This is the first winter since I started riding where I didn’t stop biking to work when the weather turned cold. Â Biking in almost any climate requires certain considerations, most notably what clothes to wear, but winter cycling is unique in how the elements can interact and turn an otherwise ordinary ride into something fairly miserable.
Wind and rain are among the two factors that exhibit a multiplier effect when combined with frosty temperatures. Â Riding into a head-wind is a pain in the ass no matter what the weather is like, but drop the outside temperature to around 40ÂºF and even a small breeze can feel like death is sighing on your neck. Â Rain also is a game-changer: a nice shower during a summer ride is very nearly a blessing, but in the winter it becomes a pace-slowing, runny nose-inducing cluster fuck. Â Not to mention the ever-present danger of gutters full of slick wet leaves. Â Yikes.
I am aware that I’m writing from a position of relative privilege here. Â Note that I didn’t include snow, ice, slush, or sleet in my list of winter weather perils. Â That’s mostly because, here in Memphis, we don’t get that much frozen precipitation in the winter, so spending a lot of time expounding on it here seems unnecessary. Â Plus, I’ve never biked in such conditions, so what would I have to say anyway?
This isn’t to say that I haven’t encountered any extreme conditions while biking to school. Â Just recently I set a new record for the coldest temperature (not including windchill) in which I biked to work: 21ÂºF. Â My previous record low, 22ÂºF, was set the previous day (this was back in early-December) and broke a record that had stood since last winter, that of 30ÂºF.
Twenty-one degrees is cold weather by nearly any standard, unless perhaps you consider diving into ice-covered lakes a form of entertainment. Â Surprisingly though, it really wasn’t that bad. Â In fact, the key to biking in cold weather (not taking into account ice or snow on the ground) is simply to dress in layers. Â Preferably, many layers of relatively thin clothing. Â I usually start with a long-sleeved, wool-blend shirt by Icebreaker as my first layer. Â If it’s really cold, I’ll add a second long-sleeve shirt, usually Capilene, then a cotton t-shirt on top of that. Â Note: cotton provides almost no insulating power; I just wear it to cover my chest and stomach.
Below the waist I wear biking shorts, long Capilene bottoms, and some old hiking pants I bought years ago at REI. Â The pants are rather thin, but they do a decent job of stopping the wind and reducing exposure to rain. Â Some Smartwool socks, a Pearl Izumi shell jacket, a Bontrager hat to cover my head and ears, and my ratty old running shoes completes the ensemble. Â Plus a scarf and some gloves if it’s really nasty outside.
Note what is missing from my outfit: down and fleece. Â Down jackets are great if you’re freezing your butt off in an outdoor sports arena in winter, but are terrible for exercise. Â Why? Â They over-insulate you, to the point that the sweat can freeze on your skin during stops. Â Fleece is good, but it need not be three inches thick. Â A thin fleece jacket under a shell provides more than enough insulation.
The good people over at LifeHacker posted an article about biking in winter which I enjoyed. Â I didn’t read the article before I started cold weather cycling, but it covers most of what I already knew or figured out. Â Also, here’s an article about using zip ties to create homemade snow tires. Â I haven’t had to go that far in preparing for winter biking, but it’s good to how to mod your tires if needed.