How To Bike Commute In The Winter, Part I: Workwear

When the winter cold bites, bite back.

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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.

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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:

  1. They’re wrinkle-resistant and travel well, since they spend part of the day crumpled into a backpack.
  2. They’re professional, clean-cut, and work appropriate.
  3. 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.

Baselayers

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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

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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

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. The ingenious weave means there’s stretch in every direction, letting me mount and dismount a bicycle.
  3. 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.

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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.

Great pants.

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.

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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!

Outerwear

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.

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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),

Max

 

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “How To Bike Commute In The Winter, Part I: Workwear

  1. Your gear for winter commuting is very similar to mine. Although, I fortunately have the option of storing my professional wear in a locker at work for the week. I take everything in on Monday and return with my panniers full on Friday. I keep an assortment of sweaters, an extra pair of socks and a belt handy at work.

    I wear Prana pants as well, but while at work only. I keep several pairs in 3 different colors. No chain stains for me. I always change after coming in, and change again when leaving. I wear Ibex wool cycling tights with a built in chamois. I wear 3/4 length knickers over them so I don’t look too “roadie” and switch to Gore Wear rain pants as my overwear when it gets truly frigid outside.

    I can’t stress the importance of personal hygiene accessories enough! Handtowel to wipe down with, some baby wipes, deodorant, mouthwash etc.

    All in all, cycling makes a lot more sense to me than driving in the winter. With studded tires I’m not likely to wreck myself. If I do, there’s always the possibility of a snowdrift to land in. As long as I don’t bang myself up too bad, my body will heal. One accident in the vehicle and you’re going to be shelling out hundreds or thousands for certain. There is absolute certainty that the vehicle will not heal itself….. On top of that, it brings me happiness, great energy, and helps me acclimatize to cold weather much better. I’m rarely bothered by the cold, not until it get’s down into the 10’s and below 0. Finally, at my workplace, there is the option of parking your bike right up next to the hospital, in the ramp on the rack, or parking 2 miles away in the commuter lot and taking the shuttle bus in. The time I spend changing clothes and pedaling home, is roughly equivalent to automotive commute. So the hell with it, I’d rather be listening to the sounds of nature volume 1 in the AM rather than the idiots on the radio, or my own voice cursing at the top of my lungs about traffic.

    Cheers man. Have fun out there!
    -Andy

    1. Thanks for writing all this, Andy. I have found that the relative safety of cycling in the winter is offset by the likelihood of drivers losing control on the roads I ride on, so it’s a wash. It’s just a fact of biking on the roads; you have to be predictive and defensive and careful, because drivers won’t be.

      I could probably arrange for a locker on campus (they have lockers, and I teach there), but I have not found I’ve needed it! My 5 mile commute isn’t quite long enough for me to work up a real sweat, and I’m not a particularly odorous guy in general (lucky genes) so it’s fine for me to sit outside for 10 minutes after my ride in and “cool down.”

      Kelley does what you do; she brings her work clothes in and changes there using panniers. It works!

  2. I have a nine-mile commute each way. I don’t change at work. I alternate pants between the Prana Zion (recent purchase) and Roscoe Outdoor Men’s Washakie pants. I wear one of several generic poly base layers under a Houdini for the ride in down to about freezing. I take a cotton dress shirt in my bike bag, and put it on over the base layer once I cool off at work. I have a mix of Smartwool and Darn Tough socks.

    Below freezing, I just wear the dress shirt also, under the Houdini, plus a wool or poly long underwear layer. I’m occasionally a bit sweaty, but never excessively, and luckily I, also, don’t stink.

    I’ve been wearing a couple of different padded undershorts, under the pants. I like how they feel while riding, but they’re clammy walking around in them at work. The Ibex are not so bad, but the grippy material at the bottom of the legs chafes me, once to the point of bleeding. I can ride unpadded for a couple of days, but day three or four is painful if I do.

    What do you do for gloves? I wear cheap “OutdoorDesigns” Polartec fleece glove liners down to about 40 °F, then add a pair of convertible Thinsulate knit mittens below that, and I’m comfy to about 20 °F, adequate to 5 °F. I’m thinking about trying pogies for colder.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andy.

      Your system is very similar to mine. I might try and turn you on to the wonders of an insulated vest for the morning rides. Unzipped, it’s almost as if you aren’t wearing any insulation, but when it’s zipped up tight it can really cut the chill as I warm up during my commute. I don’t have to be miserable for the first half and overheated the second half with a vest.

      I use regular polartec fleece gloves from L.L. Bean 90% of the time. When the temperature dives a bit, down below 20º, I break out an old, beat-up pair of Ibex wool gloves with a little more heft. Below zero (that happened a lot last winter), I use mountaineering mittens from Black Diamond, with glove liners inside. Waterproof, warm.

      I have also been thinking about pogies… I think I can get on board with them aesthetically for touring, but I hate looking goofy on my commute. I pass too many people my age riding around a college campus, and I don’t want any more of a reputation as a crazy cyclist than I already have…😉

      1. Well, it’s an easier decision for me, as I see no riders, let alone any I need to look un-goofy for.

        I’m worried my arms will start out cold with the vest and no windshirt, but since I arrived today at 32 °F with a slightly sweaty back, I think I’ll try it. I have a couple of fleece vests I can test the concept with.

        Thanks.

  3. I’ve tried out the fleece vest a few times now, down to about 36 °F. My arms are colder for a few minutes, but once warmed up I’m as comfortable as I was in the Houdini, and I think I did avoid some sweatiness. Thanks.

    Last night I was overly warm in the vest, at about 45 °F, and unzipped it. I was riding into a strong headwind, and it felt like it was creating so much wind resistance as a cape that I stopped and took it off.

    1. Thanks for following up! Great! I like vests on top of windshirts when the temperature really drops.

      A tip for winter camping: Keep your core and thighs warm, and your arms and feet will follow suit. Warm blood pumping through them means less insulation is necessary. A vest and some warm long-johns make a world of difference regulating temperature.

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