Today I saw a link to a Transportation Alternatives press release on
biking during the transit strike.
I was quite surprised (dumbfounded) to see only two sentences on dressing properly for the cold. In one of my circles, this subject is a source of perennial conversation, philosophizing, fine-tuning and oneupsmanship. And all that TransAlt says is “wear gloves, and consider a hat or bandanna”. Right now my computer tells me that the temperature is -6 celsius: a bandanna is not going to keep your ears from literally freezing. So here, because I love you, are some tips learned through three winters of serious winter biking. The first section concerns body temperature, the second addresses safe handling issues.
Staying warm but not too warm
- wear the warmest shoes or boots or slippers or anything that keeps your feet warm; wear as much sockage as you can put on without limiting blood circulation to your feet. Once your toes get cold there’s no way to warm them up again. Some of you may have seen me with plastic bags on my feet: plastic is an effective windbreaker, and if your shoes are letting in too much wind/cold, plastic over your outermost sock will help. But if you ride with plastic on your feet for more than an hour, sweat may become a problem.
- keep your ears warm with a headband or whatever; when it’s below freezing I’ve never wanted to uncover my ears, even when the top of my head is too warm. Other head coverings are nice, but if you’re wearing a helmet this gets difficult and generally requires thin, bike-specific skullcaps, earbands, and balaclavas.
- if you buy one piece of bike-specific winter clothing, let it be a balaclava, which covers your whole head but with an opening for your eyes, which opening can be pulled up over your nose or pulled down under your chin as body temperature demands.
- cover your nose in vaseline to keep it from burning: less essential if you’re using a balaclava, but also a nice prophylactic against the chafing that will come from wiping your runny snotty nose.
- mittens are better than gloves, as long as you can operate your brakes; glo-mitts/glittens with thinsulate lining are better than a cup of hot chocolate.
- a non-cotton knit sweater is great insulation and will wick the moisture away from your body. Wool is the watchword but acrylic will do much the same, without enslaving sheep. If you have longjohns, wear them underneath. But as any mountaineer will tell you, cotton is death.
- unless your ride is very brief, you don’t want a heavy coat: it will just get soaked with the sweat that is being wicked away from your body so efficiently by your base layers. If you’re afraid you’ll stay cold for too long, bring an extra, heavier sweater to put on over everything else [under your jacket]. If you have any sporty jacket with “pit zips” to let air in the sleeves, you will probably want to wear that; otherwise any wind-blocking jacket will do fine. I usually spend the second half of my ride with the pit-zips open and often even the front zipper.
- your legs are pumping fast and generally don’t get too cold, but longjohns are good here, too, and I never leave home without longjohns on, all winter. Warm pants on top finish the job. Sweat has never been a problem for me here. Gentlemen may experience Radical Genital Shrinkage, which is comical as long as it is not so bad that the thaw is painful; if it is painful you may try adding another layer of insulation with a soft, warm sock. I just started this this winter, and it really helps.
It truly is important not to overdress: sweat = water = ice on your skin. But some areas sweat more than others, some areas get less body heat circulation than others, and ideally you will have the option of adjusting your coverings to let out heat when you really start warming up.
But it’s also important to understand that you will always sweat, no matter what. This morning I was experimenting with fewer, thinner layers than usual: cold-weather Under Armour, a thin cotton oxford buttondown shirt, and my windbreaker. I was hoping this would keep me drier by keeping me cooler. It certainly kept me cooler: my trunk never warmed up, I felt cold in my torso for the whole 50 minutes I rode. But when I stopped, my buttondown shirt was damp with the sweat that been kept from evaporating by my [waterproof] windbreaker, whose pit-zips and front zipper I was too cold to unzip this morning. On my way home, I will skip the oxford and wear my medium-thick sweater over the under armour, and should be able to unzip my pitzips after 10-20 minutes.
The city generally does a decent job of cleaning snow off the streets, but the real problems come when the snow has melted and refrozen into patches of ice. Or, worse, when these refrozen patches begin to melt and become superslick with a layer of water on top, as if freshly zambonied.
- Avoid ice.
- prefer patches of snow over flat patches of ice
- prefer irregular, snowy, ridged ice over flat slick ice
- but prefer flat slick ice over shiny slick bumpy ice
- never brake on ice unless you are ready to catch your fall
Don’t freak out about it too much: ice makes up a tiny, statistically meaningless portion of the ground you will cover on your bike; it is almost always avoidable. In fact, so far I’ve only hit unavoidable ice once in NYC, and I would have been fine except that I was going too fast: Last winter I took a bad spill on the Williamsburgh Bridge when I was going 18mph near the bottom of the bridge, was braking in anticipation of a turn, and hit a patch of ice that had shifted and reformed during the day. This taught me two things:
- don’t go too fast unless you can be certain that ice won’t be sneaking up on you — e.g., you should be alright if you crossed the bridge ice-free an hour before, but just because it was clear in the morning doesn’t mean it’s clear tonight.
- even when you hit a patch of ice rather slowly, don’t brake: just roll straight over it: don’t try to turn or stop. Any skidding/slipping on the ice means you won’t regain your traction until you’re off the ice or on the ground.
Oh, three things actually:
- A helmet is a good idea (my helmetted head whacked on the ground quite firmly)
Slick but bumpy ice bounces your tire and gives you more chances to lose traction than smooth ice, but smooth ice gives you further to slip if you lose traction. As long as you’re going slow enough, you can probably catch yourself in either case.
Look ahead and avoid ice.
Okay, it’s probably not going to sabotage you to brake very gently. But practice and learn to avoid skids, or to handle the skids safely. It won’t kill you to fall on ice anyway, but it will make you feel like a badass when you don’t fall.
BikeWinter Chicago: Gin’s Tips (and the rest of “Tips & Resources”)