tips for riding bikes when it's cold

A few years ago I was sitting around in my sweatpants with a hot cup of coffee in my hands, a lazy Saturday mid-morning unfolding.  The temperature was cold and I had been riding a lot earlier in the week and was resigned to a day off.  But an instinct told me to get out there, and now!  I didn’t have a vision of any particular ride, but I dashed down to the basement and geared up for a cold one, with just a feeling that something special was about to happen.  Looking over my bikes, I settled on the CX, and at the last moment, I slapped some booties over my shoes, too.  The air seemed dry enough, but who knows?  Well, I guess my body did, because as I rolled across town, all my senses told me it was about to snow, at which point I steered toward Salem Lake.  The fat-bellied, mauve colored clouds hanging low across the gray sky, a certain mix of crispness and moisture in the air, and that tell-tale smell.  I knew that if I timed it right, this was going to be a special ride.  

mountain bike in the snow old salemI was halfway to the lake when the snow began falling, not as it often does with a blitz of pellets but with gentle flakes instead, and by the time I hit dirt, the entire lake trail was whited-over.  Rounding the north side of the lake, my tires cut a dark path through the snow, and by the time I made it to the south side, I was gliding across powder:  A white-velvet wonderland of a ride.  I heard the hush of tires, the muted sounds of the chain, the whisper of snow falling all around.  My own breathing somehow the loudest thing around.  The woods around the lake were flocked, a rime of frost was edging the water, and I was all alone, enveloped in the scene.

I think about that ride a lot, since it captures why I love riding in the first place, and reminds me that cycling is about contingent joy.  In the winter, that contingency is obvious, as it’s often cold or wet, but if you accept that you will be uncomfortable and that you might even suffer—that this is the necessary contingency—the joys of riding are easily achieved.  Not every ride will involve a perfect snowstorm, so I often build in some dependable pleasure.  I might pack a couple of oatmeal cookies and ride to a favorite spot to eat them—Bailey Park, lately.  Coffee rides are reliable, and beer or whiskey rides at night-time are the best (and with bars in close proximity in Winston-Salem, you can hit several on a single outing!).  I might even make the ride something like an exploration.  What better way to scout out the many Hispanic tiendas and taco stands on the east side of town than riding slowly past and letting the smell of fresh tortillas guide you?  

The joys are plentiful, and with a little care, the suffering can be mitigated.  First off, cultivate your instincts about the weather and trust them.  Never mind what weather sites say (that day there was only a 20% chance of snow), if you’ve lived here for a couple of years, you can sense what’s coming.  With my snow-ride, my instinct (the body’s knowledge before consciousness filters it into language) anticipated snow, but all too often I’ve ignored the reverse—relying on a weather forecast of rain or wind or whatever, remaining indoors and off the bike, when my instincts told me it would be ok.  

When the temperature hovers around freezing, I have about an hour of riding before I become a teeth-chattering wreck.  Mid-way through my snowy lake lap I was contemplating a second go-around, but by the time I made it to the parking lot, my feet were turning numb and my hands were stinging and I knew that I was racing frostbite home.   The only question was one of ratios:  would the fleeting joy of those few miles make up for the pain awaiting me as I flogged myself home?  Just barely.  First, my fingers started to burn, and then they began to lock up as moisture made it through my gloves (even though they were fancy!).  The feet went next, and then the legs felt like they were attached to ice-bergs.  My cadence slowed to a crawl as I fought my way up through the hills of the West End and Buena Vista back home, my minds-eye fixed on a hot shower and a mug of tea.  An hour and a half ride in the snow was about a half hour too long.  If it’s super cold or a little wet, keep it short—you’d rather wish you’d ridden longer than wish you hadn’t headed out at all.

cold weather bike riding gearAbout gear, I’ve settled on a more-is-more policy, and I don’t worry too much about quality. I have some fancy gear—gloves, a balaclava—and I have some low-rent gear—duck-taped ten-year old booties, and some polyester “base layers” from Target.  It all works more or less the same, and the important thing is to have a little something for every part of your body.   I don’t ride fast in the winter, so all the fancy-tech gear with special zippers and breathable fabrics is overkill for me.  On the other hand, good gear often lasts a long time.  I’ve had the same jacket for about ten years and it remains in great shape, and though I probably paid a hefty sum for it, its value has certainly increased over time.  It makes me happy to wear it, and that’s the point:  your gear should work for you, and if you don’t have the budget for something technical, a run to Target or a roll of duck-tape will suffice.

Every single winter ride is a victory over common sense, and leap of faith in unexpected pleasures, and a belief in a version of your playful, active, spontaneous self that might otherwise slowly burrow into a hibernating cave for the winter.  What else are you going to do if you’re not riding?  Eat and drink all winter?  Ah, but in the winter you can do that while you ride . . .

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