Sunday, November 13, 2005

Winter riding...

Winter Riding Skills.

I’ve spent a little time sitting on the pavement wondering. One moment I was riding along just fine, and in the next second I was skittering along an icy road on my butt. What happened?

I rode regularly through the winter when I lived in Pittsburgh, PA, partly in desperation from cabin fever, and partly as a result of the guilt I felt from all that holiday over-eating. I rode in rain, wet and dry snow, slush, ice, and sleet. Pittsburgh had a lot of trolley tracks and Belgian block streets (think of them as biggie-sized cobblestones) all of them treacherous in the wet. Belgian blocks are especially dangerous in icy or wet conditions due to their rounded tops.

My commute usually went along arterial streets because they were direct and fast. But I had another route for really foul weather that meandered through side streets and alleys. It worked well for most bad weather, until we had an ice storm overnight and I tried to ride the Belgian blocks. Traction was an iffy thing. That morning I rode out onto them and fell immediately. I tried to stand up and my feet shot out from under me! Down on the street again, I heard a woman behind me laughing at my predicament. Then she stepped off the sidewalk onto the cobbles, and she went down too! We ended up crawling off the street. It was the only way to go.

Wet snow and slush offer about as much traction as wet pavement, but they tend to accumulate on the brakes, frame, and derailleurs, eventually freezing the mechanisms. Fenders help some, but they clog with ice too. I kept cheap derailleurs for winter conditions and swapped them for my good ones when spring arrived. A liberal application of WD-40 helps to prevent ice build up, but it isn’t a cure all. Eventually, I started riding a fixed gear that required little maintenance, a solution I returned to last winter. I highly recommend a low-geared fixie for winter riding. A low gear means slower speeds and less wind chill. Also, since you're pedaling constantly, you stay much warmer than you do on a geared bike.

Deep snow is much like riding in sand. It’s hard going and the front tire tends to slip sideways when turning. The tire compresses a layer of snow as it travels forward, then slides down and to the side as it turns left or right. This is disconcerting even at low speed. I never tried it going fast.

My favorite was dry, hard-packed snow. It gives almost as much traction as dry pavement, but you still have to be careful at intersections because the heat from car engines can melt the surface slightly, causing a glassy, wet ice that is very slick.

Curiously, motorists seem more courteous toward cyclists brave enough to face truly harsh conditions, even when they’re traveling in the only available space – a tire track through the snow and slush. Maybe drivers think that anyone riding a bike in that kind of weather has to be a little crazed in the first place. But in Oklahoma I hesitate to ride in traffic on snow covered or icy roads. Motorists here have too little experience of such conditions, and they make too many mistakes.

Staying warm.

I usually don't have a problem with cold hands or feet in the winter. I'm a big guy at 210 pounds, but let's be kind and call it 'thermally efficient'.

It's easier to maintain summer’s hard-won fitness rather than being forced to re-gain it in the spring. You can do it by riding through the winter. Gathering the necessary clothing is not terribly expensive and it's certainly more fun than being in the gym. You probably have most of clothes already, but a couple of additional items make the difference between a chilly ride and a comfortable one.

The key to winter riding comfort is layers. Multiple, thin layers provide both warmth and versatility.

The first layer against your skin should have good wicking capabilities. Polypropylene, silk, or wool are all good choices. Even cotton long underwear will help, provided you don't get wet from rain or perspiration. Cotton doesn't insulate when wet.

The mid-layer provides most of the insulation, and in general it should be a synthetic. Vests, synthetic sweaters, and even cotton sweatshirts (within limitations) will work here.

The outer layer provides wind and rain protection. Gore-tex is nice, but it's pricey and frankly I've never used it. I stick with simple windbreakers.

Ok, here's my kit at temperatures in the 60s: Shorts, jersey, long-sleeved poly shirt, arm warmers, and the ever-present doo-rag. It offers some versatility. If there's a strong headwind, the arm warmers stay on. If there's a strong tail wind, they come off and the long sleeves get rolled up. Think of the arms as your radiators, 'cause I'll be coming back to this. Socks are almost always CoolMax or wool.

With 10 degree temperature drop, I'll add tights, full gloves and a wind breaker. Again, windbreaker and gloves are optional depending on the wind. Also, I'm partial to the double-fronted, bib type tights. They're more expensive, but they last a long time, and they provide more warmth. The tights are the only expensive items I have for winter rides.

In the 40s, I add a skull cap under my helmet and a vest, and sometimes a neck gator, depending on the wind.

Below 40, I substitute a wind-blocking balaclava for the skull cap, substitute a sweater for the vest, and wear ski gloves rather than thin cycling gloves or work gloves. And I switch to heavier wool socks.

My temperature limit these days is a little below freezing, though I've ridden to work when it was 18F once. The cold is hard on my knees.

If you're comfy and warm before you start the ride, you'll be roasting after you warm up. (I once made the mistake of wearing a heavy down parka while cross country skiing. It turned into a sauna at 10°F!) The trick is to learn to judge just what you'll need at that point, and put up with feeling a little chilly for the first couple of miles. As I've gotten older, I prefer staying a little warmer than necessary, so I shed a layer into my seatbag or a pannier. There's a climber's adage—it's easier to stay warm than it is to get warm—and I live by that in the winter!

A couple of other points: If your hands and feet get cold, wear a hat. If I recall right, 25% of your blood flow is through the head, making it an effective radiator. Also, think of your torso as the furnace and your extremities as radiators. Keeping the torso warm (with a vest, for example) forces the body to try to dump excess heat by putting more blood out to the extremities. This is an effective way to prevent cold-induced
cramps too.

Another comfort item for cold morning rides is a vacuum-insulated stainless steel water bottle filled with strong coffee or cappuccino. Believe me, a hot drink can be very welcome!

One last thing: You’ll find you ride more slowly in the winter. This is probably due to the extra clothing and the related drag, but riding slower is a good thing in itself. It reduces the windchill effect unless you’re riding into a ferocious headwind. Be kind to your knees and spin. Save that hard-earned fitness from summer, and plan on being tougher and faster next spring. Be kind to your bike too. Stay on top of drivetrain maintenance, paying special attention to cleaning and lubricating your chain regularly. For that matter, consider riding a single speed (or even a fixed gear for the truly crazed!) and save your ‘good’ bike for summer.

Have fun! This is a great time of the year to ride!


Blogger Grant Hicks said...

"Thermally Efficient"

I loved it! Although you have a few pounds on me I still chuckled out loud and can't wait for a little muddy slush.

Keep riding!

3:37 PM  
Blogger mags said...

Good points. Smartwool is a good product that works well when the temp drops closer to freezing.


7:53 PM  
Blogger ItsJustMe said...

A surprising amount of the slowness i the winter is due to the air being more dense. I saw calculations somewhere that riding at 30*F was 15% harder than riding at 80*F just due to added wind drag due to denser air at the colder temps.
I wouldn't have thought it was that much more.
I do know that between dense air, studded tires, more clothes, and the discomfort of breathing cold air, my ride time goes from 35 minutes to as long as 55 minutes when it's really cold (around 0*F).

I've ordered a PSolar HX balaclava with a breath heat exchanger. Hopefully it'll save my throat a bit and keep my glasses from fogging, especially when stopped.

6:00 AM  
Blogger thomas said...

Geez, you make me feel like a real wuss! I was just complaining this a.m. that it was foggy and 56-ish with some light mist on my morning commute. You northeast riders are tough. ZERO F? I am inspired.

All the best from a fixie rider...
Thomas "it's just another day in SoCal" Dixon

12:02 PM  
Blogger Guitar Ted said...

Nice write up. I could relate to everything you said. I'm going into my fourth winter as a commuter here in Iowa. The normal time home is around fifteen minutes. I once took an hour plus to do the same ride, but the seven inches of fresh, wet snow may have played a part in that slow time!

Interesting that you noted the slower ride times too. I always chalked it up to the constrictive clothing.

4:02 PM  

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