Winter is for Bike Riding
Kelly and James did their semi-annual (meaning we started in 2015 and missed last year) Emerald Necklace loop on Monday, December 4, 2017. The route was east from the shop along the lake shore, inland through Collinwood and up Chardon road to North Chagrin Reservation, around the Emerald Necklace (Cleveland Metroparks road and all-purpose trails) through North Chagrin, South Chagrin, Bedford, Brecksville, Mill Stream Run and Rocky River Reservations to Detroit road in Lakewood and back to the shop along Clifton Blvd. Overall distance about 100 miles for Kelly, about 98 for James, on a lovely sunny-to-partly cloudy day with high temps around 57 degrees. We both road our 3-speed fixed gear bikes (a Sturmey-Archer S3X hub that gives three gear ratios but no coasting). As you can tell from the facial expressions the photo taken in the Rocky River Reservation, near the end of the ride, Kelly was a little over-geared, but James' gear choice was just right
The point is not to brag about the ride, or claim to be yetis, but to point out that bike riding doesn't have to stop just because the calendar hits the first of November or first of December, or the winter solstice. You can find great riding days and routes all year long in Northeast Ohio. Kelly and James have accumulated 27 years of experience riding through Cleveland winters, mostly commuting to work over distances from 22 to 30 miles round-trip. We have a few tips for riding in the winter, so you don't have to deny yourself 3 months of riding each year.
1. Admittedly, as we get older, we find we are more sensitive to cold, but we agree that the unsuitability of Cleveland winters for bike riding is mostly in the mind. As we will show below, all factors that make people reluctant to ride in winter are easily overcome, if you decide to do it. So the first tip is psychological: to ride THROUGH the cold, ride INTO the cold. Don't stop in the fall; keep riding and let your body, mind and comfort level adjust through the gradual drop in temperature.
2. The temperatures get lower because the days get shorter, so riding in the winter often means riding in the dark. With LED bike lights becoming ever brighter and ever cheaper, and innovative reflective clothing (such as our Proviz line) following close behind, riding in the dark is safer and more pleasant than ever. State law requires a headlight and taillight from an hour before dusk until an hour after dawn. Flashing lights are thought to be more noticeable to drivers than constant on lights, and the up-and-down motion of reflective ankle bands most effectively announce your identity as a cyclist.
3. Core body temperature regulation is a real challenge on bike, as you are generating quite a bit of muscular heat, and therefore sweat, but you are also generating 15-20 mph of wind chill. The recipe for being comfortable in the cold is layering: base layer, insulation layer, and wind stopper layer.
a. Base layer: There are lots of high-tech base layers, but anything that is comfortable next to your skin and wicks moisture away from you will work. Do not rely on cotton for any of your kit! The random size of cotton fibers make them pack more densely than a synthetic fiber and these fine interstices hold water more securely and wick more poorly than a synthetics or wool. Choose silk, wool, polyester, polypropylene, all work well, while the natural fibers do not seem to advertise your body odor as readily as the petroleum products do. Base layers tend to be thin and snug fitting, so they don't produce uncomfortable wrinkles.
b. Insulation: Same fabric options, but with a little more bulk to trap air. A knit jersey is ideal. The loose arrangement of the threads/yarns in knit-wear breathes well enough to be cool in warm conditions, insulates well enough to be warm in cool conditions, and dries rapidly. Usually legs and arms need one less layer than the core.
c. Wind stopper layer: Breathable fabrics and ventilated design are the two general solutions to stopping the wind chill while allowing body moisture to escape. The amount of sweat generated can be considerable during vigorous cycling, and breathable fabrics designed for hiking just cannot pass enough moisture to keep you dry. There are higher pass-through fabrics for cycling, at higher prices. James has found simple water-resistant fabric jackets with big underarm zippered vents to be most cost-effective and comfortable.
4. Hands and feet can be the most uncomfortable on a cold bike ride. The extremities do not have many muscles generating heat, they have high surface-to-volume ratio, and they are far from the warm core, so blood has cooled somewhat by the time it reaches them. James has found two layers are best on the extremities: a knit sock or mitten covered with a leather shoe or mitten shell. If additional layers are needed on the feet, use shoe covers, rather than squashing more insulation inside the shoe, risking cutting off circulation.
5. Adapting your bike for winter conditions: It seems that the roads are more often wet in the winter, as melting snow keeps them wet long after the snow stops falling. Bicycle adaptations for riding on wet, salt-laden streets include wider tires, fenders, wet sticky chain lube, a simpler gear system, lots of grease in your bearings and frequent cleaning. See our page on fixed gears, which offer all these simplicity advantages as well as no coasting to chill you.
6. Take advantage of the pleasant days winter gives you! There were no lights or special clothing needed to ride in the 50's on Monday, and there are lots of winter days in northeast Ohio with temperatures well above 40 degrees. Get out and enjoy them!