The season’s first wave of seriously cold weather is upon us. Highs will struggle to break freezing by the weekend. There will be wind, of course, down from Alberta and Saskatchewan. There is always wind in this part of Iowa. Yesterday morning it was blowing steadily at 20 mph with gusts to 30. The wind chill was in the teens. Sounds bad, I know, but it really wasn’t. Honest.
This will be my fifth winter on the bike. The first year, I’d just venture out when the weather was somewhat tolerable. I didn’t do snow at first. I also didn’t realize what I was getting into or just how addictive it was.
The second winter is really when everything changed. We were still in Indiana and I distinctly remember riding down a lighted side path in a howling blizzard. A minivan passed on the adjacent street. In the back were two young boys with their faces glued to the window. They were looking at me with jaws agape and there was no doubt what they were thinking. It wasn’t the same thing their mother up front was thinking, that’s for sure.
As I rode on, it occurred to me that, yes, this really was as cool as those boys thought it was and so I found myself cycling more and more, no matter the weather. People ski, I rationalized. This wasn’t much different than that. I rode eight miles on the coldest day of the year, a day when the ambient temperature was -15° F. It didn’t kill me. Instead, it offered me a glimpse of what I was capable of. I liked the way it made me feel.
There are two primary challenges to winter cycling in these parts. One is staying warm. The other is staying upright. Staying warm has gotten a lot easier. Modern synthetics, from Gore to Polarfleece, are pretty amazing. There aren’t too many days when I’m uncomfortable for more than a few minutes.
Head, fingers and toes are the only real challenges. I use bar mitts on my fat bike and Craft lobster claw gloves from Sweden on everything else. I change over to platform pedals which accommodate a pair of Solomon boots on my feet. Those boots are good to minus thirty, and so ever since I made that change my feet are never cold. As far as my head goes, I wear beanies under my helmet. I have one from Outdoor Research with a Goretex band around the ears that’s really nice and I recently picked up a Polarfleece beanie from Duluth Trading that has become my new favorite. It’s part of their Alaskan Hardgear line. On really dangerous days, I slip a Goretex balaclava under the beanie.
It took me a while to get the apparel part of the equation right. Layers are important and finding the right mix requires experimentation. What works for me might not work for you. One thing to be aware of though is that cotton is the enemy in the winter. You don’t want to wear cotton. It will absorb moisture and make you very uncomfortable. In the perfect storm, it could cause serious hardship.
Staying upright is always a concern whenever the temperature dips below freezing, but if you haven’t tried it you might be surprised to discover that it’s not as big of a deal as it seems going in. Like anything else, the more you ride on snow and ice the easier it gets. You’ll learn to recognize different types of conditions and adjust for them. I still fall from time to time, but not often and mostly when I get a little sloppy and lazy. I’ve never hurt myself and so it’s not something that I worry too much about.
I have several winter bikes that I alternate between depending on conditions. My go to bike is my Salsa Fargo with 29″x 2.25″ knobby mountain bike tires. When the snow’s a little deeper, I ride my Surly Wednesday fat bike.
I’ve cycled in the winter in states as different and unique as Utah and Indiana. These days, most of my riding is done near our Iowa home in rural areas where there’s little or no salt. If I was to ride in the city, I’d get an old 26″ hardtail mountain bike and make it my winter runner. If it was flat where I lived, I’d seriously consider something I could convert to single speed. Road salt and other chemicals are a toxic brew that will eat derailleurs and other add ons pretty quickly if you don’t rinse your bike off after every grimy ride. Simpler is generally better.
On the dangerously cold days (which I define as days where the temp is below zero and the wind chill is -30° or lower), I tend to ride closer to home. Instead of an out and back course, I might do a loop where I’m never further than a few miles from my front door. If I need or want more miles, I might ride the loop twice. I also pay attention to the wind and try to ride out into it so that I have it at my back on the way home. Nothing is worse than working up a sweat only to turn around and have the wind hitting you in the face for ten or fifteen miles.
Speaking of miles, I cycle fewer in the winter…on average about half what I do the rest of the year. That said, I’ve gone as long as 40 miles on days where the temperature never got out of the twenties.
It’s not some macho thing with me to ride in cold weather. I do it because I genuinely like the way it makes me feel. Riding a bicycle is important to me, regardless of the weather. That said, there is a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with heading out into inhospitable conditions and making it back home. It’s more about knowing that I can adapt and survive than it is one of “conquering” nature or anything else.
So if you’ve thought about doing this, I hope that this is the year you will give it a try. Cycling in cold weather can be magical. It’s really a shame that more people don’t do it.