Bike Commuting in January

Posted by Doug Shidell, December 29th, 2008 1 response

This post is for you IF: 1) You have been riding regularly since mid-October. 2) Bumpy, icy roads don’t intimidate you.  3) Riding in temperatures below 15 degrees F. seems reasonable.  4) You live north of Chicago.

It’s January, despite the date on this posting.  The January thaw came a couple of weeks early this year, turning hard-pack snow on the roads into inches of thick ice. Shoulder snow has melted, sagged into the travel lane, been pummeled into ruts and ridges by auto tires, and re-frozen into an unforgiving, tire grabbing, maze of slick craters and canyons. The temperature is moderate right now, in the mid-twenties, but over the next four to six weeks we can expect average highs in the low to mid teens and a couple of days with highs below zero degrees Fahrenheit. We’ll see snowstorms, some with blizzard like winds, and anyone who works an eight-hour day can expect to ride most or all of one way in the dark.

One more thing: There are no gold medals for riding through the winter. By the end of January even hard-core bike commuters will question their sanity on a sub-zero ride in the dark. Storing your bike for the next 6 weeks may not be a bad idea. By mid-February the sun is high enough to clear the roads and sub-zero nights begin fading into distant memories. And don’t worry about missing winter bike commuting altogether. On average, February highs don’t reach freezing and snowstorms can be expected through the end of March.

Still interested? Then you must already know that January isn’t all as bad as mentioned above. Some days qualify as very pleasant winter weather. It’s also possible to dress and prepare for the tougher conditions. Here’s how:

Clothing: One of the best overviews I’ve seen is on the Civia Cycles website. Using photos and text, the site shows a rider dressed for each ten degree difference in temperatures from 100 degrees F to –20 in dry conditions and from 100 to 40 degrees in wet conditions. Use the guidelines as a starting point, but don’t get hung up on the details. We each have different tolerances for cold hands and feet and overall body temperature.

Basics: Cover exposed skin. Cold wind will find its way into the smallest opening. Wear gloves or mittens with a cuff that comes up past the wrist. Make sure your tights come below the top of your winter boots or booties. Cover your face and seal in the heat around your neck.

Layer for warmth: Start with a thin wool or fleece layer against your body. Cover it with a heavier mid-layer and top it off with a windproof shell. The mid-layer is the variable layer. Although you can wear heavier or lighter layers depending on the weather, I prefer using two mid-weight layers because January temperatures can change by as much as 20 degrees between the beginning and end of a workday.

Cotton Kills: Cotton holds moisture against your skin instead of wicking it away. Wet cotton will make you colder rather than warmer. Don’t put that cotton t-shirt under your high tech super-insulating mid and outer layers.

Circulation Trumps Insulation: If your hands are cramped inside your mittens or you have layers of wool socks jammed into your boots, you will be cold. Insulation is great, but if you need multiple layers, make sure that your mittens and shoes are big enough to handle the bulk without cutting off the blood flow to your extremities. You can improve circulation during your ride by swinging your arms in large aggressive windmills and walking in place (flex your toes with each step) at stop lights. You can walk hills to get the blood flowing to your toes.

Hands: It’s tough to keep your fingers warm. They’re out there in the wind. They aren’t moving, so circulation is poor and if the road conditions are sketchy, your fingers may be wrapped tightly around the handlebars. How do you keep them warm?

1.       Don’t grip metal. Wrap your handlebars with cloth or cork handlebar tape or use a soft rubber handlebar grip. Avoid hard plastics that conduct heat from your hand to the metal bars. If you have bar ends on mountain bike bars, wrap them in handlebar tape. If your hands are large enough, put an extra layer of tape around the bars for added insulation.

2.       Wear mittens instead of gloves. They keep the fingers together. Try a test ride to make sure that you can shift and brake properly with mittens. Three finger “lobster” gloves are warmer than five finger gloves and more flexible than mittens.

3.       Layer for warmth and flexibility. Wear gloves inside mittens, but don’t pack them in so tightly that they reduce the flow of blood to your fingers. The advantage of layering is that you can remove the outer mitten if you need to adjust something (a zipper, the position of your balaclava, etc). The gloves will keep some of the heat around your hands while you make the adjustments.

4.       Protect the wrists. Wrists are narrow and a lot of blood flows through them. Keep them warm by wearing gloves or mittens that reach up to the mid forearm. Pull your sleeves down to the base of your hands to hold in the heat.

5.       Protect the thumbs: Pity the thumb. It’s out there by itself while all of the fingers are cuddled together in the shell of a warm mitten. You can’t do much with the thumb, but simple steps, like keeping it behind the handlebar (out of the wind) can help. Shake down the hands or spin them in huge windmills at each stop to get blood into the thumb. I’ve considered making a “thumb sock” to put over the outside of the thumb while riding but haven’t done it yet.

6.       Chemical hand warmers will throw off heat for 1 to 10 hours depending on the brand and the way you use them. Read the instructions and use them with caution.

7.       Pogies: The ultimate hand warmers, they fit over your handlebars and shifters, then extend up to your forearm. Make sure that you are comfortable riding with your hands in something that is attached to the bike. In case of a fall, you want your hands to come out of the pogie.

Feet: Feet, especially toes, suffer the same chilling experience as fingers. Despite the constant motion of pedaling, toes move very little. They get cold because they don’t have good circulation and they are out there in the cold wind for the entire ride. For toes, circulation trumps insulation just like fingers. Buy boots a size or two larger if you want to add layers of insulating socks.

1.       Clipless pedals make riding easier, but the clip conducts heat away from your foot and the cleats can clog up in the snow. You can put booties over summer weight clipless shoes for added warmth, but they won’t be as effective as a winter boot that is built for warmth from the ground up. In extreme cold, wear wool socks inside an oversized winter cycling boot, then add a bootie over the boot for an extra layer of warmth.

2.       Non-cycling winter boots are very warm, but you will work harder because the boots don’t clip to the pedals. Use wide platform pedals to give your boot plenty of surface to rest on. If you want to secure the boot to the pedal, for more efficiency, add a Power Strap to the pedal and cinch it around your boot. Keep in mind that it will be difficult to pull your foot off the pedal at a stop light or in an emergency. Winter boots are not designed to be seen in traffic, so add reflective tape to the heels and outside panels.

3.       Chemical foot warmers will keep your feet warm for 1 to 10 hours depending on the brand and style. Place the foot warmer as close to the toe box as practical so the heat is near your toes. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.

4. Protect the ankles: Ankles, like wrists, are generally thin and a lot of blood flows through them. Keep them warm with an insulated high top boot. Pull on a pair of booties if you need additional insulation. Generic winter boots usually come well past the ankle and often have enough room to tuck in a layer of two of clothing.

More winter riding tips with the next post.

Filed under: Bikeverywhere News

One Comment to “Bike Commuting in January”

  1. Ted Burrett Says:

    I noticed that this is not the first time you write about the topic. Why have you decided to write about it again?