Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Iceman Cometh...Part II

So here we go again, Minnesota has plunged into the kind of weather that Norwegian black metal bands sing about; unending darkness, primordial elemental cold, howling winds. Weather that strips the trees bare, leaves skin raw and eyes watering. Yes Virginia, Winter is here.
So let's go ride!
Yeah, you heard me right, let's go biking. There's absolutely no reason not to, in fact some of the things that I love about cycling are even more present in the winter. Like the absolute silence of going on a night ride while it's snowing or just after, the way the city takes on this other-worldliness when all of the angles and man-made structures are rounded out and disguised by the snow. The air is sharp, crisp and clear. It's effing beautiful out, what, you going to spend the whole winter on the trainer or catching up on Gilmore Girls? Off your duff!
There are a few things that hold most folks back. First, you're absolutely right, it gets so cold that your friends and relatives in other, wimpier parts of the country think you're insane just for living here. This is easily dealt with with a bit of snappy dressing which is, incidentally, most of what I'll be talking about on this one but I'm going to touch on lights and some bike handling tips too.
Alright, let's start with your feet. This is the big one that makes most cyclists miserable in the cold months, they just get cold, it's probably the temperature or something. There's a few things you can do though so let's start right on your skin. Wool, I can stress this enough, wool is the best thing to wear on your feet, bar none. It wicks moisture, and more importantly it will keep you warm even if it's wet. Let me repeat that in case you missed it, wool will keep you warm even if it's wet. I've been a big fan of the smartwool stuff personally but I've had good luck with thrift store argyle scores too. When it get's really cold or for longer rides I'll toss some polypropylene sock liners in there for extra wick-age. Most important is to make sure that you're not compressing your feet though, a lot of folks make this mistake. You've gotta let those toes wiggle here kids, if your can't squidge your feet around a bit you're going to cut circulation off from the outer layers of tissue which will then tend to freeze. Frostbite is no joke, you can straight up LOSE toes to it. Yes, lose. If they freeze badly enough the docs will have no choice but to snip those little piggies right off in order to stop you from getting gangrene.
On a lighter note let's talk shoes. You're smart folks or so it would seem, so a few of these will just be review for you. First off, I know you love those Sidi's but stow 'em for the winter. Even with booties road shoes will not keep you warm enough, and that goes for all road shoes. Road shoes are made to keep your feet cool...you're quick, do the rest of the math. Mountain bike shoes tend to fare a bit better but the main problem with them is that you have this little SPD mounting plate hanging out on the ball of your foot which becomes a heat sink connected to the sub-freezing air, slush and whatever other nastiness old man winter has in store for you. Fortunately, the good folks at Lake, Shimano, and Northwave all have lovely offerings for winter specific kicks. The good news, you want 'em we'll get 'em. The bad news, they're a bit pricey, expect to drop about $170 at the least but if you want to run clipless in the winter and stay toasty they're the way to go. I've known quite a few courier types over the years that swear by the Lakes, our very own Neal has a pair of them Northwaves that he's all gooey over and I've been thinking about a pair of them Shimanos myself. For all of you non-clipless types the same rules apply, as far as setup I used to run Power Grips and my Redwings in the winter but basically a grippy platform pedal and a decent hiking or work boot will do the job well. Toss those Sorels on if you want to go fully gung-ho or if you just can't stay warm.
Next up let's do base layers, most cyclists are going to be more worried about wind and wicking than insulation, we can spin to stay warm so the expedition weight stuff will most likely be too much unless you're sub 2% body fat and have a low body temperature to boot. On the legs I go with a pair of standard cool weather cycling tights under my pants and toss a pair of long underwear over those when it's stupid cold out. I had a pair of the Pearl-Izumi AmFib winter tights that I got on closeout a few years back but I have since handed those down to my lady, they're too warm for me. For the upper body you should think like you do for your feet, you want to stay dry and warm, again wool is great for this and there are a ton of good long underwear type base layers on the market. Think thin, easily removable layers. No big sweaters here people, and I would stay away from cotton long johns like you can get at target or fleet farm or wherever, they are fine for hanging out but for active stuff like riding they tend to get sweaty and then they suck heat away from you. Again with the no fun.
Hands tend to be subjective, I tend to get away with fairly thin non-insulated gloves in all but the coldest weather, then I switch to some snowboarding type mitts with merino wool glove liners. Here's the basic rules; your hands are one of the leading edges of your body and are therefore very susceptable to wind, your hands will sweat if they overheat, and they are very like your feet in that they will get frostbitten of they are deprived of circulation. For keeping warm it goes like this, mittens will always be warmest because your fingers can share heat through contact and shared air, lobster or "ninja turtle" gloves are the next warmest for the same reasons as mittens but with the added dexterity of a split finger, gloves come last with the most dexterity due to all of the fingers being separated but will be the least warm for the same reason. Stuff with a water/wind resistant shell with a removable liner is ideal in any case because then you can use, you guessed it, wool glove liners. They're like $3 at Kaplan Bros, go get 'em tiger.
For your cabesa there's a ton of different stuff, there's even winter specific helmets. A bunch of different companies make little windtex/lycra/microfleece cycling yarmulkes that fit snug to your melon so they can slip under a helmet or maybe you're just into the whole medieval look, it's not my call. As usual, wool is a rockin' option, Grovecraft makes some awesome winter cycling hats, they're local, recycled and run by a woman, what's not to like?
Face-wise I'd recommend keeping your breathing holes uncovered, the condensation from your breath will soak a bandana or facemask and make it hard to breathe through and give you a nice clammy, wet drape over your face. Neck gaiters and scarves are my fave, wool rules and polarfleece is a good option as well, Alicia uses a silk scarf because she can pull it over her face and it stays pretty dry and breathable. For the eyes any standard ski/snowboard goggles will do for windy days and snowstorms, stay away from the military surplus sand/dust goggles though, they're totally worthless in the cold.
Finally we get to outerwear, along with shoes it's usually the big-ticket item when your setting up for the winter. Fit-wise, cycling specific jackets tend to have longer sleeves and tail, armpit zips for venting and will have a convertable hood if any at all. Wind and water resistance is the big deal here, not insulation so those big down parkas are probably a bad idea. Endura makes truly badass shells in a variety of flavors and they do women's specific stuff as well, I've got one and it rules, 'nuff said. Pants are a personal choice (no matter what the cops say!), some folks swear by rain/wind pants in the winter but I've never found them to be necesary. Again Endura does some sweet gear here and we've even got a bit of the also badass Burley stuff left that they don't make anymore.
All things considered it takes it bit of practice to get things dialed-in, staying warm and layering is very subjective and there are no hard and fast rules. There's no setup that's going to work for everybody but something to consider is if you do other active, aerobic type activities in the winter how do you layer up for them? I'm particularly thinking of cross-country skiing here as the aerobic level is very similar, they both demand freedom of movement and over-layering will make you soggy and miserable at the least and hypothermic at the worst. Don't be afraid to mess around with your gear, remember, practice makes perfect.
Remember way back when you started reading this, when I said I'd touch on lights? Well here goes...it's winter, there's less daylight, if you don't already have a headlight get one, and a tail light too. Are you eyeballin' me punk?!
Seriously though Cateye does some slick stuff in the headlight department, Planet Bike makes a retina-searingly bright tail light called the Superflash, and rechargeable trail lights will light your way and blind other cyclists all the way home.
Lastly we're going to talk about some bike handling stuff, then you can go do important stuff. I promise. Riding in the snow takes a little bit of finesse but I have faith in you, dear readers, and I think you can do it. Just remember keep your upper body loose, don't tense up, it will make your movements jerky and probably wipe you out. Snow has a tendency to pull skinny tires one way or the other, especially if it has that windblown crust on top of it but don't panic, just countersteer a little and keep a little power to the pedals and you'll be sailin' on with no problem. Fat tires don't really have this problem as much since you float up over stuff more than cutting through but fat or skinny ice is the enemy. Studded tires are the only way to be 100% on ice but they're kind of pricey and give you a lot of rolling resistance on pavement. If you're one of those aforementioned studly types you can relax for this bit but for this rest of us here's the rules, if you're on ice DON'T make sudden turns to get off of it, lock your brakes, or panic and tense up. Any of those can wipe you out, even on a pugsley, so stay loose, keep your weight even, and use those brakes lightly. Same goes for us fixed gear folks, as much as you may be tempted to lock it up half a block out and yell "check my wicked skidz b!", avoid the temptation. Falling down on a fixed gear still hurts and you might eff up your skinny jeans b. Finally, try to hold your line in slippery snowy icy conditions. Weaving around is a bad thing, for one it puts you off balance and for two it can make dangerous weaving ruts when that slush freezes. If you are worried about going too fast just drop to a lower gear and spin a bit more, it'll keep you more stable and keep you a bit warmer. Common sense is the rule here kids, if it's slick out cut your speed a bit, don't brake through your turns and whatever you do don't bank into them. Lastly, don't ever be afraid to put a foot down if you have to, if one of them trials snobs says something hit 'em with a snowball at the next red light.
Stay frosty.

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