Don't let that bike gather dust
By By Wade Shaddy
It's about 25 degrees, there's a bracing wind in your face but you're warm. Your pulse is pounding, chest heaving as you blow clouds of mist that stick to your nose and eyelashes. The scenery is spectacular, dressed in white, as your tires weave a dark ribbon behind you. You feel great. That's just one of the reasons to keep cycling all winter.
Besides the aesthetics of a gorgeous winter countryside, the benefits of staying active on your bike outnumber all the reasons to let yourself become sedated by apathy all winter. This is not the time of year to slack off on cycling. In fact, it's the most important time of year to cycle, period. The holidays are here, and you're going to do battle with pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gravy and any number of things that lead to overeating and languid lost afternoons.
The fitness you lose by leaving your bike in the garage all winter takes months to get back. Every pound you don't gain this winter is a pound that you don't have to lose come spring. And if you go into the New Year with a body that doesn't need to lose weight, you can then take your fitness to the next level during warmer months. And besides that there's nothing more satisfying than a brisk winter ride, followed by a soak in a whirlpool or hot tub.
For most dispassionate cyclists it's simply the cold that intimidates. With proper preparation, you can stay warm in freezing weather. But it's not only proper preparation that keeps you warm; it's physiology as well. First of all, you're going to be maintaining a higher heart rate because of the physics of pedaling/motion, burning calories and creating heat. Pedaling keeps your core temperature higher, so you don't even need heavy clothes. They are too much of a hindrance on a bike anyway.
The key to warmth for cycling is layering. With a few properly placed garments, you can go out in any weather. You just need to round up some easy-to-find items and get out there.
To get yourself ready, and before you get on your bike, check the temperature. Everyone is different, but if it's below 35 degrees, start with a lightweight thermal top and bottom-and remember to put socks on first, you'll understand why if you ever do it backwards. Use thin lightweight thermals, not the waffle kind-those chafe. And the thin thermals wick sweat from your body better. If it's over 35 degrees outside, skip the thermal bottoms.
Next pull on a pair of slim fitting cotton sweat pants-not Lycra. Even though full length Lycra looks cool, we're not riding in a fashion show. Lycra is cold and doesn't accommodate thermal bottoms. Cotton sweat pants are warmer and more comfortable. But make sure they fit snugly around your ankles. Don't ever ride with baggy ones, they can catch the chain ring, cause a nasty crash and ruin your whole day. Next-and this is the only thing you might have to find in a bike shop or catalogue-a hooded jersey. These nifty sweater-type pullovers are slinky, feel good, and have really long tails that won't pull up in the back. But most important, some have a built-in hood that seals at the neck and covers your ears. This is essential.
If you don't have a hooded jersey, you can make an emergency substitution of a stocking cap, but stocking caps don't fit under helmets very well, and there's a problem with sweat build up in stocking caps. They don't breathe. But whatever you do, you need to cover your ears.
Now get a pair of old socks. That's right. Socks. We're not trying to be trendy here, we're going with what works. Now cut the toe ends out, and a thumb hole, and stick your hand in. One of the most frustrating things to deal with in winter cycling outfits is the gap between the top of your gloves and the end of your shirt or coat sleeve. The natural torso forward positioning of cycling pulls your sleeves up past your gloves. This exposes your wrists to the weather. That can drive you crazy. Put each hand into a sock with the fingers sticking out the toe end, and thumb out the hole you have prepared for it and pull the sock up your arm. It bridges that area where there might be exposed skin and you are more comfortable. Put your gloves on over the socks when you are ready.
The final layer should be a pullover windbreaker without a zipper. You might have to look around for one of these but they're worth it, they trap warm air inside, but they breath. It should also close at the neck. This is extremely important for two reasons: one because when you get sweaty and if air gets channeled down the front of your shirt, its cold. And if you get too hot, you can vent by opening the neck. Think of it as climate control devise. Your jersey should also have elastic at the sleeve.
Now, and maybe most important, and most obvious, is to slip on some gloves. They need to be flexible so you can still shift and brake, but never use gloves with a nylon or plastic on the back of the hands. Your nose tends to weep when its cold and you will appreciate a soft terry cloth back on your gloves.
With winter cycling, it's hard to find balance in dressing for it because of all the variables of wind, temperature and whether you're going mountain or road riding. You're probably going to overdress the first few times. You'll know this after two miles when your core temperature heats and you get sweaty and clammy inside your outfit. It's best to dress a bit cooler than you think you need to be. When you take off to ride initially, don't push big gears right at the start. Keep your cadence at a higher level than you normally would to build internal heat. You might feel cold at first and that's okay. You should feel the heat begin to build inside in just over a mile.
About the only thing you can't control properly in winter riding is your toes. The only thing you can really do is make sure your shoes are not too tight. You need to be able to wiggle your toes. If you can't do this, your shoes are probably too tight. Use your own judgment on this. As with everything in life, some people's toes stay warm, some don't.
There's a few other safety precautions for winter riding. One of the most dangerous hazards is ice on blacktop. There have been more ribs broken by having clippless pedals on and hitting ice than any other combination. They don't release fast enough.
On mountain bikes, take off the clippless pedals. Mud and dirt render them useless, anyway. Put on platform pedals until spring. On road bikes, keep the clippless, just don't make any sudden moves on ice.
Winter cycling is very satisfying. And there's no reason not to do it. It's warmer than you think out there, and if you have any doubts how cold it is when your body is warm and your blood is pumping as you cycle, just reach down and squeeze your water bottle. If it's frozen, it's colder outside than the proverbial well diggers, ah, um, knee.