By Dan Pugatch
Every December a huge number of cyclists hang up their helmets and go back to public transportation and automobiles to get around. The bundled up souls who remain in the saddle are the few, the proud, the “lifers.” Those brave souls who helm their bicycles right through the snow for exercise, enjoyment, and utility.
I’m a lifer. But to set the record straight, we lifers don’t sneer over our handlebars at those of you waiting at bus stops with messenger bags hanging from your shoulders and cycling caps poking out from under your hoodies. We still know you are one of us. Cyclists of all kinds are our sacred brethren. In fact, many times I have envied you, soon to be on a warm bus while I pedal further into subfreezing temperatures, my fingers and toes numb from the wind chill and my torso soaked in sweat from wearing too many layers. And in fact, I wasn’t always this way. Mastering winter cycling does not just happen overnight. It takes some trial and error in most cases.
My first attempt at riding all winter long was when I was fresh out of college. I was living in New Bedford, Mass. and looking to get back into cycling after an eight-year hiatus. After some intense online research I discovered the now omnipresent fixed gear’s benefits for training and price, and decided to buy myself one. Then I layered myself head to toe in “poly” materials that were windproof and wicked moisture to the point where my roommates and neighbors thought I was crazy. Kids in the neighborhood even asked me if I was training for the Olympics. But all that gear didn’t prepare me for the valuable lesson that icy train tracks and bicycles don’t mix. After a stint in the emergency room my arm and leg were in braces and my brand new cycling pants, jersey, jacket, gloves–all gifts from my grandparents the day before—were shredded from road rash. Heavily discouraged, I stuck to the fair weather cycling and spent the winter months starring out the window wishing I was pedaling.
Eventually I moved up to Somerville, but continued to drive my car to work in Concord everyday. Riding my fixed gear was something I did for fun every night from midnight to about 2 a.m. And as it got colder that year, I didn’t want to give it up. Greater Boston’s strong bicycle community made it a bit easier to endure the winter riding, particularly with the group rides. I actually found myself enjoying riding in the snow days more than the rest of winter, for it is always warmer out when snowing as opposed to some of the windier days or worse, freezing rain. My skinny road tires 700c x 23 really cut through the powder. I even started a joke bicycle gang, the Rusty Cogs, our motto “we only ride in the rain.”
By March, I made up my mind to sell my car and ride my bicycle 365 days a year. I was loving it so much, I even took a job as a bike messenger.
That next winter, riding for work five days a week, was when I really learned everything about making winter riding doable, though it was still a love-hate relationship. It was one of the worst winters in a decade for cold temperatures and the amount of rain and snow. A state police officer even pulled me over in a blizzard to tell me that I am the dictionary definition of dedication. Here are the nuggets of wisdom I picked up:
Never let cotton touch your skin – wet=cold, poly materials will wick away moisture leaving you warmer, and wool, nature’s technical material is the only thing that can keep you warm when wet. I only wear 100% wool socks, long underwear, and bike jerseys/sweaters during the winter.
A light windproof jacket is a thousand times better than a heavy insulated one – you will always start your ride cold and end it hot and sweaty, so layers are your friend. A simple lightweight windproof shell will keep you warm as long as you have a nice sweater and long underwear on as well.
Ski goggles are not just for the slopes — the cold temperatures and increased wind are onions to your eyes. Keeping you from unintentional crying while you ride and doubling as the well needed sunglasses when lack of foliage allows more sun glare.
Fuel – the winter is not a time to skimp on a full breakfast, I find in these colder days I eat at least twice as much food all day long, and my breakfasts are comparable to Thanksgiving feasts. Protein is your friend, whereas cereal will just leave you empty. My favorite breakfasts in the winter include omelets, veggies with brown rice, oatmeal, and of course coffee and hot chocolate. Just because it is out of season, don’t skimp on the fruit, the sugar will help your morning commute and keep you nourished until lunch break. Oranges, apples, and bananas all fit nicely in jackets and jersey pockets.
There are many debates over the proper winter bicycle, some swear by the skinny tire fixed gear, while others whom scoff at commuting on knobby tire mountain bicycles in the summer turn the cheek and hop on these heavy wide tire behemoths come snowfall. What works best for you is really your choice. You know best what style handlebars is most comfortable for you, or if speed or utility is more important.
From my experience, the skinny tire fixed gear used worked the best for me. I like to be fast and be in control. But due to a knee injury I can no longer ride fixed and need to be able to coast. In the past I have ridden a heavy clunker of a three speed and would fish tail and wipe out every time I took a left hand turn at an intersection. I have also rode an even heavier and slower mountain bike, which did well on the roads but the increased the time on my commute enough to make me consider public transportation.
This year I am riding a light weight three speed I built on a road frame with skinny 700c x 28 tires, fat for road riders, skinny for commuters a perfect compromise. There are some also who swear by studded tires that are only effective on ice, but they don’t work as well at all on days with clear roads.
To sum it up, winter cycling is a lot easier if you eat well, dress well, and give yourself extra time (10-15 minutes) for road hazards. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. So drink a pint or two of hot chocolate, put on that ugly sweater some aunt knitted for you and I will see you out there. And if it’s blizzarding out, way below zero, or raining cats and dogs, and you decide to take public transportation, say good morning to the guy in the cycling cap sitting next to you reading that book, it very well might be me.