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Winter Cycling

 

As a web site that advocates cycling as a normal means of transportation, we would be remiss if we ignored the fact that in the major part of North America there is this little inconvenience called WINTER

The vast majority of cyclists hang up their steeds as soon as it turns cold enough that shorts are uncomfortably cool. Most of the remaining put the bike on hooks in the garage after a month or so of riding in long tights.  The first hint of frost marks the end of the cycling "season".

Why does bicycling have a "season"?   Sports have seasons.  Is bicycling only a "sport"?

Sadly this is how many people view cycling, as just a sport.  But we believe that the bicycle is the most appropriate vehicle for the vast majority of transportation needs of the average person.  From the vantage point of cost, pollution, health, and enjoyability, the bike wins hands down over private automobiles and public transportation.

Then Comes Winter!

Bad enough that "winter" in southern California discourages most sunny weather cyclists, how could one possibly manage winter in a northern city, let alone such places as Canada, and (shudder) Alaska?

Well, guess what folks; Winter Cycling is not only practical but growing in popularity, a great deal of fun as well.

After a couple of years of cycling all winter, I stumbled onto the fact that there were a few other folks doing the same thing when I read a post in a news group that someone had started a winter cycling mailing list called "ICEBIKE".  The term was actually invented by the list manager (Joe Clark of Montreal Canada), and it came to signify all things about Winter Cycling.  I've been doing it for 6 years now and each year I find myself looking forward to winter and the winter cycling opportunity.  Did I mention I live in Alaska?

Isn't That Cold and Dangerous?

First, let me dispel some myths commonly held as truths by those who have never tried to ride a bike on ice and snow:

It's Not Unpleasant. 

The same person who will ask you if you're crazy (a common theme) if you arrive somewhere on a bicycle on a snowy winter day will be just itching to get their ski gear out and head for the mountain.  Per hour spent, skiing must be hundreds of times more dangerous than winter cycling.

Winter riding is a great form of exercise, and very enjoyable.  The air is crisp and clear (except when it is snowing and everything is soft and rounded).  The countryside is white and pure, and even SUV drivers give you wide clearance.

It's Not Cold.

Contrary to your expectations, the biggest problem with most winter cycling is not keeping warm.  The hard part is keeping cool enough.  Cycling in any weather generates a great deal of excess heat.  The first mistake of those new to "ICEBIKING" is to dress too warmly.

Dressing so as to get rid of excess heat and sweat is "The" principal learning curve to master for enjoyable winter cycling.  It took me a year, but that was before the advent of web sites like ICEBIKE where this information is consolidated.

It is only when temperatures dip to below Zero (F), (-20C) that being warm enough requires some planning.  Even then, most winter cyclists keep right on riding until -20F and some to -40F.  I will address this below.

It's Not Dangerous

Many folks expect winter cycling to be fraught with peril.  After all, they know how hard it is to control their car on icy roads.  Yes, slipping and crashing on ice can happen, but you learn to handle your bike so as not to induce sliding, and  Studded bike tires provide awesome traction.

There are the occasional crashes but because of extra clothing and a slippery surface to land on, these usually result in less injury than would be sustained by a bare limbed cyclist on dry pavement. Road rash is just about unheard of.

In the winter of 98/99 the ICEBIKE site conducted a survey of winter cyclists with an automated web based survey instrument.  One of the questions asked about the worst accident that respondents had experienced while cycling in winter. The results were surprising.

Only slightly over 4 percent had ever required medical attention for a winter cycling accident. Fully 70% had never been injured at all!  Not so much as a sprain.

What Was Your Worst Winter Cycling Accident ?

None 21%
Minor falls - no injury 50%
Sprains, bruises, minor frostbite -no medical attention 21%
Sprains, broken bones, - needing medical attention 4%
Injury requiring Hospitalization < 1%

The ICEBIKE Site continues:

"Yet this is not to say that winter cycling is uneventful. Another 70% did have some uncontrolled collisions with the ground, or other injuries, but nothing requiring medical attention."

Is it Practical?

After 6 years of daily commuting to work on a bicycle year round I have to admit it is far more practical than even I would have thought.  At first I was just doing it for the exercise.  But then it became obvious to me that I was having an easier time getting around than most of the drivers on days when it was really slippery. 

Further, drivers always arrive at work complaining how cold it was.  I would arrive warm and awake. 

Drivers would rush out of work early to start their cars so they could ride home in a warm vehicle.  They would then let them idle for anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.  I never idled my bike.  It was always warm enough for the ride home.

Drivers would get stuck in snow.  (I used to stop and help, now I just ride by and wave). 

Most of all it is just plain enjoyable.  The air is fresh and clear, it is usually dryer in the dead of winter which keeps your bike cleaner.  Riding in falling snow is quiet and peaceful. Making the first track on a road in the morning is fun.  Wondering who made the other tracks in the evening keeps you guessing.

Watching the avalanche of snow tumbling from your brake shoes as you charge through 6 inches of power is fascinating.  Powder is easy to ride in and quite fun.

Pushing your way through 6 inches of heavy wet snow is some of the most tiring bicycling you will ever do.  It's like climbing very steep hills.  It is exhausting, and it always leaves you with a silly grin on your face because you never knew working that hard could be that much fun!

There are places you could never go in summer.  How about a ride across the lake?  

How to Get Started

To get started in winter cycling the best advice from members of the ICEBIKE Mailing List is to never stop riding in the fall.  Simply extend your riding season one day at a time into the fall, and then into the winter.  Daily riding is best.  Commuting is an excellent way to get into ICEBIKING. 

Each day, simply look at the weather forecast and remember yesterday's ride.  Were you too warm?  Did you get wet?  Were your ears cold?  Is it going to be colder today?  Will it rain?

With the answers to these questions, make minor adjustments to your cycling wear. Add a scull cap, stocking hat, or helmet liner.  Ski gloves work just fine. Winter cycling gloves are hard to find, but "lobster claw" type mittens by several companies are available and quite warm.

Clothing

Winter tights are an excellent choice, because you will find that regular pants are difficult to ride in and once wet they are very cold.   Good winter tights are hard to fine, but they are becoming more available as the popularity of winter cycling grows.  Long johns made of Capilene (tm) are great at extending the comfort range of tights another 10 degrees colder.  The ICEBIKE site rates various types of tights.

Breathable fabrics are key here.  The newer Polartec (and similar) fabrics are really great for high-exercise activities like winter cycling. You can work hard, but still vent most of the moisture.  It's not unusual to be out on a cold crisp day working hard while riding across a frozen lake and see frost forming on your jacket from all the vented moisture.

Shoes are the single biggest problem area.  There are only a couple brands of cycling shoes that are warm enough for real winter use.  These are very expensive, about $200. 

Therefore many winter cyclists switch to toe clips and straps even if their summer bike is equipped with Clipless pedals.  There are all sorts of other combinations of overbooties, neoprene underbooties, plastic bags and what not that cyclists try in order to compensate for the miserable suitability of summer cycling shoes for winter use.  My advice is to either spend the money and get the expensive "Lake" brand winter cycling boots which are compatible with Clipless pedals or just switch to clips and straps and use winter or hiking boots.  The rest of the paraphernalia of booties just does not work for anything but an occasional weekend ride.

Equipment

If winter in your locale is simply cold rain, fenders and rain gear is probably all you will need.

On the other hand, if snow and ice are to be expected, you may want to look into some studded tires.  While expensive, these do last 3 to 6 winters.  These make a big difference on icy roads, or hard packed snow.  I cycled a couple winters without them.  It is do-able, no question.  I don't remember any significant crashes from those years.  But my confidence level is higher with studs than without.

Lights are another key item because darkness comes early.  You will find both your morning and evening commute are in darkness in late December and January.  Even day outings can run into evening hours, especially when the sun sets, and "evening" begins at 3:30 in the afternoon as it does for me here in Alaska.  Long running lights front and back are a must.

A second bike is another good choice.  Having one bike equipped with studded tires and another equipped for wet weather is very useful in my area, as our winter weather is unpredictable.  I don't like to run my studded tires on bare pavement, and switch to the rain bike when it gets above freezing.

Expectations

Expect to be treated better by motorists in winter than in summer.  If motorists don't see that painted bike lane they give you wider clearance than if they do see it, even if you ride in the same position.  Motorists also seldom honk at you in winter.

Expect to take the lane more often, as snow plows often dump plow spoil at the edge of the road making it unridable. 

Expect to be somewhat of a loner, a member of a small elite set of cyclists that ride in winter.

Expect to "wimp out" on the coldest days of your first winter.  That's ok, it takes a while to figure out what works in the cold, and to accumulate all the proper cold weather gear that is still breathable.

Expect everyone you know to believe you are crazy for the full duration of your first winter.  After the first year, they grow to accept the fact that you probably are not going to get killed anytime soon.

Expect to find winter cycling far more enjoyable than you ever imagined.  Expect to find yourself sneaking out of work on your lunch break to take a ride on a sunny winter day.

Expect a great deal of satisfaction upon the arrival of spring after your first year of ICEBIKING.  It is a good feeling to know that you were able to take what winter dished out and you will be entering spring in better shape than any of the "seasonal" bikers

Expect to have plenty of opportunity to say to your friends, after they "ding" their precious fenders slipping around on icy roads, "Now maybe you will put that silly thing away and get on a bike where you belong".  ;-)

 

By John Andersen

Key Winter Cycling Web Sites

ICEBIKE

 

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08/16/11
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