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When Is it Too Cold to Ride a Bike: 7 Tips for Below Freezing Cycling

Don't let cold weather keep you off the bike! From clothes, to safety, to bike maintenance, these winter riding tips will make cycling year round a whole lot easier.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Guides

When the weather gets cold, cyclists across the land prepare for hibernation — but that doesn't mean you have to too. Whether you’re commuting, training for next season, or just having fun, there’s no reason to let cold winter weather stop you from getting on your bike.

For years, I've commuted to and from the TPC office in any and all weather. Only the worst bomb cyclones (a scientific term for GNARLY winter storm) made me stay inside. These are the tips and tricks that I used to keep my riding streak going all year round. They're pretty basic, but mastering the basics makes it easier to succeed.

Really, the best advice for riding your bike through the winter is to just do it. Getting outside, embracing the challenge, and approaching the experience with curiosity (instead of dread) is the best way to turn winter riding into a habit. But the right gear, preparation, and mindset does make it easier to conquer the cold and ride year-round. Just follow these seven tips to stay safer, get fitter, and ride happier. 

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1. Cold Weather Cycling Clothes & Gear

This first tip should be obvious, but you need to dress for cold conditions. There's an old Norwegian proverb that was also the mantra of famed polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes: “There's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” The key is layering. Multiple layers allow you to easily customize your kit to adapt to different conditions. 

Cycling-specific winter clothing has a lot of advantages over general snow sports gear. It’s cut tighter and stretches so it doesn't interfere with pedaling, and it’s often much thinner and lighter too. It wicks away moisture to keep you dry and warm and many warmer pieces will use wind-blocking materials on the front to reduce wind chill and vents in the back to keep you dry. 

Winter cycling clothing essentialsRiding up Mt. Evans in Colorado, above 13,000 ft, in November - wearing a neck gaiter, thermal jersey, wind vest, thermal gloves, and thermal tights.

Recommended Winter Cycling Gear:

  • Thermal headband or skull cap
  • Neck gaiter/Buff
  • Thermal gloves
  • Thermal baselayer or jersey
  • Lightweight winter jacket/shell
  • Wind vest
  • Arm warmers
  • Thermal tights or knee warmers
  • Thermal socks
  • Toe caps/shoe covers

If you plan to keep riding all winter, then add some or all of this gear to your cycling wardrobe, you can mix and match pieces with your summer riding gear (i.e., your normal shorts/bibs and jersey) so you’ll be comfortable riding in 30-60° F weather. For example, on a brisk 50-60° day, I’ll just add a headband, vest, arm warmers, and knee warmers to my kit. When riding in 40-50° temps, I’ll put on my skull cap, neck gaiter, jacket, thermal tights, and shoe covers/toe caps. Colder than that, and I'll add thermal baselayers. 

Winter bike commuting fat bikeMy deep winter commuting kit: Thermal jacket, thermal tights, thermal baselayers, a balaclava, and ski goggles. Since this photo I've added lobster gloves and clipless winter boots. 

If you're regularly venturing out when it's freezing or below, then you may want to consider heavier lobster-style gloves and dedicated winter shoes, as your hands and feet are often the hardest parts of your body to keep warm. Ski goggles are also super useful for stopping the freezing cold air that can get behind your sunglasses. 

Everyone's body and tolerance is different, so it will likely take some experimentation to find out what pieces of gear you like wearing at what temperatures.

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How Cold Is Too Cold To Ride Your Bike?

There’s no definite answer to this. It’s only too cold when you’re no longer comfortable riding. This can vary depending on your gear or preferences. I stop road riding below 30° F and stop mountain biking below 15° F because I don’t like wearing the extra gear needed to handle such cold temperatures.

If you decide to venture out into below-freezing temperatures, watch out for frostbite, which can easily happen due to windchill. Exposed skin on your face is extremely vulnerable, so consider adding a balaclava and goggles to your kit when it gets under 20° F

2. Stay Visible; Stay Safe

Hi vis winter cycling shoe covers

Staying visible to motorists is always a good idea, but it’s especially important during the cold months when there is less light, and drivers aren’t expecting to see cyclists. This is why a lot of cold weather cycling gear comes in high-visibility color options. You don’t need to go full neon, but adding one or two high-vis pieces to your kit will help your silhouette stand out against a white and gray winter backdrop

Consider adding a set of blinking lights to your bike as well. I recommend a Garmin Varia RTL515 radar if you want the ultimate tool for improving visibility and situational awareness. It combines a rear tail light with a radar that will warn you about cars approaching from behind. 

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You may also need to adjust your riding tactics in certain situations. If a bike lane is obstructed by snow, ice, or debris, it’s best to take the main lane of the road so you stay visible and don’t get squeezed by cars. The sun will be lower in the morning and afternoon, which can blind motorists. If you’re between the sun and a driver, assume you’re invisible and ride defensively.  

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3. Don't Fear Muck; Winterize, Clean, and Maintain Your Bike

Washing a bike drivetrainWet weather leads to dirty kits and dirty bikes. I say embrace it. Getting dirty is part of the fun (as long as you have warm clothes). As for your bike, don't stress too much, but keeping your drivetrain clean and lubricated is the key to a happy and reliable bike.

At the bare minimum, wipe down and re-lube your chain regularly, especially after wet rides. Giving your drivetrain an occasional deep clean with a degreaser and a brush will keep your shifting crisp and help it last longer. If you encounter rain, snow, or mud, consider switching to a wet lube that will last longer and survive harsher riding conditions. 

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Also, you might want to wash and clean your whole bike more often than you do in the summer, especially if you're riding in the salt belt or anywhere salt or chemicals are used to de-ice roads. Keeping things clean will help keep corrosion and wear from winter conditions at bay. We deal with thousands of used bike every month, and we can always tell just by looking at the paint and components when bikes have spent months covered in mud, grime, and salt. 

You can also keep your body a bit cleaner during wet and cold rides too with a basic clip-on fender. It will keep spray off your butt and back and they're easy to remove whenever you get a stretch of good weather. For racier road and gravel bikes, I love lightweight fenders like those made by Ass Savers. They don't add much weight or spoil the lines of your beautiful frame. 

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If you're road riding during the winter months, you’re also more likely to encounter debris swept onto the road by snowmelt and plows that can cause punctures. Snow and ice can also force you to take bad lines that lead to flats. If your roads get nasty, consider swapping to puncture-resistant tires so a flat doesn’t ruin your ride.    

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4. Be Extra Prepared for Mechanicals 

Speaking of flats, there's nothing worse that getting stranded out in the cold. That’s why it’s important to carry an effective repair kit with tools and spares. 

Bike Repair Kit Essentials:

  • Spare tube(s)
  • Tires plugs (for tubeless tires)
  • Tire levers
  • CO2 inflator or hand pump
  • Multitool

Punctures are the most common mechanical, so at a bare minimum, carry everything you need to fix a flat tire. A good multitool can handle nearly everything else. 

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If you don't know how to change a tube or plug a puncture, NOW is the time to learn and practice. The absolute worst time to learn is when it's 30 degrees out, you're wet and cold, and trying to get the job done with numb hands and no experience (ask me how I know). 

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5. Don't Suffer Alone; Ride With Friends; Find Inspo

Tips for winter cyclingMuch like exploring the polar ice caps, winter riding is much easier when you aren't alone. If you’re able to convince your buddies to kit up and go outside with you, it can transform a tough solo slog into a fun and memorable adventure. But not every rider has a gaggle of like-minded cycling geeks ready to suffer in the cold. If that’s the case, turn to the virtual world. Search social media for winter group rides, and you are sure to find local riders who are just as crazy as you. 

Also, you don’t necessarily need to ride with people in person. Strava is actually one of the best winter riding tools. You can join Strava clubs and cycling challenges that will keep you stoked to ride all year round. Seeing other riders put up miles and getting kudos for chilly rides is great motivation to get off the couch and go outside.  

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6. Adjust (Lower) Your Riding Expectations

Riding in the cold is difficult, and you often need to adjust your expectations to match. This can mean reconsidering your performance goals or staying adaptable when things don’t go to plan. Don’t feel down about cutting a ride short or rerouting it due to road, trail, or weather conditions. In fact, short rides or routes with easy bail points might be the best bet. This way, you never find yourself freezing cold and out of energy far from home.

Shorter, easier rides can be good for you too! Especially in the off season. Focus on easy base miles instead of maximal efforts. Allow more time for your winter commutes. Conservative planning will help you stay safer, happier, and more consistent. 

7. Maybe Embrace the Indoor Trainer... It's Not So Bad, Really

Sometimes, no matter how tough you are, or how well you prepare, it just gets too cold and miserable to ride outdoors. On days like this, it’s nice to have the option to ride on an indoor trainer. You might hate the idea of riding a stationary bike, but it can help you maintain your fitness and provide a nice change of pace (good trainer gear can improve the experience too). When the weather gets bikeable again, you’ll be fit and stoked to go back outside.   

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