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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Perry

How to Prepare for Winter Cycling


Biking in our winter is one of my favourite activities. There’s so much sunshine to absorb, the snowy landscapes are gorgeous, and frozen rivers become a whole new network of trails. For those of us in the city, the rivers bring immersive nature so much closer. After riding, my cheeks are rosy, I’m ready to replenish those calories on holiday spreads, and I can get cozy for some indoor time without feeling antsy… until the next day.


But determining the proper attire can be such an anxiety-producing roadblock, and it’s stopped me from taking more than a few rides before. Internet searches are often unhelpful, as most advice columns and product reviews are for winter climates that look more like our shoulder seasons.

What are we supposed to do here in Manitoba? I’ll try to answer that as best as I can, with the disclaimer that every person is a little different and there’s no one right way to do things.


Many folks abide by the system of always using the same base layer and outer wind block shell and then adjusting the mid layers accordingly. While I don’t religiously ascribe to this method, it’s a simple and cost-effective starting point.

When we’re active, our body functions as a heater, so we need to plan our layers based on effort level and ride length. Will I be doing hot laps on singletrack, or will I be going slow and steady? Exposed to prairie winds or sheltered in pine trees? How packed is the snow today?


Whatever the effort, I want to be cold when I first step outside with a resting heart rate, and I move slowly while dressing indoors to not sweat out immediately.

Below, I’ve tried to organize my thoughts on layers from in to out, torso to extremities.


BASE LAYER


Start with a good base layer on top and bottom, such as Smartwool or Icebreaker. I always use merino products since they stay warm, even when wet. The bonus is that they usually won’t smell as much as synthetics. You WILL get wet if you’re putting forth any kind of effort, and synthetics don’t stay warm once saturated on long or hard efforts. If I have to go indoors mid-ride, I’ll take a couple of minutes to soft pedal and cool down.


LEGS


I use padded bike shorts for winter rides, but not for the usual reasons. I’ve discovered the chamois adds another layer of wind block and insulation for a part of the body that’s quite temperature sensitive. I also wear shorts over my base leggings for a similar reason and to protect my hips/butt. For an outer layer, there are tons of great wind-proof ski pants out there, some with integrated gaiters or zipper vents. Slightly larger shell pants will be more effective at insulating with added midlayers.


MIDLAYERS


This is the part of the clothing system that will fluctuate the most, and on longer rides, I like to carry options with me. Upsized base layers are useful, as they’ll fit over what you’re already wearing without compressing the loft too much.

My belly often gets cold. I’ve found that bibs of some sort are helpful, whether they’re the outer ski/snowboard bibs or something like 45nrth’s bib knickers. A dense vest might be enough to do the trick, but it’s more effective to interrupt the open seam at the waistline.


SHELL


Patagonia, Swix, Salomon, Bergans (and more) all have various shell styles that work for different riders. Puffy parkas are not good for biking- these are for passive bodies.


When I started winter biking, I used a waterproof ski jacket with lots of zippers for vents. I could adjust the rate of ventilation and zip up whatever side was facing the prairie wind.


Lately, I’ve been using a Gore softshell that’s breathable but still dense enough to block the wind. In sheltered, low-wind areas, I can manage down to about -15C with doubled-up base layers with varying weaves, a wind vest, and no shell.

My current shell jacket is oversized so that I can fit my camelback underneath. But we’ll get to that later…


FEET


Since cycling does not engage our feet in the same way as almost any other winter sport, it’s hard to keep them warm. Some folks use electric socks, but I cannot rely on these for expedition-style rides.

My feet layers:

  1. Thin sock, merino

  2. Vapour barrier such as a bread bag or turkey roasting bag. This ensures that my boot and thick sock stay dry.

  3. Thick wool sock

  4. Depending on the ride length/temperature, toe warmers over/under my toes

  5. A good boot that is about 1 size up from my usual shoe size. Upsizing is important because there needs to be room for all the layers without compressing the loft of the sock or restricting the circulation of the foot. I’ve been wearing Salomon Toundras for the past five years because they’re light and solid, with a similar gel insulation to the 45nrth Wolfgar boot. Alternatively, I’d recommend looking for something with 400g insulation. If those aren’t enough, or you just want to beef up some milder footwear, overboots like NEOS might be your ticket. Also helpful is to get composite pedals (like Race Face Chester) instead of metal ones. They don’t suck nearly as much heat from your feet. If you really want to use SPDs, check out 45nrth, Bontrager, or Lake MXZ400.

When all else fails, get off the bike and walk around a bit to warm them up.


HANDS


I’ve been using 45nrth Cobrafist pogies for several winters now. I’m able to wear a thin glove inside, which I can swap depending on temps, that affords me agility with the controls. I also depend on the space inside the pogies for snack storage.

Similar to my feet, I use vapour barriers on my hands for longer/colder rides. Latex/vinyl gloves are cheap, and they slide on easier with a bit of lotion or Aquaphor.


Before pogies, I’d use wool-insulated Goretex mitts and thin liner gloves. Mitts do a much better job than gloves at keeping fingers warm, and it’s also easy to put a chemical warming pack in them. The liner glove allows me dexterity without exposing bare skin, and it wicks moisture. Electric gloves are also popular.


NECK/HEAD/FACE

Merino neck buffs have many uses, and it’s helpful to have several. They can stop neck drafts, pull over the head on colder days, and add just a little extra to the chin, cheeks, ears, and sometimes nose/mouth. I combine these with one or two merino toques and a wind-resistant balaclava on really cold days. For my cheeks & nose (and sometimes forehead), I’ll use strips of KT Tape or Moleskin tape for especially cold or long rides to protect the skin from frostbite.


While double-paned ski goggles work for many, I just use a bit more tape coverage and large-pane sunglasses.

Near my mouth, I’ll finish off the exposed areas with a slathering of Aquaphor. I usually don’t cover my mouth otherwise, but the balaclava/buff is nearby.

For those with breathing issues or fear getting frostbite in their lungs, heat exchange masks are a possibility. The two most popular are Cold Avenger and Airtrim.


HYDRATION & NUTRITION



Food and water intake have a big effect on our temperature regulation. Calories = heat.

Energy bars and gels will freeze in winter, so the foods I stash in my pogies include things like nature valley bars, ritz crackers, cheeze-its, or Kit-Kats.


For water, I have found that a hydration pack works best: it keeps warm on my body while also being easily available to keep drinking. My Camelback is just a regular summer model, and I’ve lined the outside-facing wall with Reflectix, so my body heat keeps it from freezing. The hose runs under my arm rather than over (some folks cut a side hole in their pack for this), and the nozzle stays near my armpit. The nozzle is the first thing to potentially freeze, but shoving it in the armpit can thaw it quickly. Electrolytes, nutrient mixes, and maple syrup will lower the freezing point of your water.


IMPORTANT: After every sip, clear the hose by blowing the water back into the pack!


In addition to what I’ve written, there are so many people in the local scene who are eager to share if asked- check out Fat Bike Manitoba on Facebook. When you’re still figuring out your own layers, start with shorter rides, and take a variety of clothing in a backpack or bike bags. If you drive to a trailhead, leave some dry clothing and a thermos of hot liquid in the car.


I will also say that Bikes and Beyond is generously sponsoring me for this year’s Arrowhead Winter Ultra, and many of the brands I’ve listed are available through them.


Have fun out there, and stash a few extra hot paws

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