Cold as Ice – Layer Up!

Wow. I mean, WOW. Were you guys out on the bike last night? Did you feel the wind cutting through every piece of you that was not covered at least twice in layers as you caught every light on that downhill?

I DID! Cantaloupe is a beast, with her new sweet fenders. How could I resist a cold as ice night commute?

Let’s back up a bit. It’s in the 20’s here in Portland, and this girl has Hawaii body-core temperature still coursing through her veins, so don’t laugh at the pathetic attempt at layering if you are a seasoned winter warrior (you guys should leave tips in the comment box below, instead). I know some of you commuters are out there pedal-pushing in the single digits. Brrrrrmmmmnesota.

I’ve taped this photo to the inside of my front door for inspiration… it keeps me from wein-ing out and opting for a run for the bus:

Okay, so I did get a major flat and had to sprint for the bus the other day, only to find out that I had zero cash on me. Fail! Crap monkey, where did I leave my teleportation device…

My neighbors and I biked home together at about 7pm, or 20-something degrees o’clock here in Portland. And I am proud to say that I somehow survivor-ed the coldest commute of my life. How did my sissy-la-la pants make it happen?

Layers, Cycle Gators… layers! And lots of them. I’m no expert on looking fly riding home in the cold, but here was this night’s order of operations:

  • Step 1: Pull on your skivvies and cover up your underparts… Cycle ladies and gents, I would not recommend anything that’s gonna give your crotch a case of seam anxiety, but that is a very personal choice. Y’all know what works with your saddle, and what doesn’t – immediately!
  • Step 2: Pull on some Darn Tough wool crew socks.
  • Step 3: Next, some super-high waisted fleece-lined leggings. Do Cycle dudes wear leggings? No, but some kind of bike base layer tights might do the trick. Just ask Jack.
  • Step 4: Then your outer layer of pantalones. I chose the Chrome Vanya knicker for it’s stretchiness and crotch action (make sure you follow Step 1, re: crotch anxiety).

Getting warm yet, people? Okay… Keep going to the top layers:

  • Step 5: T shirt/tank/base. I wore a cotton tee tucked into my leggings/tights.
  • Step 6: Long sleeve zip-up running jacket thing. Stretchy, thumb-holey, and a freebie from my stepmom via Costco.
  • Step 7: Oh yeah, ANOTHER long sleeve, with more stretchiness, a super long back to cover my butt, and a high collar from that Lululemon review back in the day.
  • Step 8: Fruffy vest. Marshmallow it and warm up your core! I love puffy vest like my future unborn child.
  • Step 9: Patagonia Torrentshell with pit zips open and hood tucked in.

Seriously, everybody on bikes looks like this today. All color combo Do’s and Don’ts go out the window for this weather, kids. I look like a bag of Skittels had a civil war on my torso.

And on to the peripherals (“I see a ficus tree…”):

  • Step 10: North Face gloves: inadequate – not cycling specific, but it’s all I got right now.
  • Step 11: Ear grips over ponytail.
  • Step 12: Buff over the neck, over the ear grips, ponytail, and up to the top of my head like a wetsuit hood.
  • Step 13: Shoes, helmet, and the obligatory Mir fannypack.

So, yeah. It did the trick. More winter wonderful commuting tips coming your way. In the meantime, hook us up in the comments box with your favorite or newly-discovered layering goodies. Go eat a bag of tiny donuts, cold weather! Props to all the winter pedal peoples out there.


  1. Ghost Rider

    Mir, it looks like you’re getting the hang of winter riding…I call it the Florida/Hawaii “wear everything you own” method!

    It’s funny: I read an article recently from a noted bicycle advocate who stated that we all make too much of a big deal about winter commuting, and that no special clothing or gear is required. In his article, he used a very similar photo to the first one in THIS article, but I posit: do you see those grimaces?!? EVERY ONE of those people is gritting their teeth…could they be underdressed in their “everyday-no-special-gear” attire?

  2. Gunnstein

    My take, given my qualifications as a Norwegian:
    – Cotton: No. No no no NO. At least not next to your skin. Wool or good syntetics is what you need.
    – Layering: Less is more. 1) Normal underwear (but no cotton!) and wool socks 2) Long wool underwear, upper and lower body 3) trousers and jacket, waterproof if it’s warm enough to for rain or wet snow
    – There’s no such thing as too thick socks/gloves/mittens
    – A helmet not only protects you from cranial fractures but also keeps you warm, with a helmet cap under it and a waterproof cover on top.

  3. Mir.I.Am (Post author)

    @Ghost – Yup, you know what’s up. Just Pile It All ON.
    @Gunnstein – Man if I had some wool or synthetic base stuff I would also pile it on next to my skin. Will have to go with what I have.

    @Everyone – Now that I’m getting the hang of this, AND IT’S SNOWING IN PDX… Do I dare take Cantaloupe and her slick road tires out for a spin, or am I asking for trouble?

  4. bigbenaugust

    So far I have been riding down to 22F with one poly shirt, one T-shirt, and a cycling jacket, ski gloves, and of course rain pants. Covering my ears might be nice next time.

  5. Gunnstein

    @Mir: As a Norseman I’m saddened to hear of your lack of wool base layers – much in the same way Siberians feel sorry for you if you show up there without a heavy fur coat.

    Slick tires on snow? Sure, no problem, as long as you don’t make any turns. Or blink.

  6. Ghost Rider

    Yeah, Mir, I’m with the Norseman…I just got back from a twilight mountain bike ride in the snow — even with really knobby tires, I got almost no traction in the deep stuff. On the roads, there’s about 2 inches of powder, and as long as I stayed in the undisturbed snow, it was ok. The tire ruts were slippery as hell.

    Offroad, the stuff is just too powdery (we currently have about 8 inches) for any real traction. But it was FUN!

  7. Dustin

    For me, the trick was finding what would keep me warm while still breathing; otherwise, I start sweating as soon as I start moving and end up soaking wet at the office.

    The solution? (As everyone else has already said) Wool! Between 1 and 3 layers, depending on temperature, of wool base/mid layers plus a pair of shorts are enough to get me through the winters in Boston. I only need to put a windbreaker shell over the top on the very coldest days.

    Smartwool; Ibex; Rivendell Bikes; and Earth, Wind, Rider are all good places to look.

  8. Raiyn

    Umm it was in the mid 80’s today.

    Slicks + snow = no bueno. Time to be like me and switch to 700c rims on the ol’ Schwinner as there’s bubkis for decent winter tires in 27×1¼”.

  9. Raiyn

    Just to add fuel to the fire.
    A selection of winter tires from those in the know.

  10. John

    Rochester reporting here, we get snowy and cold. Marshall’s is a great place to find cheap clothing. It’s surprising how a good outer wind/ waterproof layer will keep you warm down to the 30s. After that some synthetic underarmor knock offs and wool long johns is good.

  11. Beth Gearhart

    The key to staying warm while in Georgia is merino wool. Period. Don’t risk being cold and crashing during your commute to work injury.

  12. Tom

    I had one commute in the teens so far this winter. My typical below freezing commute list: light-weight wool baselayer, regular twill (business casual) pants, microfleece-lined LLBean anorak from 1980s (made in USA!), wool buff, wool or poly skullcap, light gloves and Bar Mitts. Leather shoes and wool socks on my feet. Oh, and cheap safety glasses to keep my eyeballs from freezing to my head. Bar Mitts, aka Pogies, are key.

  13. Graham

    I strongly agree with the “no cotton” rule. Wet cotton is a real bad idea if you start sweating in cold weather. However, I will go ahead and disagree that special underpants are required. Everyone is different I suppose, but I come from a long line of really sweaty people and I’ve never had a problem with cotton skivvies in cold weather. (hot weather is a different question, btw)

    Unless your butt is particularly sweaty, I don’t think I’d worry about wool underwear. Spend your money on some vintage army wool pants, instead.

  14. Raiyn

    Not to rub it in (well maybe a little) but the lowest high temp forecasted out to Sunday for St. Petersburg is 74°F. I know I complain during Hurricane / rain season (Hurricanes SUCK!) but this is when living in Florida has real benefits.

  15. Mir.I.Am (Post author)

    PS – Everyone, I did NOT attempt snow slick ride. I did, however, ride today, and it was dry, and I got Siberia’d.

    @Raiyn – JELLYJEALOUS. I feel like Siberia has snuck inside my insides and froze my face, hands, and feet.

  16. Raiyn

    Been there, done that. I lived half my life within 50 miles of the Canadian border in MN. It’s only during Hurricane season that I start waxing poetic about shoveling snow. As of 3AM EST it’s -11°F where I used to live as opposed to 68°F right outside my window.

  17. E A

    Just slipped and wiped out on black ice for the first time ever while riding my bike… been off the bike now for 2+ weeks while nursing a wrist injury… 🙁 Tried to use bike share a couple times but not worth wincing in pain.

    how do I get my nerves to get back to ride again once I’m healed…??? that will be interesting.

    But slick conditions = no way! (maybe if i finally put the studded tires on… this winter may be prime testing time)

  18. Ghost Rider

    E, did you get an Xray? I had a “persistent wrist injury” a few years ago after wiping out on my bike, and 3 weeks later found out that I was walking around with 2 broken bones in my wrist and arm. If it lingers, get it checked out!!!

  19. E A

    Jack – just got an x-ray the other day… results came back normal. So, I’ve been told to resume normal activity “as tolerated” which to this point means baby-ing my wrist. gr. The doc said it can take up to 6 weeks for a wrist to heal, esp if badly sprained/bruised. But I also know x-rays do not reveal all and may not identify hairline fractures. Thanks for the tips. 🙂

  20. E A

    Chiberia has descended upon Chicago and much of the Midwest… I – for one – am staying in and off the roads. But I’ve seen a few FB posts of cyclists braving the -50-deg windchills.

    (Jack – as an update – turns out my wrist is broken. Initial xray didn’t show it. But a specialist found the break…. now I’m “grounded” for at least another few weeks…. and I’m that much more hesitant to ride on slick roads.)

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