Cold-weather Commuting

March 4, 2014

By Sarah Kaufmann

Riding bikes year round can present quite a challenge if you live somewhere that gets winter weather.  (Or if you get oppressive heat in the summer!  But, given the timing, you may have guessed I’m focusing on winter here).  You can switch it up and run, ski, hike, snowshoe or any other number of alternative, more winter-friendly activities.  But if you want to be fast for any early season events – or if you just want to maintain or build bike specific fitness, you’ll have to pedal, at least some, through the winter.

Commuting can be tough in the winter – because, well, it can be miserable.  But actually, commuting allows you to take better advantage of the limited daylight to get sufficient riding hours in.  If you typically ride after work, you are now starting your ride as soon as you leave work, instead of whenever you get home.  Plus, you’ve already got however long it took you to get to work, covered for mileage.  It can be a helpful headstart on training time when daylight hours are limited.

I don’t pretend to be the expert, and, for the record, I live in Utah, which isn’t nearly as bitter cold as some places.  But it gets pretty friggin’ cold here.  And I think I’m allergic to the trainer so I’ve picked up some tricks that have made pedaling outside through the winter a little easier.  Maybe they can help someone else stay a little more comfortable too.

First, ride the slowest bike you can.  If you’ve got one bike, make it as slow as possible.  Add extra weight any way you can.  Put some bigger, heavier tires on (this will also help keep you upright over snow or ice).  The slower the bike rolls, the less wind you face.  You’re not racing anyone and the slowest rider is probably the most comfortable.

You’ve heard it before but dress in layers.  Fairly thin, breathable fabrics are best (except for maybe one thick thermal jacket or pair of tights).  I like to start with a thin, wicking tank top, followed by a long sleeve base layer.  (I really like the stuff made by Craft but I’ve heard good things about the wind-proof Pearl Izumi stuff, too). Over the long sleeves, I put on a pair of wool arm warmers.  On top of that is a regular riding jersey with the pockets full of hand and foot warmers, a skull cap and probably a crumpled up wind shell.  Finally, a wind vest on top.  If it’s over 35 degrees or so, that’s probably it – the stuff in my pockets gets used if I’m out late and the temps drop or I need some extra warmth for a long descent.  If it is colder than that, I throw on a neck gaiter and a thermal jacket.

On my legs, if it is below 15 degrees or so, I use a pair of thermal tights. If it is warmer than that, I use two pairs of cycling shorts and thermal leg warmers.  Two pairs of cycling shorts sounds miserable (and I admit, it’s not exactly ideal) but it does keep your hips and the tops of your legs warm which tend to get really cold when you get moving and wind is moving past.

Like I said, I usually carry the skullcap with me.  But I prefer to use a helmet liner and a headband over my ears.  I like carrying the skullcap for insurance but am usually happy with the liner and headband.

Hands and feet can be the trickiest but I’ve found a couple of methods that seem to work (although in temps colder than the coldest I typically see, they probably wouldn’t suffice).  I use lobster claw gloves.  If it’s below 25 degrees, I usually use four, count ‘em, four Grabber hand warmers – one in each claw, sitting on the tops of my fingers.  I use a pair of  insulated riding boots.  They are great in temps about 25-40 degrees.  Below that and I have found I need some extra help.  I use the ‘Body Size’ Grabber warmers with the one side that has adhesive.  I wrap it over the top and bottom of my toes – directly on the skin and in direct violation to Grabber’s warning.  I pull the insole out of the shoes and stuff my feet in. I pull the insole out of the shoes and stuff my feet in.  (Wool socks go on over the warmers).  This keeps your toes alive (I didn’t say warm.  Alive is pretty good, though).

I mentioned the wind shell and the skullcap in the jersey pockets.  I always keep something warmer than what I’m wearing, in there.  Once the temps are below 40 or so, I always carry insurance layers– it’s a security thing.  You never want to be caught really cold with nothing else to put on, far away from home.  That’s no good.

Finally, for winter riding, you need a good set of lights.  The days are shorter and you are much more likely to be caught in the dark.  I recommend the Light & Motion Vis 180 and 360.  I am super stoked on both of these systems.  Easy to charge with a long-lasting charge, lightweight, easy to turn off and on and toggle between settings, easy to install and remove.  And, most importantly, bright!

Sarah Kaufmann is a Pro XC/Endurance racer with Stan’s NoTubes Elite Women’s Team, www.sarahkaufmann.com