There is no getting around it, no matter how expensive your gear is. Winter cycling is about perspiration, and how you manage the moisture. When exercising hard it’s inevitable, you’re going to sweat. Perspiration is being burned off by the heat of your body, it’s vaporized, like steam, and needs to travel away from you skin before it cools and condenses to water droplet form. The first layer of clothes that is in direct contact with your skin is responsible for repelling the chill. That chill is the feeling of your skin’s surface cooling as the moisture leaves it. Sweat should be wicked away from the skin’s surface by capillary action in the base layer’s fabric, so that evaporative cooling is minimized.

I find the quality of your base layer really comes into play at about 5 degrees Celsius to -15 degrees Celsius. I’ll use a single polyester jersey, preferably long sleeve. Few of them are actual “cycling jerseys”, and are more general sports wicking tops. I prefer the ones with a full neck zip, as they mate up to my balaclava better than the crew neck style. Polyesters won’t absorb moisture, they’ll “wick” to transport it through to the next breathable layer where is can be vented. It’s important that your base layers have a clinging fit, so that your skin is always in contact with the fabric therefore eliminating any air pockets.

Light to heavy weight polyester jerseys

In colder weather, -20c.  degrees and lower I’ll double up on the base layers to increase the wicking power. Two jerseys the finer knit one first. I’ll usually be dressed for cooler weather all around, so there is a better chance that I’ll start sweating if I have to go indoors or climb some snow hills.

Even at relatively warm winter temperature, a base long underwear layer is a must. Synthetic boxer briefs will give you the support and wicking you need to keep dry. Even padded cycling shorts will do the trick, but tend to absorb moisture in the chamois.

Full synthetic boxer briefs

Poly tights or mid weight long undies over synthetic briefs will move the moisture away from your legs and groin. Depending on how cold it is I will wear either waffle knit thermal or wicking long underwear. In extreme cold I’ll layer with both.

DC Sports thermal long underwear

A touque or “snow cap” as the Americans would put it, is a must have item at freezing temperatures. A base ball cap simply will not do. I prefer a fleece lined polyester variety, as they dry quickly and are not bulky so they fit under a helmet quite easily. Make sure you get one that offers good ear protection, you’ll thank me later.

MEC fleece lined touque

I wear a thin lightweight fleece balaclava on all rides under -5 degrees. It’s the Outdoor Research “Ninjaclava” Balaclava. I don’t really need it on my face until -10 -15 degrees, but it sure helps to block the wind draft around your neck no matter what the conditions. Just make sure you pull it off before you go to the bank to make a deposit!

Outdoor Research Ninjaclava

A truly great piece of gear for all outdoor sports in cooler zones. After -30 degrees look for something a little heavier like a wind blocking fleece balaclava, it won’t breath as well but will stop the wind chills.

In winter cycling, the base layer concept should apply to your hands and feet as they are a source of a lot of perspiration. Polypropylene or better liners are must. Dirt cheap, 100% synthetic.  If you’ve ever had to change a flat in sub zero temperatures, you’ll definitely appreciate the dexterity that you have while still being protected from the icy cold of the rims. You can’t change a tire with with mitts or gloves on. But you can with a thin liner.

Polypropylene glove liners

Get something cheap and disposable so that you won’t feel bad when you shred them. Even if you just carry them as emergency gloves, its good insurance..

As a base layer, polypro liners for your feet make a lot of sense too. I prefer something more like WigWam’s Gobe liners, as they are really gentle on bare feet, and move moisture very well.

Wigwam’s Gobe sock liners

If your using a vapor barrier like plastic bags or VB socks, remember to put on the liners first. Vapor barrier second. Then put on your insulation. Your feet will feel way less clammy wearing the liner first. The vapor barrier will prevent your perspiration from soaking your insulating layer and will keep your feet warmer if you’re outside for extended periods.

Wool Theorists

Where’s the socks?

The “Wool Theorists” out there will swear by wool, but I prefer polyester or polypropylene. Don’t even mention cotton…

Yep, I said it. I agree that wool stays warm when it’s wet, but as a base layer the whole goal is to move the moisture outward, not absorb and trap it. For me wool can be a chore to care for as it can stretch and shrink depending on how you wash it. I have washed my synthetic jerseys hundreds of times with virtually no visible changes to the fabric, no piling, no fading. There are some newer “smart wools” on the market that retain their shape, but are too delicate for me to wear. They are made mostly of synthetics anyway. I take my polyester jerseys out of  the regular laundry and hang them to dry. Ready to commute in a couple hours. Have you ever tried to dry a wool sweater?

I have one exception, and that is for socks. The insulating qualities of wet wool work well for that application, since the perspiration is trapped in your boot and cannot be vented.

There are actually quite a few designer “bike suits” on the market that may be quite good if you can afford them. But you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get out there and ride. Just keep the idea of synthetics and moisture wicking in mind as you shop for a base layer. In fact most of your summer riding gear will make a great base layer for winter, so don’t feel as though you need to go out and get winter specific base layers.

Other than adding a second jersey, I don’t change what I wear as a base layer regardless of how cold it gets out there. Simply ensure that you have good coverage from head to toe. The base layer is there to move moisture and protect against the chill of evaporative cooling.

Even at relatively warm winter temperature, a base long underwear layer is a must. Poly tighs or midweight long undies over sysnthetic breifs will move the moisture away from your legs and groin. A pair of breathable, lighweight nylon pants will dry off quickly in the wind as you ride. The’re are actually quite a few designer “bike suits” at this level that may be quite good if you can afford them. But you don’t need a lot of money to get out there for a ride. Just keep the idea of sythnthetics and moisture wicking in mind as you shop.