Bike commuter basics: Layering clothing for colder weather

This topic has come up a few times recently so I figured I’ll write a blog post about it. You’ll find that I don’t talk about cycling specific clothing. There are two reasons for this. One, I consider myself a plain clothes cyclist. Aside from a few short sleeve jerseys and a pair of leg warmers I don’t own any cycling specific clothing. Two, cycling specific gear is not cheap and since I already had a lot of hiking/snow gear I simply re-purposed some of it for cycling. The first thing you want to remember about layering is: NO COTTON. Cotton, while popular, does not dry quickly nor facilitate moisture transfer away from the skin to outer layers. Another important thing to remember is you should always be a bit cold at the start of your ride, your body will warm up quickly with activity and you want the temps to be “just right” instead of “too hot” 5-10 minutes into the ride. The components of layering are:

  • Base layer(s)
  • Insulating layer(s)
  • Protection layer
Base Layer

Base Layer

The ideal base layer is one that is form fitted (but not too tight) and wicks away moisture to the outer layers. You want either technical fabric (sold under many brand names) or wool. Your baselayer can be short sleeve, long sleeve or sleeveless. You can use multiple base layers such as a sleeveless shirt over a long sleeve shirt providing extra protection at your core. Base layer examples.


Fleece Vest

Fleece Vest

After the base layer comes one or more insulating layers. Fleece is a very popular insulating layer and is available in varying thickness and configuration. I often recommend a fleece vest (rather than long sleeves) as the vest keeps your core warm but allows some heat to escape from your armpits. Insulating layer examples.

Shell Jacket

Shell Jacket

The last layer is your outer layer that protects you from wind and water, often resistant or proof. A wind resistant outer layer on a bicycle is key, if you’ve ever watched bicycle racing events you may have witnessed riders stuffing newspaper up their jerseys as they hit a long descent after a long climb. The newspaper protects their core from wind chill on fast descents. A shell jacket is a popular choice and provides excellent protection from wind and water. Alternatively there are fleece technologies that also block wind such as Gore Windstopper. If you live in a warmer climate you may just want a windproof fleece/softshell as your outer layer. Features on an outer layer may include pit zips to allow heat to escape.

Other apparel that can be added into the mix are arm, leg or knee warmers which can be put on or stripped off quite quickly as things cool down or heat up. A thin helmet liner is an option for keeping your head warm, or simply taping your helmet vents closed can keep things warm. Gloves are important, and can be found with Gore Windstopper technology. There are also toe/shoe covers to keep your feet warm and protected from wind/water.


This past Friday I did two bicycle related things I’d not done before. First time on a single speed mountain bike and first time on a fat bike. What is a fat bike? A fat bike (or snow bike) is a bike with REALLY wide tires. 3.5″+ wide. Surly has two models in their lineup, the Pugsley and Moonlander. Salsa has one, the Mukluk. What are the benefits of really wide tires? There are several. First, the wider tire has a larger air volume. Larger air volume means the tire can act as a suspension of sorts, absorbing impacts with any number of obstalces. Second, the tire is run at lower pressure, as low as 8 psi. This allows the tire casing to deform as it encounters obstacles, again acting as a suspension but also increasing traction as more of the tire is in contact with the ground at any given time. Third, the contact patch is larger. The larger the contact patch the more float the tire has and the easier it rolls over soft surfaces like sand and snow. The larger contact patch also lessens the impact to the trail. Combine all these benefits and it equals serious FUN.

I was riding on the west side of the Estrella mountain range, where the roads are mostly sandy, occasionally as deep as beach sand. Off the roads the surface varies from hardpack to 4″ – 6″ riprap. Topography varied from flat to rollers much like those found around the buttes at Papago Park. The Pugsley I was riding rolled over all these surfaces with relative ease. While deep sand required more effort, the tires did not bog down like an ordinary 2″ wide mountain bike tire would have. I was especially impressed with the ride quality over 2″ – 3″ gravel, the aired down tires made it feel as if riding an ordinary bike on hardpack, quite smooth. Another terrain where the wide tires excelled was riding over channels in the sandy soil as much as 12″ deep and two feet wide created by rainwater draining to lower elevation. An ordinary bike tire impacting the sharp edges of the channels would have cut in like a knife slowing the bike significantly. The nearly 4″ wide tires however, rolled over and through these channels quite easily. I’m pretty sure I had a big goofy grin on most of the ride and every time new terrain was conquered I’d often laugh with amazement. I was also amazed that I really didn’t miss a geared drivetrain much, 32×19 was a pretty good ratio for a fun roll through the desert.

SS Pugsley

SS Pugsley

Build a Bike or Buy a Bike?

This is a question that gets asked quite a bit on the internet and in bike shops. There’s nothing wrong with building a bike, just know that it will almost ALWAYS be more expensive than buying a bike. I learned this first hand yesterday when I put together a spreadsheet for a mountain touring 29er build. I had an idea that I could build a “poor man’s” Salsa Fargo 2-ish clone. After about 20 minutes it became clear, that even after choosing a frame/fork that costs $300 less, and using lower spec components, that my “poor man’s” build was just as expensive as buying a complete Fargo 2 and resulted in less bike for the same price. For the record, I’m talking new builds and wholesale cost in both cases, not retail.

So what do you do if you want a semi-custom build? My recommendation would be to find the closest stock build you can, pull parts you don’t want immediately, sell them to your friends or on eBay and then buy the parts you want to customize.

Bicycle Times & Dirt Rag Magazine

Just a short post to drop some props on Bicycle Times & Dirt Rag magazine. Two great publications, the former being my favorite for plain clothes cyclists like myself. Also a thanks to both as I won a Minewt 600 light in their 2011 year end sweepstakes. My favorite 2011 article would have to be the “Touring with the Family” article in Issue 13 covering one family’s journey on the 335 mile C&O Towpath / Greater Allegheny Passage trail that runs between Pittsburgh, PA and Washington D.C. I hope to ride this trail in 2012, planning to build a mountain touring rigid 29’er for the journey.

Cygolite Hotshot 2 watt rechargeable rear bicycle light

It’s not often I talk about specific products in a review style manner. This one however, deserves some attention. We got Cygolite’s Hotshot rechargeable rear light in the shop and it’s fantastic. First of all, rechargeable. I’ve been rocking rechargeable front lights for 5+ years now. No more batteries! Second, standard Mini USB type B connector cable to re-charge from a wall brick, computer, USB solar panel, auxiliary USB battery pack or 12v socket. Your typical techie has several Mini USB cables lying around at any given time. Third, TWO WATTS (bright!). Fourth, adjustable flash rate (in flashing modes) and brightness (in always on mode). Fifth, super dim setting offers up to 500 hours, FIVE HUNDRED HOURS! of light for emergency lighting, map reading, etc *and* since it’s red it preserves night vision. Sixth, only $10 more than a Planet Bike Superflash Turbo. Seventh, do you really need any more reasons to check it out?