Friday, November 2, 2007

Winter Bicycling Challenges: Cold

When the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, the year-round cyclist is presented with some unique and potentially deadly challenges. I'd classify them into three groups:
- the "cold" challenge
- the "dark" challenge
- the "slippery" challenge

(Here in Boise, we are typically blessed to have short winters, where the cold and slippery factors are relegated to just a few days each season. But on those days, they must be recognized, respected, and dealt with.)

"Cold" might be the easiest of the three to mitigate.

I jokingly tell people that when I'm bicycling in the cold, I "resist the urge to lay down under a tree and rest for awhile." To somebody who has survived an ordeal-by-cold, that wouldn't be so funny; one of the symptoms of true hypothermia is lethargy, and I'm sure many a victim has intended to "just get a little rest" and then move on.

In urban or suburban surroundings, however, where assistance is generally nearby, cold is rarely deadly.

There is fantastic "active wear" available these days - designed for vigorous activity in cold conditions. Unlike the old days when you had to bundle up in your Eddie Bauer goose-down Mount Everest parka. (When I was a kid, I used to devour my dad's Eddie Bauer catalogs... nowadays I don't know if they even sell an expedition parka or sleeping bag. I think they're all shopping-mall yuppie-wear nowadays. Pathetic!)

A key to staying warm (or at least "not cold") is staying dry.

I've got a sweet bright yellow Gore-Tex jacket. (And matching pants, when conditions warrant.) It keeps me dry even in a downpour. Anything that's waterproof is also, by nature, wind-resistant. The jacket, and a layer of insulating material (thermal, fleece, etc.) are all I need for temperatures down to the teens.

(If you're not familiar with Gore-Tex, which seems unlikely, it has the unique advantage of being completely waterproof, while allowing water vapor to escape. It keeps the rain and snow out... while letting the sweat evaporate. So the wearer doesn't get clammy.)

Of course, my fingers and toes and ears get uncomfortably cold first, if not protected. (Your experience may vary.)

I keep my ears warm with a stretch-poly balaclava "ski mask." It covers my entire head and neck, except for my face, and the fabric is thin enough to fit (snugly) under my helmet. It keeps my ears out of the wind, and snugged-up against my head. When it gets around zero degrees, I sometimes get an "ice cream headache" as my sinuses get chilled... but I'm typically trying to get indoors ASAP when it's that cold. (I save the long bike rides for warmer days.)

I've got some Neoprene shoe covers to keep my toes warm. (Neoprene is the rubbery stuff they make skin diver suits out of. It's stretchy and rubbery, even in very cold conditions, and completely waterproof.) At one time in the past, I had some Neoprene full shoe covers. They stretched over my shoes, up to above the ankles, with a zipper in the back. For me, they were too warm... my feet felt like they were roasting unless it was really REALLY cold out. The shoe covers work great for me - they stretch over the front of my shoes and are held on just with a snug fit. They keep my shoes dry, even when water is splashing up from the road. (They would not be suitable for riding all day in the wet, but they work fine for my commuting-type trips, where I'm only exposed for a half hour or less.)

There are a hundred different varieties of gloves, to keep those fingers toasty. I wear a cheap ($10-15) pair of cold-weather bicycling gloves with grippy palms. (Ski gloves or mittens would probably work fine, too.) If you want to get fancier, you can get gloves with Gore-tex membranes for waterproofness, upgraded insulation, reflective material, little squeegee-things to wipe your glasses, etc.

My legs are usually the last part of me that gets cold when bicycling. Maybe (likely) it's the fact that they are working, and thus circulating the blood. Or maybe it's just that there's a lot of meat on them bones. I actually wear shorts comfortably down to the mid-to-upper-40s. (After a long winter, a sunny, mid-40s day seems FANTASTIC in the early springtime!) When the temperature drops below my "shorts range," I'll switch over to the classic bicyclist tights. (Available in a vast array of quality and price ranges, from $15 to $150... I generally can be found at the "cheap" end.) And if it's wet, the Gore-Tex over the top and I'm ready for whatever.

I'd love to hear how you deal with winter cold... unless you deal with it by wintering in Costa Rica. (Jealousy is not a good thing!)

Coming soon:
- the "dark" challenge
- the "slippery" challenge


Anonymous said...

My commute is relatively flat and short (1.75miles). I generally wear a cycling jacket, army-surplus or fleece gloves and "earbags" to keep me warm on most mornings. When temps dip below 15 I may add some more insulation under my jacket. I just picked up a lightweight pair of rain paints instead of using my Ski pants.

Anonymous said...

You're pretty much nailed it all here. I'm still surprised at how little I need in the way of a jacket. I don't move into balaclava territory until about 20 degrees or less -- the rest of the time an ear wrap is sufficient. I have some great Trek "lobster-claw" gloves that work like a charm, with a thin liner on the coldest of days. The downside of these gloves is that they prevent me from displaying my middle finger to deserving motorists.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure where Boise is. I could draw Idaho, but not place it on a map. Regardless, my point is I think it is a fair bit south of beautiful Toronto.

Here I generally wear on the especially cold days here (-20C or below):

gloves, mitts, a scarf, two fleece liners, a goretex shell, and some fleece snow boarding pants and one or two toques.

It is definitely overkill, but I like to stay nice and warm, and I am a huge wimp about the cold. Your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

I think Toronto may have a generally colder climate do to the Great Lakes, but it is on the same latitude as Boise.

Toronto- 43° 40'North
Boise- 43.62 North

Just meant to be an interesting geography fact.

Anonymous said...

Cold for my 8 mile commute isnt to much of a problem. I layer up and stay fairly toasty. Now the ice and snow thing however, should be interesting. I am planning to switch from my road bike to the mountain bike and I may try it once. If it takes too long I may have to resort to driving.

db said...

This morning was the coldest one yet, so nice timing on the post.

For my legs, I throw a pair of running tights over some lycra bike shorts. That way I can use the tights for the entire week, and just change the shorts mid-week. And for my face, I use a Turtlefur neck gaiter that I can pull up over my nose.

Other than that, I pretty much do as Bikeboy does, even down to the toe covers.

Bob T said...

My commute is about 2 to 3 miles each way so I find that regular street clothes (with some bike specific accessories) work just fine. Avoiding overdressing seems to be my biggest challenge.

In the winter I find it amusing when my colleagues ask me how I can ride to work when it is "so cold". I usually say something to the effect that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I believe that if I told them that I ski at Bogus Basin they would probably not think anything of it, in spite of the fact that this activity would expose me to the elements much more than my commute ever does. Maybe this is because skiing is considered a "normal" activity, while commuting by bicycle is not?