Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Winter Cycling Survival Guide, from a self-proclaimed winter-phobe

Do you hate winter?
Are you always cold?
Do your fingers turn funny colors in the cold?
Have you been rescued mid-ride because you lost the ability to brake or steer or do other key things due to numbness and/or shaking?

This is me, unfortunately. I used to just hate the cold. Especially after I moved away from Vermont, where the prettiness outweighed the fact that it was -20. In Pittsburgh I got away with not riding outside in the cold, because there was slush or ice all the time, it was dangerous at baseline to ride in that city, and I only had a road bike. Flash forward and with gravel and much less precipitation in the mid-south, I found myself with no excuse. And subsequently entered mild hypothermia territory a few too many times.

Through trial & hypothermia, I finally feel good about my ability to not die whilst riding a bike when the temp dips below forty. And while I still wouldn't say I love winter riding, it has more to do with the fact that it takes so long to put on all this darn stuff than the actual temperature.

1. Bar Mitts

These giant, dorky, neoprene things are my best friends. They create tiny warm houses for your hands. No matter what gloves, mittens, or glittens I tried, nothing has ever kept my hands warm below forty while biking or running. I put these on my bike for the first time last winter and immediately did a 50 mile ride in the high 30s. I have used them down to 20s with a normal pair of gloves on. My hands may be Reynaud's-y to start, but once some heat accumulates (or with the addition of hand warmers at the start), they'll regain circulation and stay that way. The downside is obviously limited access to your bars. I can comfortably hold my hoods and brake, but can't really grab the drops, even over the bar mitts due to the shape of the neoprene (it doesn't exactly collapse under your hands). Additionally, if the temp warms up, it's not exactly easy to transport them home if you remove them. Way too big and bulky for jersey pockets or your average top tube/bar bag.

2. Pogie Lites

Enter Pogie Lites. The fine folks at Bike Iowa make them, so supporting Bike Iowa is the first plus. These solve the problem of access to all parts of your bars, and also being able to pull them off, roll them up, and stick them in your pocket.

They keep my hands much warmer than I expected. I used these at Spotted Horse, where it was 30s-40s and raining the whole day, with a pair of mechanic's gloves and surgical glove base layer under them. My hands got numb-ish a few times but remained functional and out of the painful-numb zone. For a cold-handed person, they thrive between 40 and 50 degrees, but are workable down to 30. I happened to only have these on a 22 degree icy ride in Stillwater in November, and they were insufficient. There was a bail-out followed by a painful rewarming. Overall I love them for the versatility and convenience as long as it's not ridiculously cold out.

3. Lake Cycling Boots

Cycling boots really do make a difference versus shoe covers. Yes, they are heavy. But yes, I can mostly feel my feet with a thin pair of wool socks under them. I invested in the Lake MXZ 303 Winter Boots last year and have no regrets. They stand up to snow and light precipitation, but not walking through rivers (whoops.) And if you have to put a foot down on a sketchy icy spot, they have a Vibram sole with decent tread that makes you slightly less likely to eat it.

4. Plastic bags inside shoes for wind/rain blocking.

Below is an example of how this should ideally NOT happen. Put your plastic grocery or zip-lock bags on over your socks, inside your shoes, before you get started. Do not figure out you need them halfway through your ride after you have hike-a-biked through several inches of cold mud that destroyed your shoe covers, and find that you are unable to get said shoes off due to the degree of mud to put bags inside of them. But in the event that this should happen, you can also do like so.

That said, plastic bags over or under shoes work. It can get sweaty, but this is still probably better than excessive wind/rain.


I really, really did not understand this when I started riding. I didn't have to think about eating much when I ran. It rarely took me much over an hour to race. But you have to eat when you are riding for 5 to 32 hours. And it turns out you have to eat exponentially more when it is cold.

Looking back, I have DNF'd at least one thing because I thought I was eating enough and I wasn't actually, and subsequently got too cold and was unable to re-warm. Now I try to take in double the amount of calories per hour if it's cold enough to be shivering. I've practiced to the point that I can feel myself getting a little warmer ~20 minutes after eating again, and know it's time to eat if cold seems to be setting in again for no other obvious reason. This is the time to load up on whatever you can shove down your pie-hole at that C-store stop.

6. Warm fluids

Tea. Coffee. Hot chocolate. Wouldn't judge you for whiskey.

In the ER, we call this "internal rewarming," except it's done via an IV or your bladder or bilateral chest tubes. I prefer to actually drink some warm fluids before I get to that point.

If I have a long route mapped out, I have a good idea of where I'll be able to stop for something hot to drink. This is the easiest method, although not always feasible. It's nice to bring something warm to drink with you, and may be necessary if you will not encounter a C-store for some time. Water bottles, even insulated ones, don't keep warm fluids warm for very long, and may melt if you dump something super hot in. A tumbler like a Hydro Flask or similar will fit in most bottle cages and is the best solution. You can also put warm liquids in a Camelbak, and put the Camelback on under your jacket so your body heat keeps your fluids warm. Or at least from freezing.

I've also become a fan of drink mixes that can be prepared with hot water, such as the Untapped Maple Ade or Skratch Matcha. In a bottle these will pretty quickly become less warm, but it's nice while it lasts.

7. Hand & Toe Warmers

This one probably seems like a no-brainer, but there are nuances to their use. With winter gloves (the
boy and I are currently wearing Handup's winter chill design), you should have adequate space to shove some hand warmer packets over the back of your hands (shake shake shake first, or they won't get warm for hooouuurrsss. Whoops.) I put them in the palms of my gloves once (granted this was at mile 120 of 150, in the dark, and everything seemed like a good idea at the time), and it sure kept my hands warm, but there were a few days of serious hand soreness from having them sandwiched in between my handlebars and my skin. My favorite hack, however, is to put them in my jersey pockets and sports bra to keep my core warm. The toe warmers also work for this, and stay stuck in place. If you have low back/joint stiffness in the cold, this is a mobility game changer. Think tiny mobile heating pad.

8.  Wind-blocking Winter Bibs

Also known as the thing I held out on spending money on for way too long. I assumed that having wind-blocking leg warmers on with my normal bibs was the equivalent. It is not. For whatever reason (presumably the fabric, duh), actual winter bib tights are way warmer even though your surface area coverage is the same with either method. I have both the Assos women's winter bibs and the Velocio Zero bib. Assos fits like a glove and is fleece-lined, more mid-weight. I've found that the Velocio (or other similar wind-blocking material) is the best performer when wind and/or precipitation is a factor.

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