The silly season is upon us again. It’s snowing and cold and that means that for the next little while important people will be warning us not to go outside. Last week, public officials in Carmel Indiana closed an ice rink because they worried it was too cold to ice skate. If not now, when?
I grew up on the southern tip of Lake Michigan in an area where I think it’s safe to say that most people loathed winter. They couldn’t see past the ice on their windshields. Later, I moved to Minnesota. Now that’s a state that understands winter. I thought they’d hate it even more there but they didn’t. They loved it. They built ice castles and put fish houses on lakes. They skated and curled and cross country skied everywhere. They even bicycled…all longggggggggg winter long.
Best of all, they really didn’t care how cold it got. There were no cancellations or two hour delays for anything when we lived there. In fact, the colder it got, the more fired up they got about it. I remember cross country skiing at night with a crowd of people on St. Paul’s Como Park golf course and it had to have been around fifteen below, more or less.
And so even though I grew up among people who disliked winter, I learned to embrace my inner Viking. I cycled twelve miles this morning. It was -3F when I left and -6F when I got back. It was windy, so the wind chill factor was down around -30. The weather people say that’s dangerous and I suppose it could be, but it wasn’t. I’m back. Safe and warm. I still have all my fingers and toes. I don’t have any frostbite. I wasn’t even that cold.
But today was different and I don’t get to ride in this kind of weather all that often. I thought about this while out today. Some of what I already know was reinforced, but I learned some new things, too. I want to share my thoughts in case you’re interested and might want to do this yourself. It doesn’t have to be dangerous. Here goes.
- Check the weather before you leave to ride. At a minimum, you need to know the ambient temperature, the wind speed, the wind direction and the likelihood of precipitation. Don’t go to the Weather Channel. You want something that provides a little more information. I use Intellicast and Pivotal Weather. I pay particular attention to the wind direction in degrees. 360 is straight out of the north, 270 is straight out of the west, etc. Learn this. You do not want to be coming home into a stiff wind when the WCF is double digits below zero.
- Dress in layers. Everybody knows this, right? You don’t need expensive state of the art fabrics if you do this correctly. Most of my clothing is cheap, big box stuff. It’s better if it fits loosely so that you trap air between layers. That air will insulate and keep you warm. Be careful with your legs. If your outer layer is baggy, make sure you wrap it at the bottom or stuff it into your boots so that it doesn’t get caught in the chain. If I was going to spring for something fancy, it would be a GoreTex shell to put over everything else.
- Try to cover yourself from head to toe. Exposed skin freezes quickly. The good news is that you can mitigate it by getting out of the wind. On my ride today, I only had 15 minutes before exposed skin would freeze. If I hadn’t planned ahead in terms of covering up and choosing my route carefully, I would have had less than 3 miles into the wind before frostbite would have been a real problem.
- Pay extra attention to your fingers and toes. They get cold before anything else and they are most at risk. I use extreme Bar Mitts for my hands and a general purpose Solomon boot (rated minus 25F) for my feet. Neither were even a little cold.
- Plan your route carefully. I live in a small town and find myself out in wide open country pretty quickly. I noticed today that the buildings and trees in town made a huge difference with regard to the wind vs. being out in the open. We received 3″ of snow yesterday. That’s not much but the wind created drifts on county roads. You could be cycling on bare gravel and then find yourself in six inches of snow pretty quickly.
- Make sure you have escape routes. By this, I mean places to shelter. This is part of route planning. In extreme weather, once you get cold you could find yourself in a bad situation pretty quickly. Do not route plan without first thinking about this! Shelter doesn’t have to be elaborate. It just has to give you the opportunity to warm up enough to make it to wherever it is you’re going.
- Share your route with someone before you leave. I like to ride alone, but Mrs. Sharpe always knows where I’m going and when to expect me back, just in case.
- Crosswinds are not your friend. This was a real surprise. I found that the side of my face exposed to the wind got very cold, very quickly. I figured out that when I’m heading straight into the wind, my breath blew back into the balaclava, but when the wind hit from the side, it blew away. The balaclava froze solid in as little as five minutes in a crosswind. The solution was to turn out of it.
- Be realistic. You’ve probably heard stories about mountain climbers who stopped within feet of the peak and turned around because that’s what conditions warranted. They lived to climb another day. This is like that. If you feel that conditions are deteriorating, don’t wait until you’re in trouble to get out of it. Get out now and ride again when things improve.