Dressing for Cold Weather

By Associate Coach Ron Castia

Dressing for cold weather racing is a balance between wearing enough clothing so that your energy is used for performance rather than warmth without overdressing and overheating. This requires some planning before race day. Here are a few cold-weather dressing tips for early season races.

Dressing for a race will typically be lighter than dressing for a training ride since you need to be prepared for more maximal efforts and ongoing wind protection in the speeding pack as well as less ability to add or remove layers on the go. The key is to protect your skin and keep the appropriate amount of heat in.

One way to keep the heat in is to use a skin or muscle warming product. There are several of these on the market specifically for cold weather cycling. If you don’t have time to drop by your local bike shop, you can get items that work at the grocery or drugstore. Generic brand embrocation and muscle balms/ointments work just as well as expensive brand name ones, as do vapor rubs that have a warming and muscle-relief component. Apply the warming balm or oil first, and then put an impermeable barrier over the top to keep the moisture from soaking into your skin. Some old school cyclists use baby oil or petroleum jelly. Consider the oil liquid leg warmers. If you are not sure what to use or need help with a specific brand, check with your coach for recommendations and/or feedback on specific products.

Special note from Coach Earl: Always put your bibs and chamois lube on BEFORE applying a warming cream or balm to your legs. It is very easy for the chamois to pick up the balm from your legs and the skin near your chamois is extremely sensitive. This can become incredibly uncomfortable very quickly. (Personally confirmed).

Knee warmers are great for colder days, but when rain also accompanies the cold without an impermeable applied to the skin underneath, the material will get wet and serve to make you colder.

Good fleece lined arm warmers should be enough to keep your arms warm once you get rolling.

Wind-front base layers are invaluable for racing in the cold. This keeps you from having to put a number on your vest and ruining the nylon front.

A little vapor rub on the chest will help keep you warm and some people think it helps open up your breathing for better performance. Like any tip, try this in training before racing.

Lastly, wool socks, two pairs, one for during, and a nice dry pair for right after. It’s like a nice warm blanket for your feet. I like to have wool socks of variable thickness in my cycling sock drawer. Note that insulation on your feet can only retain warmth that is already there, and that warmth has to come from circulating blood. Thick socks will make your feet colder if your shoes end up being tight and squeezing your feet. You may want a pair of shoes a half size larger for winter for wearing with your thick socks.

If you have a tendency to get cold, numb toes, consider adding toe-covers or booties to your wardrobe for very cold race days. If you’ll be racing in the rain, test your boots to see that they work when wet.

When you are trying to determine what to wear, keep in mind you should have a little chill while standing around. If you are warm and cozy while standing at the start line, you are overdressed. One solution is to wear an extra jacket to keep you warm on the line, and then toss that jacket to your manager, or support person, or even on the ground.

Once the race gets rolling, the first few minutes until you start to create some body heat will be coldest. Try to find protection from the wind and keep yourself tucked in the pack. The pack will shelter you from the wind and the other working bodies will actually warm the air a bit too. Usually we advise not doing any excess work in a race, but when the choice is having your core temperature drop enough to rob you of your strength, some extra work can keep you in a better position to match an attack or hang on on a hill.

Finally, keep a good attitude. If you believe that you are well prepared and can ride well in the cold, you have a leg up on riders who are more aware of their own suffering. Good luck. In a few months you’ll probably be wishing for a cold day again.

Associate Coach Ron Castia works with all levels of racers to prepare them for road and endurance off-road adventures.