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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cold Weather Cycling: A Lobsterland Primer

Question from my brother: "I know how to dress down to about freezing, but any colder than that I haven’t tried. I’ve got my warmest gloves on and they are just warm enough at that point. What kind of layers do you put on for rides in the other 10 degree bands we see around here…20s, teens, single digits?"

Flattering to be asked by my brother for some sort of cycling advice. Around the age I was losing interest in bikes, he was getting into racing them. When, in my twenties, I decided to try riding again to get in shape, he helped me pick out a budget bike that wasn't absurdly inappropriate to my needs, then of a Saturday he'd come over, ride Cliff Drive (I lived in the Northeast), riding at my stupidly slow pace, then we'd eat and maybe play some video games while drinking a beer or two.

Once, when I was again thinking about getting into riding, I sent him a query by email and the response is, I am pretty sure, the most words he has ever put into a single document. And he helped me in so many ways when I actually did get into riding. That $50 bike I bought to ride my first Bike MS, he gave it the tuneup I couldn't afford at the bike shop while lending me his pricey mountain bike so I could to the Trek recovery ride that week. He helped me figure out what stuff I really did need to buy from the bike shop on the absurdly limited budget I was working with, what I could postpone or ignore.

But anyway, he's been starting to try what I consider to be practical bicycling, as opposed to riding just for a workout or as a racing sport. Bought a cross bike, fenders, started looking at using it as a form of transportation. This is a pretty radical shift, honestly, even when I fell in love with riding while training for my first Bike MS, I couldn't see the bike as a practical tool for getting around. I knew there were people who did it, I just couldn't get my mind around how it works.

A couple years later, it all seems obvious, but that's the way with things. That math problem is only a stumper until you know the solution, then it's just math. Cold weather cycling, with some practice and thought, is just cycling.

The critical element to cold weather (or wet weather) riding is the decision to do it. Once you've decided you're going to figure it out, it's all downhill from there. At a given new set of conditions, you'll find something isn't quite comfortable (or is downright miserable), and you'll address that next time. I made arm warmers by cutting thumbholes in extra long wool socks at one point because my arms got cold more than my torso. Then I realized my cycling jacket had zip-off sleeves and I could just put that part of the jacket on.

My wife puts a lot of stock in wool, and it's an awesome fabric but the only area I insist on it in my cold weather riding is socks. Mickey's Surplus is a good place to get Wigwam seconds at about half full price. I think because of the way your feet sweat, wool's properties of keeping you warm even when wet come into play. Over those socks, try some shoes that don't have a mesh upper. If you have exotic cycling shoes and SPD pedals, you may need shoe covers, but keeping wind off your feet is number one when you get below maybe 40ºF.

Thermal underwear is a layer I always use under 32ºF or so. I wear cycling shorts under them, one of the few synthetic garments I use at all, but really that's just support for my junk and the padding of the chamois. Up top, a cotton long-sleeved t-shirt is my usual base layer below about 50ºF. The sleeves of the cycling jacket go over that below about 40ºF. I wear a Hawaiian shirt on top always, but that's for form, I don't think it makes a nickel's difference in warmth.

As it gets colder, I'll sometimes go to a turtleneck instead of the long sleeved t-shirt because it helps cover the neck where the balaclava ends. When you get down into the teens, I start to think about another layer. I'll typically use the whole cycling jacket below 20ºF because the wind coming through fabric really makes the tummy cold and the windbreak becomes important.

Single digits, I start adding layers like my Nova Scotia hand-made cable knot sweater made of 100% virgin wool. I found this at a thrift store, paid less than five bucks I'm sure it's over $100 new, but I've had to peel it off because I was overheating when it was in the 20s. I wore it when I rode to work in 4ºF weather the other day and I was fine.

Balaclavas are important below maybe 40ºF. There are ear warmer options, but I've found them frustrating and when my ears are cold generally my neck and whatnot can use some cover. For super cold, I have a heavier balaclava that comes way down over the shoulders. I try to carry at least two balaclavas in winter because they tend to get sweaty and snotty. The top of my head sweats them up, and that dries, but riding in the cold tends to make my nose run, and between the snot and frozen breath that accumulates up front, well, I'd rather put on a clean balaclava for the return trip. Especially if it's one that comes up over the lips. I never have one over my nose because my glasses fog up too much when I do, but for whatever reasons covering the nose doesn't seem that important.

I mean, if riding down Main Street hill at 25 mph into a 15 mph headwind at 4ºF didn't turn my nose black and make it fall off, I don't know what it'd take. If I ever get some good goggles (see below), maybe I'll cover my nose in such conditions for comfort's sake.

As far as gloves, flannel lined jersey gloves are pretty much all I need down to freezing, a little below it. Then I add my lobster claws, a pair of army surplus sniper mittens from back when the trigger guard on a sniper rifle must have been the size of a putting green. They're bulky, but it keeps your fingers together which helps, and they're big enough to fit a chemical warmer in. In extreme cold, say single digits, I'll use those in the lobster claws as well as Toasty Toes on my feet. And mittens are warmer than gloves, any day, keeping those digits together makes a huge difference.

Ski equipment seems logical, you're dealing with some of the same elements when riding in cold weather but be careful. Corinna got me a nice set of ski mittens for Christmas, and I wore them on that 4ºF ride in and my hands were so sweaty when I got to work the mittens were difficult to put on/take off. And this was with the vents open, so I don't know when I'd close the vents, except that maybe skiing doesn't generate body heat the way cycling does. I think I prefer warm, sweaty fingers to cold ones, so they work for me. Ski goggles can be good for bombing hills in cold weather, though for night riding they're problematic since all ski lenses have some tint. ATV goggles have been suggested as a substitute that are available with no tint.

Likewise, I'd generally avoid coats even in extreme cold. You're riding a bike, generating heat. If you want, strap a coat to the bike rack in case you get a flat. The last thing you want is to be sweaty, then have to suddenly stand still in single digit temperatures with nothing else.

I'm short on really specific advice here because this is definitely a Your Mileage May Vary subject. Corinna wears a lot more clothing than I do when it's just a little cold, but she doesn't add much when it gets stupid cold. You have a choice of whether you want to be comfortable right when you start out, that first mile, or if you want to be comfortable for the next ten miles. If you're not a bit chilly at first, you're going to really sweat it up. If you're okay with that, dress on the warm side. If you're not, let the cold you feel at first make you ride a bit harder.

In general, I find natural fibers are more comfortable, so I favor cotton, wool (especially merino), and silk.

Oh, and to truly be all weather ready, get a rain suit. You'll be hot and wet with it on, as opposed to cold and wet, but when it's in the 30s and raining hard, trust me hot and wet is better.

So there it is, my guide to cold weather riding gear. Super non-specific but that's because it seems like nothing works for everyone. You wouldn't cancel a ski trip because it was cold and snowing in Colorado, so there's no reason to cancel a bike ride on account of cold and snow.

One final thing: studded snow tires. They make them for bikes, yes, but they're not so much for snow. Snow is slippery no matter what, and the only real advantage to be gained as far as I know is a fat bike with huge, low-pressure tires that can float on it a bit. Studs are for ice. They work, too, but for urban riding, there's not that much ice on the roads most of the time, even when it snows. If you have the budget for them, the patience to swap them out for your regular tires, and hate falling down, they're worthwhile. I think the pair Corinna has that I've borrowed sometimes was last on either of our bikes two years ago.

Like I say, the number one thing is to decide you're going to ride. Almost inevitably, something will be sub-par, just make a note of it. Your toes were cold, you try wool socks and/or chemical warmers, or get more solid footwear that doesn't breath so much (oh, and avoid steel toed boots, that steel toe becomes a heat sink that will absolutely suck your will to live in my experience). Then, with perfectly comfortable toes, you'll notice the wind on your neck where the balaclava ends and your shirt doesn't start, and you'll figure out something for that. Then you'll notice it's your back getting sweaty and you'll start experimenting with layers, shirt materials, etc.

And eventually you get to where you can pretty much just look at the thermometer, check the forecast, maybe stick a head outside and just nail it, put on exactly the right combination of clothes for that ride. It was really satisfying for me when I realized that I didn't think about my gear that much on winter rides because I was generally comfortable. I was making all kinds of adjustments based on conditions but they were informed by experience and made the way you shift gears when you drive a five-speed long enough where it's just like breathing.

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