Cheap Athlete’s guide to winter bike commuting

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Q: Are you planning on winter bike commuting?

A: Umm, obviously.

This is the third post in a series of “so you wanna start bike commuting posts.” Just to recap, the first post discussed bike buying advice and the second post laid out some of the essential accessories for biking commuting. Now were going to focus on bike commuting in the winter.

This post is special because my search for crappy weather cycling gear is what let me to start this blog. There’s so much malarkey out there that its no wonder people think you can’t do it. “Oh man I have to buy a $250 rain jacket just to bike to work, that’s unpossible!”

Just because stuff says it’s for “cycling” doesn’t mean that you cannot use something not labeled for “cycling” use.

Let that sink in – does that jacket help you pedal? Will you crash your bike if you wear a pair of ski gloves instead of a $100 pair of “cycling gloves?” 

If you answered yes to any of those questions then go get your head examined – but please finish this article first. Good chance you have a lot of the gear required in your house already so you may need to buy just a couple of items.

There’s basically three things I look for each morning before I head out on my journey:

  • Temperature
  • Wind
  • Wetness

There may be additional considerations for snow and other craziness but well stick with the basics now.

Head

In all temperatures

I expect you’ll be wearing a helmet for your bike commute given it’s probably during rush hour. This has the added benefit of keeping your head warm as you have this big ole piece of plastic insulating and blocking wind.

Colder temperatures

A standard knit hat will fit right under a helmet. It doesn’t need to be a cycling cap or some dorky thing that you find in the magazines. A $1 hat from Old Navy will work about as well as anything else as long as it’s not too bulky.

Though I have found that a Pittsburgh Steelers hat will make you look exponentially more awesome – it’s an unwritten rule of the Velominati. Here we go Steelers, here we go.

Face

Balaclavas are garbage, I’ve tried them and they all stink. They make it hard to breathe and they fit terribly. So instead just buy a neck/face warmer for like $8 on amazon or some Turtle Fur in the clearance bin at a ski resort for like $5. You can’t breathe all that well through them either but they’re way warmer and I’d rather spend $5 to not breathe than $35.

And look at all the ways you can wear your neckwarmer! Try that with a balaclava!

Yes, that is a homemade hole in the neck warmer. I thought I’d try to cut a hole to breathe out of. I’ve been told that I look really stupid in it.

For eye coverage I typically go with my sunglasses. In the event of a snow storm or when you have frozen rain pellets flying into your eyes then there ain’t no shame in wearing ski goggles. Especially if you already own them. You’ll look and feel invincible on your little folding bike.

Jackets

OK face is covered, now onto the item that people spend all their money on.

Its sorta weird that people will spend $800 for a jacket to walk around and totally not give a hoot about their legs. “I totally need this Canada Goose Parka for my torso and these thin cotton dress pants will keep my legs so toasty.”

Anyhoo.

What is a “cycling jacket?”

It’s basically a jacket that is a little longer in the back to cover up that section of your back right above your butt – that section designed solely for girls to get tattoos on. That’s it. Is that worth $150 markup? Doubtful. But then how will I protect my sweet tattoo?

Ask any cyclist and they’ll tell you the same thing about wind: it sucks. Unless, of course, it’s that ever elusive tail wind that we’ve all read about but never actually experienced. Most winds are of the “head” and “cross” variety so make sure any jacket you plan to ride with blocks wind – fleeces are not up to this task.

Quick rule of thumb – wear a jacket down from what you’d wear if you were just walking around as biking will warm you up.

I have 4 jackets that I rotate for my bike commute, none of which are designated cycling jackets.

Rain Jacket

Oh God is there too much baloney out there. I’m so tired of people suggesting you need a Showers Pass jacket for $250. I’m sure they make fine gear but I simply use the trusty Columbia raincoat that I already owned.

It cost maybe like $50 at REI and, unlike a “cycling” jacket, I can use it for other things and not have to worry about looking like a jerk. “Hey I’m a cyclist. You can tell because I’m wearing a cycling jacket at work!”

Light windbreaker for temps in 40-50s 

A windbreaker with no lining is what you’re looking. We’re just trying to keep that chill off. I have some random North Face thing from Marshall’s for like $29 which works just fine. That was probably too expensive but it was a gift so I ain’t complaining.

Insulated Shell Jacket for temps 10-49

 I know its hard to believe but even on some cold freaking days I simply use a insulated shell jacke that cost me $29.99 at BJ’s. This thing is a bloody furnace.

If you’re a suburbanite you’ve undoubtedly seen the brand Zeroxposur at Burlington, Khols, BJs and all those big box discount stores. The brand sounds a little douchey (Zero Xposur! Crossfit! Protein! Yea!) but it’s cheap and quite good gear.

The MSRP says its like $110 but nobody ever pays that – you’ll get it for no more than $50 somewhere. And that’s about $80 cheaper than anything in any article you’ve ever read. 

Ermergerd its cold! 

Just wear the heaviest jacket you own as long as it’s not a $1,000 Canada Goose jacket. Take that back and head over to the REI garage or Eastern Mountain Sports where their store brand stuff is always on sale.

Legs

If you’re not interested in wearing tights (but then how can you show off them sweet chiseled cycling legs?) and changing when you get to the office then over-trousers are the way to go. This pair for $55 is both waterproof and windproof which means its doubles as rain and cold weather gear. They fit right over my pants and are not overly insulated so I can not only wear them on a hot rainy day but also cut the wind on a super duper cold day. I just keep them in that backpack that I recommended you use in part two in the event of unexpected rain/snow

Hands

I don’t mess around here because hamds are important. They’re up front on the handlebars exposed to the wind and frozen hands can make a ride unbearable. All the gloves I use here are the same ones I use for cold weather running since I try to buy gear that isn’t just designed for one purpose. We hate uni-taskers here. Consider me the Alton Brown of athletic gear.

Temps 45-55

A cheap light pair is all that’s needed – most people don’t need anything but I have issues with my hands.

Anyone who has ever gone to Costco should recognize these Head gloves – they’re about $12 compared to the essentially the same thing from The North Face for $35. Plus, they have the added benefit of allowing you to use your smart phone without taking them off so you can be that dude who spends more time on Instagram than riding. Look here’s 45 pictures of my 2.3 mile ride!

Temps between 30-44 degrees

Shell gloves become important here as you need to block the wind. Here’s where I want to keep you from making similar mistakes that I have made. “Well my hands are always super cold so let me get the best possible cycling gloves I can get.”

This led me to a $50+ pair of Gore Windstopper gloves.

They’re nice and all but then I was walking around BJ’s and saw gloves from that funny brand Zero Xposur for $12 (at the time of this article they’re on clearance for $4.98!).

You know what $38 gets you? Little pads on the palms and a fleece section on the thumb to wipe your snot off with (that’s actually kinda nice).

If you’re not driving over a ton of roots on the way to work then I can’t imagine spending more for those small details. I think the Zero Xposur ones are warmer anyway. With that $38 you just saved you can focus on the next item….


Under 30 degrees

These could be  apost in themselves.Hot Fingers mittens.

I found these while shopping for Christmas gifts at Dick’s and picked them up for about $29.99. “Well heck, my problem is cold fingers. So these gloves are the opposite of my problem.”

At the time I was struggling with running in the cold and was desperately searching for a solution. I had been trying to use those Gore gloves for cold weather running and was miserable below 32 degrees.

That was life before Hotfingers. These fixed my problem, hard.

They must be made with asbestos or something illegal because its 5 degrees out and my hands sweat. I’m not sure why they’re $50 cheaper than the alternatives but I honestly don’t care.

Buy these.

Feet

On sloppy days I rock some old-fashioned rain boots similar to those trendy Hunter boots. Of course mine are only a fraction of the price. Cause they’re rubber boots. Who the hell spends $200 on rubber boots? People who want to work forever, that’s who.

Throw a pair of old socks in your backpack if you’re concerned about your work socks getting wet and change when you get to the office.

These bad boys are like $55 on amazon but you can probably find something at the ole Walmart for $20. But, again, I got these as a gift so the cost fornme was $0. Money saving tip of the day – get other people to buy you your stuff.

If you’re going to clip into your pedals on cold days then you need booties. Period. They should run you no more than $30 on Amazon or Performance Bike. Couple them with a thick sock and you should be cool, I mean warm.

My preference is Drymax cold weather socks which you can get at runningwarehouse for about $14 after coupon (Runblog10). These also serve as my socks when I run in ridiculously cold temperatures.

I choose not to clip in for my commute so I just wear thick socks and a pair of snow boots. No specific recommendations here, just something you can get a good grip on the pedal with and don’t care if they get all cruddy.

Fin

Before I close I must share two articles for additional reading which I found on blogs that I read regularly. Read their articles (and mine obviously!) and lift elements from each to help tailor your plan for bike commuting in the winter. Tell them the Cheap Athlete sent ya. They’ll have no idea who the heck you’re talking about.

That’s all friends. Happy riding.