two-way zippers can increase versatility substantially by increasing ventilation when breathability does become an issue.
Take a look at the garments you have traditionally used as your outermost layer. Do they feature any of these protective membranes, breathable panels, or different fabrics on the interior versus the exterior? Use this information when considering your sub layers before your next ride. If your current jacket is limited in its breathability or protection, use sub-layers that provide these features and enhance your jacket functionality.
Expect to start your ride a little cold, as you warm up in the first 20 minutes you should reach a more comfortable temperature level for your ride. On wet days you can start a bit colder as cold, humid air allows your body to radiate heat outwards and away.
Pro Tip: “I wear my Bell Z20 Aero helmet on cold winter days, not because its aero but because the lack of vents acts as a great wind blocker for my head”Sarah Poidevin – Rally Pro Cycling
Pro tip: “20% of body heat can be lost through your head, a good thermal hat is essential for maintaining your core temperature”Peter Stetina
Pro Tip: “I usually prefer to risk being too cold rather than be too hot. I rarely wear a heavy base layer, as this can be difficult to take off and also gets heavy when wet with sweat. I think if you are at a comfortable temperature when you step outside in your kit, you probably have too much on, but if your not warm enough by 10 minutes of riding, you haven’t got enough on. A thick gilet with some waterproof qualities is my favourite as it’s so easy to take on and off and makes all the difference. My husband used to take a dry base layer with him in case of cafe stops, but he’s a bit soft”Lizzie Deignan – Trek Segafredo
The legs are an area often overlooked when it comes to layering. Most of us tend to have a favourite pair of winter tights which are our default choice for harsh winter days. However, there are plenty of layering options here, which can significantly improve your riding experience.
The main limiter to layering for the legs is restricting your freedom of movement. Too many layers or even the wrong fabrics and you can quite significantly impact your pedalling stroke.
The main benefit of layering on your legs is the increased protection for your knees and quads, which often face the full force of any wintery conditions.
Many modern winter tights feature built-in layering on these areas to protect from the elements. If your tights are of the more traditional single layer makeup, you can still recreate this twin layer by adding knee warmers or leg warmers below your tights.
One thing to consider with your tights is the impact of the bibs. Quite often the bibs and waist areas are a continuation of the fabrics and thermal properties found in the legs. This creates an extra layer which can be an issue when combined with all those carefully selected upper layers. Most upper-body garments will also have pockets on the lower back, meaning the number of layers in this area can double that of the number of garments. Look for lightweight and breathable mesh waists and bibs to minimise this potential issue.
Pro tip: “For really cold days try layering thermal leg warmers beneath a pair of ¾ length bib tights and choose a later, more sheltered route if possible”.Sara Poidevin – Rally Pro Cycling
Unless you live in quite warm climates (in which case you are probably not reading this article), chances are you have suffered from cold and numb hands on a bike at some time. There are few experiences on a bike worse than the pain of icy hands. Countless times as a coach, I have listened to questions on keeping hands warm during the winter.
While suitable gloves play a vital role in keeping your hands warm, the secret to warm hands lies a bit further upstream. Warm blood flow equals warm hands. Layering adequately on your body will keep your core warm and ensure that the blood reaching your hands is warm. If the blood getting to your hands is cold, even the best gloves available will struggle to warm your hands.
That said, layering is still possible for your hands. Having multiple layers of gloves can add versatility for days with wide swings in temperature.
Having gloves layered on your hands means you can easily adjust your hands’ coverage on days with large temperature swings.
Pro Tip – “I will often wear a thinner liner glove beneath my outer glove for that extra layer of protection”,Peter Stetina
Pro Tip: “I don’t like wearing gloves so I rarely do. If it’s really a glove day I think the fit is important, not too tight as it feels like it restricts movement and therefore blood flow, but too big and you get too much wind coming through them. In my experience, a pair of gardening gloves are as good as any!Lizzie Deignan – Trek Segafredo
Your feet are an area you have most likely been layering without even considering it. We have our socks, cycling shoes and a seemingly endless list of overshoes or winter boots to choose from. We have three protective layers with those items, but riders often suffer from painfully cold and numb feet.
Knowing the conditions for the day will again allow you to select an overshoe that will provide the specific protection you need that day. Lightweight waterproof overshoes will perform adequately on warmer wet days, and knit oversocks might be sufficient for colder dry days. As winter starts to bite multilayer overshoes with protective membranes and DWR coatings will offer even increased protection.
For the coldest days, I will add a leg rub/embrocation layer to my feet before adding a pair of thermal socks. The leg rub will give my feet a warming sensation by stimulating blood vessels and blood flow to the area. Best to do this after you have fully dressed and certainly after applying chamois cream, a mix-up or contamination of these creams could be a real disaster.
For cold winter rides, I will also cover up the vents on my shoes with a layer of electrical tape, to reduce the cold air that can otherwise easily flow through your shoes.
Pro Tip: “Try thin, latex rubber shoe covers beneath your main overshoes to get an extra layer of protection for your feet”Sara Poidevin – Rally Pro Cycling
Pro Tip: “Plastic wrap can be a cheap and easy layer to add above your socks before putting your feet into your shoes” also “ensure your upper sock line is below your overshoe line. If the sock line extends above the overshoe, your sock will act as a sponge sucking cold water from your legs down into your shoes and onto your feet”Peter Stetina
Being too cold or too hot can both have very detrimental effects on performance. We often see professional riders wrapped up with countless layers early in a race, before appearing on our screens in the final kilometres stripped down to just shorts and jerseys. As the race’s pace increases and decreases, riders will add or remove layers to protect themselves from the conditions.
Rob Pickels explains, “if you can nail your layering or clothing system, you should not automatically suffer a drop in performance during higher intensity efforts, however, oftentimes that means you will be dressed significantly colder than what you think is comfortable. That’s because if you’re comfortable at low intensity, as soon as intensity increases your core temperature will increase and go higher than it would (with less clothing)”.
“If you believe in the central governor theory of performance regulation, which means that your body wants to keep you as safe as possible and as such will detract from your performance before anything bad happening. So if your body feels the core temperature increasingly rapidly, it can slow you down to prevent you from hurting yourself. Thereby hurting performance.”
The solution is simple; go to the team car. While we will rarely have or even want the luxury of a support car following us on every ride, a frame bag or handlebar bag can offer the same support in terms of layering options. Where previously layering options out on a ride was limited to opening a zip or a rain cape in your pocket, you can significantly increase your options with a bag.
With a frame or bar bag, you have the space to add or remove layers as the conditions or intensity of a ride changes. If you start off your ride with a heavier vest/gilet, you can carry a lighter one in your bag to swap out when the temperature increases later in the ride. Likewise, for gloves, rather than the mental anguish of choosing the correct gloves before leaving the house, you can bring an extra heavier or lighter pair of gloves with a bar bag.
The flexibility this additional space offers means you can add or remove extra layers as required as you perform intervals or cruise down long cold descents.
Pro Tip: “I will always carry a frame bag, perhaps the less strict fashion rules of gravel riding offers me the freedom to do so. But the versatility a good bag offers cannot be overstated, I can have jackets, gloves, accessories to swap out as the ride goes on”Peter Stetina
As mentioned earlier, there are now a host of jacket options on the market, with varying levels of protection and use cases. While many these softshell jackets will feature some form of waterproofing or water resistance, they are more specifically for protection from road spray or passing showers, than for continuous downpours.
If you are riding in continuous rain, a dedicated hard shell rain jacket will provide a much better solution. Although most of these hard shells do not provide much thermal insulation, think back to the definition of layering “multiple garments, each with a specific function” and layer appropriately below the hard shell to achieve that insulation.
However, for a hard shell to be genuinely water repellent, it will need a specific protective membrane that will reduce breathability and result in things heating up rather quickly. You will need to find a balance in your layers to ensure you don’t keep the rain out but still end up soaked from sweat on the inside. At a certain point, you need to embrace the rain.
Pro Tip: “I start in a rain jacket and have one layer less underneath as rain jackets can start to feel like a greenhouse if you get the layering up wrong.Lizzie Deignan – Trek-Segafredo
Both males and females of smaller body sizes tend to have less muscle mass and produce less heat. In somewhat of a double whammy, individuals with smaller body sizes and lower muscle mass can also radiate and lose much more body heat than a larger individual. So with this increased sensitivity and the possibility of increased radiant heat losses for smaller and/or female riders will need extra protection from the environment than males will require.
While it may seem you need to spend a small fortune on a new layering specific cycling wardrobe, layering can make winter riding quite budget-friendly. Layering is about maximising the function of multiple garments, as such a varied selection of lighter, cheaper, and more versatile garments can be much better than one, more expensive, jack of all trades piece.
Look through your wardrobe and get to know the fabrics used in each garment. For anyone cycling a while you will most likely have several base layers, jerseys, vests/gilets, accessories, and maybe a jacket or two. Using the information in this guide to layer those in order of their main fabric and function might greatly improve your riding comfort without actually spending a penny.
Rather than forking out for new garments, you can use accessories such as arm warmers, knee warmers, and multiple gloves to apply extra layers to specific areas. By adding and removing these garments as you ride, you can significantly improve the comfort you experience.
While there is no simple go-to guide for layering that will work for everyone, by following general formula and taking notes of experiences you have had, you can quickly build up your personal guide for what to wear.
Whether you are new to cycling or an experienced rider, starting a simple layering notes folder on your phone can be highly beneficial. With modern advancements in clothing, layering choices that worked in previous years might not work so well when you make a new addition to your wardrobe.
A simple note immediately after a spin, noting the weather conditions, the temperature range, the ride’s intensity, layers you used and how you felt, can be an invaluable tool to review in future before a similar ride.
The main take-home for me is the importance of thinking of layering as an ongoing process throughout the ride. Previously I would have chopped and changed multiple times before leaving the house in an attempt to get the perfect combination of layers for that day. I realise now that much like fueling on the bike; the layering process needs to continue throughout a ride. Although still scorned at by my road riding buddies, a handlebar bag gives me the option to change layers while on the road. The versatility my bag offers has resulted in much more comfortable rides even in the depths of winter.
While I have said numerous times that layering can be very individual, I am listing below some of my personal preferences as a starting point to guide your layering choices. This guide is not a go-to for everyone; it lists the garments I use for various conditions. To keep things simple, I have assumed I will be riding varying intensity on undulating terrain.