Winter Bike Commuting: Head-to-Toe Gear Breakdown

Bike commuting in northerly climates presents unique challenges for riders during the winter months. But by adapting the way you ride and wearing the proper gear, even the harshest of winter days are bikeable. Here’s my head-to-toe breakdown of the gear that’s allowing me to get the miles in, despite the cold and snow, this winter in Minnesota. —Patrick Murphy

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The author in full riding gear on Minneapolis’ Greenway Bike Path

Helmet: Cutting to the chase, the Lazer Dissent helmet is straight-up warm. No need for a hat underneath even in low winter temps. A slide-lever on top lets you regulate airflow by opening or closing its vents, and a magnetic buckle allows you to take the helmet on and off without removing your gloves. One drawback: The insulated ear pads make it difficult to hear what’s going on around you, so be careful in traffic.

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Hot Head: Cold days aren’t an issue with the Lazer Dissent

LED Add-On: With winter commuting in limited daylight we added a light to the Lazer hard hat. The Vis 180 Micro from Light & Motion provides a strong red rear light as well as blinking side visibility. Strap it to a helmet to keep yourself more visible on the road. $49.

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Vis 180 Micro from Light & Motion provides compact visibility

The Buff: The thin, seamless headwear called Buffs are one of our all-time favorite pieces of gear. They are clutch for winter riding. On days that temps are above freezing, I stick to my normal summer helmet with a Buff underneath. On the most frigid days, a Buff around the neck provides additional warmth to a susceptible area, sealing out the cold. $20.

Jacket: A “comprehensive cold-weather system” is an accurate billing for the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Softshell 3×1 Jacket. The snug-fitting softshell uses PrimaLoft insulation and Cocona fabrics to wick, breathe, block wind, and warm the core on cold rides. In addition to warmth, the fit of this jacket is exceptional and made for a body positioned on a bike. Bonus: It comes with a detachable balaclava for the harshest winter days. $375.

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The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Softshell 3×1 Jacket is the whole package

Bib Knickers: We were surprised to see that the fleece-lined Castelli Sorpasso Bib Knickers are only rated down to about 50 degrees F by the company. For me, they’ve done the job in the 30s alone, and paired with the my Icebreaker base layers I’ve had plenty of warmth to ride well below freezing in these sleek and racy cold-weather tights. $189.99.

Base Layers: Underneath it all I’ve been wearing Icebreaker base layers this winter, including the brand’s Pursuit Leggings ($110), Commute Long Sleeve Zip top ($175), and the Quantum Vest ($130). This pricey merino wool system offers base insulation, breathability, and (based on our longterm tests of Icebreaker clothing) high-quality designs that will last for years of on-the-bike wear and abuse.

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The Commute Long Sleeve Zip is a staple for winter riding

Gloves: A waterproof outer and puffy PrimaLoft insulation makes the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Softshell WxB 3×1 Glove the warmest in the company’s arsenal. While a good mitten is almost always going to be warmer than gloves, the added dexterity of gloves makes these my go-to in all but the worst of conditions. I found them more than sufficient for an hour of riding in the low 20s. Reflective elements on the gloves boost low-light visibility, which is more important than ever as daylight wanes during the winter days. $130.

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Warmth meets dexterity: Pearl Izumi’s P.R.O. Softshell glove

Biking Boots: I reviewed the Wölvhammer boots back in December, and you better believe I’ve been keeping warm in them ever since. As the creation of cold-weather cycling specialists 45Nrth, the Wölvhammers have durable Cordura uppers and insulation all around for endurance riding in the harshest of winter weather. Caveat: The built-up boots are likely overkill for the vast majority of cold-weather commuters. But if you never want to worry about cold feet while riding these are the answer, albeit with a high cost. $325.

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The Wölvhammer is a beast in the worst of winter conditions

Socks: The Elite Thermal Wool Sock from Pearl Izumi round out the merino wool base system I use. In the most common problem area for cold-weather riding these socks offered warmth and kept my feet drier by wicking moisture as I pedal. $18

—Patrick Murphy is an assistant editor.

Posted by qx87 - 01/16/2013 11:06 AM

Just ride man.

Layering is key, gloves, pants, upper body, socks. With a general understanding of layering and the importance of a good base layer, you dont need all that crap.

Really, man you ride like that?

Posted by coldweatherrider - 01/16/2013 11:53 AM

What “crap” are you talking about? His set up describes exactly your “general understanding.”

Posted by Warren Long - 01/16/2013 12:12 PM

I thought Minnesota had winters similar to Saskatoon, but that is not adequate clothing for me for my cold-weather riding… I ride year round, no exceptions. This year has been warmer, but we have been hovering around -20 to -30 for 6 weeks now (yesterday was a strange exception). I have never found any gloves that work in those temperatures. And very little skin is exposed, just a small slit around my eyes, inside a skidoo helment for the really cold days. And big, heavy boots. I have winter cycling shoes, 2 sizes too large, room for 3 pairs of socks, but those are only good down to -20…

Posted by T.C. Worley - 01/16/2013 04:34 PM

Warren, we regularly dip into single digits here in Minneapolis, but don’t see sustained temps in the negatives all too often. Perhaps you’re thinking of the more northern regions of MN? Stay warm up there, brother – Good on you for pedaling despite the chills.

Posted by jpea - 01/17/2013 04:08 PM

It’s a good way to keep warm and active in those temps – ouch :)

I’m sure the article is meant to be an overview, where you can pick and choose what might work for the gaps in your setup, not a “go buy this whole setup” type of article. Well written.

Posted by Boz - 01/17/2013 10:39 PM

I always ride a fixie on the snow and ice.

Posted by Tim rice - 01/21/2013 04:32 PM

To qx87, all that crap? Warmth isn’t crap, and neither is unrestricted movement on a bicycle. Especially on commuting. Some commute, some just ride to ride, some ride slow, and some ride fast. If riding slow I can wear my Columbia sportswear down coat and be fine. If I am riding fast, I prefer my UnderArmor cold gear top, Columbia omnia heat top and then my plastic bag thin Illuminite bike jacket. My black bottom wind tights, my polyester balaclava (really old snowmobile helmet liner). A simple thin hat. My smartWool hiker socks. I am good down to 20 and I ride 18-20 mph. My shimano MT31 MTB shoes. Around 10 I may add a layer under my Blackbottoms wind tights. Omni- heat only because I am too cheap to buy icebreaker. Around 10 I’ll wear my ski gloves. 20 and above I am in my gore bike wear uninsilated wind proof gloves. Stay dry, block the wind, on a bicycle less is more. Depending on how you ride, and how far (length of time you are in the elements)

Posted by Durishin - 01/21/2013 08:57 PM

Merino is THE miracle fabric.
1. Wicks without the temperature difference that the synthetics require
2. Its natural lanolin content kills bacteria so it doesn’t trap and hold stink like the synthetics
3. Cold wash and air dry is better for you greenies out there.

Posted by Kevin - 01/24/2013 10:54 PM

I’m sure the products in this review work, but they’re too expensive for daily winter commuting, especially the base layers.

If you ride every day, you’re going to need at least 4 or 5 thin base layer and mid layer tops. You go through a lot of them. You can wear them once or twice, maybe three times, but then they’re sweaty and nasty and need to be washed. At $175 a pop, you’re looking at $1500-$2000. Earlier this year TJ Max was selling a TON of high quality wicking base layers and wicking ‘mid’ layer tops from Hind for $12-$19 each. I bought everything they had in my size.

Your outer shell doesn’t need to have any insulation at all. It just needs to be windPROOF and waterPROOF — not ‘resistant’. Resistant is worthless, esp when it’s 20F and windy. I wear a Marmot Precip shell year round, including in the winter. It’s 100% wind and water proof, and it’s $100.

Basic get-up: thin, tight wicking base-layer ($12). Thicker but still wicking ‘mid’ layer ($19). Regular fleece pullover ($20). Then windproof/waterproof Precip jacket ($100). That keeps me plenty warm down to 0, and it’s affordable for daily commuting.

I live in Chicago, 8 mile commute, do it pretty much every day, including winter. In the winter I ride a cheap fixie (with brakes).

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