Winter in Australia. It’s not proper winter, really. I mean, yes, it gets colder, wetter, and darker, but snow and ice isn’t really an issue, which means that riding a bike year-round is something we can do rather more easily than many others.
Still, it’s certainly enough of a change in weather that if you are going to keep riding through the cold, the wet, and the darkness, then you will need to think through your wardrobe a little more carefully than your summer one.
We’ve got a range of options to suit the many different conditions you’ll face this winter.
Before we get started, however, it’s certainly worth noting that people deal with temperature in vastly different ways, from that guy who still wears nothing more than a short sleeve jersey and bibs through the depths of winter, to the person who has four layers on as soon as it hits single digit temperatures.
As a matter of fact, just the other day on a particularly icy and wet morning, I was rugged up head to toe in waterproof everything and still managed to be a bit chilly, and a guy riding in shorts and thongs turned in front of me. Thongs.
It’s difficult to get it perfect. Because weather is so changeable, different terrain requires different degrees of effort, and the pace doesn’t always leave you in your comfort zone, you’re likely to be a little too warm, too cold, or too sweaty at some point in your ride. You’ll figure out what works best for you over time, but expecting the ideal level of comfort for the entire duration of any spirited ride will more than likely leave you slightly disappointed. If you are commuting at a pretty relaxed pace, then no problem.
What I usually suffer from is dressing for how I feel before leaving, when I’m already cold and before I start riding and producing heat. Before long, I’m unzipping, de-layering, and stuffing half of my gear up the back of my jersey. I’d rather be warm than cold, but there is a balance to be struck, so keep this in mind.
Know what kind of ride you will be heading out for – whether or not you’ll be stopping (and cooling off), whether there will be long climbs and fast descents, a fast pace, an easy pace, if the temperature will be rising or falling, and, of course, the weather forecast for rain and wind.
Cold to cool to warm-ish
It’s all about layers. We’ve found that an unusual number of people don’t use a baselayer for some reason, but this is one of the key pieces to being comfortable throughout a whole range of conditions. They add some extra warmth in winter and providing a cooling effect in summer, but their main purpose is to do the important job of moving moisture away from your skin to prevent the layer against your skin from remaining soggy with sweat, helping you to better regulate your core temperature. We’ve got light ones and others that offer more insulation depending on your needs.
For days when you start before the sun comes up but finish well after, you’ll likely want, and need, more layers. Arm warmers (lined with fleece) and vests (or gilets), are perfect if it’s not so cold that you need a jacket. A gilet will keep the wind off your chest while venting the excess heat out the back. They are the much more comfortable version of stuffing a newspaper down the front of your jersey for the decent. Plus, they pack away neatly into a pocket.
The same goes for your lower extremities, with kneewarmers, full legwarmers, and shoe-covers.
Shoe-covers and gloves are some of the more important items to have if you want to be comfortable when the temperatures really drop. There is nothing worse than cold and numb fingers and toes, and especially for your hands, as they need to do the important work of controlling your brakes and the convenient work of shifting your gears.
Both are available in various weights, from thin layers just to take the chill off, through to fully waterproof and toasty warm versions. The same rules apply here – waterproof shoecovers and gloves can make for soggy socks and clammy hands if you are pushing the pace for any length of time, but again, at least they’ll be warm. Really warm gloves will inevitably involve a trade-off in dexterity, with the extra insulating bulk requiring a little more deliberateness when shifting gears.
Toe covers are great for many people in most conditions. Mavic’s Toe Warmers are among the best. They are far more wind-proof than most, and for various reasons, fit much better too.
We have merino wool socks for extra warmth (and comfort!), as well as merino-lined waterproof socks for when things turn really foul. I can tell you from personal experience that the waterproof socks (SealSkinz) are unusually breathable for a completely waterproof garment, and the Castelli socks are the most comfortable socks I’ve ever had on my feet.
Another often-overlooked item for icy conditions is the snood, or Head Thingy, in Castelli parlance. It keeps the cold draft from blowing down your jersey or jacket, and pulls over your face or even your entire head if you want, keeping you as warm as possible. It’s little touches like these that give you the opportunity not to have to wear bigger, heavier clothing.
Cold but Dry
For properly cold but dry conditions you’ll want to keep as much heat in but still try to remain as dry as possible, so you’ll want an insulated but breathable outer layer to keep you warm and avoid making you too sweaty, which will make you cold. Again, this is largely down to smart layering. If you are still cold, add another layer. You could just wear six jerseys, but a better option would be a good base layer, a slightly warmer mid-layer, and a warm, reasonably breathable outer layer. These are typically something in-between heavier long-sleeved jerseys and full-on jackets, with or without a windproof material on the front panel, and often retain the pockets you would normally find on your summer jerseys. There are other, heavier jackets that will do a better job of keeping the cold out, but to a certain extent, they will not be quite as breathable (no matter what they claim!).
Still, much better than waterproof garments…
From jackets to gloves, shoecovers, armwarmers, and socks – we’ve got your wet-weather gear covered.
In the wet, you’ve got water-resistant, and water proof. There are all sorts of spray jackets that will keep light rain out for shorter periods of time, provide some insulation against the wind, and keep a bit of warmth in, but water proof they are not. After anywhere from a few minutes to a somewhat longer period of time, the water will work its way through the fabric, but they can be quite effective against light rain.
Waterproof garments – properly waterproof ones – will keep the water from getting in, but the reality is that as your effort increases, the more moisture will have trouble getting out. How hard you are working is the major factor no matter how advanced the material is – even with the best materials in the world, if you are working hard, moisture will build up in the inside. There are some wonderful fabrics out there that do an admirable job of moving out as much moisture as possible, but in the interest of setting realistic expectations, there is no magic bullet that we know of for a truly breathable and waterproof garment.
Some materials, like Castelli’s Nano Flex garmants, are treating the fibres themselves to be highly water-resistant, and this gets you much further along the way to being both highly breathable and highly water-resistant, but they are not water-proof.
With that said, I’d rather be a bit sweaty than soaked, given the fact that we’re discussing winter conditions. At least you’ll be warm (just be conscious of cooling off while still sweaty and still riding). To offset this, there are usually different venting options for different jackets to achieve more breathability and to control internal temperatures. In any case, there’s always the front zip…
There are really light rain-capes that pack away into a jersey pocket, and more substantial jackets that tend to be more thoroughly water-proof over time, but often do not pack away quite so easily (or not at all).
What you decide to wear will likely depend on what you are doing on the bike. If you are heading out for a hard ride and it’s wet but not cold, maybe don’t worry about being water-proof, or just take a spray jacket. However, the colder it gets, the more you want to avoid losing too much heat and making yourself sick, so breathability might not be as much of a priority as warm. Will you be stopping along the way long enough to catch a chill? A waterproof layer will likely serve you well.
If you are heading to work in the wet in normal clothes and you are not fighting for the podium in the commuter cup, then just get water-proofed and slow down a bit. You’ll enjoy the ride more, and will be neither wet nor sweaty.
Riding a bike in winter for practical purposes really isn’t all that complicated. Mudguards are your best friend, get some waterproof clothes, and slow down a bit. Simples.
So, if you are going to be riding through winter, pop in and have a chat about how we can make the experience that much more comfortable and enjoyable, and you’ll be riding in the rain wondering what all the fuss was about.
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