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Winter Riding 101   Leave a comment

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Winter Riding 101

Happy New Year from Bicycle World.  So far we’ve had a relatively mild winter, but as we know there are no weather guarantees here in the Northeast, so in this edition we’ll talk about winter.  Believe it or not, you can actually ride year round in almost any weather, if you’re properly prepared for it.  More important, by riding in the winter, you’ll be ahead of the curve from a fitness perspective when spring arrives.

To many, the idea of training in the winter means tortuous hours stuck in a spare room grinding away on an indoor trainer.  While indoor trainers are effective, it can be mentally difficult to ride indoors where the view never changes.  On the other hand, indoor trainers are great for structured training, and you can get a very effective workout in a shorter amount of time if you plan your workouts properly.  Best of all, you’ll never have an interval interrupted by traffic or a red light when you’re on your trainer.  In addition to riding, winter is a great time to cross train.  Hiking, cross country skiing, shoe shoeing, and ice skating are all complimentary activities that can help keep you in good cycling shape over the winter.  Eric Heiden, the 5-time gold medalist for speed skating in the 1980 Winter Olympics used cycling to cross train for skating, and eventually went on to ride alongside Greg LeMond as a professional cyclist on team 7-Eleven in the 1986 Tour de France.

Still, when the weather cooperates, it can be both mentally and physically rewarding to get outside and ride.  Before you do, you need to make sure that you’ve got the right attitude, clothing, skills, and equipment.  Riding in winter is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, and once you’ve overcome the mental aspects, the rest is relatively easy.  Finally, keep in mind that everybody reacts to colder weather differently.  What works for one person might not work for somebody else, so be ready to adapt our recommendations to your own situation and tolerance for cold weather.

The first and most obvious obstacle is overcoming the cold and staying warm and dry on the bike.  More specifically, winter riding means controlling the relationship between the cold outside air and the heat you generate on the bike, while simultaneously staying dry.  Before we dig into specific clothing, it’s important to understand this relationship between temperature and moisture.  When you work hard, you generate heat.  In order to regulate temperature, your body produces sweat which will cool you as it evaporates.  If, however, you cool off before the sweat evaporates, you’ll be cool and wet, and the moisture will rob you of heat and you can become dangerously cold.  Understanding this relationship means that it pays to anticipate the road ahead and prepare for it.  Prior to going into a long climb where effort will peak and speed will drop, you are likely to get warm and sweaty, so before the climb begins, you need to have a way to ventilate the excess heat and moisture.  This can be as easy as unzipping your jersey or jacket.  Once you reach the top of the climb, you need to anticipate that an increase in speed and lower level of exertion will allow your body to cool off, so you need to be prepared to zip back up and trap the heat that you’ve generated.   If it’s wet outside, you have the added challenge of keeping the outside moisture from penetrating your clothing, while still venting heat and moisture from the inside.

Dressing for the cold takes a little extra effort, but isn’t that hard to do if you keep the heat and moisture management principles in mind.  Start with classic layering:  you’ll want outer layers that block the wind and rain, allowing you stay warm.  Next, insulating layers that trap warm air close to your body, should be used, and wicking materials in contact with your skin transport moisture away from your skin to keep you warm.  Finally the ability to adjust airflow across these layers is important.  The typical advice for winter riding is to start every ride feeling a little bit cold since riding will warm you up.

Some of the most versatile winter riding garments include arm warmers, leg/knee warmers, and vests.  Arm warmers can add an extra layer of insulation to your arms, but can easily be removed if you get too warm.  Knee and leg warmers can allow you to ride with your favorite shorts, but keep your legs protected.  Like arm warmers, they can be removed if you get too warm.  Vests do a great job of keeping your core warm by blocking wind and moisture.  In fact, one of the most versatile pieces of cycling apparel is a convertible jacket/vest that can be worn as a regular jacket, or as a vest with the arms removed.  Making an occasional extra stop to adjust these layers is worth the effort and will allow you to stay comfortable longer.  It takes some experimentation to find out what works for you.  A great piece of advice is to keep a log that records what the conditions were when you rode, what you wore, and how it performed.  In doing so, you can easily reference what works best for you under any weather conditions.

If you can’t invest in a full complement of winter riding gear all at once, you may have other options available to you.  Cold weather leggings for running or cross country skiing can be pressed into service on the bike, and work great.  Ski gloves, or even ergonomic work gloves, can be used to keep your hands warm if cycling-specific gloves aren’t an option.  If you don’t have winter shoe covers or riding boots, some strategically placed duct tape on the vents of your shoes, combined with some quality wool socks can keep your feet from freezing.  For insulating layers, practically any fleece or wool layers can keep you warm.  Finally, avoid cotton at all costs.  There’s a saying among backcountry enthusiasts that “cotton kills” because it is a poor insulator and retains water.  A cotton t-shirt will get wet quickly and stay wet for a long time without adding any insulation benefits.

Now that you’re dressed to ride, what can you expect on the roads?  When it’s cold off, there are fewer people out, so traffic tends to be lighter.  With no leaves on trees, you can see what’s coming around bends in the road.  At the same time, hazards like ice, darkness, and low sun angles need to be considered.  It’s a simple fact of physics that water freezes at 32 degrees.  If you find yourself out riding in sub-freezing temperatures, you need to be vigilant about the road ahead.  It’s better to slow down and proceed through potentially slippery areas carefully than to risk it and wipe out, even if it means getting off the bike to negotiate an icy area.  Even if it’s above freezing, you need to look for wet areas where ice may not have fully melted, or shady areas where ice is protected from the sun.  Just because it’s 40 degrees out doesn’t mean that the ground has warmed up to the ambient temperature, and ice may be present.

In winter, days are shorter, and the likelihood of getting caught out after dark increases.  With this in mind, it’s important to have access to lighting, especially if you’re planning a late afternoon ride.  Finally, glare from the sun can actually be more hazardous in winter than summer.  Since the sun angle is lower in the sky, the sun is more likely to be in your eyes at some point, even in the middle of the day.  Trees that have lost their leaves block less of the sun, and if there’s snow on the ground, it can further increase glare.  With all this in mind, it’s not only important for a rider to wear appropriate eye protection, but also to be aware that drivers are more likely to have the sun in their eyes, and not see a cyclist.  As a general rule of thumb, if you’re riding into the sun (eastward in the morning, westward in the afternoon) the same sun glare that’s interfering with your vision will also be hindering the vision of drivers.  If you add in the increase of road grime that’s likely to accumulate on car windshields further increasing glare, selecting routes that minimize oncoming sun glare into consideration is a good idea.

If you dress appropriately and are prepared for potential obstacles, riding in the winter can be a great way to get outdoors, get some exercise, and have fun.  It would be a pity, then, to have your bike break down and prevent you from riding.  The good news is that bikes are durable, and aren’t affected by temperature or moisture.  The winter, however, means salt on the roads.  Road salt loves to eat metal, and splashing through a salty puddle is a great way to get salt into the metal parts of your bike.  Even on dry days, fine salt dust can work its way into your chain and other components and quickly turn them into a rusty mess.  If you’re going to ride in the winter, it’s a good idea to allocate a little extra time after every ride to rinse your bike off and perform some basic maintenance.  If you can get any salt residue off your bike before you store it and lubricate moving parts, you’ll save yourself a headache later.

With this year’s mild winter, there have been plenty of opportunities to get out and ride.  Even if that trend doesn’t continue, by planning accordingly, you can still get out and enjoy your bike the on the next sunny winter day that comes along.

Before I wind up this edition of the blog, I wanted to mention that Bicycle World will be hosting bike maintenance and repair classes on Saturday January 26th and Saturday February 23rd.  Both classes are free, and you’ll learn the basics involved in keeping your bike on the road.  Call the shop at 914-666-4044 to reserve your spot.  While you’re there, you can check out the newly renovated shop area.

Until next time, thanks for reading the Bicycle World Blog.  Feel free to throw us your questions and comments, and we’ll include them in future postings.  Finally, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter, subscribe to the blog for updates, and visit our website (www.bicycleworldny.com) for updates on what’s happening.

Happy winter riding!

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