I’d rather be outside on the bicycle than on the trainer. From what the weathermen are saying, I just might be stuck inside for awhile this winter, but I’m not giving in yet! Instead I’m making sure I have the layers I need to keep me as dry and warm as possible on those long cold winter rides.
There are three key layers that make up the perfect winter cycling outfit:
The transport base layerThis layer should be thin, made of polyester or wool, and worn tightly against the skin. The goal of this layer is to transport sweat away from your body and to make you feel as dry as possible while doing so. If the weather is extremely cold, or if you’re a cold person by nature, the best place to double up is in the transport base layer.
The insulating mid layerThis goes on top of the transport layer and should still be form fitting but a bit looser than the base layer. It should also be totally breathable in order to continue to transport the sweat away from your body. A long-sleeved polyester or wool bike jersey might be a good insulating layer, or a light layer of a synthetic material like Primaloft. The key to this insulating layer is that no single layer should be too heavy or thick; if it’s too warm it will cause too much sweating. All insulating and transport layers should be made of a synthetic material or wool to allow the transfer of moisture (sweat) to continue to move away from your body.
The windproof outer layerThis is your jacket or other outer wear. There are three main groups of outer layers: waterproof jackets, lightweight nylon jackets or jerseys (no waterproofing), and waterproof breathable jackets. Here are some of the pros and cons of each:
Waterproof jackets with no breathability (clear plastic cycling rain shell)Advantages:
- Great for quick rain showers in the summer
- Absolutely no moisture transfer
- Will be totally wet on the inside quickly
- Too much moisture on the inside will make you cold
- Very good breathability
- Sweat moves through the nylon fairly quickly, keeping your base layers drier and keeping you warmer
- Very lightweight and stuffable (can be carried in a pocket if need be)
- Least expensive type of jacket
- Without coating or laminate, there is no water resistance in light rain or snow
- The windproofness of this type of jacket is lacking somewhat, especially in very cold weather, preventing your insulation layer from working well because the cold air can pass through the fabrics.
Waterproof breathable fabrics have several different types. Some of these fabrics are coated with a waterproof spray, and some are laminated with some type of waterproof/breathable layer. The less expensive waterproof breathable jackets generally have waterproof coatings (sometimes you can see a clear coating on the inside), with just enough coating that it can still breathe, but it can be inconsistent and often does not breathe very well. Laminates (such as GORE-TEX) are much more consistent and have microscopic holes that allow vapor (very small molecules of moisture) to escape while preventing raindrops (large molecules of water) from coming in. These microscopic holes also do a pretty good job of keeping wind out.
- Very windproof
- Water resistant (or waterproof if seam taped)
- Breathable qualities
- Doesn’t breathe as well as a lightweight nylon jacket (if you are training hard)
A Breathability CheckKnowing what kind of jacket you have can be confusing because it’s difficult to detect waterproofing. Here's how to check for breathability.
Hold your jacket up to your mouth and try to blow air through the fabric. Highly breathable jackets or garments will be easy to blow air through, meaning air will pass through easily, as will your sweat vapor. Waterproof jackets or fabrics (like a plastic rain jacket) will not allow any air or vapor to pass through, thus trapping all your sweat on the inside of the jacket. A waterproof breathable jacket will be in between, difficult to blow through but allowing some air to pass through. The same theory goes for windproofness; the highly breathable materials will not be as windproof. If you can blow air through the material, think of what will happen going 40 miles per hour down a hill! The waterproof layer will be great at blocking the 40-mile-per-hour wind, but if you wear it as your winter jacket on a two+ hour ride, you’ll be cold from the large quantity of sweat built up on your skin underneath it.
Stay warm out there!
Kathy Watts is a USAC Level 3 cycling coach, a PCG elite coach, and the PCG athlete-coach coordinator. She has been a competitor since her childhood, in many different sports, and was the owner and operator of a successful chain of ourdoor retail shops for twenty-four years. She started bike racing first on a mountain bike, the moved on to road, then cyclocross, then time trialing. She and the rest of the PCG coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. She can be contacted through peakscoachinggroup.com or email@example.com.