Cold Weather Riding

This first blush of winter is the most daunting time of year to be (or to become) a cold-weather commuter. Here in Western NC, we’ve only had a couple of truly cold spells since fall’s last gasp, and my brain hasn’t fully calibrated to winter yet. Outside feels colder than it actually is, which makes me overdress.

If you tend to put your bike away when the mercury drops, what I’m about to say might surprise you. But it’s true: cold isn’t the problem.

No, really.

Cold isn’t the problem: wind and moisture are. Cold has a very simple, very quick solution: start riding. Cold will be managed with just a minute or two of turning those cranks. Working muscles generate a considerable amount of heat—I usually tell the You rode in this weather?! crowd (and it’s true!) that I warm up way faster on the bike than I would in our car. With temps down into the teens, I manage cold with very few layers—midweight wool and a light jacket are all I usually wear on top; jeans suffice for bottoms above freezing, but I’ll switch to winter tights when it drops below.

Cold can be managed. It’s moisture and wind that can wreck a ride.

Moisture is primarily an issue of core heat—layer enough to keep yourself comfortable, but start taking things off if the sweat begins in earnest. A wet shirt becomes a comfort vampire at the first red light, sucking heat away in gulps. Find a balance—remembering that my commute ends with me walking into a heated building, I try to keep pretty cool on my ride, lest every pore become a fountain the moment I walk inside.

When I speak of wind, I’m talking about both Ma Nature’s gusts and the currents you create by moving forward through space. I’m talking about air moving over your body, whisking away warmth as it goes. This heat transfer is actually really helpful over my torso—even on frigid days, the jacket’s usually unzipped by the time I get to my destination. Where it sucks is out on the periphery—for me, the hands and feet and ears and face are where the weather affects me the most.

The key to a comfortable cold commute is strategic wind screening. Like I said, the cold weather gear on my core doesn’t really change—the same shirt, same jacket do just fine at 40 degrees or at 15. What does change is how I protect my extremities.

When I moved back to Asheville, a strange new beast was introduced into my commute: hills. In particular, my ride now started with a long downhill, right out of my front door, with no warm-up period. Dressing appropriately for both that frigid coast and the warming pedaling that followed could be a bit tricky (warm enough for the former was far too hot for the latter), and the specter of that achingly cold downhill tended to make me overdress for the rest of the ride.

Temperatures—the actual numerical values—became really important to me. Through trial and error, I learned where my personal benchmarks were: light liner gloves were fine above 40, but I switched to windstopper gloves below, then lobster gloves at 25 or so, and down mittens if it got much below that. The earband usually comes out if it gets below 35 or so. For a longer ride, I’ll be sure to throw on some good, thick socks if it’s below freezing.

These are all personal and variable: while Dion can pretty much ride through the entire season with the same pair of gloves, on motorcycle or bicycle (it’s those iron restaurant hands!), my digits have proven to be considerably more sensitive. On the other hand, he reaches for a hat sometime in October and doesn’t take it off until April, but, with my thick hair and hot head, I’m always grateful for my helmet’s vents, even in the dead of winter.

You might have already noticed what your personal weak spots are. Maybe your hands do just fine, but your nose and your chin turn into little blocks of ice—so a scarf or a neck gaiter or a balaclava is a must. Maybe you don’t mind the cold face, but your eyes water and sting in the chilly air—the right pair of glasses are in order (I picked up a pair of photochromic Tifosis on sale some years ago—they’re not especially pretty, but they wrap around to block wind and make my eyes happy in really cold weather). And most of us end up with a dripping nose before we get to where we’re going—take along a bandana or a handkerchief if you want to save your sleeves.

Or maybe you’re not really sure. You haven’t done much (or any) riding cold weather. Well, as they say, there’s only one way to find out: get on that bike! For your first couple of trips, underdress and overpack. Put on your clothes, then stand outside for a moment. If you feel cold before you start riding, you’re probably dressed just fine. But pack an extra layer just in case—we’re exploring what works for you, remember? And that might include more or less gear than you imagined. Put on what feels like the right attire for you, but pack some alternatives—heavier or lighter gloves, a hat instead of an earband, some face protection, glasses, whatever. Then, just ride. Pay attention to how quickly your core gets warm, and unzip or doff layers to keep the sweat at bay (wet and warm only ever go together in July). Swap out your other gear so your extremities stay comfy. Find what works for you. Once you have that information, getting out the door on a cold day becomes a snap.

There’s something incredibly empowering about getting to where you’re going under your own power, even more so when conditions seem daunting. Although that first slap of cold air on my face sometimes makes me question why I brought the bike out, such misgivings evaporate in the face of moments like this: on the night before Thanksgiving, I rode home on deserted streets, ice still crumbled in the gutters from the prior day’s storm. White lights in the shape of snowflakes lined the bridge, illuminating the light fog gathering over the river. Cold air propped me up, carried me forward, and inexplicably warmed every part of me. That’s a kind of peace that I don’t find behind the wheel of a car.

Happy winter riding, ya’ll.

P.S.  We’ve talked about dressing for cold days—cold, dry days. But there’s more to safe winter riding than just staying warm. Remember your lights, folks, and check out these pages for some tips on what to do when the white stuff starts falling. See you out there!

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