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Women Speak: Staying Warm in the Winter

Each year, with the onset of Winter, Mojo Cycling is visited by people looking for ways to continue riding during the Winter season. Winter is a tricky time for cyclists. Mojo rider Zoe March notes: “If I could really choose anything to stay warm on a ride, I’d be bundled in a blanket & in sweatpants, but that’s not very practical.” There is a key to avoiding this madness & it’s not as confusing as you might think.

Always remember that your body is a radiator. It strives to keep your core & your brain at a relatively even internal temperature. If you get too warm, your body sweats to cool itself. When you’re cold, your body initiates shivering, so your working muscles warm your body. You need to stay somewhere between these poles. This can be difficult when you’re cranking your bike down trails in sub-freezing weather. Add some wind into the mix & the wrong kit can create a ride that’s hell on earth. Don’t panic, you can avoid this.

When asked how she keeps warm Jeanine Godec replied “layer, layer, layer, layer.” It’s important to use a layering technique. Wearing several specifically-chosen light performance layers is better than wearing bulky jackets or sweatshirts which hold your body’s heat in & make you sweat. (Sweating in cold weather makes you cold.) Kelsey Miller also layers. Her description of how she dresses for a winter ride is a “How-To” of what you should do: “I generally wear a wool t-shirt for cold days. Depending on temps & cloud cover, I wear another thin layer of synthetic athletic material, then a windbreaker or vest. I add layers as it gets colder, but never anything cotton or super thick.”

As Kelsey asserts: to keep you warm, while avoiding overheating, utilize layers that trap insulating pockets of air. Zoe adds: “I’ve learned that I don’t have to feel stupid when I show up to rides with guys who are wearing less than I am with all my layers. Because, generally, women create less body heat than men.” Each of these layers performs a specific task, so let’s explore them:

B A S E L A Y E R :

The base layer is key to your winter riding outfit. Base layers are closest to your skin, working to wick away sweat. Their entire purpose is to move that perspiration, which could chill you, away from your body. Without a wicking layer, moisture sits next to your body chilling you very quickly. Base layers should be made of thin, breathable materials. Thin merino wool base layers work well. Merino wool has a hollow core in each strand, making it insulate better than regular wool. The best feature of Merino wool is that it doesn’t scratch/itch! (Note: Wool that’s embedded with micro-ceramic particles is an emerging–but expensive–base layer technology. The ceramic particles attract body heat, then dissipate the heat quickly.) If you’re not a fan of wool, use a jersey made of a sweat wicking synthetic material, like polyester. It’s critical to remember to never, ever, use cotton as your base layer. Its thick strands hold heat next to your body. Cotton does not wick…it keeps sweat against your skin, chilling you. Cotton ensures a cold ride.

T H E R M A L L A Y E R :

The thermal layer is responsible for keeping your body warm. Like wicking layers, materials matter. Once again, eschew cotton in favor of materials that let moisture escape from your body. Becci Neal wears a fleece made from synthetic material as her thermal layer. For her, it’s a throw away layer from WalMart that won’t be a huge loss if she crashes & rips it up. Fleeces are an extremely effective layer for holding in heat, while letting moisture wick through. In fact, on some of Becci’s rides, her outer layer gets a thin sheen of ice. It’s created from her perspiration, wicking through the layers she’s wearing, only to freeze outside of those layers.

Jeanine notes that “merino wool is the best for keeping warm.” Natural materials work well as insulators. Thin to medium weight merino wool sweaters are some of the best performance insulators available. Once again, each strand has a hollow core that provides an insulating pocket of air. Wool, like a decent fleece, will even keep you warm when it's wet. Whether the moisture comes from sweat, snow or from a stream crossing, a great wool sweater will keep you warm for the ride home.

W I N D P R O T E C T I O N L A Y E R :

Cold wind can cut through your layers. A sure-fire way of staying warm is to wear an outer layer with a windproof finish; this will keep cold air away from your core. Zoe says that she’ll “wear a thin jacket or a windbreaker, depending on the ride.” It’s key to keep wind from penetrating your base & thermal layers, which will chill you. As Zoe notes, a windbreaker is a great option. Just remember that you’ll want a wind protecting layer that’s light & features zip-open panels to let moisture out. Many jackets feature under-arm, shoulder & abdominal panels that can be unzipped to let sweat & heat escape. These are important because if there’s not a means for perspiration to escape, you’ll end up feeling like you’re wrapped in a plastic bag, sweltering with all of your moisture condensed on the inside of the windbreaker. Yech!

H A N D S :

Winter cycling gloves are often not much better than standard mid-weight riding gloves. There's a trade-off between dexterity & warmth. Kelsey says that she “tends to warm up quickly, so super thick gloves don’t work for [her].” She follows-up by noting that she’ll often “bring…two types of gloves on a ride in case one gets sweaty, or to swap as temperatures change. Never wear really thick layers, as getting sweaty has to be avoided at all costs!”

The bulkier the glove & the fewer fingers it has, the warmer it will be. Mittens are warmest but make gear shifting difficult, so “lobster” gloves are a more useful compromise on a bike. (Lobster-type gloves resemble a lobster claw: the index finger & thumb each have their own “finger,” while the remaining fingers all reside in a large finger.) Gloves like this can keep your fingers warm. Some riders do not favor lobster designs & opt for standard style gloves. The style that works best for you is the one you’re most comfortable using & that keeps your hands warm. It’s best to at least use gloves with micro-fleece interiors. Just remember, the warmer a glove makes your hand, the more likely it is to sweat. Sweaty hands will soon be cold hands.

F E E T :

Keeping feet/toes warm is a prevalent problem for most women. When the cold weather hits, the requests for solutions at Mojo pile up. First, it’s important to remember that if your shoes are tight, there’s no solution that’ll work. Jeanine comments that “tight shoes prevent an insulating layer of air from protecting [her] feet from the cold air outside.” She’s right; loosen your laces. Buy a slightly larger shoe for Winter rides. That way wool socks will fit without being tight on your foot. Do what you need to avoid shoes that lack an insulating air space.

Let’s review the materials you wear. Just say “no” to cotton…always. Jeanine is correct when she asserts that “merino wool is the best winter sock.” If you want a warm Winter sock, look for tightly-woven merino wool. They keep your feet toasty-warm & aren't itchy. Plus, they’ll keep your feet warm, even when they’re wet. There is no other material. Merino wool is king.

Zoe reminded us that there’s another item that’ll help to keep your toes warm on cold or windy days: “You also won’t catch me not wearing my shoe covers on a cold day. Nothing makes a ride worse than feeling your toes become numb & start to ache.” Shoe covers are just what they sound like. They’re little insulated booties or toe covers that strap to or around your shoes. They’re basically wind protection, with a little bit of insulation, too. Shoe covers can make a big difference, especially on windy days.

S T A R T Y O U R R I D E C O L D :

Finally, it’s common for people to be over-bundled as they start their ride. If you’re bundled-up & warm when you start to ride, then your body will very quickly begin to sweat as you crank away. Once sweating begins, cold will soon follow. Remember the instructions above & start your Winter rides with this strategy. Learn how light you can go before you get cold, no matter how hard you ride. Start your rides being cold, but knowing that you’ve prepared an outfit for maintaining temperature stasis when you get to your normal cycling cadence. When you start the ride, you’ll be chilly, if not cold. Hands are often the worst offender here. But, don’t give up, push through a few minutes of discomfort. Following about 15 minutes of vigorous pedaling, your body will produce excess heat; you’ll begin to feel warm. To prevent getting sweaty, zip open some of the air vents on your windbreaker. (This is a MUCH better strategy than having to remove & tote numerous layers that you’ve swaddled in.) Keep those vents open or closed to moderate your body’s excess heat & moisture. Before long you’ll swear that the temperatures have warmed. But it’s not the temperature getting warmer, it’s you finding the perfect balance between the temperature, your clothes & your physical activity. Nirvana.

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