Essential Winter Cycling Kit For Head, Hands And Feet
8th NOVEMber 2021
By Nicki Giles
Make sure your extremities stay cosy this winter, so you can ride for longer in comfort. Here’s how to choose the right hat, gloves, socks and shoe protectors.
Some cyclists cover their bikes when the frosts come and swap to gym bikes or halt their training until spring returns. How much they miss! Cloud inversions on a winter morning, clear views framed by deep blue skies on a crisp afternoon, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from refusing to let winter beat you. Then, the joy of being in top shape come spring and cycling faster and further than ever. Investing in protection for your head, hands and feet, the areas that radiate the most heat, will help you to ride in warmth and cheer all winter.
Choose the right winter cycling hat
A hat is an often-overlooked element of your essential winter kit collection, despite cycling caps being a staple in the pro peloton in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Once helmets became widely used, logos were covered up and sponsors lost interest in caps. The huge surface area of your head makes it the part of your body most likely to leak heat, but now your hat must fit underneath your helmet.
Whether visible or not, a hat has many uses. A medium-sized brim will shield your eyes from sun and spray, without impeding your vision. Ear flaps or covers, like those on the Castelli Difesa Thermal Cap, will protect sensitive ears during a rapid mountain descent, while a dropped back or backwards facing peak will shield your neck from sun and freezing temperatures. Speaking of the cold, padding over your skull will trap a layer of heat, or else you can opt for a balaclava, such as Castelli’s Wind Stopper Balaclava, to help warm your face.
However, you must keep a few factors in mind when making your choice. Remember that, although wind will whip by while you’re cycling, your exertion will generate lots of body heat. So, helmet compatibility aside, a thick hat may feel too warm and get chilly if your head sweats a lot.
As well, consider the elements you hope to guard against – wind, rain, cold, or a combination? To combat the cold, look for slim, soft, thermal fabric that wicks sweat, like elastic and cosy thermoflex, the material. A skull cap or a beanie with flat lock seams will offer maximum comfort, especially if there’s extra coverage over the ears and neck. There’s a reason Castelli’s Pro Thermal Skully is often worn by pro riders to keep them comfortable during winter training – it has all of these features.
For wind, look for a windproof material in the areas not covered by the helmet. It will need to be durable, fleecy and close-fitting. A performance headband, such as the Castelli Pro Thermal Headband with its soft, warm and breathable thermoflex fabric and flat-lock stitching, can be paired with a hat in place of ear flaps to offer extra protection for the forehead and ears.
Or, if you’re likely to be riding through rain showers, you’ll want a hat made either from a fabric treated with a water repellent layer, such as Durable Water Repellent (DWR), or one that is water shedding yet breathable and quick-drying. The Castelli Difesa 2 Cycling Cap, made from hardy, windproof and water-resistant Gore-Tex Windstopper fabric, is just the ticket to keep you dry.
Fight cold fingers with winter gloves
Cyclists’ hands are often immobile on the handlebars, so they can get cold quickly and be hard to warm up again. It would be lovely to wrap yours in multiple thick, performance layers, the way skiers do – but as cyclists we don’t have that luxury. Dexterity is needed to grip the handlebars, operate brakes and shifters, and interact with the technology you use to monitor your training or plan the route.
For device compatibility, simply look for gloves with a grippy surface on the fingers, and potentially the palm too to facilitate better contact with the bike. Good cuffs are another key component of a good cycling glove. Whether elastic, Velcro or zipped, they must close tightly to keep the wind off, while still allowing blood flow. Ideally, they will integrate with your upper layers to stop rain from dripping down your wrists.
An element of water resistance is important if showers are expected, with DWRs and specialty fibres doing a good job in most conditions. A fully waterproof glove isn’t something most people want, though, since this can lead to clammy palms.
In really cold conditions, two gloves can be worn, a thin breathable liner and a thicker protective outer layer. Or you can opt for the Castelli Estremo Gloves, the brand’s warmest. They have thin, fleecy palms, while the backs are heavily padded for warmth and covered with Windstopper X-Fast fabric that blocks wind, sleet and snow. Long Velcro cuffs keep the wind out, while a microsuede pad near the join of the thumb and index finger allows you to wipe your nose or glasses.
Other features to look for are gel pads in the palm and around your nerves, to help prevent injuries, and flat or reduced seams for added comfort. Castelli’s Perfetto RoS Gloves have these and are consummate, wonderfully snug winter all-rounders. Available in a women’s cut, they are made of Gore-Tex Infinium Windstopper fabric with a fleece lining. They therefore offer water resistance, wind protection and warmth in one slim-line package.
You can learn more about both of these fantastic gloves, and a few others besides, from the lovely Anna by checking out our Saddleback TV video on the best gloves for winter.
Warm and wonderful winter socks
Like your fingers, your toes will experience lowered circulation while you’re riding, as your body will divert blood towards your core to keep you powering forward. It’s not a good idea, then, to pile on several pairs of socks in an effort to keep your feet heated. All that will happen is that you’ll constrict your feet and force more blood out, leading to further temperature drops.
Look for slimline socks that nonetheless pack in the heat. Natural fabrics like merino are your friend here. The fibres in this wool naturally trap a coating of air, acting as a radiator while also wicking sweat and feeling soft and luxurious against your toes. Castelli’s Fuga 18 Socks are made from this wonderful material. Some man-made fabrics retain heat in the same way, but merino additionally works to reduce odour, keeping your shoes fresh for longer.
A double layer at the toe and heel, as offered by the Fuga 18 socks, can add further warmth and make them less likely to wear out at these crucial points. A high ankle cuff is also a good idea in winter, as it will ensure your socks will fit under your bib tights, helping to cut down on leaks or drafts.
Foot health and comfort is of course important, since you’ll be pushing on your feet all day. Thus, the best socks sport minimal or flat seams and may feature elasticated panels or bands around the arch and the Achilles tendon, to shore up the hardest working parts of your foot against injury. Again, the Fuga 18 has you covered here.
Bridging your defences with overshoes
Cycling with cold and wet feet isn’t fun. Toe covers, which are held in place by the cleat and cover the toe box of the shoe, are wonderful for days when it is too hot to want to cover your feet completely. They will keep your toes warm on windy days and fend off wheel spray that might otherwise creep into vents.
Usually made of neoprene or Latex rubber and fitted snugly without digging in, they’re composed of a simple upper and lower, joined near the sole to minimise leaks. Some have a textured outsole for better grip. Toe covers, particularly the breathable ones made of neoprene, which are light and add warmth without reducing airflow, may be worn underneath overshoes for ultimate protection.
Overshoes also attach to the cleat and are much warmer than toe covers, since they cover all but varying degrees of the sole. Different overshoes have different specialities, with some being thicker than others and materials varying quite a bit. The main thing is to choose an overshoe that does what you need it to. In rainy climates waterproofing is top of the list, while warmth and wind-proofing matters more in countries with long, snowy winters.
Some are designed to be waterproof as far as possible, the Castelli Pioggia 3 Shoe Cover being one of these. Its PU-coated fabric, silicone beaded top cuff, tape sealing and rear-facing waterproof zipper work to barricade the foot against leaks. None of this stops the cover from being aerodynamic and warm, though, as it boasts a close fit and fleecy inner.
If you don’t need full waterproofing, the Castelli RoS 2 Shoe Cover is a great choice for changeable but relatively mild winters, like those we often experience in the UK. Its Polartec Power Stretch, fleece-lined fabric protects against light rain and road spray, while warming your feet and protecting the spots most likely to be chilled by the wind. The fabric is also breathable, so your feet won’t get clammy and stretches in four directions, ensuring a close fit.
More than cycling accessories in wintertime
Hats, gloves, socks and shoe protectors are often listed as accessories, but the fact is, they become ever more essential with every degree the thermometer drops. If you don’t protect the areas that are known to lose the most heat, you’ll end up chilled to the core and won’t enjoy your ride.
That’s why it’s important to think about these key pieces in addition to jackets, bib tights and winter jerseys when planning your cold weather cycling wardrobe. Provided you choose your head-to-toe kit carefully, you’ll be able to ride in any conditions this winter without wishing you were beside the fire. Then, when spring comes again, you’ll be fully fit and ready to make the most of the weather.
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