Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Secrets of winter riding, Part 2 – Control

There are only two tricks to winter riding: Don’t freeze and don’t fall. In Part 1 I explained how to keep from freezing; now for some tips on how to stay upright.

First, however, one observation. If you can find clothing that suits you, you very well may become indifferent to cold. By contrast you will – or should – never become indifferent to snow. It’s possible to ride in the stuff, regularly and successfully, but it’s not ever as safe or as easy as riding on bare pavement. If you want to bike to work over snowy roads or trails, these suggestions will help. But if after trying it a few times you’re still uncomfortable, then don’t do it – wait for the plows to come through!

Moving along. The problem with snow is not so much that it’s slippery but that it’s uneven. Ruts, ridges and hard-packed clumps will all push you off a straight line. As you ride through these spots, your handlebars will twist in your hands, your front wheel will begin to slide, and it’ll feel like you’re going to topple over for sure. But remember Newton. Your bike wants to keep going in the direction that it’s been going; that is, in a straight line. And a wheel wants to spin, not burrow! As soon as your wheel clears the immediate obstacle, it’ll pop back straight and you can keep right on riding. Your aim is simply to allow that happen.

And therein is the essential trick to riding in snow: Let your bike work it out for itself. Loosen your grip. Let the handlebars wobble and twist. Keep pedaling, evenly and steadily, when you feel the front wheel begin to lose its purchase. It feels wrong, but it works out right! (Uh, most of the time – as I said, riding in snow is not as safe as riding on bare pavement.) The feeling of nearly losing control is really disconcerting and it’s hard to suppress the urge to wrestle the bike back into a straight line. But if you fight, you will almost always overcorrect, and wind up on the ground more often than if you just let everything go.

This is one of those lessons that, I think, is best learned through experience. The next snow day that comes along, take an hour or 90 minutes, find a stretch of road that’s not too heavily travelled, and just ride around. Relax your hands, arms and shoulders. Steer in and out of tire tracks, try turning a little harder than seems prudent. Accept that you will fall, and don’t try to stop your bike if it seems to be heading that way. Weirdly, once you accept that you are going to fall, you won’t (as often). And, at 8 mph and onto snow, it’s probably not going to hurt if you do go down. The first time I rode in deepish snow (6-7 inches, on precisely one of these “who cares” excursions), I fell, harmlessly,10 times in 90 minutes before I learned to trust the bike, and its inertia.

Practice helps. The more you ride in the snow, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. (And conversely, less comfortable when you don’t – the first snowy day of each year invariably presents a challenging commute!) Also bear in mind that, staying upright usually comes at the expense of a clean, straight riding line – a sort of Uncertainty Principle for bike riders. So in snow, don’t cut things as closely as you might otherwise, and be particularly vigilant for passing cars.

Finally. All of the foregoing pertains only to snow. None of it works on ice, where you can find yourself on the ground before you can even think the word “Zen”. On 28 degree mornings following a freezing rain, I walk to the Metro – or stay home along with everyone else whose businesses have closed for the day. If you do find yourself on a patch of ice (it happens!), steer as straight and steady a course as you can until you’ve cleared it. Don’t turn, don’t brake, don’t accelerate. Maybe don’t even breathe. And during those tense few moments, relax yourself by remembering that if you fall on ice, you leave a whole lot less of yourself on the ground than if you’d fallen on asphalt!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Secrets of winter riding, Part 1 – Clothing

There are only two things to sort out about winter riding: Clothing and control. First I’ll talk about clothing. If you dress right, it’s easy to stay warm, even comfortable, in temperatures down into the teens.

Most people overdress for winter riding, outfitting themselves like Admiral Peary embarking on a North Pole expedition. The main difference between you and Peary is that he spent his day standing stock still on the hind end of a dogsled, whereas you are exercising, and generating heat. (Another difference is that you can’t simply claim to have actually made it to the office and expect people believe you for the better part of a century.) Your pedalling can add 20 to 30 degrees to the perceived temperature, and if you’ve dressed according only to the thermometer, you’ll quickly overheat. So on your torso and legs, you need to underdress a bit. My default outfit for temperatures between about 23 and 35 degrees is two long sleeve woolen layers (at least one a turtleneck), topped by a medium weight (sort of “heavy windbreaker”), lightly water-repellent cycling jacket. On my legs I wear, over standard cycling shorts, a set of winter stretch cycling tights. Set up in that fashion I may be chilly for the first five or eight minutes but by the 10th I’m usually sweating.

(I swear by a Devold woolen zippered base layer I bought from Rivendell Bicycles a few years back. Rivendell no longer sells that brand and the closest thing I can find nowadays on the Devold website are its “Multisport” zip undershirts. Rivendell is now selling a similar high-neck zippered undershirt from New Zealand, which I’m sure is superb.)

The principle of underdressing does not apply to your hands, feet or face. They benefit little from your exertions and it’s important to make sure they’re well covered - don't skimp. Experiment with different weights of gloves and socks for different temperatures – you want your hands to be warm, but arctic gloves that are good at 15 degrees can feel really confining and uncomfortable at 40. A balaclava will keep your face and ears comfortable, and you can carry it scrunched up in a jersey pocket on days when you’re not sure you’ll need it or not.

Oh, finally. All of this assumes that you’re riding straight through to your destination, where within a minute or two after arriving, you’ll be moving indoors. Once you stop pedalling you will begin to lose heat very quickly – and thanks to your sweat, even more quickly at the end of the ride than at the outset.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Winter has arrived in full force in Washington (though I suppose technically it’s still “fall”) and again I’m reminded of how much fun cold weather riding can be. The sharp air on my face and in my lungs is invigorating; it’s impossible to overheat from the effort of cycling – and there is something strangely satisfying about being one of very few people who are out and actually experiencing the weather.

Remarkably (he remarked), cold isn’t much of a problem on a bike – that is, once you’re a mile or so into the ride. (I think that first five or six minutes – which can be, well, a bit bracing – is what puts most people off winter riding.). Two or three woolen layers under a medium weight windbreaking jacket, winter bike tights, good gloves and a balaclava (for the worst days) are good for temperatures all the way into single digits.

Of course right now it’s dry, and the snowfall has been modest. It’s harder to remain quite so enthusiastic during those slippery, slushy February days when salty road crud splashes up from cars, soaks your legs and collects as puddles in your shoes. In fact the best part of those days is peeling off the cold, wet bike clothes and changing right into something warm and dry.

Which, come to think of it, is itself an advantage that cycle commuters enjoy over those poor sad souls who have to slog, in their all-day clothes, through the same crud to their offices from the Metro or parking garage. Ah, good – something to look forward to even then!