To combat cold weather, cyclists use a now well-established system of layering. By adding shells and thin layers of performance-grade protective clothing, the modern rider enjoys the freedom to move while remaining protected from the elements.
The sophisticated system of layering allows riders to moderate their core temperature while keeping their extremities warm, so they can perform in even the most challenging conditions.
If you’re new to the concept, it can be easy to confuse your gilet from your jersey and your soft shell from your waterproof jacket.
To help simplify your search for cold weather biking gear, The Hub has broken down the layers with explanations of their purpose. We look at when to use which layers and good examples of each, including the warming accessories like gloves, socks, shoes, and caps.
Some of the layering applies equally for road and mountain bike riders, although there is some divergence and we’ll point these out as we go.
So, if you want to get the most out of your winter riding then read on…
Base layers are the foundation of your layered clobber. They are thin, form-fitting, and worn next to the skin to serve two key roles: keeping you dry by transporting moisture away from the body to the outer surface of the fabric (a process known as wicking); and keeping you warm in cold conditions by trapping a layer of air to insulate you against the elements.
The type of base layer you choose will depend on the conditions in which you are active and how much coverage you prefer – a light, sleeveless mesh base layer, for example, will aid moisture management in hot weather, while the thermal properties of an insulated, long-sleeve base layer will retain a lot of heat in winter conditions.
Base layers are made from both natural and man-made fabrics – Merino wool being the most common natural fibre – while it can be blended with synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, polypropelene, and Lycra to create different properties.
The thermal jersey is your next layer of protection against the piercing winds and precipitation. In the winter they sit between your base layer (see above) and your outer waterproof layers (see below). In summer they are often used as a top layer, which is why they have more detailing and design than a base layer garment.
Jerseys feature an ergonomic cut to reflect the rider’s position on the bike. Road and MTB race jerseys will be tighter-fitting, while gravity MTB jerseys will have a looser cut to reflect the different on-bike positioning and enable armour to be worn underneath.
Most jerseys will also feature rear pockets for your food stash and spare tubes, while MTB jerseys often have reinforced sleeves. Thermal versions will include heavier knits, giving you added protection in winter.
Windproof softshell jackets are a thin and lightweight outer layer fitted with a water and wind-resistant fabric that keeps your base layer and jersey dry in a shower and locks-out the chill of strong winds. They offer extra protection in changeable weather and can pack down tightly to be stowed in a jacket pocket or saddlebag. They are often loose fitting so you can add layers underneath.
Softshells are able to handle most light rain and wind conditions, and come in different styles for the MTB rider and the road cyclist.
Your last line of defence against the prevarications of the cold. Waterproof jackets can vary significantly in features, design, and appearance. From thick, highly water-repellent materials with warm inner linings, to thin lightweight packable jackets that can be stuffed in a jersey pocket, there is a wide range to suit your needs and the conditions.
Additional features include a high collar to protect from wind-chill, taped seams, a dropped tail to reduce the impact of splashing from the rear wheel, underarm zips to increase ventilation and breathability, and, of course, the classic hood.
MTB waterproof jackets tend to be larger, with a roomier fit, while road jackets will have a sleeker profile and a long tail to keep out rain while on the drops.
Your hands are the first part of your body to encounter the cold air, and will take a lot of punishment on any ride, especially winter. As one of your many extremities, the body has a tough time keeping them warm as it concentrates most of its efforts on maintaining your core temperature. They also have a lot of work to do at the fore of your steed – steering, braking, and operating gears – so they need to be protected.
This means you need to choose your gloves carefully and, again, the specific demands of road and MTB riding are reflected in the design. Take a look at some good examples of MTB and road riding gloves to get an idea of which features fit your requirements.
Cycle-specific caps are designed to be worn under a helmet, so will be thin and low-profile to fit snugly on the head. While the idea that you lose most of your body heat through the head is a debunked myth, it’s still an important part of the body to keep warm.
Wicking is a major consideration during winter, as well as packability and breathability.
Now for your southern-most extremities – your feet. Winter MTB and road shoes differ widely in design and features, but both serve the same important purpose – keeping those toes warm and dry enough to keep pedalling.
When ice and mud mix, it creates an abrasive and corrosive combination which can be devastating to high-performance shoes and no one wants their everyday summer shoes to be left in shreds come the end of a tough day in the dirt.
So if you plan to mix it up in the mud or on the rain-washed roads this winter, it’s important to kit yourself out with a pair of winter shoes or boots.
Overshoes are covers designed to be worn over your cycling shoes or even winter boots, closing off the various holes, vents and openings, and insulating your feet from the cold, preventing wind and water from getting in. Unlike aero summer or spring overshoes, the winter varieties are made from thick (typically 3mm) neoprene – the same material wetsuits are made from. It’s is water and wind proof, and offers excellent protection against the elements.
It is worth noting however, that while neoprene will offer excellent insulation and protection, it is not very breathable, so wearing winter overshoes in warmer conditions is likely to result in an excess build-up of heat and moisture.