How to bike in the cold: an inadequate guide

Today, winter came. At least, if you live in New York City it did. Is it too cold to bike now? I have great sympathy for the question, because I hate to be cold almost as much as I hate to be hot, but, well, no. It’s not too cold to bike. It will be too cold to bike eventually, for about two weeks somewhere in January and February, and as a matter of safety, I myself won’t bike when there’s even the slightest chance that the pavement will be slick with ice or more than a dusting of snow, no matter what the temperature is. But snow and ice rarely last in New York City, since it’s a coastal town, and it’s actually possible to bike through most of the winter. I’ve managed to, for the last few years.

Not that it didn’t take some doing. By trial, error, and internet research, I managed to figure out what to wear (mostly), and at the end of last winter, it occurred to me that I should write down my findings, since I tend to forget them by the time next winter arrives. Alas, I didn’t write them down. So this morning I had to puzzle through my closet, which thankfully had preserved my wardrobe decisions from last winter despite my immemoriousness. I thought I’d share these decisions, along with the thinking, probably faulty, that went along with them, for the sake of googlers in search of biking warmth.

Now, if you are a twenty-something-year-old male who likes to wear not enough clothes in winter, in order to show off your cardiovascular fitness and the persistence, by virtue of your youth, of your immediately subcutaneous fat layer, move along. This post is not for you. The question of adequate insulation is a personal and subjective one, pace the impulse to universalize it, and the choices enumerated below were made by a person in his mid-forties whose goal in winter is to be as warm as possible, fashion be damned at least while I’m on the bike. Another goal of mine is to look not too outrageously “outdoorsy” once I’m off the bike. And my third goal is to spend as little money as possible—some money does, however, have to be thrown at this problem, as you’ll see.

To begin at the beginning: the foundation of winter apparel is undershirts and long underwear. I don’t know of anything cheaper, warmer, less bulky, and more adept at “wicking” (more on wicking in a moment) than Uniqlo’s Heattech. You need a new undershirt for every day you ride. If you wear a pair of regular underwear underneath the long johns, you can probably wear the long johns for a couple of rides between washing. You may think: What kind of loser wears long johns, I’ll be fine without them. Trust me: they make everything possible.

Once you’re wearing the long johns, you can wear any pants or jeans you want, really. And over the undershirt, any shirt. Then you need an upper-body layer for warmth. I find that almost anything will do, here, except cotton: a wool sweater, a cashmere sweater, a Patagonia R2 fleece jacket. In my experience, the work of biking warms up one’s core far quicker than it does one’s extremities, and it’s the only part of the body about whose insulation one doesn’t need to be too solicitous.

Over the sweater or fleece, you’ll need a light jacket to deflect wind. At this point, I ought to explain the principle of “wicking.” Wicking is the ability of a fabric to convey your sweat away from your body and dispel it as evaporation. In winter, a sweat-soaked layer quickly cools into a clinging, icy rag. Cotton loses its insulating power when it’s wet; wool retains it, but even wool is yucky when wet. Whatever you wear around your torso needs to balance insulation with evaporation. Your windbreaker, therefore, should be what they call “breathable.” On moderately cold days I’ve worn this Patagonia Traverse jacket, and on very cold days I’ve worn this Patagonia Solar Wind jacket. Both the Patagonia jackets have collars that nicely shield one’s neck. Once more, for emphasis: you don’t need to overdo it in the jacket department. A little insulation goes a long way.

Overkill is necessary, on the other hand, in gloves. If you manage to find gloves that will keep your hands warm enough, then your hands will sweat, so your gloves, too, must wick. I’m a firm believer in buying the gloves that are advertised by their manufacturers as the warmest they know how to make. I have previous-year models of these Specialized Subzero gloves and these Pearl Izumi P.R.O. lobster gloves, and they’re great. I assume that this year’s versions are, also. If you try them on in a store, find a bar that you can grip as if you were gripping your handlebars, because you want to make sure that you buy a pair big enough not to pinch you when you flex them. A glove that pinches you will cut off circulation to your hands—a very bad thing. In my case, I sometimes have to buy biking gloves a size larger than for other purposes (but not always). These models of gloves have liners, a plus because you can shed the outer shell and just wear the liners on mild days or if you warm up. I find that on very cold days, I’m quite thankful for the lobster-claw design, clumsy as it looks.

The ideal winter biker’s hat would block wind, wick away sweat, protect ears with ear flaps, and fend off the sun with a visor. I haven’t found such a hat. But the North Face Windstopper High Point hat has everything except the visor. The problem with most ear flaps is that they flap; cold air easily sneaks in underneath them. The drawstring on this North Face hat solves the problem. Plus, you look a little like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno. (I haven’t tried it, but this REI Seirus hat looks like it might work, too.)

We arrive, at last, at the feet. Here I must admit that I am to a certain extent stumped. The socks part I know. You want wool socks of the new non-scratchy sort. Smartwool-brand socks are great, but last year REI’s everyday merino wool socks were cheaper, thicker, and lasted longer. Today I can’t seem to find online the exact variety of REI merino wool sock that I bought last year, which were solid in color and a little less expensive, but these seem close.

But boots. After you’ve been biking for an hour or so in the cold, every part of your body heats up except your feet. Gradually, steadily, they get colder and colder, and I haven’t found a solution. I suspect the problem is caused by an aspect of biking that undermines the normal human plumbing. In daily life, the soles of one’s feet act as a sort of supplementary heart. By pressing one’s feet against the ground as one walks, one is pushing blood through one’s feet with the whole weight of one’s body. This is why feet don’t get cold when one goes running, I think (mine don’t, anyway), even if one wears plain running socks instead of wool ones. A bicyclist, unfortunately, doesn’t press his feet against the pedals with the same sudden force. Maybe I’m just making this up, I don’t know. But I do know that in the quest for winter biking footwear, I’ve tried erring on the side of wicking, with running shoes, and I’ve tried erring on the side of insulation, with clunky boots, and in both cases, my feet still got cold. On Twitter last year, someone recommended Tretorn’s insulated boots to me, calling them “Chicago-proof.” I got a Gore-tex-lined pair that don’t seem to be manufactured any more (this pair seems to be designed along the same lines but clunkier; also, the ones I bought were made almost entirely of artificial fabrics, no leather), which seemed a decent mix of breathability, insulation, and flexibility. But even in those Tretorns, my feet would slowly start to lose sensation after about an hour or so. I found that I was able to restore my circulation somewhat by standing up on the pedals and pounding my feet down against them, which is probably what gave rise to my somewhat fanciful theory about feet-as-extra-hearts.

And so I’m labeling this guide to winter biking inadequate. Please don’t be deterred from winter biking because of it. As I say, my feet only start to become unpleasantly cold after about an hour or so, and most city bikers aren’t out that long. Still, if anyone has a solution to offer in the comments section, please do let me know.