Selle Anatomica
Two mountain bikers climbing up a snowy mountainside

The Worst Body Part to Expose to Cold Air When Cycling

Cold weather has a way of shocking the unprepared cyclist. Suddenly, it’s painfully obvious where all of your exposed skin is. 

If you forgot to cover your face and hands on a brisk, windy day, you’ll realize it pretty quickly. There’s nothing quite like the harsh bite of cold on your cheeks or the feeling of frostbite creeping over your fingertips.

But your face and hands, as vulnerable as they may be, aren’t the only body parts you need to be careful to protect on a cold bike ride. In fact, longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie would argue that there is one body part that will be particularly chilled by the cold.

The worst body part to expose to cold air when cycling isn’t your face or your hands; it’s your knees. This means, when preparing to stay warm on a winter bike ride, you’ll need to keep your knees in mind.

Why Cold Knees Are a Problem for the Cyclist

At the risk of stating the obvious — healthy, strong knees are critical for the cyclist. 

“The average cyclist pedals around 80 times per minute, which is around 5,000 times each and every hour,” says Coach Darryl. “It’s a lot.”

Even though cycling is much easier on your body than a sport like running, it still takes a toll on your body if you’re not adequately prepared. When biking, knees probably bear the brunt of the workload, taking on a lot of strain when climbing hills, in particular. In Darryl’s experience, knee issues are the most common reason for people to stop cycling.

Most serious cyclists probably realize how important it is to protect their knees from damage by making sure their bike is a good fit. They’ll also ensure their equipment and techniques are not putting undue strain on this crucial joint. But they may not be thinking about how cycling in the cold with exposed knees could cause issues. Although they may know the basics of how to stay warm riding a bike in the winter, knowing exactly what your knees need is a whole new level of awareness.

“I had a woman tell me that her ride had made her so cold that her knees hadn’t recovered 24 hours later,” says Darryl. The stiffness and soreness — even a lingering feeling of cold in the knee — can persist and make it hard to do normal daily activities, much less get back on the bike. This is particularly true for older cyclists or for those who are newer to the sport and not as used to the strain that repeated, long rides can put on your knees.

Your Knees Absorb the Cold

So, why are your knees so susceptible to the effects of cycling in the cold? There are a few reasons.

For one, they’re “on the leading edge as you’re slicing through the air,” as Darryl puts it. Your knees are the first part of your body to cut into the cold wind, and they’re absorbing far more cold air than they would be if you were simply walking or standing still.

Couple that with the fact that your knees have very little natural insulation — they’re pretty much skin and bones, after all — and you have a perfect recipe for getting chilled to the bone. The cold can work its way deep into your joints and make it difficult to finish the ride.

However, there are ways to prevent extreme cold exposure to your knees. And it’s really only an issue because many cyclists forget a critical piece of outerwear for cold rides: tights.

You Need Cycling Tights

Whenever it gets below 55 or 60 degrees, Darryl adds tights to his cycling outfit to ensure he has his knees fully covered. The exact temperature where you need them will vary by cyclist, but note this: The knees don’t have as many nerve endings as some other areas, so you may not notice the effects of cold right away. That means you probably need tights sooner than you think.

Your tights should go over your bib shorts but under your socks. That way you’re not stretching out the ankles of your tights but they’re still easy to get off when you need to. (There is a right way to layer up for cold rides, by the way.)

When it comes to the particulars of your tights’ material and style, Darryl isn’t too picky. He prefers tights with a drawstring at the waist for adjustability and leg zippers to make it easy to get them on and off over your shoes. The exact thickness you need depends on how cold it gets where you ride.

What matters most when choosing tights for cycling, though, is that your knees are protected from the cold. If you live somewhere where it gets below 60 degrees on a regular basis, you need to have tights in your cycling wardrobe. Don’t let the cost or a deep need to look tough get in the way. Your knees will thank you, and you’ll make it that much easier to keep cycling through the winter — and for years to come.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay