Cold Weather Riding #3: Keep Yer Pants On

By Justin Steiner
In the third installment of our cold weather riding series I’ll be moving up the body to talk about keeping one’s legs warm and comfortable as the mercury falls. The legs are an often-overlooked aspect of cool weather cycling considering they are our primary source of power. Keeping your knees warm is paramount to preventing unnecessary wear and tear of the joint, while keeping your muscles warm will help to prevent strains and pulled muscles, as well as torn ligaments. Sure, you can allow your legs to be chilly without your entire body feeling terribly cold, but it is far from a good idea.

As with dressing for any outdoor activity, dressing in layers will be key. My personal rule is no more than three layers; wicking, insulating, and wind/vapor barrier. The key is to mix and match these layers for the particular needs of the day. My primary focus is always on keeping my knees warm.

If the temperature drops anywhere below about 60 degrees, you won’t see me outside without covering my knees – whether it be with a loose-fitting pair of knickers, or a light pair of knee warmers. For me, knee warmers are worth their weight in gold due to their versatility. Start with them on during chilly days, then take them off as the temperature rises.

I’ve arrived at my system after years of trial-and-error, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. This systematic approach is simply meant to show that your clothing can keep you warm and cozy through a broad range of temperatures without spending a fortune. Speaking of fortunes, mountain biking is an expensive hobby: parts, clothing, and accessories tend not to be cheap. The items I’m about to highlight are simply things I’ve accumulated through the years – some cheap, and others not-so-much. One has to approach these purchases on a long-term basis, most of this clothing will last you years and years. You can often find good deals on gear by shopping around (winter gear leftover at your LBS will be much, much cheaper), shopping second hand (online or locally), and by improvising with items found at your local thrift store (old wool dress pants make great insulating layers).Two different weights of knee warmers offer you a great range of versatility.

Lightweight warmers on the left from Pace. The heavyweight wool warmers on the right are our genuine Dirt Rag Kneekers made by Defeet.


For tights, I also have two different weights. Heavy wind-front tights on the left, thinner fully breathable tights on the right. Notice the difference in materials. Sorry, no links, these are outdated models that are 3-4 years old.


As for breathable outerwear, I have a pair of knickers (left) and a pair of riding specific pants (right) that offer a measure of wind resistance and good breatability. The knickers were originally hiking pants from Eastern Mountain Sports that I got on-sale for $25 and hemmed. These are my favorite riding pants. Pants are of the Fox Huck variety, again discontinued: no links


When the temps really drop I throw on the Sierra Designs Hurricane pant on the left. These pants are nice and light, block the wind, and almost could be classified as breathable. They also pack super small, so they’re great to have in your pack for emergencies. Found mine on-sale at REI for something like $10. The heavier waterproof/breathable pants on the right are from REI, as well. Scored them at REI’s Garage Sale for $10 with a big rip in the pant leg (notice the duct tape patch). Has to be really cold, or wet, for me to put these on because they’re very warm and minimally breathable.


Here’s the list of what I usually wear at a give temperature, working from warmest to coldest days. All of these clothing combinations obviously include a pair of cycling shorts.

60º-50º: light knee warmers, and baggy outer short

50º-40º: light knee warmers, and baggy knicker

40º-35º: heavy wool knee warmers, and baggy knicker

35º-30º: heavy wool knee warmers, and Fox overpant

30º-25º: lightweight knee warmers, lightweight tights, and baggy knicker

25º-20º: heavy wool knee warmers, lightweight tights, and Fox overpant

20º-15º: heavy knee warmers, lightweight tights, and Sierra Designs pant

15º-10º: heavy knee warmers, heavy wind-front tights, and Sierra Designs pant

10º-below: heavy knee warmers, heavy wind-front tights, and heavy REI waterproof/breathable pant

Where we live it doesn’t go below 10º very frequently, or consistently. If it did, I would add a nice pair of fleece pants as a warm insulating layer between my shorts/knee warmers and my wind-proof outer pant.

Hope this little ditty may have supplied a few of you with useful tips for keeping your legs warm this winter. As always, your feedback is appreciated.


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