Riding in winter is not as impossible as some would think. You could do it too. Just like anything else, it’s simply a matter of deciding that you can do it, then overcoming the obstacles that may otherwise prevent you. Let’s talk about those obstacles.
It’s cold. Sometimes, it’s really cold. And part of conquering the cold is getting over the idea that the cold should be avoided at all costs.
You can do it!
On really cold days, like zero degrees farenheit, I think about the folks traversing the Iditarod via dogsled or fatbike. If those guys can endure sub-zero temperatures, unsupported for weeks, then I can handle 30 minutes riding halfway across Lincoln. Once you decide that you are capable (You are. I believe in you). Then it’s just a matter of wearing the right clothes.
What to wear?
If you ask the internet how to dress for the cold, you’ll get various versions of “baselayer, insulation and shell” and I’ve found that a lot of articles fail to define “cold”. Many will tout the benefits of high quality wool, down and waterproof materials but they aren’t entirely necessary. If you’re going on a multiple hour excursion you’ll want to consider those things but if your commute is a half hour or less, you’ll be just fine throwing together clothes that you already own.
70 – 40
Let’s consider various temperatures assuming the wind isn’t blowing. At 70°F everybody is pretty comfortable. At 60°F, anybody who is a bit uncomfortable can put on some long sleeves and and all is well. Let’s say it’s 50°F. This is the temperature where I need my lightest pair of gloves. I’ve got a pair of Champion polyester gloves that were on sale at Target several years ago. The fingers I shift with now have holes in them but they keep my hands plenty warm at this temperature. At 40°F, I want a sweatshirt, light hiking pants or jeans and my light gloves. I might carry a light beanie or bandana in case my ears get cold and I can wear any pair of shoes I have in my closet.
Now its 30°F and the group that considers it to be “cold outside” is considerably larger. At this temperature, I’ve got my banana or light beanie on under my helmet. I’ve got a long sleeve T-shirt or flannel under my sweatshirt, then a light jacket or softshell vest over that. My jeans/hiking pants are still sufficient for my lower half. I will need warmer gloves now so I move up to my insulated leather work gloves made by Wells Lamont . Note that nothing to this point is cycling specific or expensive technical apparel.
20 to Very cold
At 20°F, I grab some of my more fancy technical pieces. In addition to my above ensemble, I’ll have a long-sleeve shirt, flannel, sweatshirt and jacket or vest. I’ll add some light longjohns under my pants or even wear my fleece-lined jeans that I got for Christmas a few years ago. Under my beanie is a lightweight hood that protects the sides of my face, my chin and neck from the now biting cold. My newest acquisition, which I purchased for this particular temperature range, is a pair of Shimano MW7 cold weather cycling shoes. They are waterproof, insulated and thus far have performed as Shimano has described. This particular setup, with minor zipper adjustments is appropriate down to 0°F. My coldest ride thus far was -8°F and my only addition was a rolled bandana across my nose and tied behind my head. This mitigates the burn on my nose prevents my safety glasses from fogging as they do when I try to cover my mouth with a bandana or Buff. It seems that I previously forgot to mention that I always wear safety glasses, either clear or tinted, when I ride.
The layers described above are sufficient for relative comfort at the temperatures indicated. Adjustments are always necessary as one discovers personal preferences under various conditions. I should describe “relative comfort”. Comfort achieved on a bike at 20°F is different that comfort achieved laying on a couch at 68°F. Just as one must unsubscribe to the idea that cold is to be avoided at all costs, so must one unsubscribe to the idea that you must be ‘comfortable’ all the time. While riding, my cheeks burn a bit. There’s a bit of a draft infiltrating my partially untucked shirt. My fingers start to tingle but I know I’m almost to work so I don’t give it a second thought. If I were 10 miles into a 20 mile ride, I would be concerned. But on my commute, I will be inside my place of work, warming up before my cold fingers become something I need to worry about.
Snow and ice can make riding surfaces slick. Falling can be real bad but just as one is more careful when driving a car on snow and ice, so should one ride a bicycle more carefully on snow and ice. In the end Sam and I would both make the argument that our bicycle commutes are safer and far more enjoyable than the same commute made in a car.