When the winter cold bites, bite back.
It’s irresponsible, unreasonable, and downright masochistic to bike in the winter. Bikes are recreational vehicles for protected trails, and are not suited to the rigors of winter riding. It’s just dangerous. In fact, riding your bike in the winter will corrode your bike into oblivion, so it’s best to hook it up to the trainer until the world is green again.
This is the gospel of our car-centric culture. If you’re like me, this voice whispers menacingly in one ear while the bike whispers into the other: Let’s go for a ride.
I prefer to listen to the bike. I’ve now biked three Northeast winters. Every day (and sometimes twice a day), in wind and rain and blinding snow, I get on the bike and push the ten miles of my commute. It’s always terrible out, once we’re in deep winter, and it’s always cold. Here’s the upside; you can turn the most depressing, dreary, and life-sucking months of the year into your own personal gauntlet, and reap the rewards of better physical and mental health.
Part I: Workwear
This is going to be a gear post, and the clothes I’m talking about are brands and companies that personally align with my principles. But, if brand names just aren’t your thing, you’ll be happier switching to one of my trip reports.
Workwear, in my commuting utility belt, describes clothes that serve three purposes:
- They’re wrinkle-resistant and travel well, since they spend part of the day crumpled into a backpack.
- They’re professional, clean-cut, and work appropriate.
- They’re moisture-wicking, sweat-managing, and generally comfortable to wear after a grinding, uncompromising commute with minimal odor or discomfort.
In my system, I’m not always perfectly dry or perfectly cool when I change out of my outerwear, so my workwear has to pull double-duty during the cooldown. Kelley, my girlfriend, would complain in an instant if I started smelling like a gym bag, so the odor tests take place several times a day. By utilizing cutting-edge textiles and some classics (like wool), I can finish my cool-down after my work day has already begun.
A baselayer serves as a first line of defense for moisture. Moisture is more than an inconvenience for a winter cyclist; when your skin is moist, you lose heat rapidly through convection. The wicking action of a good base keeps your skin relatively dry, and much warmer.
I have a few baselayer pieces I mix and match, but here are my favorites:
1. Core Baselayer, Ministry of Supply
The Core Baselayer is one of those shirts I just can’t seem to stop reaching for. MOS uses a synthetic blend to balance moisture management with a soft hand. It’s a durable, stretchy, and versatile piece that works for summer mountain biking and winter running, with the right layers. I like that it uses coffee grounds to fight odor, and I won’t hesitate to wear it twice before sending it through the wash.
2. Seventeen.5 Nelson, Ibex
Merino wool is a staple in the outdoor industry. Three years ago, I had to “sell” the idea of a fabric that resists odor for days (or weeks) at a time, but today it’s almost mainstream. I invested plenty into my Seventeen.5 Nelson… two years ago, and through almost daily winter wear, it still looks brand new. On top of being smoother and softer than some ‘lesser’ wool knits, the Nelson also boasts outstanding durability, and with a little care, it just keeps going!
3. Midweight Wool Hiking Sock, Smartwool
Smartwool’s original is still the best. These socks are more durable than anything else I’ve tested on the long term, including Darn Tough. In my workplace, a plain tan or gray wool sock flies, but I’m in the Ecological Conservation department at a New England university. Having smartwool hikers is almost a requirement in this crowd.
4. Woolies Baselayer Tights, Ibex
Long underwear is a bit of a trade secret for many New Englanders. A good pair of long-johns will keep you warm while preserving the normal appearance of your workwear. I live in my Woolies from October to April, since they’re comfortable in temperatures as warm as 45ºF or so. After two years of daily use for half the year, they didn’t end up with holes in the seat where my previous Smartwool pair failed. I’m still on my first with the Ibex, and this season is looking promising.
5. Anatomica Briefs, Icebreaker
Wool is a drug, and I am addicted. These briefs cover my nethers when the weather is a little less brutal, or, alternatively, can be layered under the Ibex tights for greater warmth where it counts most. I like how light these are, and will often stash a pair in my backpack in case I get caught in an unexpected rainstorm in the shoulder season.
Pants and Shirts
6. Stretch Zion Pant, PrAna
If I had to pick just one item in this list, the PrAna Stretch Zion pants are a clear winner by a wide margin. No other piece of clothing I’ve ever owned has performed so well.
That’s a bold statement to type about a pair of pants. Let me break down why this is the only pair I buy anymore:
- The Stretch Zion fabric is a blend of nylon and spandex. Since nylon is one of the most durable synthetic fibers, they take an absolute beating.
- The ingenious weave means there’s stretch in every direction, letting me mount and dismount a bicycle.
- The color and feel of the fabric is muted and understated. The fabric is used in the Stretch Zion Pant and the Brion pant, which is cut and finished like a regular pair of pants. In other words, they don’t scream “technical clothing.”
In the two years I’ve been wearing these pants, I have lost one pair at my parent’s house, but have failed to put a single hole or bust a single stitch in any of the pairs I wear daily. Currently, I own two pairs of the Stretch Zion pant and one pair of Brion pants. The Brion pants look like normal khakis, so they get worn to conferences and meetings. The other two make up my daily workwear.
Since I don’t own any other pants, I also hike, climb, camp, bike, explore, and perform manual labor in these. I don’t hesitate to sit around a campfire or beat these up on multi-day backpacking trips because they’re always perfect after a quick wash.
They dry fast, too, under two hours with good ventilation. If I get caught in the rain, they’re dry on my body within an hour, which has saved me a few times.
7. The Better Button-Down, Wool and Prince
Are they not calling it the Better Button-Down anymore? Mac Bishop at Wool and Prince has been a friend of the blog since I first featured some of his gear almost two years ago, when both of us were in our inception phases. Since then, I now count five Better Button-Downs in my wardrobe, rotated every single day to work. They all fit perfectly for my athletic build, and I no longer own any other dress shirt.
Mac uses a special worsted wool that feels different from your average merino tee. It’s more durable than any of my cotton button-downs, and resists stains, moisture, wrinkles, and odor. It’s almost like workplace armor. You can check out my full review here.
I did manage to coat one of them in glowstick at a rave in Montreal, but the wash took it out after two cycles and it’s back to work like nothing ever happened. Impressive!
8. Aurora Vest, Ministry of Supply
The fine line between outerwear and innerwear…. I decided to run this item in the Workwear list because I’ve never failed to wear it in when I use it. The Aurora Vest is a windproof, waterproof, insulated fleece, so it works great under or over just about anything.
On brutally cold days, I wear it underneath a windshirt to trap in warmth. On days hovering around freezing, it’s the best on the outside of my cycling clothes, and I can rip open the full zip at the top of the second hill on my commute.
Since it repels mud, slush, and grime, I can wipe it down with my handkerchief when I get to the office and wear it right over my work shirt for the flexible heating schedules in our older buildings.
9. Cashmere Scarf, Handmade Locally
My final item is one of my favorites, and one of my most essential. A simple scarf takes my work attire up a notch; it’s classy, like a tie, but remains casual and unique enough that I don’t accidentally become an office drone.
I wrap this puppy around my face on those bitingly cold mornings, and keep my ears and head warm with a hat. The combo works better than a balaclava for me, since I can adjust the coverage with one hand while I ride.
On the transitional days from fall into winter, when temperatures hover around 40-50ºF and the sun keeps the ground dry, I wear these on the bike and straight into the office. I can push as hard as I want to through my commute, and with a little temperature regulation through the adding and removing of layers, there’s minimal perspiration and no odor. I wouldn’t let myself compromise my career with bike-sweat.
This wardrobe keeps my life simpler, since there’s no question about what I’ll wear in every day. With three pairs of pants, five dress shirts, and a couple of nice sweaters, I have a fashion repertoire that suits my aspiration without drawing any attention away from the more important things in life.
You’re running out of excuses to skip your bike commute!
Keep Riding (all winter),