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:

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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!


philosoraptor said...

This is a wonderful resource for everyone to add to their bookmarks. Thanks!

I don't know what your views are of chemical warmers, but I use the toe and hand warmers when the temperatures are at or below freezing. They last for several hours, are biodegradable, and also allow you to "get by" with one less layer on your feet and/or hands than you might otherwise need.

dmar836 said...

Great post. Thanks a lot!

Unknown said...

Great post. Thank you!

My wife & I were in Olathe at Christmas visiting relatives. We wondered if you were getting around during the blizzard. What a mess...

Robin B said...

Wow, thanks! I see I need to work on my gear a bit, so I can keep riding this winter in <25*F. Thanks for all the insight.