Winter Bicycling — Bikes in the Cold and Snow

Motorcycles go away with the first cold days of fall. If you see one in the winter it’s like watching a bear that came out of the den too early. You know it’s out for a quick spin on a warm afternoon and then it’s back to the garage for a long winter’s nap. Bicycles and some bicyclists are different. We do go out in the winter’s cold, even though it’s miserable.

In August when riding a bike is like rolling through a furnace, winter-time rides could seem like a pleasant alternative. Anyone who’s actually done them knows there’s very little about winter cycling that’s pleasant, although there’s an occasional good day — usually not more than two per year. Winter on a bike is all about wind chill, cold rain, dangerous roads, and auto drivers who can’t see you until the last minute. If you have the misfortune to find yourself far from home when the snow begins to fall, the smart thing to do is to get off the bike and hitch a ride. Riding a bike over snow resembles riding over grease, and if the snow accumulates you’ll quickly find out how much energy it takes to compact that pristine white fluff and force your way through it. On hills, forget it — unless you’re the wise cyclist who invests beforehand in Studded Bicycle Tires.

Studded bicycles tires aren’t much different than studded tires for cars. They’ll do you no good in the garage, so if you want the safety and traction they provide when that freak snow blows in you’ll have to ride on them all winter. There’s definitely a unique vibration involved but it’s not severe. Running them at the low end of the air pressure range puts more tread on the road and increases traction, but that also makes them a little harder to roll. The extra traction is worth the money if you might have to ride on black ice patches or packed snow, but it’s not a solution to all problems. If you skid a little in a car it’s no big deal, but on a bike it’s a huge issue. Cars don’t fall over.

Some of the country where I’ve done winter riding the most just gets cold, not snowy. The biggest change you have to make when the weather is dry and below freezing is wind chill protection. Here there seems to be no comfortable solution. Either you’re too hot, or you’re too cold. Clothing good enough to protect you against a 50 mph wind (not too uncommon if you stack winter wind on top of forward motion) is too hot for riding without sweating. Adding layers keeps the wind off the damp parts when you stop moving, but it’s still a dangerous game to play.

Core protection for the body should be something which wicks moisture away, staying warm even when wet, and wool is one of the best natural materials for that. A nylon bicycling jacket doesn’t weigh much and will be too much in mild winter weather, but even on a warmer winter day comes in very handy when you take a break to eat something. Head and face take the brunt of the cold, so a bicycling balaclava is essential.

Bicycling gloves may be the trickiest piece of gear involved, since you have to have them and they’re never right. Bicycling gloves leave you enough dexterity to operate the gear shift and brakes, but sacrifice a little warmth to do that. Air gaps between fingers and gloves help tremendously but you often lose that gap in bicycling gloves. Gloves which allow air flow wick away moisture and keep the hands drier, but aren’t good for really cold temperatures. For below freezing rides you need serious wind protection. Double layer gloves with a leather outer shell and an inner lining of wool or goretex offer a bulky but reasonable answer to this problem.

In Seattle I got tired of having cold hands and tried all sorts of gloves, looking for the perfect solution, but found nothing that was more than temporarily perfect. Neoprene seemed like the answer for a few minutes. With a pair of neoprene gloves I didn’t feel the cold at all, and until my hands started to sweat I was a happy biker. By the time I’d gone 15 miles my hands were like prunes because there’s nowhere for the moisture to go. That’s still a tolerable problem. In a few days, though, I learned that there’s no way to dry neoprene gloves quickly enough to prevent mildew from growing inside them. If you like the smell of mildew this isn’t a problem, but if you don’t want your hands to reek of spoiled cheese you’ll go through a pair of neoprene gloves every week. Once the mildew gets started it never goes away. That made me sad, because I liked having warm hands.

The compromise I found that actually worked was the same one used by the U.S. Army in their cold weather gear. The leather outer shell with the removable wool insert isn’t the most dexterous but it’s good enough to operate essential controls and in most cycling situations it’s good enough to prevent frostbite. Sweat evaporates if you treat the gloves like boots and dry them out at night, so the mold jungle doesn’t grow. You can even wash the inserts — and you should, unless you want your hands to smell like feet.

The other essential piece of clothing is the handkerchief — probably two or three of them. You could carry a box of Kleenex and a wastebasket instead, but a hanky makes better practical sense on a bike. I’ve not found snow goggles to work well on a bike because they fog up. Exposed to the wind your eyes will tear up and your nose will run, but the good news is that most of it will wind up in the balaclava and you’ll only need the hanky for when you stop and interact with civilized human beings. A good blow and wipe makes you almost socially acceptable, and you may even receive courteous treatment from people because they think you’re mentally challenged. One of the first things to go when you ride bikes in the winter is the ability to speak. Cheeks, lips and tongue lose dexterity and feeling and you sound like you’ve just had a couple of good shots of Novacaine.

Winter biking can be pretty miserable, but it still beats the heck out of riding an exercise bicycle in the corner of the living room.

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