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9.10 Tips for enjoying long winter rides


This article is from the Misc Bicycles FAQs, by various authors.

9.10 Tips for enjoying long winter rides

by Pamela Blalock

A lot of people have ask me how I can possibly ride through a New
England winter. Dressing properly for the weather certainly has a
great deal to do with my enjoyment of it, but I have to admit that I
also really get a kick out of the looks on people's faces when I ride
my bike into work in 5F degree temps or do a century with snow
flurries on and off throughout the day.

This is my sixth winter here, after moving from a much milder climate
in North Carolina. I've changed a few things over the years, but this
is what works for me currently. Hopefully it will help others.

In this article, I will talk in general terms, but will also include
specific brands when talking about what I use.

I'll start with clothing. One of the biggest mistakes that people make
is overdressing. Remember that exercising generates heat. Clothes that
wick moisture away from the body will keep you dryer and therefore
warmer. Stay away from cotton. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet. I
dress in layers, so I can regulate temperature throughout the ride.
As it warms up, I can remove a layer, and when it starts to cool down
again in the late afternoon, I can start adding clothes again.

Silk is a natural fiber with great insulating properties. It makes a
great base layer. I use silk for glove and sock liners. There are lots
of synthetics available. Two of the most common ones are polypro and
thermax. They both wick moisture away from the skin, and dry quickly.
Unlike Polypro, thermax doesn't retain odor and it can be dried in a
clothes dryer. There are lots of other new synthetics out there, so
whereever I say thermax, feel free to substitute polypro, or your own
favorite synthetic.

Polarfleece is another great fabric for winter sports. It retains only
1/10 of it's weight in water, and insulates as well as wool. It comes
in 4 different thicknesses, with the lightest making a good base layer
and the heaviest far more than anything I'd ever need for cycling. I
do have a little sanity left!

Goretex, Entrant and other fabrics used in rainwear make good outside
layers. In addition to keeping rain out, these fabrics are also very
good at stopping the wind. I always have a rain jacket and rainpants
with me in the winter, since New England weather is so unpredictable,
and I don't ever want to be caught in a 35 degree rainstorm without

Protect the extremities, hands, feet, and head.

I have two pair of shoes, one for summer, and another 1 size larger
for winter. This way I can use thick socks or heavy insoles. Many
people make the mistake of using the same shoes and trying to stuff
etxra socks into them in the winter. This restricts circulation and
makes the feet even colder. My summer shoes are mostly mesh - for
coolness. My winter shoes are mostly leather for insulation.

I currently use a pair of leather bottom fleece insoles. Any sort of
good insulated insole will help. I wear wool socks, often with silk
liners. I have a pair of Goretex booties made by Bellweather. These
do a great job of keeping my feet relatively warm and dry. Recently I
found a pair of x-c ski overshoes, which I use over my regular booties
on really cold days. I avoid neoprene totally. Everytime I have tried
it, I just end up sweaty, wet and cold. Some people tell me it works
well for shorter rides, but I have had no luck with it, and avoid it
completely. Anybody want to buy a pair of neoprene gloves, socks,
facemask and shoe covers? (See I have tried it!)

But this isn't always enough. Sometime it gets downright cold!

There are various foot warmers available. For less than $2 a pair, you
can get these shake-em to activate them hand and feet warmers.
Locally I have found these at LL Bean's, REI, EMS, and various skiing
and sporting goods shops. There are specific ones made for toes that
are small enough to fit in a shoe comfortably. They last about 5 hours
and are terrific. I keep a couple of extras in my saddle bag
throughout the winter for emergencies. I have given them away often
and every recipient has always wanted to know where to get more.

I'd like to thank John Unruh for telling me about the battery powered
heated insole made by Hotronics. REI carries these for $130-$140. I
decided to spoil myself two years ago at Christmas and purchased a
pair. These are fabulous. They last 8 hours on the lowest setting, 4
hours on 2, 2 on 3, and 1 on 4. I purchased a second set of batteries
to use on centuries, so I could use the higher settings at times. I
used these all last winter and definitely got my money's worth. I clip
the battery pack onto my booties. It's about the size of two c-cells
and I really didn't notice the extra weight.

When it gets really messy out, but not good enough for x-country
skiing, I have been known to use my Sorels (good to -40F) for the
commute and shorter social rides (like 30 miles)!

If my feet get too cold on a ride (or any part of me, for that matter)
I stop at a convenience store for a warm up break. I remove most of my
outer layer clothing.. I get a cup of coffee or hot chocolate to
appease the clerk :) as well as warming myself. I get my shoes off and
wiggle my toes to get the circulation going again. Unlike running or
skiing, in cycling the feet don't get move around a lot. Those big
coolers that hold beer and cokes blast heat out the vents in the
bottom. Standing next to those can help warm cold feet. It's
important not to stay inside wearing all your warm clothes, because
the body will adjust and then feel cold when going back outside. If
riding in a hilly or mountainous area never stop at the top for any
more time than it takes to add another layer. You will be sorry.
Sweat from climbing will leave you cold and wet, and then flying down
a hill afterwards won't do a thing to get you warm again. Try to plan
rest stops at the bottom of a hill, so you can use the climbing to
warm back up!

And eat. You are burning a lot of calories to keep warm and you
will need fuel. If you are doing a long ride (like a century) plan
for longer and more frequent breaks than you would in the summer.

But back to clothing.

For hands, I start with silk glove liners. Then I add either mittens
or gloves, depending on the temps. I use mittens for colder weather. I
really like the heavy lobster claws made by Pearl Izumi. But since
some degree of fine finger control is lost, if it's over 30F, I go
with gloves. The glove liners are really handy for times when I have
to remove my outer gloves to do something that the bulk won't allow me
to do otherwise, like make adjustments, fix a chain, etc. I must have
a dozen pair of gloves, but my favorites have gortex inserts, again
great for blocking the wind, and just in case it gets wet out. I also
usually carry a second pair for this same reason.

Now to the head. This is one of the most important parts to keep warm.
Since the body protects the vitals parts first, if the head isn't
warm, it will steal heat from the extremities to protect the brain.
This is why it is often said, "If your feet are cold, put on a hat."

I use Swix earmuffs (very thin - fit easily under helmet), a
polarfleece face mask and a hat or helmet cover. I recently found a
new thing, called a shellaclava. It's a fleece neck warmer, with a
lycra hood. I can easily pull the neck warmer up over my face or down
to regulate temperature. And my neck stays toasty all the time. I also
have a facemask that I used a lot last year which wraps around and
velcroes in the back. It is lined with fleece, and has holes around
the mouth area to allow breathe to escape and keeps the face mask
dryer. I can pull it down easily for noseblowing and temperature
adjusting. I also used a silk balaclava occasionally last year with
great luck too.

There are also Goretex helmet covers available to help block some of
the wind coming through those (wonderful in the summer) air vents in
the helmet.

The final touch is a pair of ski googles. I have clear ones since I
ride at night also. I don't have to deal with my glasses fogging up
when I stop at traffic lights, and my eyes stay warm. And they only
cost $25-$30.

OK, your head, hands and feet are warm, let's get to the rest of you.

I start with a thermax zippered turtleneck sweater and bib shorts.
The zipper in the turtleneck serves a a great temperature regulator.
The bib shorts cover my back when I'm in the cycling postion. Mine are
ladies bibs and also cover the chest for additional warmth. For cold
but dry days I'll add a pair of leg warmers before my outer bib
tights. If it's wet I'll use my Goretex bib rainpants instead of the
leg warmers. I don't want to overdress, and I do still want to be able
to move. I carry the ones I'm not wearing, since I never know when the
weather may change. I then add a rain jacket with underarm zippers.
Opening and closing these will also regulate the temperature very

I purchased a new winter jacket last year from Performance that I
really like. There are lots of similar ones available now. Browsing
through REI and EMS, we've found 6-8 different models. I prefer models
with removable hoods. It is Goretex, has a mesh liner, underarm
zippers, and extra zippers to add a fleece vest - and it doesn't look
like cycling clothing, so I can wear it for other outdoor activities
like x-country skiing, hiking, etc. The Goretex rain pants I have are
from REI. They are a bib model, with very little elastic at the waist,
and zip closures at the feet. I find myself hoping for a torrential
rain storm to give these two peices a real workout!!

BTW, while bibs are really handy for staying warm, it does take a
little extra time to get in and out of them at bathroom stops, but for
the added comfort, I don't mind.

I also carry (and wear if needed) a wool or polarfleece sweater or
vest. If I have a mechanical problem or a flat, and will be outside
for long, not riding and generating heat, I want additional layers
against the cold. I have mentioned that I carry several things, so I
should also mention that I have either a large trunk bag or small
panniers on my bike in the winter. Better to be prepared than cold and
miserable. If the temperature rises, I also want a place to discard
excess clothing.

One last note about clothing is dress visibly. The sun is lower in the
sky at this time of year and more likely to blind drivers. Make sure
you can be seen!

OK, so we are dressed. Let's go look at the bike. Is it in top
condition. I don't want to have to do bike maintenance on the side of
the road in sub-freezing temperatures, so I do a thorough check to
make sure everything works perfectly. I also tend to go with wider
tires to avoid flats. I'm currently using Michelin Express inverted
tread tires on my mountain bike, and they are great - hard to find,
but great! They actually handle ice fairly well too. Fenders are worth
their weight in gold in New England. I wouldn't think of doing a
winter ride without them. And as usual, I carry enough tools to do
minor roadside repairs, tire levers, tubes, wrenches, chain tool, etc.

Since I tend to ride my commute bike all winter, I almost always have
lights on my bike. The sun sets early, and a flat, mechanical problem
or long break can result in a ride finishing after dark.

In the winter I choose my routes with extra care and I always have a
bail-out plan. I tend to do smaller loops close to home, in case I
need to bail out for some reason, like a blizzard, or a mechanical
failure. I will go knock on a door, or call a friend or taxi (or AAA)
if I find myself in trouble.

I try to ride with others on longer rides in the winter. First,
because it's more fun, but also it's safer. You can watch out for each
other, send for help, etc.

To avoid dealing with frozen water, I use a Camelback, and keep the
hose tucked inside my jacket when I'm not using it. Camelback now
sells a little hose insulator, which I have found very effective. I
used to keep my powerbars next to my body where they stay warm and
soft, but I don't eat these awful tasting things anymore - I'd much
rather have a Snickers Bar!

I try to keep my eyes open for ice on the roads. Black ice will get
you on a bike, just as easily as it gets you in a car or on foot. One
person asked me what I do on black ice, and I have to answer
truthfully - sometimes I fall. But I'm usually wearing enough
clothing that I don't get hurt. And I have had much better luck on ice
on my bike than I have in my car. (Maybe practicing on rollers would
help :)

Anyway this is how I prepare for cold weather rides ranging from a
12 mile commute, a 30 mile club ride, or a 100 mile ride in
subfreezing temperatures. This is what works for me. Your mileage
may vary!

Of course, there is one other option, that I've been seriously
considering, which is to move back home to a warmer climate! Nah, it's
too much fun here !

Copyright 1994 by Pamela Blalock

BTW, the article is copyrighted, but may be reprinted with the
copyright notice intact. If you want to reprint it in a club
newsletter (I get a few requests a year), please contact me to
snail-mail me a copy of the newsletter.


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