Saturday, December 11, 2010

Keep Riding in the Coldest Weather? No Sweat!

Winter Wardrobe: High visibility wind proof jacket, wind-proof glasses, helmet cover, thin and thick versions of skullcap, gloves.

Winter has descended upon Gotham with an early cold snap.  It's been icy here for the last week - temperatures have been stuck in the 30s - and it's only December.  As a result, many an otherwise rugged New York bike commuter is likely packing his/her bike off to Manhattan Mini Storage, resigned to a long winter of subway confinement and dreaded darkness, culminating in a bad case of sloth and the blahs.

Wait!  Don't give up so fast!  Surviving winter cold and keeping on the bike is easy.  Honest.  Imagine riding a bike throughout the winter, enjoying the same fine neighborhood views, the exhilaration of two-wheeled freedom and overall sense of well being that you get while riding in warmer months.

It can be done as long as you defend yourself from the bitter elements, namely wind, which more than cold itself is the main offender in winter riding.  Dress accordingly and you'll find that you're actually warmer while riding the bike than while walking.  That's because you're doing a lot of work while riding and generating heat that keeps you warm inside your clothing.

(In the ultimate test of this theory, I once rode in 3 degree weather to the local swimming pool for an early morning dip.  I was plenty warm.  And, on many occasions I've commuted from Manhattan to my current Brooklyn home via the Brooklyn Bridge, where the big "Watchtower" thermometer showed temperatures in the mid-20s).

Here's a guide to the clothing you'll need to keep warm in the coldest weather, from head to toe.

HEAD: Helmets suck at keeping a head warm since they're designed to provide airflow on a hot summer ride.  My jaw drops when I see otherwise well-bundled cyclists riding on a winter day with their heads fully exposed under a Bell.  And we all learned in junior-high science class that some 80% of body heat is lost through the head (debunked here, but hey), so cover it up.

On moderately cold days a thin skullcap worn under the helmet serves to keep the wind at bay and all the thermal energy generated by intense thought in.  I use a $20 Pearl Izumi cap, which is good down to the mid-40s.  When it gets colder, I cover up with this thicker polyester cap, which is very warm.

Fleece skullcap fits under helmet

You'll have to adjust your helmet a little to comfortably fit over the thicker skullcap.  If it's freakin' cold a helmet cover will totally eliminate airflow to the head.  If you can leave fashion sense aside choose a bright, optic yellow cover.  It'll give drivers another clue that you're in the neighborhood, increasing visibility and safety which, next to the cold, are the biggest concerns during dark winter commutes home.

Cold weather helmet covers

EYES: On very cold rides my eyes start tearing up and I can't see a thing.  To solve the problem, get a pair of skiing glasses (rather than goggles, which don't work with a helmet) with foam eye cups to keep the wind out.  My Panoptics/7 Eye Diablo glasses have groovy rose-colored prescription lenses that make even New York look peaceful.  The rose lenses aren't dark so they're great for riding on gloomy days.

Glasses with foam eye cups keep wind out
EXTREMITIES: NOSE, FINGERS, TOES: In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that I haven't found the perfect solution to keeping these body parts reliably toasty on brutally cold days, although cyclists are ultimately dealing with the same limitations that skiers have worked around for millenia.

Here are some strategies.  When it gets into the 30s I put a thin coat of Vaseline on my nose and sometimes on my cheeks as well.  Nothing too thick and slimy, but enough to keep the wind off of my skin.  By the time I arrive at my destination the Vaseline has been absorbed leaving my Rudolph-red nose super soft.  If it gets really cold I use a balaclava (without Vaseline).  It can make it a bit tougher to breathe, though I have ridden up the Brooklyn Bridge without too much trouble with a balaclava on.

BODY: Keeping one's body warm is pretty straightforward.  If the temperature drops below freezing I find that a T-shirt, covered by a thermal cotton long sleeve shirt and a then a sweatshirt, and topped by any wind breaking shell does the job.  Another commuter recently told me that she actually puts the windproof shell under a soft outer shirt to keep from overheating.

Wind protected

I used to wear an old rain jacket for the top layer, but a couple of years ago invested in a bright, optic yellow Descente cycling jacket.  It's thin but blocks the wind, and it increases the chance I'll be seen by drivers, who don't expect to see cyclists out after dark on a frigid evening.

On the bottom half, I wear summer cycling shorts covered by old Reebok long nylon sweat pants.  They 100% block the wind (I wore them the first time I went skiing) and that's all that matters.  My legs simply don't get cold.  I also own a pair of fancy winter cycling tights, which are really warm, but find that they're tight over my kneecaps, which were ravaged by years of BMX racing on bikes with cranks that were too long (I've had multiple operations to fix chondromalacia, or wearing out of the padding behind the kneecap - the tights put pressure on them and make 'em ache).   I used to own a pair of Bellwether tights that had accordion knees that relieved the pressure.  They were great, but I haven't been able to find a similar pair since.

GLOVE and SOCKS: When it gets colder I slip on a pair of winter cycling gloves that I found at PerformanceBike for $10 on sale.  They work well to about the high 30s, below that my fingertips can get pretty chilly on a longer ride (i.e. the 45 minute or so commute home from the City).  Miraculously, some days my fingers do fine. I don't know why.  My toes are generally good until the freezing point.

Big-buck ski gloves would probably work better when cold, though it might get tough working the brakes and gears.  If someone has wisdom on fingers and toes please share (there are high end winter cycling gloves such as these, though I haven't tried them).

To be honest, sometimes it's just too damned cold to ride. Or, at least too cold to ride for very long. Everyone has their own threshold.  And, of course, deep snow makes it hard to travel safely or far.  But most of the stuff you need to ride in the winter is likely already in your closet.  The frigid streets of Gotham await.