Perfect weather for a bike ride . . .

January 31, 2010

The mental side of randonneuring

I'm looking at things from the perspective that I'm getting a one-month late start on 2010.  Looking around the blogs and the forums and the mileage logging websites - pretending like any of it matters - I know I'm way behind.  Last year I'd already done two 200km rides before this next weekend is out.  Weight loss efforts have also taken a backseat, so it really IS like everything I said about new years is a month overdue.  Call it the weather, less than cooperative.  Call it winter blues, knowing we here in KC saw the sun only four times in January.   Falling back into old habits and comforts has been all too easy.  Mental?  Most likely.  Because of that constant noise in my head, I'm again drawn to the keyboard in self-analysis and journaling towards a better "me".

I did take my first weekend recreational ride in months last weekend, which felt really good.  It was warm, I felt strong, and the bike felt light and nimble without the commuter bags attached.  I even ventured onto gravel roads - which were still slimy with mud and goo from snow melt - and saw a lot of scenery that I hadn't looked at in months.  Breaking the routine always helps the mind.   I've re-familiarized myself with fruits, vegetables, and leaner proteins, and the whole portion control philosophy.  I'm no longer going to punish myself with ultimatums like 'last beers' or 'no more X'... Moderation, small rewards, will help prevent binges and feelings of deprivation.  Free-weights, pushups, and treadmill sessions will confuse the body a bit and work muscle groups that wouldn't seem to benefit cycling, but still will.  Staying motivated and knowing that spring is coming with each passing day - so the work I'm doing isn't for naught; the notion of which has made it easy to justify snacking and skipping workouts.  Keeping focused on personal health keeps the mind busy, and keeps the body willing.

Also, I'm eliminating things that's would cause self-induced stress and unrest - things that have proven to have physical consequences with me.  Life is and has been difficult enough without me worrying about planning a new permanent route or fun nightime loop that will finally be 'perfect'.  If It's FUN, and I can avoid being stressed about it, then it'll happen -- but I can't let myself stress when something comes up and prevents "X" from occurring.  Things like the Dark Side Rides will have to be farmed out again this year, the western and eastern Olathe-hubbed permanent routes will remain in the planning stages for another year, and I will have to forgive myself of that.  With my new responsibilities at work, things that I've traditionally tried to hammer out in an hour over lunchtime will have to wait.  I have trouble waiting -- I'm an instant-gratification kinda guy, and I once I get my head around something, I want it.  NOW.  Often that's unrealistic... sometimes that "want" is "finishing the ride", when I still have 60 miles left to go.  It has a strong mental effect.  Sometimes it's SO bad, what starts in my head becomes physical.  You ever "make yourself sick"?  I have.  Quieting things like that make for a good randonneuring season.  Breathe.  Let go.  Relax.

It's a mental approach that dictates examining goals, too, and I really jumped the gun on January 1st:  if I'm going to maintain a single-car household, I need to be more self-forgiving:  referencing the recent streak-breakage.  Do my best, no apologies.  Even bigger goals like the Tejas 500 will have to wait.  Yes, rides like Tejas are a challenge and stress comes with the territory - but if I can't afford to get there, I can't get there - so why bother worrying about the ride itself right now?  It's frustrating to feel "ready" for such a challenge, and have seemingly silly things get in the way of even trying it - but it's certainly not the end of the world.  Worst case, I'll instead focus on what I can realistically achieve here in town, ride-wise - with the same philosophy: if I can get to a brevet start, then I'll ride it and I can get picked up afterwards with some planning.  Calling the wife when I'm 20 miles from the finish.  It's easy.  Why do I make it so hard?  Well, it's a genuine concern for a group of folks to car-pool to a ride start, unless everyone is matched as riders.  Ever have to wait on your friend after a 40-mile training ride?  Now, make that a 125-mile ride.  You can only sit inside a Perkins for so long.  Vice-versa, I can't do that to someone else, lest I be the slower rider.  The ideal of having my own individual transportation to and from home is nice, but it certainly isn't the only way to work it.  So, to self: stop worrying.  Worry:  its what I do really well.  Its time to let go a little.

...so, speaking of self-induced stress - why did I even write this?  Yeah, sometimes being me sucks.  Again, this is that dribbly self-journaling mode I'm in - hoping it will all make sense in July when I forget.  Keeping riding FUN by keeping myself on a shorter leash.  I can't do it all, nor should I try, nor should I burden myself with always tossing goals out to the masses.  I have a desire to add value and make the posts here relevant by perhaps offering a take on things that someone else might also struggle with.  Making things harder on myself as a result shouldn't be part of the deal.  

For fledgling rando-riders that have yet to crank out 125 miles at a shot, the mental game can be a very real one.  Hard to overcome.  For others, riding is pure, fun, easy...even at long distances - and for a long time I've had real trouble remembering that fact during one ride or another.  Don't get me wrong:  if I *didn't* love riding, I'd probably not have this blog nor a constant desire to get out on a bike.  I do love it, enjoy it, and it always *starts* fun.  Often, though, I get too worked up about it.  I don't know really WHY I am the way I am;  why I feel defeated when I get passed on the road, even when it's completely casual and non-competitive.  Why some days I have a terrific ride, and other days everything becomes a personal battle, or self-inflicted warfare.  Why I've used words like "revenge" and "epic" to describe otherwise innocuous strips of pavement or actual events - like the event itself had reared up and spat me out.  Even commutes lately have become "epic", which confuses me.  Other times, I'll ride that same stretch of road without so much as a passing thought, even a smile.  Trying to wrap my thinking around rando and ultra-events and looking at ways to be more successful, there is a trend I've noticed.  At some point, it stops being fun; but, with only a few exceptions, it has never been about pain, or genuine suffering, never about the mileage at hand.  Sure, nutrition, hydration are recurring themes - but why?  Is my mind where it should be?  Do I make it harder than it really is?  Is something about my thought process so bothersome that I forget to drink, or eat?  Sure, at mile marker 250, things ARE hard... but if nothing really changes, what happens to my mind?  What is it that I'm doing to myself at that point that makes it so easy to gear down, soft-pedal, get frustrated, and start to question my fortitude?  Doubt?  Anger?  Some deep-seeded issues that I still haven't unearthed?  What's the key difference between those times where I ended a 600K with a smile, and those times where I'd be 10 minutes shy of DQ'ing on a 200km ride because I just didn't want to pedal anymore?  Were things that bad, or was it self-manufacturered?  What's really going on when I don't even realize I've been riding for an hour into a headwind, compared to those times where the light tinging of wind-chimes on my back porch prevents me from even suiting up?

I have to remember what many randonneurs have quoted... the source, I can't remember, but it's very true.
Whether it be your stomach, or whether it is mental:  Keep riding.  Wait 15 minutes.  It will pass.  Heck, even sit on the curb if you need to... but don't quit.  It'll pass.

Think about what you want to do.  Have an idea why you're out there for XXX miles.  Have a goal - even if you have to write it down and tape it to the handlebars:  know it, reference it.  
Maybe your goal is simple... maybe it's complex.  If it's too much, let it go.  Modify it.  Forgive yourself.  There will be other days.  There will be other years. 
Maybe your real goal isn't about cycling at all... that's okay, too.  Focus on the priorities, and ride when you can for the reasons you WANT to. 
Also, avoid burn-out ... which, may be responsible for a lot of this.  In my case, I've created a scenario that makes burn-out almost inevitable.  It bothers me, because in the short term I can't change that without flushing every goal except commuting... or buying another car.  I'm not ready to flush the goals.  Not yet.  I love long-distance riding... and the current theory is working on getting my head right, and riding a 200k.  After that, the commute should seem easier.  It's a theory.  Sunshine, green grass, and short-sleeves oughta help, too.  It can't come soon enough.  Perhaps the bus pass and the bike lockers will help.

So, my REAL goal and resolution for 2010:  come to grips with all these thoughts.  Life is difficult enough.  Instead of struggling with it so much, simply allowing myself to pull on the helmet, fill the water bottles, open the garage... and enjoy... and if it isn't right, let it go.  Dump the caffeine (it doesn't help ANY of this unless it happens to be 4:00am during a 600km brevet).  Dump the excuses, the doubt, the worry.  Dump the extra body weight.  Use the mental noise to my advantage, and use it for good.  I may not ever be able to change how I think - but I can change what I do with it.  After all, it's all in my head.  Like a friend recently mentioned to me... I'm evolving.


Thanks for reading!


January 22, 2010

Randonneuring Photos

Check out this excellent collection of shots from the proud sport of randonneuring, courtesy of The Daily Randonneur , which is a good read by the way.

A picture is worth a thousand words, something you know I have no concept of if you listened to a certain podcast (ha,ha...I'm a bit breathy.)... so, enjoy the pics!


January 19, 2010

Commuting & Randonneuring Podcast

I'm pretty excited about this: a while back I was invited to appear in the latest Podcast from The Kansas Cyclist, this latest episode talking about commuting and randonneuring! It's just hit the "air" this afternoon!

Of course I'm jazzed about it, but its not ALL about me: please be sure to surf the rest of The Kansas Cyclist website, check out the other content and other podcasts. You should set aside some time and listen to the series - interesting stuff, and well done. If it concerns bicycling in Kansas, it's probably going to make it onto this webpage, so give it a look and bookmark it for future news and info! Ed and Randy, thanks for having me!


So, here you go: Kansas Cyclist Podcast, Episode #16.

Enjoy and thanks for reading... and listening!

January 15, 2010

Punching the core

The last couple of weeks, to be blunt, have been the most difficult in my commuting history. 
A little history to bring you up to speed:

Kansas City and the surrounding suburbs generally have a fairly set winter pattern.  It's mainly cold, windy, and dry.  We do get snow, yes, but, in general and in recent memory the day-time high temperatures and sunshine generally melt off whatever we get in short order.  A few inches here and there, soon becomes groundwater, and we move on with clear roads, clear trails.  The roads are treated, plowed as needed - but generally, winters here are more about the wind and the cold, rather than a full-on "here's winter" socket of continued snowfall and temperatures that stay below freezing for weeks at a time.    

This year, however, timed perfectly with my winter vacation from work, we got smacked with a pretty significant snow event.  With sustained winds at 25mph and nearly continuous snow for three days, places in Overland Park, KS., received a foot of snow.  The winds, often gusting above 35 mph, caused drifting, and plows struggled to keep up.  The National Weather Service bulletins of the period read like survival guides:  don't go out, pack this, pack that, charge your phone, etc.  Days later, another storm system brought another two days of snow - though lighter than the Xmas event, it simply added to the prroblems.  All the while, in atypical fashion, the temperature after the two events stayed well below freezing, and the winds brought record-breaking wind chills to the area. 

 With kids on break from school, and me on vacation, the timing was perfect.  With regards to my car-free-to-work streak, if I'd had to work through this period I'm not certain what I would have done.  Buses metro-wide were hours behind schedule on a daily basis, the bike trail fell very low on the priority list as cities struggled to keep only the main roads open.  Non-arterials and side-streets were clogged, narrow, and rutted with car trails.  Even with the studded tires on a few recreational forays out and about, it was rough going.  When I finally returned to work, the roads were still jammed, the trails still covered with over 16" of snow in places, and a third snow event the week I returned made things worse all over again.  High temperatures were in the teens at best, and the sun was no-where to be found.  All told, from December 23rd through January 10th, it was above freezing for a total of four hours.  For Kansas City, that's not normal.  For the period in question the average daily temperature was about 20 degrees F below normal.  In any given part of the country, that's significant.  

Returning to work on January 4th, which feels like an eternity ago at this writing, marked the hardest commute week of my life, so far.  Roads were horrendous, most clogged with brown "car-snot" - an amalgam of salt, sand, and slush that has no form, washes out the best bike tires, clogs tread, redirects anything travelling through it, and provides almost no traction for anything weighing less than 1,500 lbs.  On lighter-travelled roads, going was better - but was often hit and miss.  The snow events were preceded by periods of freezing rain and sleet, so the underlying areas were packed hard, and there were plateaus of extra-hard pack that were jarring at best, hard to see and anticipate.  Very difficult to stay "to the right as practicable".  If it was just plain packed snow, going was easy -- but those areas were becoming more rare as the days wore on.  I was reduced to walking on so many occasions, I often wondered why I'd brought the bike along at all.  

In danger of being late to work, I modified my route onto the main roads, and simply left the house earlier and earlier each day to stay safe.  Unfortunately, this only worked in the morning.  Come afternoon, traffic coming through the major part of Overland Park was making things stressful.  Normally sheltered on the bike trail, perhaps I am a little out of practice in traffic - but combined with narrowed streets from "best effort" plowing, and impatient drivers having a hard enough time navigating with only cars to contend with, I was putting myself at risk more-so than usual.  Even major roads were still offering nothing but two rural-looking paths where the majority of car tires wore through, and many drivers were nervous to stray outside of these exposed lanes of pavement.  With each passing mile on Monday afternoon, I knew I was rolling the dice - my final leg home happening on 151st street, which is two-lane, 45 MPH.  Yeah, I survived --- but I don't like that road on a summer day:  that day, it was simply the only thing navigable by bike.  My alternative was standing outside a parking garage in single-digit temps and high winds, waiting for a bus that would later prove to be 90 minutes overdue.  Upon arriving at home, the bus was looking mighty good.  Yeah, I suppose I've had worse, but I was rattled. 

Tuesday I worked from home.

It was never really about the cold, it wasn't really always about the snow or traction -- it was the traffic.  I longed for a plowed and groomed trail, single track, a snowmobile trail, anything - things I'd read about on other year-round commuter blogs.  Anything to get me out of the traffic stream.  Thawing temps were no-where in sight in the forecast and it was too cold for the chemical action of road treatments to begin to work.  

Wednesday, I left the bike at home, and walked to the bus stop.  Two miles on foot proved more relaxing than two miles of riding through brown snot, even though I knew in my head that it was taking three times longer to get anywhere.  An hour and a half after leaving the driveway, I was still seven miles from the office.  The bus came, roads finally in good enough shape to support the schedule (and the AM routes are better at this anyways), and I made it without incident.  That afternoon, however, more snow came - to the tune of another 4-6 inches, and temps that were still not cooperating.  Within an hour, the roads were set back a full week.  The only thing I had to look forward to was a late bus, and a 2 mile trudge home on foot.  That night, I was offered a ride home, which I graciously took.  At that point, it wasn't about the snow, the cold, or the car-free-to-work streak - it was about getting home safely, and in time to see my kids to bed.

For those reading from different areas of the country, the county here provides a really good bus service - but compared to other major metropolitan areas in the US, it is not quite up to par.  I blame sprawl, budget, car-culture of the area (we have more lane miles of highway per capita than any metro in the USA.)  The entire Johnson County metro has about the same amount of buses that one ROUTE in NYC would have, perhaps.  My route has two buses come through in the PM.  Two, spaced about 1.5 hours apart.  Compare to 81st and Central Park West, Manhattan, where you can catch a bus every six minutes, nearly round the clock.  Standing and waiting for a bus here is a real concern:  Did I miss it?  When will it get here?  Can I go back inside?  I've been there before.  Toss in wind chills of -30*F, and a concerned family wondering when you'll get home.  I love what I have, and I know I could lose it in a heartbeat the way local budgets have been - but, for those wondering what the deal is, there ya go.

That night, winter break for the school kids was coming to an end - but it was quickly replaced by the biggest rash of school closings and service suspensions in recent memory.  My kids school district is fairly hard-core when it comes to weather, not closing for mere meteorological trifles; but this was different.  Winds came up again, snow was drifting again, sidewalks and school bus stops were choked with plow berms exceeding five feet of hard snow and ice, and a wind chill warning was posted.  This was madness.  Thursday, I worked from home again.

Thursday afternoon was full of thought.  Personal stress, personal safety, my wife, my kids, why I'm doing any of this by bicycle, how severe this winter was compared to the last, and the one prior, and the one prior to that.  I remembered 2008, where I completed an R-12 in modest temperatures with barely a mention or memory of snow.  When was the last time it was like this?  When was the last time school had closed?  It seemed that generally since my kids started at school we couldn't BUY a "snow day".  Looking across the city's website of traffic cams, and seeing side-street conditions on the MAIN roads, knowing the bus would be late, knowing that I'd be rolling the dice again with each passing car if I tried the main roads, no-one expecting to see a cyclist on the roads regardless of safety gear.... what was I doing??  

A long conversation with the wife, a longer conversation with myself, and I elected to let myself off the hook.  
I don't owe anyone an explanation, and I know I'm far harder on myself than anyone else could ever be,  and even though this is a blog and not "Newsweek.com", it is in the guise of honesty that I must admit, I caved in and broke the car-free-to-work streak on Friday, January 8th.  Struggling with it for days prior, not sleeping well, stress induced by no-one but myself, and taking great risks to prove (what exactly?) -- you see my point:    My attempt to continue was getting out of hand, and this quickly became a proof-of-concept of what it takes to get someone OFF of a bike in a car-centric city.

Having not driven to work since June 14th, 2009, it was initially difficult to swallow, but I slept much better Thursday night.  In the rare case that our school district cancels classes, it's a good indication that it's pretty much downright rotten and unsafe outside. Some local media outlets indicating this was the worst the metro has had in two decades, I think that's a fair mark to call "my limit."  Even my boss at work, who knew of the streak and its importance to me, comforted me (after the shock wore off that I'd driven), that "it's not exactly like you chose an 80*F day, and decided to be lazy."

Yes, parallels abound and my situation is far less grand, but thoughts of ship captains steering into the squall on Lake Michigan, storm chasers punching right through the core of a violent storm without data or radio contact, airline pilots ignoring flashing lights on instrument panels, battlefield generals suicidally ordering troops into clearly lopsided skirmishes - all to come to their associated historic demise:  one benefit of education is learning how not to repeat these glorious mistakes under some foolish guise of glory, honor, or purpose.  Lewis and Clark prevailed where others had failed because of patience, knowing when to winter, knowing when to push on.  If you'll excuse the gigantic rift in significance, so too must I learn to say when enough is enough:  for myself, my family.  This streak simply isn't worth it, at a certain point - which in Kansas, in winter, seems to come once every couple of decades.  Live to ride another day.

Just as quick as you like, however, re-focused and looking towards the forecast of this week, I proceeded to forgive myself and look towards continuing what is - after all - my preferred method of transportation.  Sunday brought the first peek above freezing, and the beginning of the metro-wide thaw.  Chemicals began to work on the streets, the sun came out, and plows retraced the streets and opened them back up to their full width.  Monday the 11th proved FAR better than the previous Monday, and revealed some mistakes from the previous week.  So attached had I been to the local trail system, when it closed off I began to forget some of my own core rules;  one of which being, it's better to add a few miles to a commute than it is to try and navigate a main traffic artery.  While the previous week's snow-choke prevented these choices, I decided this week to stop trying so hard to follow along the roads that skirt my preferred trail route (which were proving rather busy), and add a few miles to preserve my sanity and go around it all.  Back to the maps, I added 30 minutes to my afternoon commute, and the result feels more like I'm on a "ride", instead of a "slog" - which is precisely what I needed.

This is a tough time of year.  Looking back at past years, I have caved in and driven in far warmer temps, with far better roads, just to get a break.  The lack of warmth, dressing and layering which takes three times longer than "normal", the single-speed winter bike and it's patience-teaching gear ratio, the mind-warping haze of grey and white and glare, riding to work in the dark, riding home in the dark, over and over, and spring seeming years away -- it gets to a person.  So, the scenic addition to my afternoon routine is helping.  The trails have even been plowed at this point, so some shelter from traffic and a return to "normal" will be nice as well.  

So, in closing, I still consider what I've accomplished a personal best - while it's not the continuous year-long streak I'd hoped for, it's been the longest streak of commutes in my history, and was only stopped by a record-breaking weather event - more accurately the byproduct of that weather reducing any safe or reasonable route to work by anything other than a motor vehicle.  Even then, I took just one day to regroup, and was back on the bike the next working day.  Looking back at Januarys past, I see weeks of non-riding, in one case only six rides in a January with much better conditions.  So, all in all, I'm happy with what I've accomplished.  The counter started over, yes, but if next winter is any better than this one, I don't see any reason to discount giving it another solid try.
To those that HAVE managed to remain car-free through this winter, HATS OFF to you!  

Thanks for reading!  

January 1, 2010

COLD weather riding, dressing, prepping.

This is a (hopefully) simple guideline about dressing and preparing for cold weather riding, randonneuring, and commuting.
There is a lot to consider, otherwise - well - everyone would do it. Below is the culmination of years of trial and error; sometimes facing the cold with too much on, sometimes not nearly enough. Also, a few notes on equipment - because your bike needs a little consideration for winter riding as well.

Hopefully I'll remember this as I type... but my hope was to make this into a reference-style post.
Scroll to find your category and read on:

Disclaimers:
Tolerance for heat and cold is a very personal matter. Those that were raised in northern climes are still convinced, even after decades of living here, that it's not "cold" in the midwest. There are others that come from Alaska and swear it's worse here. There are some folks from Arizona that think we're stupid for going outside when it's below 50ºF. SO, find out where you are, and adjust accordingly. For the record, I have lived and ridden in Kansas and Missouri all my life, and commuted to and from work here for a decade or so. I hope to shed some amount of light on how to dress and "survive" when the thermometer barely moves above the teens. For those seeking a car-free existence, or looking to complete an R-12 in questionable conditions, hopefully you'll find some things in here that will help! Finally, dressing for cold weather is dynamic and often depends on a few factors: How used to the conditions are you? What was the temperature yesterday? Is it windy?
I am always a little amazed how my wardrobe changes as the winter season plays out. Much of this is due to an annual progression from early-season over-estimation, to late-season acclimatization. For the most part, how you dress on Dec 21st will generally be heavier than how you dress on March 21st - assuming the temperatures and conditions on those two days are identical. People are very adaptable and you'll amaze yourself, eventually, with how little you really need to wear to go for a 50 mile ride when it's 20 degrees outside.

Big note: I'm a cyclist and a gear geek: there are MANY, MANY, MANY commuters and riders that dress for the cold the same way they'd dress if they were hiking or walking in the cold. Just normal long-sleeved t-shirts, thick sweatshirts, snow pants, a jacket or hoodie, sweaters, beanie caps, whatever. You can go either way, and it works every day. However, this article/post is mainly geared towards fitness cycling, long-distance cycling - activities where technical and fitted cycling clothing becomes more important.

Necessary, no.
My preference, yes.

(All references to temperature are in Fahrenheit)
In no particular order, winter dressing for your various body zones:



FEET:
People's extremities take a beating in cold weather, feet at the top of that list. My first season below freezing was pretty rough, because I ignored an important thing: Circulation problems: Numbness can feel a lot like 'coldness' if things are too tight at your feet. It materializes very differently if it happens in warm weather, so when it happens in cold it's easy to blame the shoes and/or the socks being "too thin". Basically, don't layer up TOO much. It's better, generally, to add a shoe cover over the outside than it is to add another pair of socks inside shoes that are sized for summer-weight socks. Shoe covers have gotten really good in the past five years, and mine seem to work fine down to about 25 degrees. Unfortunately, below that there isn't much I can do -- which answers the question you might have asked a second ago: If I can't add socks, and shoe covers are only good down to "xx" degrees... what DO I do? Well, it's a hard pill to swallow, but you have to get thicker, more specific shoes. One easy way: and something you might already own are good winter boots, like hiking boots - and then simply run flat pedals. Flat nylon pedals can be had for around $10, and they'll last a few months easily - probably longer. Shimano makes dual-purpose pedals with an SPD cleat on one side, and a flat pedal surface on the other. Brilliant! If you are addicted solely to clipless pedals like I am, you have to pony up for winter-specific cycling boots that will accept a cycling cleat. There are many to choose from, but shop carefully: just like different people have differing views on what is "cold", so do manufacturers. Audition them, find a store that carries them, and look them over. Some "winter shoes" are simply summer shoes without vents, offering little in the way of insulation. Some manufacturers go by demographics only -- if the "majority" of the nation isn't riding a bike below 40 degrees, why make a shoe or boot that might not sell? There are others - like Lake, for example - that make serious winter cycling boots. If you can't find one that works for you there are, to the non-clipless option, lots of companies that make good winter hiking boots. Back to flat pedals, toe straps or PowerGrips, go.
No matter what you choose, however, wear two pairs of socks when you try them on, and thereby size them larger than your summer shoes. If you can wiggle your toes with two pairs of socks in there, you won't have to battle numbness.

Socks?
Wool, please. Calf-length wool socks help leg warmers work better, also. Not too thick... bulk doesn't always equal warmth... technical, thin wool socks work really well, and stay up while you ride.


Layering? For the feet? It can be done, yes - as alluded to, you should make sure your boots/shoes for winter have wiggle room to spare to prevent circulation problems, so you must keep this in mind when layering socks inside them. Similar to methods that will repeat in this post, try a thin summer-time cycling sock underneath a thicker wool sock - and you may extend your comfort another 15-20 degrees lower than normal. Finally, for a really cold battle, add a layer to the outside by purchasing oversized shoe covers that will work over the top of your bulkier winter boots. Just one more layer to stop the wind and keep in heat - and it won't squeeze your feet. With this method, you may be able to ride well into negative temps even for hours at a time.



HANDS:
Gloves can cause the same numbness problems that plague feet in winter weather, so this is where, regardless of what you end up buying or using, you should size things larger than you might think you need. Not huge -- just not tight. Taking into account the many varieties of summer gloves with their gel padding and ergo-specific designs, there is real weight to the issues of bike fit and hand numbness out there already -- so, in winter when you don't use those padded gloves you may find that numbness problems of a different kind might arise. Those factors, just like for feet, can make your fingertips feel like they are succumbing to frostbite, even under the most expensive and well insulated gloves. One of my solutions was to size the winter gloves large enough to allow fitting a regular summer glove underneath. Not a huge deal for commutes, but quite a big deal for cold metric centuries and beyond.


GLOVES?
Aside from incorporation of a summer glove for specific padding, I have tried a LOT of different gloves from a LOT of different manufacturers.
Manufacturers of cycling equipment, I've found, in most cases can only be "trusted" to market "winter" gloves to the demographic majority - some full finger gloves with hefty price tags only feel comfy down to about 40 degrees. Below that, if you've sized them big, you can add glove liners either made of silk or some techy fiber - or, you can add a layer on the outside. Just like on the feet, layering on the hands is quite effective and can accommodate temperature shifts on longer rides. After a lot of expensive playing around, I finally found the best cold weather gloves for me. There is a good chance they will work for you, also. It's cheap enough to try, just to see if that's the case: Shop any military surplus store, and seek out those "ugly" olive green Army-issue wool gloves. $5.00 a pair, at last check. Buy a few pair. I bought mine in 2004, and they still haven't worn out. That's my base layer, and the wool alone is good to 45 degrees. Below that, I add a glove shell. (what's that?) These might be hard to find, but basically it's a cycling glove that is made out of slightly reinforced wind-breaker material. Pearl Izumi calls theirs the "Zephyr". This doesn't add any bulk or insulation, but it keeps the wind out of the wool gloves. With that, I'm comfortable in wool gloves with these glove shells down to 20 degrees. Buy the glove shells big, so as not to squeeze your wool-gloved hand. Below 20 degrees, I add another layer: the biggest size I could find of mitts made with Polartec fleece. Polartec is a fabric and textile maker, so you can find their tag on many different manufacturer's gloves and mitts, even jackets, etc. Again, the cycling manufacturers generally don't make gear that goes this cold, and these mitts were actually purchased at a local ski store. Shop around for other cold weather sports - like skiiing - to find the stuff the cycling companies don't make, and see if you can adapt it.
The mitts on top of the glove shells on top of wool base gloves take me down to single digits. The best thing about this triple layer system, it's perfect for midwestern winter days that start with a pre-dawn temperature of 12 and then heat up to nearly 50. I can add or subtract layers as needed as the day plays out, and each individual layer isn't a hassle to store in a back pocket or in a bag. There are many, many lobster claw gloves and winter gloves that are quite good - but many of them have a narrow temperature range. Layering gives you a wider temperature range, more versatility, and it's generally a cheaper option overall.

Note on geared bikes with regards to gloves:

Depending on your bicycle, specifically if you run gears or not, you might want to consider your glove choices. Many, smartly, use a single-speed bike in the winter to cut down on maintenance - so you can wear ridiculous mitts, and not have to worry about fumbling with shifters. Just make sure you don't buy something so thick that you can't use your brake levers! On the other side of this coin, I've worn mitts and still managed to manipulate STI shifters, so it IS possible. Keep the tags on, and your receipt, and take a test ride: can you shift? Can you brake? Then decide. It might be a good time to, cost considered, think about a winter-specific bike. If you find yourself riding and commuting in winter, keep your body comfortable first - then fuss over equipment. Single speed or fixxie being one extreme, yes... but consider bar-end shifters, or down tube shifters: either of those can be manipulated with minimal digital dexterity - so when your hands are all wrapped up, you can still move the shifter.



HEAD:
Again, circulation can be a problem -- but it's not as pronounced as with hands and feet. Still, trying to jam your summer helmet over layers of winter headgear can potentially cause discomfort, at the very least - and could cause "head chills". Everyone knows, most of your body heat escapes through your head. Layering can be very effective here. In most cases, I don't need to cover my ears until it's below 45 degrees. Below that, safety, ear canal health, and comfort dictate when the ears should be covered. I start simple, but always usually end up with a two-layer system. There are many companies, cycling-specific companies, that make good head covers of varying material. Start with a thin layer, for helmet fit concerns. Make sure it's a wicking fabric, and maybe has some extra thickness at the ear level. Then, top it with a cycling cap - if you can find them stretchy, or sized - go big, again. Why? Well, it's an extra layer - and if the temperatures rise you can lose the ear protection and still have something covering your noggin. Second, the visor of a cycling cap helps tremendously with the low sun angle of winter, and keeps cold wind from hitting you squarely in the eyes. If it rains or snows, all the better. I seldom ride without a cycling cap, even in summer. In winter, a wool cap is very nice if you can swing it. The single layer over the ears is good enough down to probably the 25 degree range. Below that, another layer is needed. I use a thin balaclava from Craft, as opposed to a thick, insulated mega-balaclava, or neoprene mask. Again, the layering, and getting everything under the helmet. I wear the balaclava underneath the aforementioned ear-covering layer, and then the cap again. The thin balaclava underneath it all works quite well, mainly because now my neck is covered - and the garment extends down under the collar of my jersey/jacket. Keeping wind off the neck shields and insulates the carotid arteries, keeping the head warmer in the process. This solution usually takes me into the single digits with ease. Below that I have a rather large PolarMax (another textile company) fleece-lined balaclava: this is pulled over the entire mix, adding an outer shell. Honestly, even at zero degrees F, it is sometimes too much - so I reserve that outer layer for when it's really windy.

To avoid helmet fit problems, I have another neck shield in the form of an acrylic pullover collar - think of it as a scarf that's been sewn into a tube. You can even make your own from an old scarf. It sometimes takes the place of the larger, outer balaclava - but it's thick, fleecy, and can be pulled up to cover the nose and mouth. While I sometimes find it difficult to breathe, or find myself feeling slightly claustrophobic, just shielding your mouth and chin makes a big difference when it's really cold.


HELMET concerns?
Shop a clearance sale, and get an oversized, cheap helmet for winter use. I don't condone riding without one, even if you have an inch of padded winter headgear on - pony up, and stay safe. The cheap helmets have to pass the same certifications as the expensive ones - so you're not losing protection by going cheap - most cheaper helmets are simply heavier, and have fewer vents: but in the winter, the latter can be a GOOD thing. Weight concerns? You're wearing an extra five pounds of clothes this time of year anyways, right?


FACIAL HAIR:
yes, please. Women, sorry -- full face balaclavas are a good idea here. But, men -- if you can, and have a tolerant spouse, grow it out. It's natural, and it works marvelously. Just remember to pause upon finishing your ride... wait... there will more than likely be ice frozen through your balaclava from condensed and frozen breath, and onto your beard. Patience.. if you don't remember right away, the first good tug will remind you.


EYES:
I wear RX glasses, so this is a no-brainer -- but protect your eyes. There is blinding snow, low-sun and bright reflections, and stinging wind. A good pair of big coverage eyewear can make a big difference. Look for clear, poly-carbonate safety glasses - cheap, big coverage. I've had my eyelashes freeze over, which can be uncomfortable and can create an interesting blind spot issue -- good eye and face protection can help prevent this.


LEGS:
First and foremost, protect your knees. Little else on your body does so much for cycling, but has so little external protection. Look at them: no muscle, little fat, little tissue at all. Wear knee warmers below 60-65 degrees, and you'll still be able to walk around when you're 75 years old. It's cumulative, yes. Protect them. Sure, there are exceptions - and sometimes you can tolerate 50 degrees at the start of a spring ride because it'll be 70 in an hour. Just be careful. Riding for an hour in 50 degree rain without knee warmers will make you rethink your whole life - at least in my experience. Colder than 50, it's a good idea to switch to leg warmers, to begin protecting your calves. At about 40 degrees, leg warmers paired with those long, calf-length wool socks are really cozy. All of this with just normal, summer riding shorts is fine. In fact, aside from the knees, the legs do almost all of the work of cycling and stay quite warm on their own - so you'll be surprised how little insulation you need here. Below freezing, however, things change. Summer shorts aren't enough, and the leg warmers start to feel thin. Keep in mind, leg warmers come in many thicknesses and styles - I have one pair with a very thin layer of fleece lining, and another pair made from a material called PolyPro, that seem to be the same thickness but are markedly warmer. Some are really thick, but some are nothing more than summer cycling shorts material in a different form factor. So, shop carefully, again - as with anything else marketed as "cold weather" gear.


Tights? Indeed... below freezing, for me. And, I use the same layering strategy I've described everywhere else on the body. With the same leg warmers and summer shorts for padding, I pull over a pair of PolarMax acrylic tights. They are thin, allow movement, and add an amazing amount of warmth. Wool here? Well, probably -- if I could afford it. I've yet to add wool tights to my arsenal, but I'm told they work marvelously - and honestly if I was riding in a 40 degree rain, I'd REALLY want them. WOOL: There is nothing else that works as well when it's wet, and it's got a very wide temperature range - so, say on brevet, you won't find yourself stopping to re-arrange layers every 15 degrees of temperature rise/fall. The PolarMax tights, leg warmers and shorts - with those nice long socks - work perfectly right down to about 15 degrees. Below that, I can start to feel my knees wonder what happened... so I add - yes - another layer. This time, these are over-sized (for the same circulation reasons outlined before) outer-layer tights, cycling specific. This is where cycling-specific marketing goes the other way: opposed to gloves and shoes, there are a lot of good cycling tights available that can go really cold. I bought a modest pair, and use those over the top of the PolarMax thin tights, summer shorts, leg warmers and all. With those layers, I've been down to almost minus-10 F without problems.
Also consider, though expensive and not really a good value from a multi-tasking point of view, winter-specific cycling bib tights are amazing, offering torso protection along with excellent knee and leg warmth. Expensive, and you may only find them usable a few days of the year, however - so, I still recommend spending your money on items you can layer with and use in more than one situation.



ARMS:
Arm warmers are great, but similar to leg warmers there are many thicknesses and styles. There are wool, there are Spandex, Coolmax, PolarMax - there are even summer cooling style arm COVERS (to be clear, specifically NOT "warmers" at all) - so shop carefully. Wool, like anywhere else, works great here also. I find arm warmers as a transitional piece: spring and fall, mainly - not winter. If it's going to be in the 70s in the afternoon, but a ride starts in the high 40s, they're perfectly paired with appropriate core protection. They can be used for layering, however, if you don't want to invest in long-sleeved or winter jerseys.
For the most part, when it's cold and you are planning on riding below freezing, it's time to make some purchases beyond just arm warmers, perhaps. That's, at least, the road I took. Interestingly, you may find your arms working as heat-exchangers - so bulking up your arms may actually prove detrimental, even in single-digits. Protect from the obvious concerns of frostbite by keeping your skin covered - but you may find you don't need to worry too awful much about your arms unless it's raining, where a jacket takes over anyways.



CORE:
Base layers - yes, a repeating take-away theme in this post is layering, layering, layering. Good wicking, good moisture transfer, and versatility. Starting at the core with a good, winter base layer can literally make all the difference. I don't want to push one manufacturer's products too heavily here, but I feel compelled to on the subject of core base layers: the technical expertise Craft has brought to winter sports is legendary: quite literally, the Craft "Pro Warm" base layer is SO effective at retaining heat and wicking moisture, I can wear it by itself down to 35 degrees. This is what finally drove home that layering with summer base layers, a summer jersey and arm warmers - while effective - was adding bulk with little consequence. With a single garment - yes, at a price - I was able to add a ton of warmth, without feeling like I was wearing my entire closet of clothes. Keeping the core warmer meant that I could actually trim back layers at the extremities for any given temperature. Very effective, and worth it. Wool base layers, I can imagine, are just as effective - and will indeed have a wider temperature range than the Craft piece. That's another example of wearing something when I know it's going to STAY cold... because much above 40 degrees, the Craft base layer is too much. With a wool base layer, I doubt the upper limit would come as fast. So, with a good winter base layer, a long sleeve jersey with a little loft to it and an outer barrier I am cozy down to the single digits, without question. I have an acrylic, thin fall/spring jacket that I will sometimes layer under my outer barrier jacket, and that takes me well below zero without issue. Above all else, make sure you aren't losing the battle for warmth by having any exposed skin. One common area, the small of your back: if you do have a nice base layer, tuck it into your shorts. Even if your jersey or jacket rides up on you while you ride, you're still covered.


Long sleeve jerseys: Shop carefully - you'll quickly see that there are "winter" jerseys sold that are simply summer-weight fabric with long sleeves and a slightly higher collar, and then there are actual "winter" jerseys, with real insulation or fleece linings - maybe even technical wind-blocking panels sewn in. For the money, take the time to read up, try them on, feel them. Many of these can't be had for less than $100, normally - so, sometimes your money is spent on a jacket or barrier, below.


Barriers?
Riding with just a base layer and a long-sleeve jersey - maybe a wind vest - is usually comfortable down to freezing, but below that you need to start slowing down the wind that moves over your body. Keeping carefully in mind that you shouldn't close yourself off completely is very important -- moisture transfer and wicking can't occur if air isn't moving around your core, head, arms, etc. Yes, below freezing, you need to add some protection - but be careful, and keep the moisture transfer in motion. "Barrier" might be a misnomer: just outer-layering might be a better term. I have a fleece pullover with a nice, cozy high collar that I'll use. It slows the wind hitting my body, but doesn't block it completely. That's usually good to the 25 degree range. My core stays warm, but I feel a little hint of chilly air moving about me -- not enough to chill me, but enough to let me know that the sweat I'm working up while climbing hills is getting safely channeled away from my core and back to the atmosphere. To block a cold headwind, I'll use a wind vest with an open back. My front stays warm, but moisture still gets pulled away from me. Part of the amazing effectiveness of the Craft base layer is that first step of moisture movement... but you have to keep it going. Jackets are great, but look for ones that have some sort of venting, or breathing capacity. Wind blocking panels up front, and breathable (but still insulating) fabric on the back. You can spend a lot of money here - the outer winter layer is possibly the most expensive piece of cycling clothing you'll ever purchase, so shop carefully. The right fabrics can be surprisingly thin while still being able to take you comfortably down into the single digits. There are a lot to choose from, but there are a lot of "California winter" jackets for sale, too.


More notes on SWEAT, and heat control:

A Les Stroud "Survivorman" quote: in the winter, "if you sweat, you die." Hypothermia. Inability to maintain core temperature. This is not brought on solely by cold, it's brought on by cold and wet. So, yes - as a cyclist, riding, you will sweat... you just need to control how that sweat gets moved away from your core to evaporate safely away. That means, initially, you may be chilly at the onset of a ride -- that's normal: pedal in earnest until you warm up. Barriers are important - but remember to use your pit zips if you have them, move your zipper up and down, and if you have removable sleeves, remove them if it warms up to allow your arms to exchange heat. With proper core layering, your arms can, again, act as heat exchangers - keep them covered, though, not fully exposed... just not covered with jacket material. Think about the problems many rain jackets suffer from: Anyone that's ridden with a PVC rain jacket on knows that the inside can get just as soaked as the outside on a warmish day - because generally that fabric doesn't breathe at all. In the cold, being that wet under your outer jacket is just plain dangerous. Don't get drenched with sweat. Period. Strange as it sounds, and you'll know it when it happens - if you feel yourself getting too hot, regardless of the temperature, unzip your barrier and let the breeze in. Dry out. Consider getting a flat tire at the top of a long climb... if you're sweaty, and you STOP when it's 15 degrees outside, you can be in serious peril if you're not careful. You have to dismount, remove gloves and work with your hands for at least five minutes if you're quick about it. If you are wet while you are losing heat and cooling down, you can become hypothermic in mere minutes.


Artificial heat?
There are many sources for cheap chemical warmers, and some companies that market toward year-round motorcyclists and snowmobilers make things like "electric socks and mitts", but alas I've never tried them. Generally, I have enough worries about headlight and taillight batteries, so I don't know if the thought of juggling and charging heated-sock batteries would be entertained. Further, they are generally cost-prohibitive - and, thinking that snowmobile and motorcycle use probably doesn't involve a lot of natural heat generation (from your body movements), when used in conjunction with pedaling a bicycle they would probably prove too provide too much warmth, even at low settings. Chemical warmers, however, don't require batteries, are stowable easily, and can be integrated in-between layers and in pockets. They are also biodegradable - so your enviromental impact is minimal. Hands and feet may be the best beneficiaries here, but make sure that shoving a chem warmer into your boots won't cause pinch-points or circulation problems - same with gloves. If you sized your outer mitts correctly, you might have room to spare - so when it's really cold, why not? Anything to keep frostbite at bay.


Embrocations, lotions and hydration:
Other off-the-bike considerations for cold weather riding: stay hydrated. It's easy to forget in the winter when you're "not hot" and therefore "not thirsty", but the dry air of winter can wreak havoc on your skin, your lips, your performance and your comfort.
Use lip balm. Cracked and bleeding lips can be a multiplier of discomfort and fatigue on a long ride. Keep your knuckles and fingers supple and protect them with lotion or Vasoline at night. Your hands take a ton of abuse while riding, even if protected underneath gloves - you lose a lot of moisture here. Changing a flat in the cold with dry cracked hands can bring the hardiest of winter cyclists to tears. It's not "girly" to lotion up, gentlemen: there are plenty of men's products and unscented skin ointments available. Protect your skin on AND off the bike during the winter months. Wind burn? A thin smear of Vasoline on your cheeks can help here, but may only be necessary on really long rides, or multi-day winter tours.

There are many warming embrocations on the market these days. They can be expensive, they are a little "boutique-y", and while they can trick your nerves into feeling warm, they don't completely protect your skin. There is nothing macho or "Euro" or "Pro" about riding in freezing weather without leg or knee protection. In a pinch? Maybe... but cover your skin with fabric while riding, not fancy lotions, for best results. Those embrocations can feel AWESOME on sore muscles while chillin' by the fire with a beer after a long, cold ride... but I caution against them during rides, unless you are also wearing the proper clothing. Frostbite isn't fun.

Hydration is MORE important in the winter:
Remember to drink plenty OFF the bike, as well as on. Water is water: fill a bottle with hot water at a stop or control, and drink it before it freezes. Use your back pockets to keep bottles from freezing. Coffee. Awesome. Hot tea. Awesome --- but make sure you are getting plenty of water, and remember that electrolyte loss is still present, even with sub-zero temps.




Stay comfortable, stay warm, stay dry, stay alive!

The goal of all this: starting at the core, proper dressing and layering will keep your internal organs toasty. Excess heat spreads to your limbs and extremities: keep it there with smart layering at your arms, legs, head, feet, hands and you'll survive any winter activity. Keep yourself warm, dry, and if you start having the shivers or things go numb WITHOUT circulation to blame, get back inside, thaw out carefully, drink something warm, rest up. Frostbite takes many toes and fingers with it every year - be smart, and always listen to your body.




EQUIPMENT and BIKE?

The bicycle itself, no worries.
Generally speaking, everything that works at 80 degrees will still work at minus-40.... unless water gets into it and freezes, that is. Again, single-speed bicycles often times have the upper hand here. For good reason, maintenance and shifting isn't a concern - staying warm, and not having any mechanical worries is. SO, before you pull your summer race bike down and hit the cold highways, make some notes and changes if needed.
Realistically, there's no reason your regular road bike wouldn't work just because it's cold.



TIRES
should be more robust this time of year, maybe tire liners coming into rotation, and tube sealant. The cold brings snow and ice, which brings salt and sand to the streets - and sharp glass shards and tiny sharp rocks. Flats can become more common. Watch your line, avoid obstacles safely if you can help it. To the points about sweat and proper dressing - you may think, BAH... I'll sweat all I like, what could happen? Well, as I said before, (and I don't think it can be overstated) you could be all overheated on a long climb, and then get a double blowout. There you are, all sweaty, standing on the side of the road with your gloves off, trying to fix two flats, with wind and temps in the teens. Not a good time, and dangerous. I've had the deep, deep shivers of hypothermia, and it ain't fresh. Avoid that scenario, leave the race tires for summer.

Specifics: Specialized Armadillo Elite tires, Bontrager Hard Case tires, Panaracer tires with ProTex casing, Vittoria Randonneur tires, Schwalbe, Maxxis ReFuse.
Strong, very flat-resistant... light? NO. Who cares? It's winter.

Studded tires:
They are terrific! I used them for the first time last winter, and they let me get away with a LOT, specifically riding on unplowed and untreated trails. If you live in an area that experiences daily freeze/thaw cycles, and you generally see large patches of black ice - usually extending away from road medians towards the curbs - then studded tires can be a blessing.... but, they aren't necessary. If you are living car-free, absolutely worth the money - but riding smartly, carefully, and if you live where they treat the roads, you can get by without them in 90% of situations. If you live where there is a good trail system or where roads become packed, not plowed, they are essential in my opinion.



SEATBAG:
Your kit should evolve, too: carry tubes, not patches. Carry a REAL, USEFUL mini- or frame-pump. Compressed CO2 cartridges don't provide enough pressure or expansion below freezing to fully inflate a tire. Carry a good tire lever, like a Quik-Stik, and know how to use it. Practice fast flat changes to get yourself back on the bike, with warmth left in your body. Be sure to check the tire for the offending sharp... lest you get a repeat flat in a few dozen yards. Examine your gear before each ride - guarantee success.



CHAIN LUBE AND MAINTENANCE
becomes more important this time of year with all the sand and crud on the road. IF you are running expensive gear, it might be a good time to rotate in the "training" wheelset, or junk cassette. Again, single-speed and fixed gear... The first time you spend an hour in the garage cleaning sand out of your SRAM red cassette, you can begin to see why single and fixed are so popular for winter riding. It's the "off" season, right? Build one up... it's more fun than you think, easy, pure, and you don't have to spend three hours in the garage de-crudding your expensive summer stuff when you're done. Must have gears? Internally-geared hubs with up to 14 speeds are available - pick your price. I recommend the Shimano Nexus 8-speed "Red Band" hubs, or the tougher Alfine model. Solid. Proven.
Either way, use a good lube on the chain, and lube often.



FENDERS
are almost essential if you're riding in winter, in my opinion. If it's going to stay below freezing, that's one thing - no worries, generally. But, as often happens here in the midwest, if it rises above freezing during your ride, or the streets have been chemically treated to thaw at lower temps, you can end up with a very cold and wet backside - not to mention a nice salty residue all over your bike. Not cool, and potentially dangerous. Remember: cold is fine. Wet is fine. Cold and wet is not cool. Fenders, if your bike allows, help prevent this.



SO, now that you're dressed and geared up - how do you get the gumption to RIDE in this stuff?

Well, this is probably the best advice I can give - and it comes from the slogan of a (sadly) out-of-business outdoors equipment manufacturer:
Dress quickly - Go outside.
My interpretation of this is simply don't think about it too much. Preparedness is key and, yes, gear makes a difference - otherwise it wouldn't take up so much space here. If the conditions outside give you good, clear roads, don't over-think the temperatures. Suit up quickly - Commit. Have all your stuff ready, dress, open the garage, and get moving. The first three miles are the hardest: sprint. Once your internal furnace gets fired up, you can maintain a nice cushion of warmth that will soon have you unzipping layers and smiling. For brevets, go inside at controls - warm up - keep moving, get rolling again fast. The key is keeping that "I'm working" heat cushion alive, carefully balanced against sweat evaporation, and you'll do fine.


Finally, in closing - I have a lot of answers here that have worked out for ME, and again this is all very personal -- but the one resource I have gone to again and again is IceBike. These guys know COLD. There are a LOT of product reviews and resources, and some links to some good products. Check them out, please:
Some of the info is a few years old at this writing, but it's still very relevant.



- I always welcome questions, and am happy to chat: hit me: commuterDude

Thanks for reading, and get out there!