As the weather cools down many of us will keep riding outside right through the winter months. My dad likes to say that there is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing choices. This becomes even more true as the mercury plummets. Having a proper layering system can take you from cold morning starts through the mid afternoon warmth in relative comfort.
A basic layering system is composed of three layer: base, mid and outer. Let’s start with base layers and focus on tops. Your base layer is what you will wear next to skin. It should always be moisture wicking and can vary in weight. During the summer many will forgo a base layer or stick to sleevless ultralight options under their jersey’s. As fall approaches I like to add a short sleeve lightweight wicking base layer under my jersey to keep my core warm during the cooler weather. On warmer winter days I’ll use a long sleeve lightweight base layer. During cold winter weather I start with a long sleeve mid weight merino wool or synthetic layer.
For a mid-layer you want to focus on insulating your core and extremities. Something with a little bit of loft will help. I prefer a midweight merino wool as my ideal mid-layer but as it gets colder you may want to consider a lightweight technical fleece. Polartec makes some great technical fleece materials. As you contemplate mid layers consider that you want to start your ride a little cold and as you warm up you will build heat. If you start off already warm you could get hot and sweaty which can be dangerous and uncomfortable in cold temps. Another great option for a mid layer is to wear one of your heavier base layers over a lightweight base layer. As you build your layer system you want to avoid bulk as much as possible.
Your outer most layer should protect you from the elements and will typically be a shell of some kind. In cool weather a vest may be sufficient for core warmth. A lightweight slim fitting rain and wind resistant shell jacket is the best option for colder weather. Another great option for very cold weather is a soft shell jacket. This borrows the technical aspects, such as wind and water resistance, of a hard shell while adding great breathability and additional warmth. Your outer layer should always have a back pocket so you can have access to the same items you would normally pull from jersey pockets.
You should also consider adding a cycling cap for cool weather and a ski cap that covers your ears for colder weather. Arm and leg warmers can provide great flexibility and give you the option to easily remove layers while out on a ride. For gloves consider something wind resistant and a “lobster claw” style for very cold weather. Neck gaiters and balaclavas can help keep your face and nose warm which I have found really helps around December and into February. Shoe covers are a must for clipless shoes, and taping up any vent holes in the bottom of shoes can be very helpful as well.
None of this is set in stone though. Layering is very individual and will be based on personal tolerances to cold weather. You need to experiment with different combinations to find what is right for you. I usually wear one less layer on the bottom than on the top. Tights, thermal bibs and knickers as well as shell pants can help get you through some of the coldest days. Every time you ride in winter you are maintaining fitness and getting to experience seasons on the bike most shy away from. This alone is worth making the trek outside for a quick spin and your legs will thank you come spring.