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Gear for Old Man Winter: The 12 Essentials for Winter Riding Kit

If I had to start all over again with buying winter cycling gear, what would I choose? What's the least amount of clothing a rider might need to conquer the coldest days? I've slimmed my winter riding wardrobe down to these 12 essential pieces.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Gravel

Alexey Vermeulen racing in some dialed winter kit. Photos courtesy of Old Man Winter.

My racing season is starting early this year with the Old Man Winter Bike Rally on February 4th. This 100k gravel race starts in Lyons, Colorado, about 20 minutes from my house, and the course covers a lot of my local gravel roads. Also, because it’s so early in the year, there’s always the chance for snow (that's part of the fun!). Instead of stressing about tires, I’m thinking more about what I'm going to wear on race day.  

I’ve been dialing in my winter gear, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to talk about my “12-piece do-it-all winter riding kit.” I have a big problem with buying and hoarding cycling gear, and my closet has been a complete mess full of unused clothing.

This year, I'm trying to reduce and simplify my gear collection. For my single winter drawer, I've cut it down to the 12 essential pieces I think I need to conquer any winter ride. If I were starting my kit collection from scratch, this what I would buy

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My “Simple” 12-Piece Winter Riding Kit 

 Old man winter conditions

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. - Scandinavian proverb

Comfort helps you maintain your performance and morale. But feeling comfortable is more than just staying warm and dry. I also don’t like having my movement feel restricted or carrying too much bulk. It’s also no fun to spend thirty minutes finding gear and getting dressed for a ride.

I slimmed my winter riding kit down to these essential pieces to make it quicker and easier for me to pick exactly what to wear and suit up depending on the forecast.

The 6 Big Pieces

For my top half, I rely on one good winter cycling jacket and a few different base layers, and for my bottom half, I alternate between a pair of knee warmers and a couple of chamois-less cycling tights. Here’s what I wear right now and the temperature ranges where I’ll use them:

  • Thermal Winter Jacket (0° - 60° F)
  • Lightweight Long Sleeve Base Layer (30° - 50° F)
  • Heavyweight Long Sleeve Base Layer (0° - 30° F)
  • Knee Warmers (50° - 60° F)
  • Lightweight Tight (30° - 50° F)
  • Water-Resistant Tight (0° - 30° F - OR - when it’s wet)

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My top layer is a high-quality winter cycling jacket that has a very thin layer of insulation and a soft but water-resistant and windproof outer shell. These types of jackets keep you warm without a lot of bulk and they work in a huge range of temps depending on what you wear underneath. The best ones also have vented backs or armpit zippers that keep you from getting too sweaty. I own a Rapha Winter Jacket right now, but nearly every good kit brand has a similar option. 

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To keep things cheaper and simpler, I'll just wear one of my regular summer cycling jerseys underneath. If it’s colder, I'll switch to a thermal base layer. Dedicated base layers are great in winter because they fit tighter and closer to your skin, which makes them more effective at wicking away sweat so you stay dry and warm. My Giro Chrono works great on most cold days, but my heaviest base layer is a Spatz Basez Extreme, which the warmest thing I've ever worn without being bulky. I’ve used on several 0° rides and commutes. 

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I can get away with knee warmers on nice days, but when temps dip, I find myself reaching for basic chamois-less tights. I like using tights because I can continue to ride in all of my nice summer bib shorts year-round. This is usually cheaper than buying dedicated thermal bib tights with a chamois. I have a lightweight Pearl Attack tight for most cold days and a heavier Pearl AmFib water-resistant tight for super cold or wet days. 

There’s also another useful benefit. I tend to crash more in the winter because of mud, snow, and ice, and putting a hole in a pair of tights feels much less tragic than destroying a more expensive bib-tight (I’ve done this too many times). 

The 6 Little Pieces

  • Thermal Cap
  • Neck Gaiter
  • Waterproof Shoe Covers
  • Wool Socks
  • Lightweight Thermal Gloves
  • Lobster Gloves

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I can’t grow a beard, so to protect my face and neck, a neck gaiter or buff is essential to cover my chin and nose when moving fast. I have some extra thick neck gaiters, but I find I prefer thinner ones even when it’s below freezing since they don’t hold as much moisture from your breath. 

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Socks don’t need to be cycling-specific, but good winter cycling socks tend to be much less bulky, so they fit more easily into tight cycling shoes. A warm sock with a good waterproof shoe cover is generally all I need, even for rides in the snow that get below freezing. 

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I generally like thermal gloves that are lightweight and provide good dexterity. But when it gets below 40° F, lobster-style gloves like the Giro 100 Proof or Specialized Element Deep Winter gloves are the only things that keep my fingers from going numb. They’re super warm and useful for training and commuting, but I’m not a big fan of racing or riding technical terrain in them. 

If it's too cold to wear my lightweight thermal gloves on race day, I plan to use an old trick I learned in my moto days — wearing disposable latex gloves underneath. This will block some wind and act as a “vapor barrier,” preventing sweat from soaking the insulation of the gloves so they stay a bit warmer. If you regularly use this method, maybe you could cut this list to 11 essential items!

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What Kit Might Be Missing?

Riding through rowena snowI really wanted to narrow this list down to 10 essentials, but that seemed impossible if I wanted a complete wardrobe to handle everything above and below freezing. Just getting it to 12 meant cutting a few pieces gear that I occasionally use. Here are a few more winter items I considered:

  • Vests: I like vests. I have a lot of vests. Against a good jacket though, I'd spend money on a jacket because it is just more versatile. Vests are more of a shoulder season piece of kit. 
  • Winter shoes: If you get cold feet easily, then nothing truly beats the warmth of a dedicated winter shoe (I have the Lake MX146), but I find that I train and race in my regular cycling shoes with shoe covers more often because they’re less bulky and I’m more used to them. Every time I’ve done a race like Old Man Winter, I’ve thought about using my winter shoes, but when it’s game time I reach for my regular shoes and shoe covers. 
  • Goggles: I only use goggles in the most extreme situations — rides that are so cold that any exposed skin on your face is at risk of frostbite. That's rare for me. 
  • Balaclava: Same as goggles for me. I don't use one much anymore since a neck gaiter and cap go so far (and they look cooler). If needed, you can also pull a gaiter over your head and wear it like a balaclava. 

Am I missing anything? What do you think? Is a 12 piece winter kit too little, too much, or just right? 

I’m Stoked to Start Racing Again

The racing season begins earlyI’ve raced Old Man Winter 4 times, and there’s a good reason I want to do it a 5th time — it’s good luck! I’m a superstitious rider, and I’ve noticed that when I do Old Man Winter I tend to have a great season. 

When I have raced Old Man Winter, I have also scored some of my best race results. I finished 7th in the Unbound Gravel 100 in 2017 and beat the sun in the Unbound Gravel 200 in 2022. In both those years, racing Old Man Winter helped kickstart my motivation early and launched me into a consistent block of riding that produced good results later on. 

Last year, I decided to skip Old Man Winter to focus on some big goals, and my season was filled with bad luck and physical implosions. I think the evidence is clear. If I want to succeed, I have to stick with what’s been proven to work — racing Old Man Winter first. 

There will be 4 of us from TPC doing Old Man Winter this year. We all have big goals later in the year (mine is Leadville!), so we’re hoping to start our season off on the right foot. If you’re racing too, say hi, and maybe check out what we’re all wearing! 

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