“Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
– Groucho Marx
One day in early February 2015, I was going about my morning routine when I found myself at the bike clothes closet. I opened up my phone’s weather app to better help me decide what clothing I would need to survive the trek into work when I noticed that this particular day, the temperature was -6 degrees with a wind chill of -22 degrees–my coldest day of biking on record.
The only other time I would have been able to beat that record was the year before in -34 degree wind chill, but my boss explicitly stated I was not allowed to come into work that day if I biked, knowing full well that without a threat on my employment, I absolutely would have.
At -22 wind chill, it does not really matter what you wear. Suited up, strapped up, and pushing off into the bitter cold, my hands were already feeling the sting of the frost through my two layers of gloves. I would say a mile in and the tips of my fingers were numb and my toes were now just lead weights attached to my ankles.
Welcome to winter riding.
When I first moved to Kent, OH, in 2011, I decided two things: 1) that I was not going to pay outrageous amounts of money to park my car in the student commuter lots at the school, and 2) I was not going to buy a second car, because my wife already used ours daily for her work commute. That policy was not a huge deal for half the year because I would just bike to school and be done with it. What to do in the winter time, though?
So I decided early on I was going to try biking in the winter.
Winter biking really is all about the gear. As long as you can keep your body warm, you can pretty much treat the season like any other, minus the added struggle of keeping your water bottle warm enough that it doesn’t freeze but not so warm that it’s gross. That solution still eludes me.
The first issue with winter riding for me is my hands. My hands are perpetually cold. I wear gloves in the house sometimes because my body sucks at circulating blood, apparently. I have verbally chastised my circulatory system to try to guilt it into shape, but to no avail. So when the winter hits, having the proper gloves is key.
As the temperature changes, so does my glove choice. Anywhere between 45 and 30 degrees, I wear a mid-level glove like the Pearl Izumi Elite Softshell.
Once the temperature dips below 30 degrees, I usually wear two pairs of gloves. The under layer are gloves I would normally wear in 50 degree weather, like the Pearl Izumi Elite Gel Gloves, and on top of those, I wear a pair of Pearl Izumi Softshell Lobster gloves. This pair is particularly awesome because the fingers are paired together for more warmth, although using them with drop bars is a slight challenge that takes some getting used to with my retro gear shifters.
On my coldest trips, I have also included hand warmers between the two layers of gloves.
More recently, I have been using Bar Mitts when the temperature dips below 20 degrees. My hands have been delightfully toasty on those particular trips, the reduced wind contact a big key to keeping my hands warm.
Moving up the body, I wear a big generic hoodie with the hood up under a North Face jacket with amazingly massive pockets. The pockets are big enough to hold every pair of gloves on me as well as my numerous lights when locking the bike up at work. I once fit a 32oz. beverage in one pocket and 12-inch sub sandwich in the other, zipped them up, and was on my way. I freaking love those pockets.
Beneath the hood, I wear a Pearl Izumi Balaclava to protect my face, mouth, and nose. Biking in the cold is mostly an exercise in patience when moving the mask onto your nose, off your nose, off your mouth, and back again constantly.
In Winter, I leave for work in the dark and leave for home in the dark. As a result, I almost always opt for a pair of Rivbos changeable lens sunglasses with yellow lens. These lenses cut down on the glare of headlights and provide enough protection from the wind that my eyes don’t dry.
For my feet, I opt for wool socks and regular sneakers because I don’t yet have pedal clips. Last year, I used shoe covers from Pearl Izumi, but they ripped and I have not yet acquired a new pair for this year.
To protect my legs, I usually wear two pairs of pants, opting for a thinner pair of long underwear or tights as the first layer and then a more substantial second layer over those, like fleece lined pants.
Despite all of that, if the weather sucks, you will still be cold. It will hurt when the wind blasts you and it’s 10 degrees out and you still have four miles left and you haven’t felt your fingers for the last two miles. But, then you make it to your destination and warm up for a bit before leaving to go back out in the cold and doing it all over again.
Moral of the story: Your fingers will hate you but you can pull right up next to your work building and don’t have to pay for parking.
As a side note, despite the season, having the proper lights is always important. Right now, I use the SecurityIng Bike Light as my headlight, a rear taillight from Hodgson, and Monkey Electric lights on the front tire.
When it comes to the big trips, I may get another set of headlights and tail lights in case of an issue with the originals because going without lights is not safe or smart. They help you see and help cars see you. The more you can light up like a Christmas tree in July, the better.