Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Winter Riding Tips

There are real winter riders out there, but I’m not one of them. I will definitely ride in any month, but if the snow is good I’ll be on Nordic skis. So I haven’t delved into the realm of studded tires or traffic techniques for snowy days.

When I lived in Annapolis, where cross-country skiing was much rarer than weather too bad for riding, I did commute in the snow a few times. Eventually I decided it wasn’t worth antagonizing the motoring public for marginal gains. I could skip the day or two the roads were slick. Bike commuting is not practical for many people in the warm months, and for even fewer people in the winter. I will only ride in winter when I can function efficiently in traffic.

That said, I have gleaned a few techniques, tips and tricks.

First off, the fixed-gear bike is your best friend. Cheap to build, easy to maintain, the fixed-gear deals best with slick roads and poor braking conditions.

Direct drive means you can’t coast. Your control is better if you pedal continuously anyway. With direct drive you can keep a constant, steady pressure on the pedals. Vary it slightly for fine-tuned speed control. Reinforce your brake with a little resistance-pedaling to slow down quickly under optimum control.

In cold conditions the fixed-gear keeps your muscles moving. It also keeps you from getting too frisky, pushing big gears or descending too fast through frosty air. I’ve been happy for decades with a 63-inch gear for cruising and most climbing, with a 73.5 as the flip-side gear for long descents, tailwinds, or increasingly rare days of extraordinary energy.

Tape over the front vents on your helmet. Leave the rear vents open to let moist, warm air escape. I use a very light helmet liner in cool to cold conditions, with little biscuit earmuffs for temperatures below freezing. These are sold in bike shops under the Pedro’s brand, and in ski shops as Swix. You probably don’t need as much hat as you think you do.

Keep your legs warm. It should be obvious, but I’ve seen too many riders over the years, legs boiled-lobster red, maybe even blotched with white, who insist on riding in shorts in the cold. Because they don’t feel the discomforts that day, the next day or even within a few weeks, they discount the fact that their bad habit will catch up with them later in life.

Warm legs help you keep warm feet.

For ultra-warm feet in the coldest conditions, put on a micro-thin liner sock. Cover this with a plastic bag. Put your outer sock over the bag. Put on your shoe. Use an insulated shoe cover on top of everything. The plastic bag keeps your unavoidable moisture from working its way all the way out through your insulators to chill you. Just make sure your winter riding shoes allow room for reasonable socks.

I prefer to wear extra fuzzy layers rather than put on a shell jacket. Even a breathable wind breaker will trap moisture which will eventually chill you in winter conditions. Extra fuzzy layers transport moisture outward and slow the inward flow of cold air toward your skin. Body moisture will condense whether you are wearing a shell or not. Without a shell, you at least have a chance that it will reach the surface, where you can brush it away.

I’ve been pretty happy with a Craft Shift jacket with Gore Windstopper in the front of the body and sleeves, but I do note that it traps more moisture than the 20-year-old Italian wool jacket it replaced. The Craft jacket has a nice rear pocket, which is handy in winter when your jersey pockets may be buried under a couple of layers.

Speaking of layers, I layer everything. Rather than have a pair of heavy, wind-front tights, I put long johns under my regular tights, and then leg warmers over them. This uses three pieces I already have. It saves the expense of one limited-use piece. More dedicated winter riders in more consistently wintry conditions may feel they get good value out of the heavier winter tights. It’s your call.

My favorite gloves are North Face Windstopper fleece gloves. They seem to work in a wide range. I can stick liner gloves under them if I need more protection. On really cold days I stuff a pair of mountaineering shell mittens in a pocket as last-ditch emergency cover. On the fixed gear I don’t have to worry about operating shifters or brakes.

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