Figuring out how to stay warm, dry, and happy on a bike can be a challenge when the temperature drops and the snow starts to fall, but with the right gear and cold weather riding strategy, winter doesn’t have to mean the end of your riding season. We asked two gravel and mountain bike racing pros, Haley Smith and Andrew L'Esperance of the Maxxis Factory Team, for their winter riding advice.
“Riding in the winter is just another opportunity to make riding a bike more interesting,” said Andrew. “You can ride on different surfaces and in different temperatures, and it changes your experience of riding. It’s cool that there are so many ways to ride a bike.”
Pros have no choice but to train outdoors at least sometimes during the winter so they’ll be competitive all season long, but there’s more to it than that.
“Winter riding is good because of the mental health benefits of being outside in nature,” said Haley. “It’s easy to stay inside in the heat or just do indoor sports during the winter, but you get so much fulfillment from being outside in the natural world in winter conditions. It’s stimulating.”
Andrew and Haley now call Waterloo, Quebec home. He’s originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and she grew up in Uxbridge, Ontario. And while they often don’t stay home for the entirety of every Canadian winter, they both have plenty of experience pedaling through challenging winter conditions.
Tip #1: Dress For Success
“Riding in the cold is all about temperature regulation. It’s about adjusting front zippers and vents constantly so as to not overheat,” said Andrew. “The general strategy is to dress warm but be able to cool yourself down at any moment.”
When you overheat, you sweat, and then your clothing becomes damp. And damp clothing doesn’t keep you warm. If you’re damp and stop moving for any reason or just go downhill, you’ll get even colder.
Andrew suggests investing in a good base layer that dries quickly while you’re wearing it so it’ll always keep you warm. “Look for something with a waffle-y texture that pulls the main material away from the skin and creates an air barrier so it dries better,” he said, noting that his favorite base layer is a long sleeve jersey with with an integrated long neck that works like a built-in Buff and can be pulled up and over the face when it’s cold.
Keeping hands and feet warm is especially important to Haley. To her, it’s worth it to invest in good winter riding shoes and accessories so they stay toasty throughout each ride.
“Have really good gloves, or better yet, get bar mitts,” she said. “I just discovered them recently, and they’ve changed my life!”
If you don’t have bar mitts, you can still benefit from another of Andrew’s pro tips. “As someone whose extremities get cold, I ride with multiple pairs of gloves. I always have one or two extras. Having a dry set of gloves to change into when you’re going out for multiple hours is a game changer because when your gloves get sweaty and damp, your hands get cold. Even a lighter weight but dry pair of gloves is more valuable than any wet pair of gloves.
Some riders find it helpful to adopt the approach of wearing their lighter gloves during longer climbs when they’re generating more heat and switching to their warmer gloves for cold descents.
Tip #2: Ride Smart
Riding in winter often entails dealing with precipitation, which can make conditions feel even colder and make it hard to get in long rides, but there are several strategies that can help.
“If you’re going to be riding somewhere in wet winter conditions, try doing multiple, shorter rides,” said Haley. “When we used to train in Victoria in the freezing rain, I’d ride for 1.5 hours and stop and change into dry clothes, then continue on. Make sure you have a way to stay dry or are able to change en route.”
Haley also shared one of her favorite tricks: riding with a hot drink.
“I have a riding thermos that fits in a bottle cage, and I’ll put hot chocolate or soup stock into it,” she said. “I maintain that the best way to warm up is from the inside out!”
Tip #3: Avoid Flats
The last thing you want to happen when riding in the winter is to have to stop mid-ride to deal with mechanicals or flats. In the worst conditions, you can go from happily warm to miserably frozen during just a few minutes of inactivity.
“Fixing a flat in the cold is no fun,” said Andrew, who explains several ways to prevent winter-time flats.
First is to make sure you’re running tires with a little thicker casing. He says not to worry about a bit of extra weight; whether or not you even notice it, it’ll only make you stronger for spring.
Second is to check the status of your sealant.
“If you’re riding the same bike and tires that you were riding all summer, and you haven’t topped off your Stan’s lately, chances are good that you need more sealant,” he said. “Having the right amount of sealant will help you seal punctures, even in the cold.” Stan’s Sealant works down to temperatures as cold as -20° F (-28° C).
Riders in drier winter climates may also have to refresh their sealant more often. Depending where you live, refreshes may be needed as often as every two months or as infrequently as every seven months.
Last but not least is to properly set your tire and suspension pressures so they’ll work like they’re supposed to.
“When you’re going out for a cold road, gravel, or mountain bike ride, put your bike outside in the cold and let it sit for a bit before you set your tire and suspension pressures,” said Andrew, “so you’ll get the right pressures for the riding conditions.” He noted that it’s especially important for fat bikes because a 1/4 psi change in tire pressure makes a huge difference in how a tire with a large volume feels when you ride it.
“Air pressure goes down in colder temperatures,” he said. “If you pump your mountain bike tires to 20 psi and you’re inside in your 70-degree Fahrenheit house, when you go outside, your tires will feel much softer at the lower temperature outside.”
You don’t have to be an expert in tire and suspension pressures to know how to adapt your equipment to the cold.
“If you’re not equipment- or gear-minded, just make friends with someone who is. They can help you figure it out,” suggested Haley.
Those friends can also double as riding buddies who help motivate you to get out and pedal in the cold.
Tip #4: Go Somewhere Warm
Ok, so maybe winter riding just isn’t for you, or maybe you like winter, but you still get tired of it after a while. You can always consider doing what many pros do.
“Leave!” said Haley. “Winter’s great, but it’s even better when you can leave for periods of time. I love riding in the winter, and I also try to get away once or twice each winter to go somewhere with more sun to get some vitamin D. I like to go to a place where I don’t have to have every inch of skin covered.”
Haley shared her favorite winter riding getaways. Both are in California: Santa Cruz on the Central Coast and the Malibu Hills in the southern part of the state. Other popular winter cycling destinations include Arizona, Florida, Mexico, and Spain.
She said, “If you can make training or riding easier for some blocks of the year by going somewhere warm, go do it!”