Winter Cycling: Hardcore or Something Else Entirely?

Today, Felkerino and I ventured out for a 120-mile training ride from D.C. to Brunswick, Maryland, and back. Training for what? I don’t know. Training to be fitter for the spring brevets, I suppose. And to justify all my winter gear purchases over the years.

Felkerino, nice and layered up

About half of our ride was completed in freezing or sub-freezing temperatures. Days like this require my vanity to take a back seat, and instead I focus on what clothing and gear is mostly likely to keep me comfortable throughout the day.

Today’s weapons of choice were:

  • three wool base layers;
  • Ibex Breakaway jacket;
  • reflective vest;
  • Rivendell triple tube (I use it as a neck gaiter);
  • Little Package wool cycling cap;
  • Sugoi helmet cover;
  • Ibex Kilometer gloves, with liners
  • heavy winter running tights;
  • two pairs of Smartwool socks;
  • toe warmers; and
  • Performance neoprene booties.

I also wore my Camelbak. I loathe wearing a Camelbak, as I think it only enhances my nerd image, but I loathe dehydration and drinking out of dirty bottles even more. A Camelbak is the only way I can make sure I hydrate sufficiently.

My rando-bandit look, sans gloves

Felkerino dressed similarly, but went the balaclava route as opposed to a neck gaiter. I’m not a huge fan of the balaclava unless the temperatures really have no hopes of getting over freezing. I prefer to have the option of easily adding or subtracting fabric on my neck and face so I often go gaiter. Ed calls it my rando-bandit look.

As we pedaled through town this morning, I felt pretty tough. While other people slept in or went to the gym, Felkerino and I were going out for a full day of riding. Go us!

My point of pride started to ebb somewhat, however, when I went to take a sip from my Camelbak. Frozen. Argh! To have this embarrassing piece of equipment rendered useless was the first blow to my bad#&$ winter ride.

Felkerino on Lilypons Road, I believe

We pedaled around 25 miles and Felkerino mentioned that his feet were cold. Mine had gone from toasty to tingly cold, too. Tingly cold toes are preferable to throbbing toes or hands, but definitely not optimal. Felkerino supposed that our toe warmers were defective. I responded that I did not think they were defective. They just were not up to the challenge of a freezing morning. After all, they’re just toe warmers, not a space heater.

In Poolesville, we continued to debate the toe warmer issue, and warmed up with a little breakfast. As we sat, my toes began to warm. This improved my disposition, and we put our hats and gloves on to start riding again. I pulled my pink triple tube up over my face, and I think I succeeded in freaking out a small child at a nearby table. I must have looked pretty weird. Sorry, kiddo! The tailwind that followed us out the door made the ride rather comfortable up to our midway point in Brunswick, Maryland.

The breeze had been increasing throughout the morning. While downing my midday sandwich, I had considered taking a layer off and switching to lighter gloves, but after we pulled out of town and straight into the teeth of the wind, I was glad I had kept on all of my layers.

The post-lunch section after Brunswick was also fairly choppy and included one of the favorite local climbs, Mar-Lu-Ridge, the “easy way.”

Climbing Mar-Lu

The cyclist-free roads (except for us), biting headwind, unstoppable runny nose, and uncomfortable temperatures had me seriously reconsidering my bad#&$ image. Was I hardcore, or just an idiot? Bad#&$ or dumb#&$? I chewed on that topic in my head for a while. After over 30 miles of the headwind trying to push us in the opposite direction, we arrived back in Poolesville.

90 miles done and 30 to go. Why didn’t we choose to endure the headwind on the first half of the ride, I wondered. I then rationalized that I was glad we had a tailwind push us out to the midway point, as a sub-freezing headwind does nothing for a rider’s morale, and would probably have encouraged us to shortcut. No, better to deal with a somewhat stiff above-freezing headwind on the return leg. At least you know that each labored pedal stroke is getting you that much closer to home.

Felkerino and I churned our way back to Potomac for a treat and a coffee. The warm coffee felt heavenly rolling down into my stomach. Though I know that I could have chosen something healthier for the final run-in home, the sugar snack sure made a tasty reward for all those cold miles into the wind, and inspired me to pedal the final 17 miles home with verve.

Braving the stinky tunnel under Canal Road

While I asked myself several times why we had chosen a 120-mile ride in January, I am pretty happy Felkerino and I pushed ourselves today. My Camelbak thawed after about 40 miles of riding. The sun stayed out all day, the skies were a beautiful clear blue, the temperatures were uncomfortable but definitely not unbearable, and we layered well.

Felkerino and I enjoyed spending the day outside together, even though we had to shout at each other a few times in order to be heard over the wind. It helped me envision what we’ll be like as an older couple, ha! We have the gear and lights to ride in the dark, and as long as the temperature is not dropping like a stone, night riding is not a big deal to us.

The other great thing about a long cold winter ride is returning home. It feels so good to know you spent the day exerting yourself physically, and getting a little windblown and dirty. It makes curling up on the couch with a blanket simply delicious.

My thicker gloves and general disposition meant that I did not take that many pictures of the day. I know Felkerino will be posting his soon, though, and I’ll update this post with a link to flickr when he does. UPDATE: Felkerino’s photos… just press here.

Hope everybody had a great weekend, and maybe even enjoyed a bit of the outdoors. Let’s talk again soon.


  1. i have a friend who rides all winter up here in alaska.
    his face is beyond saving from damage….ruddy cheeks and all….
    someday i’ll try winter riding.
    for now i’ll just live vicariously through your blog and through my friend danny.

    ride on, o brave ones!!


  2. I love the stinky tunnel shot. And thanks for the tip about the merino wool neck gaiter. (I have 3 neck gaiters and a balaclava already).

    As for the hardcore question, definitely hardcore. I took one step out of the house, turned around and headed for Big Nellie on the resistance trainer in the basement. (I eat quiche frequently in the winter time.)


  3. Are your toe warmers little packets of stuff that you stuff into your shoes? Many varieties of those warmers work via chemical reaction with oxygen. If you put them in your shoes, and then wrap shoe covers around your shoes, you’re severely restricting the amount of oxygen that gets to the warmer packets. No oxygen, no warming.

    One possibility, which I haven’t been crazy enough to try, is to use the warmers with normal cycling shoes and no covers. You’d get a better oxygen supply, but I don’t know if that’d be enough to counteract the cold air coming in the shoe vents.

    Personally, I’m giving some serious thought to these:

    They’re battery-operated heated insoles. The Hotronic site gives some pretty impressive duration numbers from a single set of (rechargeable) batteries. Replaceable batteries, so you could always carry an extra set.


  4. Yay hardcores.

    Last winter, I did some banking on my commute. Luckily I saw my reflection in the bank’s glass doors and noticed I was still wearing a balaclava BEFORE I walked inside. Phew.

    Matt, neat. I saw another brand of heated insoles at a Bass Pro shop: Wireless remote! Batteries are in the insole, convenient but not replaceable. Still…


  5. Thanks to all for the hardcore vote! Matt, yes, our toe warmers are the little chemical packets. I have heard that as well about oxygen being needed for the toe warmers to work optimally. I put them on top of my socks in hopes that they will work better, and usually they are fine. On really cold days, though, it’s difficult for me to achieve optimal comfort (am I whining? Yes, I might be, ha ha!).

    I had not heard of the hotronic footwarmers… too bad we can’t connect them to a generator hub!


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