Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

This picture of an Alaskan eco-friendly bike rack reminded me that it's almost that time of year...that time when our caloric intake increases (think lasagna, turkey gravy), our caloric output declines (think couch, NFL football), we deposit another layer of fat around out internal organs, turn all pasty-white, and shave another 4 months off our life expectancy.  This is known to many as winter.

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Bicycling IN the cold and wet does NOT mean BEING cold or wet.  Your natural inclination when starting off on a cold winter bike ride is to bundle up with too many layers (because logically, you expect to be cold).  Then after 10 minutes of exertion you start to sweat, your layers (maybe cotton) get soaked, and on the first downhill your wet clothes start to freeze and so do you.  So you are miserable and frustrated and longing for the couch.  We have learned the hard way (through experience) the secrets to staying comfortable when winter cycling.  Here they are, in no particular order:

Dress for Success

Clothing should be synthetic (NOT cotton) and breathable with two possible exceptions:  Underwear or jock or whatever you wear down there (wear whatever you want, enough on that) and socks can be wool if you are old school but not cotton.  So starting at the top and working our way down:
  • Skullcap or a balaclava (a.k.a. chickenhead) if it is really really really cold. $10.
  • Clear glasses to keep your eyes from watering up.  Clear because you'll be riding at night.  You probably already have some of these.
  • Breathable windproof top layer.  Not insulated, it's just to cut the wind.  Definitely breathable becuase you will be sweating. 
  • A long sleeve synthetic shirt or two.  Zipper is nice - believe it or not you will find yourself occasionally unzipping the jacket/shirt while riding in order to shed excess heat.
  • Gloves - windproof and you guessed it, breathable.  Full finger for obvious reasons.  $20
  • Pants.  You would be surprised how late we ride with shorts.  Sebastian has been known to stay with shorts well into the 30s.  But at some point you will want long pants - insulated, breathable, and windproof tights or baggy long pants.  Either of these with a pair of synthetic long johns will get your through basically anything.  I prefer the tights because they don't snag on bushes etc, but if you are homophobic or just don't see yourself in tights then baggies are great.  $50.  What DOESN"T work great is a fleshtone leotard.  I am not going to mention any names (107 Gottier Drive, 484 228-8349), but most of you already know what I am talking about here...
  • Neoprene shoe cover.  This is critical because your feet are very exposed and cleated to frigid metal pedals, and if your toes get cold you will be miserable.  $20.  Old school alternative is duct tape around the front of the shoe.  $0.05
You should actually be a little chilly (feel under dressed) when you first climb on the bike.  If you start off comfortably warm, then you are likely overdressed and will soon be sweating and shedding layers.

The Bike

Most lower end forks use an oil-elastomer suspension versus an air or coil spring.  This is fine when it is warm out, but when the temperature drops to the low 30s and below, that oil and elastomer thickens up and by the time you hit the low 20s, it is pretty much a rigid fork.  That’s fine, people ride all rigid bikes all the time, but good to know.

Glare ice is a really nasty problem when you are on a bike.  With no friction between the wheels and the ground, the bike will shoot out from underneath you faster than you can say “broken collarbone” and then gravity does the rest.  This happened to me at the beginning of a ride last year, and I just put my tail between my legs and went straight back home.  If it is glare ice conditions, then best not to ride.  Now I have not done this yet but it seems like a great idea – studded bike tires.

If you are using a camelback for water you will probably be ok (you might put it underneath your jacket to keep from freezing) but if you are using a water bottle, you will want to (a) fill it with warm water and (b) put it upside down in the bottle cage.  Water freezes from the top down, and if the spout is at the top it will be clogged with ice when it is time to drink.  Or just use vodka instead.  

The Ride

Remember the ground is frozen solid and doesn’t give when you bury your shoulder into it. Also if you are riding through a mud-pit that has recently frozen, then all those knobby tire tracks and grooves are like hardened cement and if you go down hard on that it is going to tear you up something awful.  If your tire gets into one of those grooves your bike may get a little bit squirrelly.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Right about now you may be asking yourself "how low can you go?"  Well, last year we had gotten pretty good at this sort of thing and we set a record (for us) for low-temperature riding - 7 degrees fahrenheit.  And the ride was a blast – church quiet in the woods, trails wicked fast, and not a lot of congestion on the trails as you can imagine. 

That's about all the advice I have about winter riding.  If you made it this far then hopefully you are considering giving it a try.  Bottom line - there is really no good reason to put the bike in storage over the winter.  Some of our best riding (in fact one of THE BEST riding memories for many of us) has been in the deep of winter.  

It's too good to give it up for half the year.  You need to give it a try.

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