Note: This is the fourth installment in a series of articles on winter cycling. I hope to have the entire series finished by November and then publish it as a free PDF book that you can download from this website (the working title is, “A Guide To Winter Cycling”).
If you live in an area of the country that doesn’t experience extreme winter weather, well, you have my sympathy. As avid winter cyclists are fond of saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. To paraphrase President Theodore Roosevelt, “Far better is it to cycle all winter, to freeze your body down to the bone, even though pelted by sleet and snow, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they ride their trainers in the basement all winter and know neither joy nor fresh air.” The hardest part of winter cycling is the first 500 feet once you leave your house.
The easiest thing to keep warm in the winter is your legs—once you get going your legs become little furnaces and all you have to do is keep them dry, and as the outside temperature drops you switch to slightly better insulated tights.
During cool weather some cyclists try to pretend that it is till warm outside and convince themselves that they can keep wearing their summer gear—even when common sense dictates otherwise. One special concern is keeping your knees warm. As Hughes and Kehlenbach explain in their book, Distance Cycling, “The knee has poor circulation. If your knees get cold, blood won’t reach them and they may become injured. You can avoid this by wearing knee or leg warmers until temperatures exceed 60° F.”
When the temperature is between 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 16 Celsius) I apply DZ Nuts InHeat Low Heat Embrocation Cream to my legs before I ride. Embrocation creams contain vasodilators that warm up the skin and muscles. They also create a weather-proof barrier that protects your skin from the elements. For many of us, embrocation creams are them main reason we shave our legs (just don’t shave your legs on the same day you use an embrocation cream). About 15 minutes before you go out for a ride on brisk day you massage this cream into the exposed areas of your legs. It will take several minutes for you to feel the cream working, but once it does you will feel the warmth and be able to ride for several hours in cool weather without having your legs cramp up from the cold. DZ Nuts InHeat Embrocation Cream comes in three strengths (low, medium and high). The low heat cream is good for rides down to around 50 degrees. A six-ounce tube retails for around $20 and you should be able to get 15 or 20 rides out of a tube.
If you don’t want to use and embrocation cream, then you ought to try knickers that extend down to your mid-calf. I like the Pearl Izumi Attack Knicker because it is extremely comfortable and the fabric quickly wicks moisture away from your skin. The chamois on this knicker is also very comfortable, even on very long rides. There are also several reflective elements for low-light visibility. The silicone leg grippers on these knickers keep the pant legs from sliding up as you ride. The Pearl Izumi Men’s Attack Knicker is available in five sizes (S, M, L, XL, XXL) and retails for $85.
For temperatures from 28 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 to 10 Celsius) I don’t think you will find a better pair of tights than the Pearl Izumi Elite Thermal Cycling Tights. These tights are made with a very breathable wind-resistant fabric on the outside combined with a thin layer of thermal fleece on the inside. You can buy this tight either with or without a chamois. I would definitely buy one with Pearl Izumi’s Elite 3D Chamois. This chamois has 13mm of variable-density microfiber padding coupled with active carbon yarns to help reduce odors. At the bottom of these tights you will find an 8-inch ankle zipper so the tights are very easy to put on (and take off). The zipper has a lockable tab to keep it closed. The tights also have silicone ankle grippers to keep the tights in place. You will also find reflective piping and logos on the legs to help motorists see you better at night. These tights retail for $125.
If you enjoy riding when the temperature is anywhere from zero to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 to -1 Celsius), I would suggest the Pearl Izumi AmFIB Cycling Tights. These tights are designed for extreme weather conditions—I am talking about very cold, wet and windy days. The fabric is very breathable and wicks water away your skin incredibly well. Even after several hours in snow and ice storms these tights kept me dry. The tights also have the 3D Elite chamois (like the pair above). The lower leg of these tights has an 8″ zipper with an internal draft flap and zipper garage. Around the inside of the ankles there is a silicone strip to keep the tights in place. Reflective piping, strips and logos make you visible to motorists from just about any angle. The Pearl Izumi AmFIB Cycling Tights are also available without a chamois and/or in a bib. Most people will tell you that bibs keep you warmer than tights, but I haven’t had any trouble keeping warm even in temperatures down to zero. Besides, if you are out on a bike trail in ten degree weather and have to answer the call of nature while in bibs you will need to look at your driver’s license just to remember your gender (if you catch my drift). Theses tights seem to be true to size and have a suggested list price of $155.
For temperatures below zero Fahrenheit (-18C) I wear Craft PXC Storm Tights. These tights are primarily designed for Nordic skiing, but any winter cyclist or runner would benefit from them as well. These windproof tights are very breathable, and the articulated knees make them very easy to cycle in. The seams on both the front and back of these tights have reflective piping to help motorists (or snowmobiles) see you at night. These tights have a looser fit than most cycling tights (they are really more like pants). However, this looser fit allows you to layer other clothing under the tights when needed. Since a chamois is not available on these tights you will need to wear at least a pair of your summer cycling shorts under them. The waist on these tights close with a draw cord and there is also a credit card pouch attached to the inside of the pants. I was very pleased with the generous (long) ankle zippers on these tights. Fellow blogger and avid winter cyclist Joboo wears these tights in temperatures down to -50F (-45C) without a base layer and says he stays “toasty warm.” It never gets that cold in the Chicago area, so I can’t vouch for that myself, but I can tell you that they are the warmest tights I’ve ever worn, and if you do get cold you can always add a layer under them. Craft PXC Storm Tights are available in five sizes (S, M, L, XL, XXL), and seem to be true to size. These tights retail for $130. If your local bike shop does not carry these tights you can find them on Amazon.com, the L.L. Bean website, and R.E.I.