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Cycling warm on winter days, Houston style

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In case you hadn't noticed - and sometimes it's hard to notice here on the Gulf Coast - it's winter. For cyclists in places like Minnesota, Montana, Michigan and Missouri, that means retiring to the stationary bike, the trainer, or the sofa. Here in Houston, however, you can ride year-round but that requires some planning ahead. Whether you're a daily commuter, a recreational cyclist or an animal in training for that big one in April, here are a few suggestions on dressing for what we call "winter" hereabouts.

Though you don't lose 90% of your body heat through your head, it's still not a good idea to leave it sticking out there naked when the rest of your is warm. There are lots of options depending on how cold it's getting. At the warm end of the thermometer, a simple ear band may be enough to keep the lobes from falling off. When it gets cooler, opt for a euro-style skullcap, and when the mercury really falls, a balaclava will protect the face. A cunning fabric tube called the Original Buff can be worn in all those configurations in case of rapidly-changing temperatures.

To keep your core temperature properly regulated, dress in layers. The heart of the layering system is the long-sleeved jersey; you'll build from there. For simply cool days, the jersey may be enough. As the temperature dops, you can add a layer underneath made of a wicking fabric; and for even colder days pull on a windproof, water-resistant jacket. Both jersey and jacket should zip all the way up the neck like a mock turtleneck and open to allow you to shed excess heat if the sun comes out. For rides that start out cold and end not so cold, consider a vest with arm warmers or a convertible vest/jacket combo. Either will let you stow the sleeves when it gets warmer.

Cold hands can make a ride miserable, so full-finger gloves are a must. For short rides on an upright bike, you can get away with conventional gloves or mittens but road cyclists will want to opt for padded cycling gloves. Because the hands are fully exposed, cycling gloves must be windproof and water-resistant. If your regular riding gloves are already loose, you might consider ultra-lightweight cloth gloves underneath, but the bulk can give you hot spots if you're not careful.

Don't neglect the bottom half of your body, but you can't just pull on a pair of sweatpants. Full-length bike tights come in several weights and in padded or unpadded styles (you pull the unpadded style on over a pair of conventional shorts). Heavy-weight versions often have ankle zippers for easy on-off, while still gripping tightly. If the weather's merely cool, look into a pair of capri-length tights (men's styles are called 3/4-length tights or knickers). These can be augmented with a pair of leg warmers that, like arm warmers, can be stripped off when temperatures rise and then stowed in a pocket or pack.

Your regular cycling shoes are probably designed to keep your feet cool in hot weather, so you'll need another layer to plug the holes in the ventilation mesh. For merely cool weather, a pair of shoe covers will do: these windproof, waterproof scraps of fabric cover the toes while leaving the cleats exposed. If you expect cold, wet weather, a pair of zippered booties that cover the foot all the way to the ankle may be in order.

Remember that winter days are short and visibility is often poor. When choosing winter layers, look for bright colors, lots of reflective patches and stripes, or both. Be safe, and have a good ride!

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