levi mountain biking snow

(This article was originally published on BloomBikeShop.com, but I’m republishing it here because the advice is still useful!)

It’s inevitable. At some point in the fall you’ll do your first ride in relatively cold weather. For the past six months you’ve been enjoying warm, sunny skies with mild temperatures around 75 to 85 degrees.

But not today. Today the mercury has dropped by 20 or 30 degrees and the sun is nowhere to be found. Today is that day where you remember what it’s like in the cold, but your brain could have used a few cobwebs dusted off first – in other words, you’ll make the same mistakes as you did at this time last year. So I wrote this article to warn you of what will go wrong.

We’re well into winter here in the North East USA. Cold, rain, snow, sleet – anything that affects riding – we’ve had it. If you take the proper precautions, you’ll be fine. But if you’re not prepared, old man winter will get the best of you!

I’ll start off with a little story about my first ride in the cold back in October 2004. It was about 52 degrees and cloudy, which seems nice and warm as I look back on it, but it was a little chilly at the time. Being used to 80 degree weather, today’s ride warranted tights, a thick long sleeve undershirt, and a windbreaker… or so I thought.

Starting out I was a little chilly. And I didn’t like it. But I kept going. And after about three minutes I was burning up – today was not the day for a windbreaker. I had to stop, take it off, roll it up, and then try to stuff it in my jersey pocket without catching it on my Camelbak. Which leads me to…

Lesson #1: It’s not as cold as you think it is.

52 in the spring feels like 70, but in the fall it feels like 30. So in the spring you shed all the layers except your shorts and jersey, even if there’s still snow on the ground. And in the fall you pile on everything you have. But that’s not a good idea.

52 warrants tights and a long sleeve jersey, but that’s about it. If you’re unsure, stash some extra layers in your jersey pockets – you can put them on after 15 minutes if you’re still cold. (Remember, you should be a little chilly for the first few minutes of your ride. Then once you warm up, you should be cozy.)

Once I shed some clothing I felt pretty good. The crisp air was refreshing, too. I really enjoyed the ride for the next hour. But then, knowing I would need some more energy for the next hour, I grabbed the Powerbar out of my jersey pocket. The same thing I had been eating successfully all summer. But it wasn’t the same today. By “wasn’t the same,” I mean it was rock hard! I bit into one end, expecting it to melt right in my mouth, but instead it shocked my whole jaw. I had to check for loose teeth after that!

Lesson #2: When Powerbars get cold, they get hard. Rock hard.

They’ll break your teeth if you’re not careful. They’re ok down to 45 or 50 degrees, but you should still be really careful when you bite into them. I suggest switching to Powerbar Harvest or Pria bars in cooler weather. They’re a little lighter, so they don’t freeze as easily. And try to keep them close to your body.

Or go with an energy gel like GU. They get thick in the cold, but it takes a while for them to freeze. Personally, I kind of like them when they’re extra thick! The cold really brings out the full flavor.

Cool weather isn’t bad. It’s the really cold stuff that you need to watch out for.

Once the temps hit 25 degrees, it gets a little more complicated.

Now is the time to pile on every piece of gear you have! Well maybe not that extreme, but this weather calls for fleece lined tights, a thick base layer, a windbreaker, a balaclava, thick socks, shoe covers, and big insulated gloves.

But this doesn’t guarantee anything. Climb a hill and you’ll overheat. Get to the top of the hill and it will be 10 degrees cooler. You’ll freeze. Riding outside in sub-20 degree weather should, at least in my opinion, be avoided at all costs.

Ride a trainer. Ride some rollers. Run. Lift weights. Rest. Whatever you need to do. You’ll get a better workout that way.

Lesson #3: Going outside on a freezing cold day won’t help your training.

It will be hard to move when you’re weighted down by 10 pounds of restrictive winter gear. And if your body is that cold, it will be hard to move anyway. Your form will be horrible. And then if you get used to it, your form will stay horrible into the spring.

Beyond clothing, you need to carry food and water. But if Powerbars are only good to 40 degrees, what do you do?

Lesson #4: For food, when it’s real cold, just bring gels.

Only gels. No bars. Gels will freeze eventually, but if you keep them next to your body, they should be ok for a while.

Lesson #5: For drink, ditch the water bottles.

Bottles are no good. The lids will freeze shut. You’ll need a Camelbak, which should be kept inside your outer layers. Be sure to keep the tube tucked away too, and sip occasionally to be sure the water in the tube doesn’t freeze.

Replacing water with Gatorade might help, too. All the additives lower the freezing point, so it stays warmer a little longer than plain water does.

Another thing to be aware of is that you need your hands to be able to eat and drink. This means some thick gloves to keep them warm. But thick gloves mean you can’t easily open a gel pack. And some balaclavas block your mouth.

Lesson #6: Eating and drinking in the cold is a pain in the ass!

There’s no miracle cure. You have to take off your gloves for a bit, pull down your balaclava, eat, and then bundle up again. Just one more reason you might want to buy some rollers!

What else can happen in the cold? Well, if you wear contacts, they may just fall out! If you have any sense, you’ll be wearing some sort of eye protection in the cold. Sunglasses at the least, and maybe even opting for ski goggles. But even then, your contacts will get cold. And like Powerbars, they’ll get hard. And then they might fall out. But even if they don’t fall out, your vision will probably be quite blurry and they’ll be a very good chance of riding off the road or into oncoming traffic.

When my contacts were about ready to fall out one day, I tried to close my eyes for a while and warm them up. But that didn’t do much, being that my face was so cold that I couldn’t feel it anymore, let alone control my eye lids.

Lesson #7: Get some goggles.

Really, goggles? It doesn’t matter what you look like, everyone already thinks you’re an idiot for being outside in this weather!

If you still want to ride outside, please follow at least some of my advice. If you enjoy riding in temperatures below zero, though, you may want to get advice from a psychiatrist.

Planning to stay inside? Take a look at the Turbulence Training workouts, which I use and recommend.

Or if you’re on a budget, download my free book, “Working Out Without Going Outside: An Introduction to Off-Season Training for Cyclists” – click here to get it for free today!

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  1. Good thinking about the power bars. I don’t want to break any teeth!

  2. goggles is so retro. it conjures up images of tour de france riders in the early part of this century. certainly very cool, yet i have to figure out a way not to look like an idiot.

  3. I’m sure anyone in a car will think you’re an idiot anyway 🙂

  4. It has to be sub 35 to freeze. I’ve road in 22F weather for an hour and my water bottles didn’t freeze. It was however incredibly hard to breath and was in general not a good experience. Should have road on the trainer instead.

  5. When riding really cold weather and using a Camelback to drink from, after getting a sip from the tube blow back into the tube forcing the water back into the bladder. This will keep your tube from freezing up.

  6. My city has a great bike/pedestrian trail which stretches from almost entirely from one end to the other, and even out into the countryside. Five days a week I bike about half an hour to work, and home again on this trail. In the worst weather I take the bus, but I can ride on this trail all year if I’m prepared (= dressed for it). I’m not an ‘athlete’ biker, just a guy getting to work. But five days a week, for years now, roughly an hour a day… Good exercise for me. Nice to see that others ride in the winter. Co-workers think I’m crazy. If not for the bike trail, I wouldn’t do this because of slippery roads/traffic. Our city even plows the trail (sometimes), and my heavy (cheap) mountain bike plows right through the snow anyway. I really recommend winter biking on a safe trail. Feels great!

  7. The coldest that I have rode is -4. I rode most of the winter in Illinis. I have a 34 mile round trip too work. By the end of my ride my water was almost always froze. But it was kind fun being considered a idiot. Its always a good laugh because I know how much fun it is and I am not buying gas and waiting at red lights.

  8. I was wondering on how you keep your bike from being damaged by the salt when riding during the winter? I am in the process of getting a new cyclocross bike and want to be able to ride it on the roads/groomed snowmobile trails during the winter but don’t want it to get destroyed by the salt on the roads. Any suggestions you have would be great! Thanks for all the great advice.

  9. @Trevor

    Daily cleanings man! That’s what it really boils down to. A good waxing/polishing where possible and some good thick wet lube on the drivetrain will make it easier to just rinse the bike quickly post-ride so it’s not a huge ordeal.

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