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Adventure, Cycle / May 18, 2016

How to layer for fall riding

Written by: Jan Bennett

A few years ago, I toed the line at Cyclocross nationals in my home state of Texas. The temperature was around 34 degrees—cold enough for the rain to transition to sleet. I hadn’t grown up biking in cold weather, so I felt the chill in my bones. I wound up so miserable I had to pull out of that race. As soon as I did, I made it a point to figure out my system of layering while on the bike.

I started off with a bit of common knowledge: that we lose most of our body heat through the tops of our heads. It turns out that isn’t true (see for yourself). Instead, our bodies release heat more or less evenly across their surfaces. So learning to layer for an autumn ride should involve more than putting on a cycling cap.

Thankfully, it’s not all that hard. Let’s start from the ground up. 

When paired with wool socks, toe warmers offer a straightforward solution to cold feet.

Leggings or knee warmers aren't just for comfort. Warm joints move easier and are less prone to injury.

Toe covers are an inexpensive, lightweight way to keep your feet warm. They slide on over your cycling shoes and help to block the wind while retaining a bit of heat at the same time. Paired with a nice wool sock, they keep feet toasty on even the coolest mornings. I ride with toe warmers from Pearl Izumi.

Cold weather puts extra strain on joints—particularly on the knees. Knee warmers help riders retain warmth in these joints and the muscles around them, which keeps them moving freely and reduces the risk of injury.

Lightweight knee warmers like these are great for most conditions, but full-length tights or pants might be called for in colder weather.

When choosing a base layer, opt for one that will wick away sweat.

Everyone knows about leg warmers, but arm warmers? Try them out, and you'll never go back (until summer, at least).

It’s important to keep the torso warm, of course—but to do that, you’ll have have to keep the torso dry. That demands serious sweat mitigation, usually with a base layer. Those range from insulated tops to wind-blocking undershirts to simple, sweat-wicking layers.

One of my favorite base layers is a Gore short sleeve under shirt, which is built with Windstopper material in the front and a breathable material in the back. Pair this base layer with a set of arm warmers, and you’ll ride comfortably in a range of temperatures.

Pick a base layer that fits snug but doesn’t hinder movement. Few things can be as irritating as a bunched up under-shirt on a long ride, so make sure to try on your chosen base layer with a jersey in order to ensure the best possible fit.

The Buff head wrap serves as an all-purpose, all-season head cover.

Unlike cycling caps, the Buff actually looks cool.

Finally, you’ll need a head cover. Most people go for a cycling cap, but I’m partial to the Buff. The wrap can be used as a standard head cover, a neck warmer, a sweat band, or even as a sun block.

The Buff comes in a multitude of thicknesses and patterns—the hardest part of choosing one is often picking out the coolest pattern!

"Embro" is a cream or oil made from the active ingredient in hot peppers.

Enzo sticks package Embro cream in an easy-to-apply stick form.

Many cyclists, especially cyclocross racers, supplement their layering system with warming embrocation cream, or “embro”. The active ingredient in this creams is capsicum, which is what makes hot peppers hot.

Usually applied to the legs, embro effectively creates a barrier between you and the elements. This barrier acts as a wind block while helping to retain body heat. The capsicum works to generate heat on the surface of the skin, which is an added benefit. It comes in a variety of consistencies and heat levels—I recommend the easy-apply sticks from Enzos. Just remember to wash your hands after you put it on! 

Ultimately, determining your layering routine for biking in cold weather will come down to a bit of trial and error. Having a small selection of layers to choose from will help you extend your riding season and help to maintain all the fitness you’ve worked so hard to gain.

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about the author

Jan Bennett

An adventure seeker at her core, Jan Bennett has always been drawn to the outdoors and being active. Completing three different wilderness expeditions before graduating high school, Jan has always been at home in the wilderness. Even though she has a degree in Technology Management and a minor in Business, Jan took the leap and left corporate America in 2015 in order to persue her cycling passions. On any given day, you can find Jan in Dallas, Texas preparing her mind and body for the next outdoor adventure.

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