Last weekend I participated in an organized bicycle event where I rode a total of 150 miles by the time I was home. It was a self-supported event with no entry fee so didn’t have the costs associated with rides that offer catered stops, mechanical support, and route markers. I used printed route cue sheets to avoid purchasing a bike computer or GPS and it was great fun – and yep, I totally went off course in the wrong direction more than once, ha!
The whole experience was fantastic! Just over a year ago I couldn’t fathom riding 10 miles, so it felt pretty good to have accomplished a stretch goal. The weather was perfect, the route was beautiful, and I recovered much quicker than I expected. Over-preparedness on the hydration and food fronts definitely paid off.
I have the distance bug now. But I haven’t signed up for other rides in the season, because there are some downsides. I spent fairly minimally throughout the ride at food stops and brought a lot of my own supplies, but it still added up to more than I would spend in a routine weekend. Just the sheer amount of calories compared to a normal day added up fast. It’s also a big time commitment- at least one full day of riding, sometimes more, and I already struggle with feeling like I don’t have enough time to enjoy the summer days.
As a sporting event on its own, it’s extremely frugal – but I think my goals are better served by sitting this season out.
The rest of the week was fairly uneventful – took my lunches to work, spent a lovely day with a friend at her house, went on a group bicycle ride and afterward ordered one side of fries. I was debating during the entire ride whether I should stay for the social end. This is another area that is starting to feel less goal-servicing than it did over the winter. I tend to stay up too late and often spend too much money. The flip side is that this is a great group of people that has welcomed me very warmly and I can’t quite tell if it’s just social nerves wanting me to pull back; if so, I just need to work through those impulses. And squash the impulses to buy a beer 🙂
I was going to make dandelion jam today but looked out the window to see my neighbor had mowed my entire yard :/ So a little cleaning and cooking and an evening with a library book seems to be on the docket instead.
After years off a bicycle, I started riding again in spring of 2016. I started commuting via bike in late summer, and decided I was going to try through winter as well.
I was comfortable riding through fall in my normal clothes and shoes until the temperature was below about 38F. At this point learning to layer my clothing became the norm, especially in the fickle temperature swings of my region.
In the depth of winter, however, it’s still about layering but it’s most important to make sure my layers insulate while keeping sweat off my skin. For years I wore a synthetic base layer, but this year I finally purchased merino wool and it is a world of difference! Merino is soft, lightweight — and therefore good for all seasons — and insulates even when wet, so it’s perfect for people like me that sweat like crazy. I spent over 30 years feeling cold all winter because my armpits were damp where my clothing touched my skin – not anymore!
As I mentioned in Part One: The Bike, I don’t have fancy clipless pedals or clips, just flat pedals that are a little wider with bigger spaces to allow for snow or dirt to fall through. Therefore I wear my normal winter boots, a pair of Columbia snow boots I’ve had for over ten years. The small nubs on the pedals give me good traction – so far even in a freezing rain storm I’ve been able to stay on the pedal.
I wear my regular Columbia winter jacket – I bought it on clearance for around $60 five or six years ago and it still looks new. In extreme wind I have thin Columbia snowpants I found secondhand for $6 – they’re thin enough to layer easily over other clothes.
The layers I wear in deep cold:
Merino wool T-shirt ($30 clearance at the end of summer through Ibex) – I wear this literally every day, whether I’m biking or not
Merino wool arm warmers (on sale via Amazon)
Fleece long sleeve shirt (Cuddlduds 60% off sale a few years ago) – I wear this nearly every day. I’m definitely a repeat-clothes-all-week kind of girl.
Fleece leggings (Cuddlduds 60% off sale years ago) – on long rides these are enough, but for my commute I’ll also wear merino wool leggings if it’s very windy or below 15F
Bike pants that are wind blocking and water resistant, with reflective details (secondhand; the brand is from China)
Wool socks (Smartwool ski socks that were on clearance during summer) – if I’m riding more than 30 minutes I’ll add a thin liner sock underneath
Secondhand Shetland wool vest ($3) – worn if it’s below 20F or very windy
Variety of head coverings depending on temperature: Cotton blend headband, lightweight cotton blend buff (tube scarf), or fleece face mask. I find I need to keep my ears covered in any wind (even in summer) or below 40F. I also need to keep my mouth covered below 35F
Merino wool liner gloves – on a long ride I’ll use my pogies and just wear these or regular gloves
Split-finger mittens – these are intended for Nordic skiing but purchased off-season and were a lot cheaper than the bicycle-specific gloves split in the middle. For my bike with drop handlebars they are perfect. With the straight handlebars of the winter bike they’re a little more clumsy as I’m used to having two fingers on the brakes – now I know why the bicycle gloves are split in the middle 🙂
Helmet with a cheap rain cover (maybe $6 on Amazon) – covering the air vents keeps my head much warmer
Reflective arm bands – the more lit up I am, the more likely I am to be seen
My beloved ski goggles (purchased during post-holiday clearance online) – these make such an incredible difference in my comfort and ability to see properly! I’ve been known to wear them just to walk the dog (the dog who lasts less than 90 seconds outside if it’s cold enough for goggles!)
My go-everywhere essentials:
Backpack – hiking day pack that I’ve had for at least 15 years. I keep coveting a Banjo Brothers brand cycling pack that would hold more groceries but it’s not a need, just a very much want.
Pack cover – rainproof, high visibility color, and the entire thing is reflective. I use this even when walking on errands now after noticing how much harder it is to see pedestrians than cyclists in the dark.
Portable bicycle pump
Two U-locks for my commute – if I’m going somewhere other than work, I’ll also bring a cable lock. I want my bike to be more annoying to steal than the bike next to mine.
Small bicycle tool – hex wrenches to adjust my pedals and my saddle (seat) if needed.
Inhaler! This is probably the most important piece of my kit – I’ve been advised to use a couple of puffs before leaving my house, and I definitely need it prior to hills. This time of winter I skip hills entirely and commute to the metro station, which makes my lungs happier.
Water – In summer, even though I always have water with me, I’m usually ok during my hour long commute. In winter, though, I’m thirsty as heck by the time I’ve ridden the few miles to the metro, so I fill my bottle up with warm water before leaving.
My tips if you’re just starting to ride during colder seasons:
I’ve read a lot of guides on winter biking – and I mean a lot, because I am a researcher through and through – and most of them recommend using what you already have and building piece by piece over the years.
My biggest tip is to listen to your body. I know my body doesn’t do well in the cold; I’ve never really enjoyed winter in the Midwest even with synthetic base layers and a good quality jacket and snowpants. Merino wool base layers have completely changed my life for the better! It was very difficult to spend $70 on leggings, but I’ve been at least 20 times more active outdoors than I have in any year since moving here. The purchases made at the beginning of the season, then, before I’d tried cycling without, have absolutely been worthwhile. If I would have tried to tough it out I might have given up, thinking I’d always be too cold.
If, like, me, you’re always cold when you’re on a winter walk, or while shoveling snow: bicycling is different. You generate a surprising amount of heat from pedaling, and I’ve found I’m toasty warm within about 10 minutes of riding – enough to fog up my glasses due to heat coming off my face. I’ve learned to keep my calves and forearms warm, as this seems to help keep my feet and hands warmer.
Keeping your face and head warm and protected from the elements will make you feel much warmer. I kinda think everyone should experience a snowflake to the eyeball while moving 10mph to justify purchasing ski goggles when you don’t ski (oh, wait, that was my tactic). But in reality, everything we know about heat dissipation through exposed areas and especially our head is even more important when there’s a -30F windchill. I’ve been amazed how warm I am riding when I can’t feel the wind but can only hear it.
Most of all, experiment with different layers and types of clothing. I’m on the freeze-baby end of the spectrum, while there are folks out today in our balmy 38F wearing a lightweight hoody and cutoff jeans. You might be totally comfortable in your regular clothing, but if you start to feel chilly on rides or feel extra fatigued afterward, try a non-cotton layer underneath.
I’ve had bicycles off and on since childhood, and for a period of several years a borrowed cruiser was my primary transportation in the warmer months. I certainly didn’t consider myself a cyclist, and my son’s cycling skills were exponentially better than mine in no time.
Last year, however, we decided to take my love of camping and exploring, and my kiddo’s love of cycling, and merge them into one epic vacation. We rode our bikes from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. along the Great Allegheny Passageway and the Chesapeake & Ohio canal towpath. To say it changed my life is an understatement, and I’m now madly in love with seeing my world from a saddle at 10mph (I am definitely slow). Even though I rode all summer, I still feel like I’m learning from scratch because my body and physical ability is quite different now than when I last rode regularly more than ten years ago.
I’ve never ridden a bike during winter, and in fact until mid-summer 2016 I didn’t know what most parts of a bicycle were even called (saddle? you mean the seat, right? aaaaahh so much to learn!).
Between internet research, a really fabulous local bike shop and community, and a very generous bike loan from my kiddo who’s at college, I’ve managed to outfit my son’s mountain bike for winter commuting.
I live in a metro area in the upper Midwest that gets a fair amount of snow and ice, leaving the bike lanes on roads rutted by mid-winter and often throughout early spring. The off-road bike trails here are usually very well-maintained (often through separate city or county budget items so their schedule isn’t tied to road snow removal), but my winter commute is mostly on the street. I surveyed every local cyclist I met about winter tires, and consulted my shop, and set up the bike based on the conditions I assumed I’d be riding in.
While most cyclists may say any bike can make a decent winter bike, there are definite advantages to a newbie like me in having someone knowledgable convert a very nice ride into a winter beast. Less overall maintenance (since I don’t know how to do a lot yet), better ride quality (more noticeable on long rides), and most of all, we already had the bike 🙂
The bike itself
Being a new rider whose handling skills aren’t yet very good, I think the most important decision was switching from my regular bike with drop handlebars (like you see on road racing bicycles) to a mountain bike with straight handlebars. The straight bars give me more control over the steering and brakes while I’m wearing thick gloves and 137 layers of clothing. This setup also puts me in a more vertical body and neck position than my regular bike, which makes me a little bit more visible to drivers and also helps my own vision a tad.
I am lucky that my son and I are close enough in height it was easy to fit his bicycle to my body (with the help of bike shop eyes). Making sure your bike actually fits properly is the biggest factor in how comfortable you will be while riding. My son’s arm and torso length is bit longer than mine, but I’m riding shorter distances in the winter so it’s ok, and being stretched a little bit there is much better than being too cramped.
For my road conditions, studded tires give me so much peace of mind and have already proven themselves more than once. I rode in a group ride during a freezing rain event where it was scary to put my foot down because the road surface was so icy, but my tires didn’t slip at all, even on (slow) downhill turns. The falls and slide-outs on ice in the group all happened to riders with regular tires. I chose the Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tires based on my shop’s recommendation and the rave reviews of everyone else I asked.
The saddle, or seat, is the second most important factor in comfort on the bicycle. When I first started riding again last spring, I quickly realized that my body did not get along with the saddle that came with my bike. Thanks to REI’s generous return policy, I tried multiple saddles and found one that has a center cutout in the right spot for how I sit and lean while I’m riding. Making sure the saddle is the proper height is also important – too low and the rest of your body’s angles are affected, too high and your hips will “rock” causing bruising or soft tissue chafing.
My winter commute is entirely in the dark. My area is used to seeing cyclists all year, but I still light up much more aggressively than I do at night in the summer. I want to be seen from the front and back, but also from the sides. I do use blinking modes in city traffic, as I’ve noticed when I’m driving they stand out to me much better than solid light patterns. I currently use two headlights, one on a blinking mode aimed slightly downward so it isn’t blinding to drivers, and one on a bright enough setting to see dips and ruts in the roadway myself. I use a blinking taillight that is mounted to the post under the seat, and another clipped to my backpack. So far I haven’t had trouble with the rechargeable lights malfunctioning in below zero temps, but on longer rides I carry cheap AAA-operated backups in my inner coat pocket just in case.
I also use battery-operatedspoke lightsto be better seen from the side. I get a lot of comments on them at stoplights, and once had a waste company truck driver stop to yell out that he loved them and could tell I was a bike from halfway down the alley. One of my headlights also has side-lights for better visibility.
I have full coverage fenders on both wheels. The front fender needed to be cut and specially installed because of the suspension on the mountain bike. This bike allows me to “lock” the suspension which is recommended as the fluid can become thicker in our winter temperatures, and suspension isn’t necessary – even with our potholes 😉 This model of fender also has mudflaps for extra protection. I chose the full coverage instead of a more typical “blade” type fender because I do often have other cyclists behind me, and the blade style only protects your own backside. The front fender gives decent protection to my legs and feet.
I have one gear 🙂 The bicycle I rode all summer is also a single speed, as was my beach cruiser for years before, and I love the simplicity while riding. For winter riding, it’s even more simple – no fussy shifting mechanics to try to keep clean and lubricated. For me, the simpler the better as I still have a lot to learn about caring for my bikes.
There are a lot of different options for pedals on the market, but I’m a beginner who is already worried about handling ability so regular ol’ platform pedals it is. For winter I have an inexpensive pair of mountain-bike style nylon pedals with small knobs for better grip. In my climate, metal pedals can act as a heat sink, causing your feet to be cold.
Just for fun
My bicycle mechanic handmade my pogies (or bar mitts) and for longer rides they are absolutely fantastic — totally wind-proof, and I can take my gloves off and just wear liner gloves. If I had gears this would be invaluable for being able to shift more easily. As it is, I find that they keep my forearms warm as well, which seems to make my upper body feel warmer overall. Even though they weren’t needed to be comfortable enough, I have been happily surprised at the difference and am always happy to support local makers and creators.
The majority of winter bicyclists I’ve talked to pick up a cheap beater bike for the season. A handful have higher end bicycles just for winter. Everyone I’ve spoken with so far knows how to do fairly extensive repairs and maintenance. I’m not yet at that level, so I feel that my investment in having my bike set up by my shop was a great decision. Could I have ridden for commuting without all the extras? Sure! Could I have waited a season and sourced items used? Probably! My son rode his regular road bike with skinny tires for multiple winters in high school. But I’m at an age where I can finally appreciate the wisdom in doing things right instead of forcing myself to make do to the point of discomfort and resentment. I budgeted for the expense as I would my car, and I think the combination of things I already had (lights and pedals) and items I purchased (fenders, tires, pogies) have added up to a commuting machine that I truly enjoy.
Have you ever bike commuted in the winter? What did you love about it?
Stay tuned next week for Part Two: My Clothing and Gear!