Sucking It Up In Winter

Vanessa Marie RobinsonVanessa Marie Robinson is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer who’s blog For The Love Of Bikes covers her multifaceted interests in all things cycling. She is typically found either riding in the city on a single-speed or training upstate on her road bike — year-round!

Biking year-round as a university student living in Montreal taught me how to survive whatever winter weather was thrown at me: snow, slush, black ice, serious wind.

Fast forward 13 years, I still prefer riding year-round in NYC. You just can’t beat that kind of freedom and self sufficiently. In the middle of winter I get plenty of looks of shock mixed with confusion and get often asked “how do you stay warm enough?” There’s no big secret — winter cycling is about being prepared and figuring out what works for you. Below is a round up the apparel I rely on for my cold weather commutes…

No matter what time of year, once you get your heart rate up high enough, your body temperature rises dramatically. The trick is to wear just the right amount of clothing without bulking up so you get uncomfortable and overheat and start sweat a ton — getting drenched and not being able to dry off in the cold simply sucks. Plus if you’re biking to work or heading out with friends, you likely don’t want to walk in carrying a lot of extra stuff or spend time changing. So much depends on simply protecting your core with windproof materials and keeping your extremities warm.

Here’s what been working for me:


On most winter days a cycling headband under a helmet with vents works perfectly. It keeps your ears warm without overheating. It’s actually a myth that you lose most of your heat through your head!


Gaiter, turtleneck, cow — whatever you choose to call them they are super versatile. You can pull it up and cover you nose or your mouth whenever you need that extra coverage. If you start to heat up, just pull it down. And unlike a scarf, you never have to worry about it unraveling. (They also work nicely if you get stuck behind a bus and don’t want to inhale fumes.)


From experience, wearing a big coat will not necessarily keep you warmer. Wind and overheating are your biggest enemies. When it comes to jackets, a windproof and breathable shell helps keep you warm yet relatively dry once you get to your destination. Make sure your base layer(s) is/are breathable by wearing wool or synthetics rather than cotton. My jacket is by Castelli which makes well tailored clothing for women. I’ve had it for eight years now and was worth the investment.


Pearl Izumi‘s excellent windproof AmFib collection (which includes leggings) is pretty remarkable at keeping the wind out. But if your looking for any easy transition off the bike, fortunately there are lots of jeans these days that come with two percent spandex making them super comfortable on the bike. If it’s wet at all out (especially slushy), rain pants on top will keep you dry and block the wind. And for the ladies, if it’s cold enough that my thighs freeze up, I wear a pair of tights (or two) underneath which also makes for an easy transition into the office by just swapping pants for a skirt once off the bike.

Hands + Feet

Keeping extremities from going numb is obviously crucial. Once you get over how they look, lobster gloves offer the warmth benefits of mittens but give you more control to use your brake levers. I also always have a pair of glove liners handy to either double up with or use them on warmer days — full-finger mountain bike style gloves also work for me as a back up pair. Thick sturdy waterproof boots with rubber soles help you keep control while pedaling and stopping in all types of weather. I opt for wool socks under thick leather boots which keep me warm. Another option are water/wind proof shoe covers which you pull onto cycling shoes (and may even fit on over the shoes you typically wear).

Lobster Gloves
Lobster Gloves

Some additional essentials:


In winter there are (sadly) far fewer daylight hours. I always carry a front white light and two rear red lights just in the event that one fails on me. Dusk, down, and even a light rain fall are underestimated times of low visibly for fellow cyclists, motorists and pedestrians so I basically never leave the house without a full set of lights. My favorites these days are Knog’s Boomer Lights which are extremely bright and easily removable.

Nubby Tires

It’s a great option to switch out slicker road tires with nubby ones once there is any accumulated precipitation on the ground. You’ll have more handling control making it safer for everyone. You’ll just want to make sure that your frame has enough clearance before buying tires to switch out.

Your length of commute, climate/temperature, elevation variation will evidently play a roll — so see what works best for you!

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15 thoughts on “Sucking It Up In Winter”

  1. Nice write up. Its always nice to hear what others are doing to keep warm and dry for the winter.

    Do you have any preference / “favorites” when it comes to winter tires (e.g., studded or not).

  2. Dr. M says:

    This was really good advice. We just published a special feature for bike commuters who don’t want to arrive in Spandex. Really there are a lot of stylish wool pieces that repel water while looking great on and off the bike. Check my link to see what I mean!

  3. Clay says:

    Just to clarify: nubby tires will reduce your traction on paved surfaces if the accumulated precipitation is water.

  4. Jim says:

    X2 on the knobby tires. Slicks give more road surface to grab. It doesn’t snow here so I can’t speak for knobbys or slicks on snow. It ices here and all that works for me is two tires with two feet ready to plant and balance.

  5. Scott Clark says:

    A great DIY turtleneck is to dig out an old sock hat and cut off the top 1″. Then flip it over (so the “factory” edge is on top, near your face) and it becomes a great dry-weather gaiter.

    The stretchy material is easy to breath through and it blocks the wind nicely.

  6. steve says:

    I have found that Bar Mitts are AWESOME at cutting down on the wind and keeping my hands warm. It’s usually impossible for me to keep my hands warm, but these make it easy! Also, I use a lightweight balaclava instead of the earmuffs and turtleneck. It has a similar effect, but I like the increased coverage.

  7. Vanessa says:

    re: Winter Tires

    I feel the best advice would come from people in your area who are used to the specific road conditions you face… in NYC I keep my slicks on for almost the entire year — and there are just a handful of days when I feel the need to swap them out. Days when there is snow/ice build up and slush on the streets I feel knobby tires give me more control. We are also fortunate not to have much black ice here, unlike further up north.

    As for studded tires, I’ve never used them – even in Montreal. I considered getting some (and even making my own) back then but got away with knobbies in winter. The added weight of studded tires can also be a deterrent but I do know die-hards who favor them when conditions are rough.

  8. Chrehn says:

    Thank you for the winter article. I like to use Nokian Ground and Mount Studded Tires in the winter. They are excellent on ice and snow. It is exhilarating to ride a bicycle in the quietness of a winter morning. I am extra careful around traffic, because, it is no fun being passed by a car on a road filled with rutted snow.

  9. BluesCat says:

    I don’t know how they would work for snow and ice, but for the one or two rainy days we have mud-slicked roads in Phoenix (yeah, yer right, I’m braggin’) I’ve found that “inverted tread” tires like the Serfas Drifters are just the ticket.

    The canyons in the tread, instead of knobby hills, really stick to the road. They make the Drifters in a 700×32 size now.

  10. Sean says:

    For the very cold weather I wear bib shorts under a pair of Sugoi Firewall XC pants. They have a baggier cut and I have had suspenders sewn on to them. The matching jacket is great too. I generally only need to wear a long sleeve base layer under the jacket – currently loving ModRobes Eucalyptus stuff which shares many of the benefits of wool gear but is less delicate from a washing perspective.

    For shoes – I run a larger size of Shimano ankle high MTB shoes with the SPD holes backfilled from the insode with some caulking and then top that off with some of those foil & felt contruction worker style footbeds. Smartwool socks inside Sealskin vapour barier socks make a very warm system. Just make sure you have lots of room to still wiggle your toes inside.

  11. Sean says:

    I ride in Ottawa, Canada year round. Climate is approximately equal to Siberia from late December until early April.

    For tires, I like the Schwalbe Marathon range of tires as they have great handling and puncture protection. I have been using the Marathon Plus in a 38mm from April until November but will switch to the studded Marathon Winters as soon as we have consistent below zero temps and ice/snow/slush on the ground. I also run slime tubes in the winter as, IMHO, there is nothing worse in the deep cold of winter than trying to change a flattire. Yes, studded tires and slime tubes are heavier and arguably slower, but not as slow as a ride interrupted by changing flats.

  12. Cyclelogical says:

    Great post on winter riding. Thanks so much.
    Check out these for side reflection at night.

  13. Matthew says:

    I ride year round in northern Norway. I see plenty of black ice but since I ride on the plowed roads, not too much snow. I use the Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tires and am satisfied with them. The tread blocks are fairly tight which makes for low rolling resistance, but causes poorer performance on loose snow. Everything is a compromise. I absolutely recommend Peter White’s page, for anyone thinking about studded tires.

  14. Tom Bowden says:

    I get everything I need in the way of gloves and head protection from Walmart. They have Thinsulate gloves for $5, headbands for $1 and neck gaiters for $5 (or is it $2. Don’t get fleeced. Fleece is fleece. Pretty much anyway. For legs and body, I go with thrift-shop or semi-worn out (as in not quite business worthy)wool pants and sport coats, and sometimes a fleece lined Eddy Bauer/Lands End/LL Bean bomber jacket. A merino wool pull-over is good as an undergarment.

  15. Jenava says:

    I wear wool (smartwool) long sleeve tees under a polyester half-zip and a very light windbreaker when it’s not raining. when it is I add a poncho over the whole mess. I wear regular sneakers with wool socks and when it rains I switch them out for rainboots. Tall rainboots are GREAT for riding because they come up pretty high and so keep my whole lower leg dry and clean.

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