Head-to-toe guide to winter cycling

When the cold of winter settles in, most cyclists go into hibernation mode. But don't hang up your bike just yet; there are plenty of tricks for staying warm during the coldest winter months. Simply follow this head-to-toe guide for insider tips that took years to perfect. I have weathered many cold winters throughout the years and I tried everything to stay warm -- let's just say I learned the hard way and froze my knickers off. Now you can skip the frostbite and start riding year round, even during the coldest months.

Heads up

balaclava

"Balaclava" is fun to say, and it keeps your head, face, and ears protected from bitter cold winds. When looking for a balaclava, pick one that fits your noggin and allows you to breathe freely. You want to stay warm, but restricted breathing slows you down and fogs up your glasses. My favorite is the Castelli Seamless Balaclava, but there are many other, less expensive options.

Keep the core toasty

A good vest is a must-have and can make or break your winter experience. It warms your soul by shielding the wind, and it pulls moisture away from your body.

cycling vest

Don't be fooled by really thick fabrics. Oftentimes they retain moisture and cause you to freeze from the inside out. A warm cyclist always looks for a windproof outer shell and a breathable inner fabric. Trust me, even when temperatures are sub freezing, you will sweat, and nothing gets you cold faster than sweat.

Why choose a vest instead of a jacket? Because a vest is more versatile and has better ventilation. It can be worn with any combination of layers to accommodate any type of weather -- warm, cold, rain or shine, a vest has you covered. My favorite vest right now is the Etxeondo Darse.

Layers, layers, layers

You have heard it before, but what does it mean to layer? Remember, more is not better. Layering entails the right layer for the right conditions, and nothing more.

I wear a variety of base layers to accommodate the weather. I use everything from thin jerseys to thick thermal-lined jerseys, and depending on the temperature, I will combine these for the perfect mix of warmth.

On the coldest days I use a highly breathable base layer to wick away all moisture. If any sweat hits the cold air you will freeze instantly and never recover, so pick this layer carefully. I like the Craft Pro Zero Extreme Long Sleeve but you can save money if you are creative. Ski base layers work just fine, but cycling clothing is shaped to fit your body while on a bike, which means no skin is exposed while riding in the drops.

On top of the base layer, I wear a thicker, thermal-lined jersey. This layer should block some wind and provide more warmth. It still needs to breathe, but not as much as your base layer. I prefer a long sleeve jersey that is tight, yet flexible and comfortable. That way I am free to ride without being restrained by extra folds or bulk. The Craft Stretch Pullover Jacket is a good mix of functionality and price.

Cover those chicken legs

Not to say your legs are boney or weak, but let's face it, most cyclists have zero body fat on their legs. Keeping your legs warm comes down to a combination of shielding the wind and adding thermal warmth -- breath-ability is still important, but most tights are sufficient in this area.

You can go crazy on tights, spending anywhere from $50 to $200+, but what is warm enough? I have found that most tights are warm, so simply look for wind shielding on the front, thermal lining on the inside, and bibs to cover your lower back (although sometimes bibs can cost an extra $50 for the same exact tights). My favorite middle of the road tights are the Craft Active Thermal Tights and the best-of-the-best are the Craft Storm Bib Tights.

If you are riding in extremely low temperatures, you might need to add a base layer for extra warmth. If so, look for a liner without a chamois, like this PearI Izumi Barrier Liner.

Free the fingers

This sounds like a political protest and it just might be. Don't let cold fingers end your ride early. I have tried all types of gloves throughout the years and nothing keeps me warmer than lobster mitts. Keeping your fingers close together adds instant heat and keeps you training longer.

When choosing lobster mitts the previous rules still apply. Look for gloves that shield the wind and still allow breathe-ability. It is counter-intuitive, but don't overdo the warmth. If your gloves are too warm and you start to sweat, you are done for. My hands are sweat factories and I do better without liners under a windproof shell. Others might need the extra warmth of a liner; just don't go overboard.

There are many different options on the market, but my favorite is the Pearl Izumi Lobster Glove. Other cyclists use cheaper ski gloves or mittens, but I find lobsters to allow smoother shifting and braking. Just don't plan on giving the "bird" to angry motorists any time soon --you'll look like a crazed lobster instead.

Skip the socks

Don't worry about fancy socks. Instead, look for a good pair of neoprene booties. The goal here is to keep wind and water out of your shoes. I haven't seen any major benefit to high-end booties, except for durability and ease-of-use. Some expensive booties are easier to get on and off, but I leave my booties on all winter anyways. I recommend these Gator Neoprene Booties. They are inexpensive and keep you warm. If your feet are still cold, you can invest in thicker socks.

Rubber to the road

Gaining traction on the road is not to be overlooked. Once you dress warm enough to hit the road, you can buy tires to match the conditions. I tend to stay indoors when snow starts to stick, so a 4-season tire works fine. If you are a diehard winter cyclist, you can look into a snow bike or switch to a mountain bike during bigger storms.

I use 25c or 28c tires with more tread to gain balance and traction in the snow and ice. Generally, the wider the tire, the more balance you have, but if you go too wide then you lose efficiency and speed. My favorite winter tire is the Continental Grand Prix 4-Season. There are winter specific tires, but for my use I haven't needed anything more.