It's winter. For those looking to get outside, cold weather riding is not nearly as masochistic as it's often portrayed by cycling publications or your buddies who'd rather stay on the couch. This season, mix in outdoor rides the right way with just a few easy tips that the more experienced cyclist already knows.
Of course, the gear is half the battle. Winter riding apparel can get expensive, but there are a few pieces that are truly worth investing in, but that might change from person to person. Stop and think about how and what gets cold on you. For example, I've got no trouble with my feet; wearing winter riding boots with normal socks is almost too much, and I've ridden with normal MTB shoes and covers in temperatures well below freezing. My hands, however, are cold all the time. They go purple in late September and don't look return to a normal skin tone until May. For me, investing in good heavy gloves, especially lobster-style, was the best money I've spent for riding in the cold.
Before you get dressed, think of where you're riding. If you're hitting frozen gravel roads, you may want to focus on wind-proof gear for higher-speeds and a great wind chill factor. A thinner rain jacket might actually be a great idea, just remember that it isn't going to breathe like normal material. It's always a good idea to avoid hills in cold weather. Climbing might be too hot, but you're going to freeze on the downhill. Flat gravel roads are ideal because you can control your effort and, in effect, your heat.
More folks fat bike this time of year, and that's a very different thing to dress for. Slower speeds (except for Nate, he's so fast all the time) mean wind chill is rarely a factor, and you'll need jackets that breathe to stay comfortable. Try different clothes to see what works best for you at different temperatures and different efforts. If your fast friends are going, you can probably wear less as you'll be riding harder. If your buddy is making his first fat bike attempt ever, maybe dress a bit warmer so you stay comfortable while cruising or stopping. A fleece-lined jacket or long-sleeve jersey, a thermal vest, a neck gaitor, or a mix of all three should cover you down until the most frigid days.
No matter what outer jacket you pick, having the right base layer can make a big difference. Your base layer helps trap heat while also getting sweat off your skin. Having a breathable jacket is useless if you're wearing your Allendale High School Footbal cotton t-shirt underneath; cotton will soak up your sweat, and we promise that at some point you will go slow enough to get cold and then you'll be absolutely frozen.
When in doubt, bring more. For big rides, I bring a second long sleeve jersey and a second pair of gloves in my frame bag. It's overkill nine times out of ten, but for that one time you or a friend really needs something dry or warm, it's like having a team car following you deep in the woods at just the right time. It's always great to keep a few snacks, plenty of CO2, a multi-tool, even a spare battery for your light in there, just in case.
Maybe the biggest thing to remember when you head out is not to over do it. You're going to be exercising; you don't need to look like a 'tick about to pop'. Wear what you'd wear to run, ski, or hike, then wear a helmet. Vests, thin jackets, and other light pieces that are easy to peel off and pack away can be great to have, especially if you're starting early and the temperature is expected to rise while you're out there.
When you've got the right stuff and you know how to wear it, riding all winter long isn't a huge deal. You'll find out what works for you in what temperatures and be able to adjust to any weather. In truth, the hardest part of winter riding is just getting yourself to step out the door; after ten minutes, you won't even be thinking about it!
SAMPLE Clothing List. Perfect for a steady two-hour ride at 21 degrees in the woods.
Boots: Lake MXZ303
Pants: Louis Garneau Baggies
Base Layer: Pearl Izumi Thermal
Jersey: Pearl izumi Long Sleeve Fleece
Vest: Castelli Thermal
Neck Gaitor: Castelli or Buff
Gloves: Pearl Izumi Lobster