Chilly weather is a challenge for cyclists: your head, hands and feet can end up freezing while the rest of your body is boiling. The key to keeping your core body temperature in the right range is using a few thin layers. Here's how.
Chilly weather is a challenge for cyclists: your head, hands and feet can end up freezing while the rest of your body is boiling. We've covered what to wear when cycling to work, but things get trickier in extreme weather. The key to keeping your core body temperature in the right range is wearing multiple, thin layers. Air trapped between layers will keep you warmer than the materials' thinness would suggest. If you dress like you would when you're going for a winter walk, with a thick jumper and coat, you'll soon overheat. That's because you generate a lot of heat while cycling. Loose fitting clothing is not an option when cycling in cold weather.
How Does Layering For Cycling Work?
Outdoorsy people often talk about layering. There are three you need to think about when cycling: the base layer, worn next to the skin; the mid-layer, worn as insulation; and the outer layer, which will be windproof and often waterproof as well. These need not be cycling-specific clothes, so don't be misled by technical talk about fabric types. Each layer has a relatively simple job: a vest is a base layer!
But how many layers should you wear?
It is recommended that you wear three layers on the coldest days of the year, especially when you have several miles to cycle. In addition to this, you may want to look at buying some tights so that your lower body is comfortable as well.
You'll sometimes hear that the advantage of thin layers is that you can stop and add or remove layer, which you can't do if one thick layer is doing multiple jobs. That's true but unless the weather changes during your commute it shouldn't be necessary. Instead of stopping and undressing (or dressing), it's better to set off feeling only just or even not quite warm enough. That would make for a miserable walk; on a bike, you'll hit the right temperature a mile or two down the road and maintain it for the rest of the ride.
This is how to layer for cold weather cycling
Base Layers for Cycling
The base layer is always going to be the first point contact with your skin so you need to make sure that you invest time into deciding what kind of base layer to choose.
A wicking base layer is one that gets sweat away from your body by capillary action, shifting it from your skin to the fabric, where it can evaporate through the other two breathable layers. This last point is critical. A paper towel wicks moisture but holds onto it. Cotton is similar: it stays damp. If you sweat heavily wearing a cotton vest, you'll feel clammy and may well get uncomfortably cold.
That's why most cycling or outdoorsy base layers are synthetic (e.g. polyester), wool, or a synthetic-wool blend. Wool insulates well when damp and doesn't whiff as synthetics can, but for comfort against the skin, you'll want a fine wool like Merino wool. Synthetics tend to be cheaper and hold their shape better after repeated washing. Any base layer works better if it's a close fit.
If you commute in normal clothes, a non-cotton long or short sleeve thermal vest – from M&S or wherever - is a worthwhile winter investment. It'll keep you warmer and keep your shirt or blouse off sweaty skin. You can always remove the vest at work if you don't need it there.
Cycling-specific base layers, such as the Endura Women's Transmission II Baselayer pictured, have a more cycling-friendly cut, being longer in the arms and back, and often better moisture transfer. You don't have to spend a fortune: this one is £25.99 (endura.co.uk).
Mid Layers For Winter Cycling
This is your insulating layer. Remember: you don't need as much insulation on a bike. If you're cycling in normal clothes, your insulating layer is simply your work shirt or blouse. Only if it's very cold will you need a second mid-layer, such as a sweater or suit jacket. Generally, those things belong in your commuter bag, as they'll make you too hot on the bike.
Cotton is a common material for shirts and blouses. It's not ideal as a mid layer, because of its tendency to hold onto moisture. But if you avoid riding hell for leather, don't overdress, and have a decent outer layer, it will be fine.
Cycling-specific mid layers are long-sleeve jerseys – or you can use a short sleeve jersey plus arm warmers instead. How warm this layer needs to be will depend on how cold it is, your sensitivity to the cold, and the other layers you're wearing. With a waterproof jacket over the top, a lightweight jersey such as Altura's Airstream LS Summer Jersey (£39.99, zyro.co.uk) may be enough. If you're riding in the depths of winter with only a gilet as an outer layer, you'll want something made of thermal fabric, such as Altura's Night Vision LS Jersey (£49.99, zyro.co.uk).
Outer Layers For Staying Warm When Cycling
Also known as a barrier layer or outer shell, this is the part of your ensemble that keeps out windchill and, if necessary, rain. It needs to be breathable; a plastic mac will keep out wind and rain but you'd melt with sweat. Breathable waterproofs work best when the air outside is the opposite of the sweat vapour trying to escape from the inside – which is to say, cold and dry. On milder, rainy days, you can get very sweaty wearing a breathable waterproof.
If you ride hard in cycling gear, a waterproof jacket is often too much protection unless it's hammering down. A lighter-weight wind and showerproof jacket, or even a gilet (like the £29.99 Endura Gridlock pictured), can be a more comfortable outer layer, so long as the mid-layer insulates well enough when it gets damp.
Conversely, if you're riding in normal clothes, you'll want to stay dry. If you buy no other item of cycle-specific clothing, it's still worth getting a waterproof cycling jacket (or a cycling cape, if you're bold enough). A cycling-specific jacket will keep out draughts at wrist, neck and back, and it won't be unnecessarily insulated. Prices range from about £50 to £150 – the Polaris Pulse pictured is £144.99 (polaris-apparel.co.uk). The more you spend, the better fitting and more breathable the jacket is likely to be – although vents under the arms and across the back will make a less expensive jacket airier.