How To: Cycle Sleek Winter Wear

As winter glides along, I continue to enjoy the beauty of the snow and the invigorating freshness of the cold air.  One thing that begins to feel oppressive about the season, however, is the heft of my usual winter wear.  As I wrap the same wool scarf around my neck, pull the same clomping snow boots on, and zip the same puffy vest up for the hundredth time, I heave a bitter sigh.  That’s when I know it’s time to get creative.

If you’re getting tired of all the bulky accessories that go with winter cycling and are biking less because of it, please read on.  A sleek and streamlined winter cycling outfit is possible, it only requires a bit more thought and care.

  • Legs: The trick here is simple: two pairs of tights, a thick wool pair underneath a regular opaque pair.  No one will know and it’s way warmer than a pair of jeans.  Then you can simply wear whatever skirt or dress you want to wear.
  • Feet: On top of the tights, a pair of thick wool socks.  However, this alone is not enough for me, personally.  Even with snow boots, my sensitive toes freeze quickly.  The only solution I’ve found are toe warmers.   With toe warmers, I’m free from both snow boots and freezing toes.  I can wear fashionable boots for the first time since October!  I get a lot of questions about the ones I’m wearing here – they’re from Nine West 5 years ago, not expensive at all.
  • Torso:   Once again, wool saves the day.  A long-sleeved thin merino wool shirt, topped with a super thick wool cowl neck sweater.  Add a wool caplet and done.  No coat needed.  But the trick here is a seriously thick wool sweater.  Invest in a good one, by which I mean dig around in thrift shops for hours until you hit the jackpot.  I bought the sweater pictured a decade ago and it’s still like new.  I bought the hand-knit caplet from an Etsy crafter.
  • Neck: Now you can leave the scarf at home – the cowl neck on the sweater can be pulled all the way up to cover the nose, if necessary.  If you don’t have a cowl neck sweater, use your happiest and least itchy scarf.
  • Ears:  A wool winter hat takes care of the ears.  Earmuffs would also be a good choice.
  • Hands:  Okay, I’m still stumped on this one, forced to wear ginormous ski mittens.  I just took them off for the pictures.  Like my toes, my fingers are susceptible to freezing.

The great thing about cycling is that you can actually get away with a bit less clothing, since your body will create its own heat.  This get-up might not keep me warm if I were standing at a bus stop, where it always seems like I’m waiting for an eternity, but it’s perfect for my bike ride.

Of course, a lot about how I dress for winter cycling depends on how I’m feeling on a particular day.  Sometimes I don’t give a care and end up in long johns and a puffy down coat.  No shame in that!  But when I feel the need to take it up a notch and escape the winter doldrums, I like to know that it’s possible, without leaving my bike at home.

If anyone would like to pull together a sleek winter look of their own based on this advice or show others how they’re already doing it, please send a picture and description to LGRAB [at] letsgorideabike [dot] com.  I’d love to create a group round-up, similar to my recent post on winter footwear. (Hint: If you do this, you’ll be one step ahead in the LGRAB Winter Games.  More details soon.)

Any questions or tips of your own? Please leave them in the comments!

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30 thoughts on “How To: Cycle Sleek Winter Wear

  1. cycler says:

    arggghhh, I’m so sick of snow and ice!!
    No riding yesterday or today, it’s just too slick and icy out. It’s been so cold since our big storm last week that things just can’t melt, and even major thoroughfares have big 1″ thick ice floes.

    I fell riding on Sunday (more like tipped over sideways in slow motion) but that was enough for me not to want to ride in weekday traffic.

    snow coming down hard here, supposed to turn to freezing rain, then hopefully “real” rain tonight and tomorrow. We’ll see if that helps, or just turns everything into a giant salty slushie.


  2. Nicole says:

    I’ve just been out today in a normal pair of tights with a thick wool pair layered over the top. Perfect. I buy Falke merino/cashmere blend. This is their third winter, so on the basis of cost per wear, a bargain.

    I always, always wear a windproof. The Rapha stowaway is my favourite. It packs down so small but is so effective at keeping that biting wind out, that I can wear my normal winter clothes on top. Who’s to know about the layers?

    Great post.

  3. Babett says:

    Excellent tips! I moved to Sweden two years ago and love my woolens. Nothing synthetic will keep me as warm.

    Maybe thrummed mittens could help with your cold hands. Basically they are made using small tufts of unspun wool during the knitting, creating a warming fluff on the inside of the mitten. If you knit yourself (or know someone who does), here is a good FAQ:
    But you can also order them on Etsy, from what I’ve seen.

    • Lindsay says:

      Ugh I always feel so frumpy in the winter. I put such a high priority on warmth that fashion definitely takes a backseat. I’ll have to experiment with some of your tips here- and I think a good trip to a thrift store is in order!

    • neighbourtease says:

      God, I hate winter so much. I’m going crazy. It’s presently alternating between rain and freezing rain outside, on top of the still unmelted two feet of snow we had, and is too heinous for cycling. I don’t even see delivery guys out today. That said, things that help me for just the cold:

      Dottie, try to find some shearling-lined boots? I have several pairs — some No 6 clog boots, some Frye motorcycle boots lined in shearling and a pair of my mom’s, bought in swinging 60s London. go-go! Not the cheapest option, probably, but worth it if you get cold toes.

      I find that if I wear a thin windbreaker over a wool or cashmere sweater, I can wear normal coats and don’t need to resort to down. Mine is utterly generic, from American Apparel.

      Densely knit wool mittens work better for me than synthetic ski mittens did. For knitters: I made myself Elizabeth Zimmermann’s mitred mittens with the “afterthought thumb” and they are great.

      Babett, thank you, I am definitely going to make those thrummed mittens!

      I second the rec for the Falke wool/cashmere tights.I love mine, too.

    • Amy says:

      I was just about to suggest thrummed mittens! Here’s a link to some on Etsy

      • Scott says:

        Thanks! I just bought some thrummed mittens for my lady on etsy! Her hands are freezing and she has not been able to find good mittens this year. The seller raises alpacas to make fibers and yarn — etsy is so cool!

  4. Dave says:

    I don’t have to deal with cold nearly as much as with rain, so this type of outfit would be overkill for me most of the winter. We do occasionally get down below 25 degrees, and here is what I look like on those days, more or less:

    Similar to what you said, my toes and fingers get the coldest (if I had a better wool sweater, I would go without a coat, I usually get overly warm in the torso while riding with a heavy coat on), but I now have two great pairs of knit wool mittens (thank you dear wife), and a good pair of knit wool gloves, plus glove liners, so I think if I just layer either the glove liners or the wool gloves under a pair of mittens, that will take care of things on the finger front. My toes are less of a problem, and for the few days it’s cold enough to care, I just wear thick leather boots with good wool socks and I do alright.

    Since Portland tends to kind of hang out in the upper-thirties to lower-forties and rain a lot during the winter, I get more used to wearing wool for its water-absorbency than its warmth – wool cap and wool coat over a shirt and light sweater, jeans or slacks, wool socks and leather boots keep me dry enough in all but the really heavy rain, then I just whip out the poncho and throw it on over whatever I’m wearing. The only issue then, is I need to remember to remove some clothing, because I don’t get any wind hitting my body and I get much warmer.

    I really should do a rain post… need a good picture of my new poncho in daylight :)

  5. EH says:

    Great ideas, but I would totes get snot all over a cowl neck if I wore it the way you describe!

  6. cris says:

    I’m not usually in to photographing myself for the bike (or really, asking the Girl to photograph me before we head out on our commutes) but my usual ‘non-bulky’ cold weather outfit for days when my morning schedule precludes a work shower:

    Feet – if the snow on the street is heavy, I’ll usually go for a pair of calf high boots (ie. Fluevog’s Frick Bankers) with jeans (if cold but dry) or cotton duck khakis (if cold but possibly wet) tucked in. Or if the streets are fairly clear I’ll opt for regular shoes with a pair of Classic Wool knickers from Bicycle Fixation. In all cases, I’ll have one or two pair of tights. The usual pair is a set of fleece tights from Pearl Izumi, which have been very good as a windblocking layer. If I need more insulation, I’ve got a pair of thin, poly tights to wear underneath that.

    Tops will usually be either an Ibex merino wool long sleeved mid layer with some old sweater or thin wool base layer, with button down shirt and then a mid-thigh wool coat that I picked up from Zara last year. As it’s Zara, the cut is a little more fitted than most domestic clothiers, so it doesn’t look bulky — closer to, say, a monk’s cassock than a big wool blanket.

    Hands are usually encased in Lobster Claws at this time of year, which is one sort of bulk that I cannot bring myself to shed. If it a sunny, non windy day, I’ll use wool Army surplus gloves with thin liners underneath.

    On the head, I’ll normally wear a balaclava if I need to keep it sleek. I’d prefer a scarf if I need to regulate my temperature, but the number of wool hats/caps that fit underneath a helmet are somewhat limited.

  7. Sigrid says:

    I hear you on the doldrums and bulky + boots for the 100th time ~ I can SO relate. I do not bike in the winter, but I do go outside for other activities to stay sane and I have hit the wall. I’m in SC right now and 37+ is seeming like SUCH a heat wave compared to the 4F settling in back home. I begin wondering why I live in Minnesota and my positive mind tricks and warm clothes are starting to “wear” thin. I particularly love the double tight tip for any thing, not just cycling – thanks! I miss my skin, my toes, my arms – but this gives me hope. Thank you and keep it up.

  8. cris says:

    you know, I should also chime in with an old hiking adage: “if your feet are cold, put on a hat.”

    your body has a tendency to prioritize warmth of your head and your core over your extremities. Your brain requires a fair amount of warm blood to continue operation and your head is probably one of the biggest spots for leaking heat into the atmosphere. So, if your head isn’t staying warm, your body will pump more blood up there and starve your fingers and toes of warmth. that’s one reason why hikers and mountaineers who are stranded outside develop frostbite on their fingers and toes first.

    I had one day where I was out doing errands and managed to lose a wool cap somewhere in a store. For the rest of my ride, my toes were freezing, though the temperature never really changed much.

    This, of course, isn’t to say that a helmet oven will keep your feet warm indefinitely, but it is a bit of counterintuitive advice for folks who might be puzzled about why their feet always seem so cold.

  9. Julie says:

    This is how my winter riding look went last Tuesday in NYC. Sadly I’ve only bicycle commuted twice in 2011 so far. I think just twice.

  10. Megan says:

    My hands always get so cold so I finally broke down and bought a warm pair of gloves. These Novara Stratos gloves work well and even leave too warm sometimes.

  11. welshcyclist says:

    Sorry, I’ve just reread your post, the words I should have used, is YOU LOOK STUNNING!

  12. Iyen says:

    Hot. Damn. Girl. That outfit (and together with the bike) is stunningly beautiful.

  13. Stephen says:

    I’m in Florida, and I’m sorry some folks are having a tough time of the winter. (But if I looked as good as Dottie usually does, I would soldier through.) My issue isn’t clothing, but time. I had to wear a nice suit today for a County Commission meeting, and riding on the bicycle in a suit with the threat of a cold rain is just not acceptable to me. And then there’s a public meeting tomorrow night across town, and a good chance of rain Thursday, and another public meeting Friday morning south of town…

    Any day you can ride a bike, even if it’s cold, is a good day.

  14. Karen V says:

    I have a pair of shearling lined boots for when it’s really cold, but I’ve also seen shearling footbed liners that might help in regular boots. I’ve been thinking about giving that a try. I’ve used toe warmers for skiing, but I don’t really like the idea of producing that extra garbage every time I want to ride my bike. I agree with cris that a warm head and a warm core help keep feet and hands warm. I find that an extra vest really helps.

    Like many others, I usually wear tights and skirts as these are much warmer than pants. Sometimes I wear wool long johns instead of tights. Icebreaker and Ibex make ones that easily substitute for tights when wearing a skirt, although I work in a pretty casual environment. Dottie, did you wear that gorgeous outfit to work, or do you need to change into a suit?

    I recently bought a pair of ibex gloves that seem warm and, importantly, very flexible. So far, so good.

    Lastly, I’m super excited to hear that the LGRAB Winter Games are coming! I could use some motivation.

  15. Scott says:

    This might only apply to a limited number of footwear types, but I like to use the red Superfeet inserts in the winter. I have a pronation problem and use Superfeet to help with that in all my shoes. The red ones are on the big side, but they have a heat reflective area under the toes that is quite cozy. Also, if you feet are out of alignment, they will help with that too.

  16. I struggle with freezing fingers and toes as well and found out I have Raynodes Syndrome. I handle that by first of all, never leaving the house, work or a restaurant without first making sure my fingers are totally warm and comfortable. Touch nothing cold and layer my ski gloves with wool liners. Some warming packs are better than others but I use those when I have them. Liners and fur lined mittens work well too. I just discovered Smartwool socks and they have made a huge difference in terms of comfort. I use Smartwool running anklets over tights under my boots and they keep my toes absolutely comfortable.

  17. Holly says:

    I am looking forward to the winter LGRAB games! I definitely want to participate.

    I work outside and bike around town to do it. I feel pretty cold a lot of the time, but honestly, getting on my bike to walk dogs in Chicago has been the highlight of winter. It’s definitely helped me feel less stabby about being outside all winter. It’s awesome to be an all-seasons bicyclist even if I sometimes bail on it because I’m cold or sick. You’ve certainly inspired me in that department. What’s more, I’ve mostly come to terms with not looking particularly cute in these frigid temps. I’m hoping you can also influence me in that arena, too! (So far…ah…yeah! You look adorable.)

  18. Jeanette says:

    My commute is just under an hour by bicycle. I’m also one of those people that feels the cold very quickly in my hands and feet. I’m usually fine for the first half hour, but then (when the temperature is in the 20’s or lower) my fingers/toes freeze — lobster claws, lined UGG boots — didn’t seem to matter. And yes to the wool hat under my helmet.

    So I switched to shearling mittens with hand warmers for those colder days, and warmers in my boots. That apapproach has made it manageable so far. My thumbs, which don’t get the handwarmer benefit, do get cold but not as painfully so.

    Of course, here on the East Coast we are getting your Siberian cold blast on Sunday/Monday, so I’m not sure yet if I’ll ride through it….

    There are some helpful tips here — thanks!

  19. I find it difficult to find wool tights that I like. I bought a bunch of pairs of Smartwool on sale, but even they feel uncomfortable. So I usually wear leggings (the ones from Icebreaker feel great, since they are gusseted).

    It’s funny that since last winter, my wardrobe has slowly but surely changed to 100% wool. It really does work!

    • Honeydewdwellers says:

      I like the leggings as well. There are some nice ones with a little bit of reflector tape on the back.

  20. […] some more stylish tips on winter cycling, however, the experts over at Lets Go Ride a Bike are your best […]

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  22. […] some more stylish tips on winter cycling, however, the experts over at Lets Go Ride a Bike are your best […]

  23. […] Sleek Winter Wear for Cycling […]

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