Sunday, December 02, 2007

Winter Cycling

I've had a shift of philosophy regarding cycling. All summer, I was cycling to keep myself in shape. Now, I'm cycling to keep myself tough and scrappy. Now that most of my cycling is happening when the temperature is below freezing, the biggest challenge is no longer the exercise, the push to go a little faster or take longer routes. The new challenge is the day-to-day push to keep cycling, rather than taking the bus or having Laura drive me to work. In the summer and fall, I actively enjoy just being on the bike. I rode into 30mph headwinds a few times this summer, and I biked in a torrential downpour or two. It's hard, but even at its worst I never wished I was in a car. Cycling in the winter is a different animal. It's genuinely a lot less fun. For the last week or two I've been riding for transportation rather than enjoyment.

Everything that works against you in warm weather is compounded in cold weather. Wind hits harder, for one thing; it slows me down more. I'm pretty aerodynamic in my summer shorts and tank top, but in my bulky winter fleece I've got a lot more surface area for the wind to push against. It's also amazing how fast the windchill sucks your heat. And rain is mostly a problem in summer because my work clothes can get wet in my backpack. Sleet, on the other hand, truly sucks when you're on a bike. You get cold and wet in a hurry, and the roads turn treacherous both from the lack of traction and the fact that car drivers don't spare as much of their energy watching for cyclists. Ice is actively dangerous, and snow is a navigational hazard (as well as camouflage for ice).

Cold is a big issue for me. I get chilled very easily, I don't warm up fast, and I intensely dislike the feeling of being cold. (Remember reading Dante's Inferno? The part that always struck me as the most horrific were the guys standing up to their knees in the frozen river of Cocytus, doomed to crouch forever in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the freezing wind.) So I'm working on optimizing my wardrobe to reduce the misery quotient of the commute. I've got a pair of polyester shirts that work pretty well as an upper-body base layer; they wick, though they're not warm and don't insulate much. I've got a decent collection of polar fleece sweatshirts and sweatpants which make a nice insulating layer. But I'm having trouble finding a good outer layer. I don't have anything bike-appropriate that's waterproof or stops wind, and nothing that's breathable. I've been making due by layering the fleece, but a good wind cuts right through all the layers. If the temperature drops much further, or if I have to ride in the sleet again, I'll experiment with wearing a vinyl rainsuit under my outer layer. It doesn't breathe, and I doubt it's comfortable to ride in, but it'll definitely keep me dry and stop the wind. And I'm pretty happy with my head covering: my fleece earband, and a fleece neck gaiter I pull up to cover my nose and cheeks. It messes with the fit of my helmet, though. I've got my helmet adjusted as loose as it'll get, and it's still uncomfortably tight over my warm-weather headgear.

I'm trying to work with what I already own, since I'm averse to spending money on anything cycling related. Extreme economy is most of the reason I bike in the first place. I went the whole summer without spending any money on the bike; I didn't even buy fenders, as much as they would've helped with biking in the rain. No rack, no saddlebags, no headlight, and no mirrors, either. So spending money on special cycling clothes isn't going to happen. I've done some window shopping online (search-engine typo: there's no such thing as a "cycling baclava", though it'd probably be durable and yummy) and found some winter clothing I'd love to have. Maybe I'll ask for some for Christmas. And I knit, so I've got the option of making some of my own cycle clothing. On my first really cold ride, as I was trying to remember the likelihood and symptoms of frostbitten cheeks, I designed a knitting project I'd like to make to keep my head warm; problem is, knitted goods don't tend to block the wind at all. Knitting is less useful when it comes to outer-layer items like this. Maybe I should knit it in any random yarn, then spray it with Grip-Dip for windproofing. :-)

I've also had a few other practical cold-weather problems. It seems like my brakes don't work as well in cold weather, even when they're dry. Maybe the pads get stiffer as the temperature drops; I haven't seen any references to this, so I might just need new pads. My winter work clothes are bulkier than my summer clothes. This means I often don't have extra space in my backpack, and I can't stop on the way home to pick up library books or groceries. Another cold-weather issue: the neck gaiter makes my glasses fog up. In a perfect world* I'd probably wear contacts and some kind of ski goggles, or maybe get a pair of prescription cycle goggles. But it's only a problem when I breathe out through my nose, or when I stop moving. So I'm compensating by exhaling from my mouth and pulling the gaiter down when I have to stop. I'm also not equipped for riding in the dark, and if I leave work at 5:30 my entire ride home is in the dark. I've got a flashing LED tail light, but I don't have reflective clothing or a headlight for the bike. I've been improvising a headlamp by bungeeing my LED headlamp to the handlebars, and it's working so far.

I should mention that I've done some research into winter cycling and found some good online references. The Icebike site was a font of useful information, and Cycle-licious is always a fun way to kill some time. The Tredz winter cycling guide had some good general guidelines. And the links page at might be the most complete I've seen.

* Or, perfect enough that I'd have cash to spend on cycling, but not so much cash that I could justify trading the bike for a car....

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