My winter cycling cred

cool weather cycling garb

I’ve been a year round utility cyclist since the 1980s. Whilst living in Illinois and Colorado, that meant cycling to work in occasionally extreme weather. You just deal with it.

Six years in California, however, has softened me.

Those of you who live in truly cold weather will laugh at those who wear long underwear and face masks for the mildly cool temperatures we occasionally experience in the San Francisco Bay Area. Go ahead, mock us. And then allow me to relate my story.

I began Cyclelicious when I lived in Longmont, Colorado. If conditions were cold and dry, my usual bike-to-work garb was Bridgedale wool hiking socks (which, incidentally, I still highly recommend as a gift), a couple of thin layers on my legs, a couple of thin layers over my torso covered by a wind-blocking cycling jacket, mid-weight full gloves, and a fleece hat. That was good down to about 10°F (-12°C). Below that, I add another layer to my torso, use heavier gloves and cover my face with a balaclava. With snow or rain, I’d cover that with plastic rain gear. I was always cozy during my six mile commute.

I was caught out late last night and accidentally caught the wrong bus home. Instead of dropping me off within a mile of my home, this bus dumped me off at a park-and-ride five miles away. It’s 30°F (-1°C) out, but no problem — I’m wearing my Colorado winter cycling gear! Besides that, I have 400 feet of elevation gain built into this ride, guaranteeing heat generation as I push out the watts to go uphill.

When I arrived at home, my toes and hands were numb and I was shivering with mild hypothermia. I felt so pathetic.

But that leads me to wonder: Are there physiological adaptations to cold weather? In other words, how do our bodies change in response to constant exposure to the cold? I know about the immediate responses such as vasoconstriction and so forth, but how does body adapt for long term cold exposure?


  1. I would say there are physiological adaptations as well as psychological tricks. As a psychological trick, I remind myself of my first time in Colorado in my early teens and first time really experiencing snow. I was foolish enough to wear sandals with socks for a 2 mile romp in the snow and almost got frostbite. I have yet to ever be that cold again, if I can survive that then I can survive anything up to that point and more.

    What I am noticing the most this year is due more to diet than anything; I’ve lost a lot of my body fat and that was an insulation barrier. I may well consider regrowing it if things get cold enough; I do tend to bulk up in winter more than summer, like a bear.

  2. Psychology is part of it, but there’s probably more to the physics and physiology of it. I’ve *felt* coldest in SF bay area when temps are in upper 30’s F. It’s that bone-chilling damp cold that gets inside and is hard to fight. Years ago, I would leave San José late in the evening with frost on the windshield only to feel much colder as I went up the peninsula and it got warmer in terms of the thermometer, but there was a thick fog.

    The sun (or lack thereof) makes a huge difference, too, as does wind (natural and apparent from one’s own velocity). Colorado in much colder temps would mean shorts and T-shirt to shovel snow (granted, with insulated boots). Here in SoDak, yesterday’s ride to work in 7″ snow (17 F wind chill near 0) was toasty with light rain jacket over wool shirt and twill pants; I had to stop to take my beanie off. For the same temp, MD tended to be more humid than CO, and was intermediate in terms of sensing the cold overall; colder still often felt more comfortable than the mixed rain/snow days.

    My theory is that as the air gets cooler, it holds less water (g) (hence the change to water (l) or (s) as fog, dew, rain, or frost as air temp falls). Lower water content decreases the heat capacity of a particular volume of dry air vs. damp. When good and cold, it may feel far from warm, but less heat seems to be transferred, leaving that skin-bracing cold on the face, but able to stay warm inside. The revised (decade ago) wind-chill data are from experimental models. It’s interesting to see the equation and assumptions that went into it. Humidity isn’t included, but it would be interesting to do the experiment.

    Another interesting experiment (after appropriate IRB review) would be to see how blood flow to the skin varies under the two conditions (moderate cold with high humidity vs. really cold). I usually think of most thermoregulation as more centrally mediated, but there are local vasoconstrictive responses. I have no data that they would regulate differently under these two conditions, but that would contribute to the phenomenon.

    Having typed all this, yes, there is a huge psychological aspect. Breaking out the full length wool jersey, full gloves, tights and booties at a sunny 55 F seems nuts right now, but it happens in Tucson.

    Stay warm, and keep the rubber side down.

    –Kurt in the other SF (current: -4 F, wind chill -20F, with the irony that I drove to work so I could pick up a bike only to have the car not start tonight)

  3. The jacket is an REI Novara cycling jacket that my wife gave me for Christmas several years ago. It doesn’t appear the model is available anymore.

    The gloves are CLC Safety Tradesmen work gloves that I bought from a big box home improvement store several years ago.

    I’ve already mentioned the Bridgedale socks, which I’ve owned for several years.

    Do you sense a theme?

  4. Your question about the physiological changes in response to cold was so interesting that I went to PubMed to look up research on the topic. The answer is that there are, on several levels: adaptation at the level of genotype and acclimation at the individual level in response to local conditions. Typical changes are increases in body fat around the organs and increased vasodilation to reduce the perception of cold and risk of frost bite. There are also some hormonal changes that increase basal body temperature (among other things). Acclimation takes time and continuous exposure to cold temperatures, and without that, the body will revert to feeling colder at higher temperatures as we Bay Area residents do. There are some effects related to aging as well. Link below to an open access article on the topic (unfortunately translated from the original French).

  5. Bonus fact: a number of the adaptations to colder climates are actually dangerous–they decrease the perception of cold and increase short-term functionality (e.g. manual dexterity), but the cost is a shortened life span due to physiological stress and an increased risk of permanent damage from exposure because the reduced perception of cold masks the inherent risk of working in colder temperatures.

  6. I guess as an old cycling guy I can add two items to this discussion:

    Takes three day to acclimatise from standard indoor temps and environment to living outside in the mountains (of New England). You’ll be cold feeling for three days – then it will feel fine. Temps in the 40’s daytime, 10’s at night. Just takes a while to adapt.

    After moving from Massachusetts to Southern California. You ability to stay warm is reduced. Declines significantly after 20 years. Probably being 20 years older doesn’t help, though I’m is about the same condition. Just can’t bring heat to my hands and face like I could….

    So there some physical factors involved in your cycling clothes results. Weirdly, I can get pretty chill descending here in LA at night at 60 degrees. Wear a least a Merino wool layer, and windbreaker, but if I’m not pedaling, I’m chill…now I add a headcover for warmth.

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