Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tricks of the trade: Coping with the chill

I'll apologize here for the length of this article. Hopefully, it's worth reading.

The blogosphere is always abuzz with cold-weather cycling information this time of year. Fritz posted this article about a year ago. Warren recently posted something similar on CBB as well. Indeed, this is the time when the dedicated bicycle commuters begin to stand out from the crowd. By November, most of the fair-weather cyclists have mothballed their bikes here in the midwest. This leaves only the year-round cyclists, most of which are commuters.

Of course, even the most die-hard bike commuters have their limits when it comes to weather. I'm going to take a different approach to cold weather cycling. Instead of attempting to tell you what to wear and what to ride, I'm going to tell you how to really find your winter groove.

Staying warm
Let's face it, there's a certain temperature that my body likes. It's probably not the same as your body. I may have more or less body fat than you -- I'd bet it's probably more. I may exert myself more or less than you do -- thus creating a different level of body heat. What works for me just wouldn't work for you. You're going to have to figure it out for yourself, but I'm here to help!

In our case, the weather conditions are experimental variables beyond our control. Document them, and then document what clothing choices you made, followed by the results of your experiment. Keep track of your clothing and the results for the whole cold season. Each time you go out, see what worked best the last time you rode in similar conditions and look for refinements you can make based on previous annoyances or discomfort. Was your attire too cold? Too hot? Did it offer adequate protection from any precipitation you encountered? Was it just right? Could have used thicker gloves? Write it down!

This also gives you a great starting point to look at next year when it cools off. You won't need to dig through your memory or guess what will work well, although it will take some time to adjust to the cold again.

Here are some excepts from my own log. As you can see, I layer with plain clothes in cold weather:

62F - Jeans, wicking shirt under hoodie. Too hot.
49F - Long Thermals + t-shirt and shorts, hoodie taken off halfway to work. good.
47F/Rain - Cargo Pants, wicking shirt, windbreaker. soaked/cold lower body.
39F - Thermals, Cargo Pants, windbreaker, ski mask under nose. Just right.

Clothing and layering options
Head and hands rarely require layering, but a good balaclava or ski mask can be re-positioned to cover only parts of your face. Scarves and ear-warmers work well in certain conditions. Cover your hands, feet and head accordingly with some thick socks, gloves, a scarf, some ear warmers or a balaclava. In extreme temperatures, mittens or lobster-claws work better than gloves at keeping your fingers warm. Multiple layers of socks can keep your toes nice and toasty.

For the rest of your body, it's best to go with multiple thin layers. Some people swear by sweat-wicking base layers in the winter. If you play your cards right, you won't be doing a lot of sweating. You want to make sure that your outer-most layers can be removed, loosened or unzipped to allow some airflow.

Regulate your temperature
If you're getting too hot, you can either reduce your effort, unzip an outer layer, or remove a layer of clothing. I usually unzip or loosen my outer layer first, then remove it if that's still too warm. Unless I'm riding in the rain, I rarely rely on effort to keep from overheating. Opposite that, I will usually choose to ride harder if I'm getting cold to see if I can get my body warmed up a bit more. Failing that, I'll start adding more clothing to my body.

Stay dry
Staying dry should be your first priority when riding in cold weather! This includes using waterproof gear when it's raining as well as keeping sweat at bay. In temperatures below 40F (4C), avoid sweating as much as possible. When you're bundled up, there's not much air flow to help the evaporation process, and sweat can accumulate quickly. Wet clothes conduct your body heat outward toward the cool air. The moisture closer to the outside air evaporates quite nicely, cooling the clothing off and draining even more of your body heat. This vicious cycle can lead to hypothermia very quickly.

To combat rain or damp snow, the outer layer should be water resistant. To combat sweat, use the temperature regulation tricks mentioned earlier. The tricky part is keeping from sweating when you're wearing plastic rain-gear. If you open the jacket, you'll get wet. If you don't get ventilation or cool off, you'll sweat yourself into oblivion. I recommend dressing a little thinner than usual in rain, then rely on varying your exertion to stay comfortable. Keep an extra layer handy and dry, just in case.

If you find yourself already sweaty, it's best to take off a layer of clothing to cool off while you're still exerting yourself. Once dry, use layers to control your temperature. It's far more desirable to feel chilly for a while to get dry, then warm back up than it is to remain warm with damp clothing. If you have to stop while you're damp (for example, to change a flat), you'll be in in danger.

Finally, I'd recommend keeping some extra layers of clothing at work. You never know when the temperature is going to change in the middle of the day. This also comes in handy if you can't seem to get your clothes completely dry before it's time to go home.

All the clothing in the world won't help a bit if your bike isn't up to the task. Having a bike that's set up for your conditions is paramount to your success as a year-round bike commuter. Everything changes in the colder months. You may find yourself commuting both directions in low-light conditions. The pavement might be dry in the morning and covered in glare ice or 8" of snow for your ride home.

Choosing your bike
Aside from the obvious question on tire choices -- which I'll get to in a bit, the winter can cause problems with bicycles. Rim brakes can become hard and wet, drastically reducing their abilities. Disc brakes don't suffer as badly from this kind of thing. Ice can accumulate in the shifters and cables, causing shifting and braking woes. Snow can get jammed into the gears and derailleurs, causing erratic shifting, skipping and binding issues. Bikes with internally-geared hubs and coaster brakes are less prone to these problems, but far from immune. Cold temperatures can freeze the grease in your rear hub and cause the freewheeling mechanism to quit working entirely. If this happens, you'll pedal the cranks but your wheel won't move at all.

You may consider trying to ride a fixed gear bike this winter if you have one. Although I don't have one, fixies seem to be immune to most of the winter woes I can imagine. You can brake with your feet applying reverse-pressure to the pedals if the brakes fail or the cables freeze. There are no shifters to get frozen. There are no derailleurs to get jammed. There's no freewheel to malfunction. On top of that, you have more control over your traction. Many people don't have the luxury of multiple bikes to choose from. If you're surfing craigslist or bike shops for a winter bike, you might want to take some of these options into consideration. My used hardtail 28-speed mountain bike worked just fine for me last winter, all the way down to -3F. Bicycle choice isn't the most important factor unless you're really in the market for a dedicated winter beater.

Keep it clean
Ice, salt, road grime, slush and sand are the worst enemies to your bike in winter. On top of the jamming and freezing issues I mentioned above, these adversaries will rust, grind, and destroy your chain and cogs. If you're riding a steel-frame bicycle with some scratched paint, these elements can cause rust to form on your frame as well. Make sure to keep your bike cleaned and well lubricated. Find a good lubricant that keeps water and grime off of the drive train. Last winter, I had good luck with a few different wax-based chain lubes. Fenders will not only keep your bike from slinging snow and grime onto you while you ride, but will guide the muck away from your bike's critical drive train components. Sometimes the best cleaning you can do is not getting stuff dirty in the first place.

Keep the rubber-side down
Some people can ride lightly-treaded road bike tires through snow and slush. This carries some merit, as the narrow tires have a better chance of cutting through the snow and making contact with the pavement. Others would rather have wide, knobby tires that can float on and grab the snow, slush, and mud for traction. Some parts of the world don't see much snow, but encounter freezing rain and ice storms where ice-studded tires are practical. Some people can ride on slick ice using normal tires without losing their balance. I can tell you that studded tires can be more trouble than they're worth unless you live where there's a lot of ice. They don't grip snow any better than cheaper tires made for mud. Furthermore, they make for an uncomfortable, heavy, and noisy ride on bare pavement.

There are simply far too many variables in weather, tire design, and rider capability to tell you how to ride on less-than-ideal surfaces. Much like clothing choices, you need to experiment.

Winter is one of the few instances where I condone using sidewalks -- even if it's just to get the feel for your bike's winter handling capabilities. On top of that, you're less likely to be hit by a car that loses control. As always, take extreme caution on sidewalks and realize that cars might have trouble stopping for intersections. You'll likely have to ride slower on top of being more careful and observant. Last winter, I would often pass traffic on my bike while using the sidewalk. Motorists would attempt to use brute force to get moving from a stop, or would lose traction going up slight inclines. This caused widespread traffic jams and backups. It's times like those when it's just less hassle to use the sidewalk.

See and be seen
Lighting is crucial. On top of darkness taking up more and more of the day, it's very difficult to see or to be seen when it's raining or snowing. Invest in a high-visibility vest with reflective material and good, bright headlights and tail-lights. You can spend $30 on a decent set of LED head/tail lights that are pretty good for getting motorists' attention but offer little in the way of illuminating the path before you. If you're commuting under street lights, this is probably sufficient. If you have some dark parts on your commute, you'll likely want to get a higher-end LED, Halogen or HID headlight. On slick surfaces, the ability to spot obstacles further ahead becomes very valuable.

Evolve and adapt
As you proceed through the winter, you will probably think of or see things that will make your winter bike commuting life easier. Ride as often as you can until you can't cope with certain conditions, and then figure out what it will take to conquer that barrier next time you encounter it. Maybe you need to buy a thicker balaclava or some ski goggles to get you through those really bad sub-zero days. Maybe you're geared up for snow but find your attire selection lacking in protection from rain. Whatever the case, you don't need to spend a lot of money right away to get into all-weather commuting. Take baby steps and face your demons one by one.

In closing
The benefits of year-round commuting are many. First off, you'll have an advantage over the fair-weather cyclists next spring. I have also found that in the 15-20 minutes I would spend scraping snow off of my car and letting it warm up, I freeze my tail off and waste a ton of gas. In those same 20 minutes, I can be to the bus stop a few miles away, nice and warm as I push the pedals on my bike. Then, there's the respect (or fear for your mental state) that you get from co-workers as you hang your bike helmet up and dust all the snow off of yourself while asking them if they were actually crazy enough to drive through that kind of weather.

If you're on the fence over whether or not to brave the winter this year, I urge you to give it a shot. You can always retreat to "plan B" if it doesn't work the way you wanted. Remember, there's no shame in admitting defeat against weather that you feel is simply too treacherous or unpleasant. Many people chickened out when the leaves started falling off of the trees!

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