Mountain biking has always been my top choice for riding in winter, mostly because the slower speeds (relative to training on the road) mean I stay warmer. Of course there’s snow and mud to contend with, but that’s less of an issue these days with the fat bike in the garage. When I first started riding in the cold, I thought the biggest issue would be staying warm. What I’ve found, however, is that the real key is keeping cool because the tendency is to over-dress, which means immediate overheating, sweat, damp clothing, and inevitable cold. I’ve been depending on a few lightweight pieces, which keep me warm and dry on all but the coldest days. —Aaron Gulley
Castelli CW 3.0 Glove ($70)
These Thinsulate 100 gloves are warmer than their slight size suggests. There’s nothing fancy here: just enough insulation, silicone palms that stay grippy in the cold, smart Velcro-closure Neoprene cuffs, and a soft thumb patch that’s easy on the nose for wiping. They’ve kept me warm down to 30 degrees, but if it’s going to be much colder, or if I’m planning on being out longer than three hours, I often carry an over-mitt.
Giro Feature Helmet ($70)
I’ve been tending toward this all-mountain lid design in winter because the full coverage, intended for protection in more aggressive terrain, also adds some extra wind-block and insulation. There’s plenty of space inside for a beanie or ear band, and the spin-dial Roc-Loc retention system works fine with gloved hands. The Feature’s only drawback for winter is that because of the large but few vents, attaching a light can be a real challenge. Check that your mount will work before you purchase this.
Gore Alp-X Windstopped Insulated Shell Vest ($230)
Every once in a while, a piece of gear comes along and you think, “How have I lived without this?” Such is the case with this Gore vest, which is constructed of windproof, water-resistant Windstopper Insulated Shell and stuffed in front with a thin but super cozy layer of Primaloft. It packs down small enough to stuff in a jersey pocket, and if you get caught out later than you expect or the temperature unexpectedly plummets it adds about 10 to 15 degrees of warmth. With reflective details for visibility in the dark, grippy star designs on the shoulders to hold a pack, and plenty of zippered pocket space, this is the ultimate winter insurance piece. I don’t leave home without it when it’s cold.
Hincapie Ronde Bibknicker ($140)
While tights are great for the high speed of road riding, I’ve found that thermals bibs like this Hincapie pair is all I need on the mountain bike. Again, the less-is-more approach means I might be a bit chillier at the start of a ride, but that keeps me warmer in the long run. The bibs are cut extra high to prevent any cold air leaks, and the thermal fleece is stretchier than many others I’ve tried. And nothing says tough enough to ride in the cold than the Belgian flag and Lion of Flanders coat of arms.
Icebreaker Mondo Long Sleeve Half Zip ($90)
Though it’s not strictly built for cycling, this trim Icebreaker top is my favorite under layer anyway. The sleeves are lengthy enough to stay comfortable even in a deep tuck, the waist is long enough to stay tucked into bibs, and the zip neck allows for a modicum of temperature regulation that a crew neck doesn’t when it warms up. Most importantly, Icebreaker’s merino is the smoothest, easiest on the skin out there. It doesn’t itch, doesn’t smell, and as long as you’re careful when laundering, isn’t highly prone to shrinking. I love that it doubles well for skiing, running, and just about any other cold-weather outdoor pursuit.
KItsbow Mixed Shell ($370)
Given its surprisingly light weight, this jacket is deceptively warm and versatile. I avoided wearing it out in the cold at first because it felt so flimsy, but when I finally tried it, I discovered that the Schoeller Dryskin in the main body is incredibly insulating, so much so that I’ve taken to wearing it with only a light base layer and have been comfortable down to around 20 degrees. The Dryskin, as well as the even lighter Schoeller USP fabric in the sleeves, has kept me dry on mixed wet and sleeting days, though I haven’t yet had it out in full-on heavy rain. The best part of the Mixed Shell is the two mesh-backed zippered vents that run from the waist all the way to the top of the chest, which allow for immediate fine-tuning of your core temperature so you never overheat. This piece will be in constant play from early fall through late spring.
Niterider Lumina 650 ($140)
Ever since I was benighted when a winter ride took much longer than expected (think: singletrack gave way to snow gave way to postholing), I don’t go out without a powerful light. At 650 lumens in a built-in, USB-rechargeable battery package, this trim little unit throws as much light as the biggest external battery lamps did a few years ago. And while full blaze is plenty of power for the techiest features, medium gets you three hours of burn and low buys five hours—plenty of light to get you home safely. Niterider’s helmet mount system is simple and smart, so I just keep it on my winter helmet (yep, it works on the Giro Feature) and toss the Lumina in my pack in case of emergency.
Specialized Defroster MTB ($180)
While your everyday cleats and a pair insulated over-boots are a fine choice for road riding, a dedicated pair of winter riding boots is advisable on the dirt because any amount of hike-a-bike—which you’re likely to do with mud and snow on the ground—would trash your booties. Specialized’s second-generation Defrosters have taken a beating in the past few months and show no signs of giving out. They are plenty warm with a thin pair of wool socks, and though I was dubious of the non-GoreTex waterproofing, they’ve stayed totally dry, even when hosed down post ride. The new version is a big improvement over the original with easier micro-adjustments and seemingly less disposition to failure, but the dial is a bit too small and fiddly for thick winter gloves and over-mitts—I’d have preferred Velcro straps. All in all, however, these are a rugged boot that will take several cold seasons of thrashing.
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