Tips for Cool Weather Bicycle Commuting

This post is part of my advice series. For other posts in the series see

We’re now in the midst of fall in New York City, which means the leaves are turning color and the temperature is dropping. We’ve had an unusually warm fall so far. Not a single day has had a high temperature below 60 degrees. The warm temperatures have meant that the amount of cycling I see on the greenway each morning is still sky-high. Even in the morning, temperatures have yet to drop below 50 degrees by 7 AM, and afternoon commutes are typically quite pleasant in the upper 60s to low 70s. Unfortunately, this is certain not to last, but with a few tips and some small purchases, you can extend your cycling well into November or beyond.

Central Park. Credit: chrisschoenbohmm/Flickr CC.

Most people feel uncomfortably cool when standing outside in temperatures below 70 degrees unless they are properly dressed. But the same does not apply when exerting yourself cycling. In fact, the optimal temperature for physical exertion, including vigorous cycling, is about 55 degrees. [Indeed I’ve confirmed through careful record-keeping that, after adjusting for other weather factors such as wind and rain, I am definitely fastest at 55 degrees.] Therefore the key piece of advice to remember is to dress as if it were actually about 15 degrees warmer. I like to roll at about 17-18 MPH, traffic permitting, which is a reasonably fast pace for most commuters. If you prefer a more leisurely pace of 10-12 MPH, you may want to adjust by only 5 degrees.

The main problem I have this time of year is the drastically different conditions during the morning and evening commute. In the summer it’s always hot so you wear as little as possible, while in the winter it’s always cold so you always bundle up. Getting the clothing right in spring and fall can be more of a challenge.

So long as it’s at least 50 degrees in the morning, I will generally wear my summer bike clothes, namely shorts, a short-sleeve t-shirt, and finger-less gloves. In the mid-50s I’ll add some arm warmers ($30), and in the low 50s I’ll add knee warmers ($10), too. This is really only necessary for the first 15 minutes or so of the ride, and it is really easy to peel these off and put them in a back pocket as you warm up. These are also much cheaper than buying a second set of cycling clothes, and it makes for less overall clothing to deal with at this point.

Although 50 degrees can feel just fine on a sunny day, it can really sting if it’s raining. However, a regular rain jacket will easily warm you up too much. A lightweight windbreaker may seem pricey at $60, but it is well worth it for those rainy mornings that clear up by the afternoon.

Things get a bit more complicated once temperatures get into the 40s. For one, toe warmth starts to become an issue. My first line of protection is heavy wool hiking socks, which are generally cheap and easy to find. In fact, since I pretty much never feel like my feet are too warm, but I occasionally feel like my toes are about to freeze off, I wear these hiking socks while cycling year-round. When it gets even colder I also add toe covers, which do a good job of blocking the wind entering your shoes. However, these tend to wear out fast, so if you intend to do a lot of winter cycling, I’d suggest holding off as long as possible.

I’d also suggest switching to full-finger gloves at this point. Although gloves come in a variety of thicknesses for every possible temperature, I suggest going with the thickest gloves that do not combine fingers, as in a mitten. Those rated just for “cool” weather don’t provide that much more protection, in my opinion, though they may be worn with the addition of a liner. I also tend to hold off on wearing these until it’s painful, since a good set of gloves will generally not allow you to use your smartphone, which can be annoying if you happen to receive a call mid-ride from your wife wondering where you are.

When morning temps get into low 40s/upper 30s, that is also generally when I switch to a thermal long-sleeve jersey and thermal tights. These can get very expensive, but paying up for top quality cold gear can make a huge difference. These each cost me about $100, but they feel remarkably comfortable on the bike and make cycling in 40 degree temps absolutely enjoyable. The thermal jersey worn alone can still be comfortable on high 50s afternoons, as it can be unzipped to provide some ventilation, but I’d hold off on thermal tights until the weather is consistently low-50s or cooler. Statistically, that means late November in NYC (gotta love weatherspark).

A rain jacket with thermal protection may also come in handy. Though any jacket will probably do, cycling-specific jackets will often include pockets in the back which can be handy for storing your keys if you’d rather not unzip your jacket before coming inside. Ear warmers or, better yet, a thermal skull cap which covers your ears, can also improve comfort. I also switch to even thicker socks (wigwam merino/silk hiker socks).

Last but not least, don’t forget to invest in a good set of lights. Even on the greenway, a good front light can make the difference between a jarring ride over potholes and smooth sailing. Personally I opted for a 700-lumen USB-chargeable light from NiteRider, but you can get away with less. Rear lights are much more about being seen than anything else, but if you plan to ride in traffic, plan to spend at least $25 for a decent rear light that flashes in some attention-grabbing pattern.

That gear alone should cover about 95% of the days through the end of November. There will often be a few days in November with temps below freezing, so unless you’re prepared to really bundle up you may want to skip these days. By late November, the crowds on the greenway are mostly gone. Personally I love the freedom of the “open road” one experiences that time of year, particularly if the weather is clear. But winter cycling is an entire topic unto itself, and probably worthy of a follow-up blog post later on this year.

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