Louisville Bicycle Club
July-August 2008 Newsletter

Building Year-Round Cycling Character


This month I'd like to go into practical cycling when conditions don't seem practical, in rain and particularly cold. Now, at the height of Summer, may seem a strange time to think about winter riding, but it is a good time to decide to continue to ride year-round and to prepare for it, just as winter clothing is being shipped to stores well ahead of the season. I rode my bike in Louisville year-round for over ten years (until becoming disabled) almost regardless of conditions. I decided to do so on June 18, 1988. That is, from 1988 until 1998, there was only one day that I did not ride because of conditions.

In order to effectively ride in inclement conditions, the first thing you have to do is to decide that you are going to ride and not allow a little discomfort to dissuade you. I say “a little discomfort” because discomfort is a warning system concerning the adequacy of your preparation and the level of your condition and ability to continue. Every cyclist has known discomfort, whether thirst, bonk, knee pain etc. Some discomfort is a sign of building the body, while also building character in the form of perseverance and a desire to stretch, learn and improve. One needs to embrace the fact that some discomfort is a thing to be sought and desired as a sign that one is beginning to accomplish something worthwhile and beneficial, not least of which is patience and a tolerance for a wider range of circumstances.

But you also have to pay attention to discomfort's warning signs and adapt to them. A lot of people do a little exercise, get tired, sweaty and experience some pain and quit, concluding it will always be that way. The fact is that there will always be some of that as a constant, while ability and accomplishment increases. One needs to find a level of tolerability and maintain that over time as your body adapts to the effort. Part of adapting is paying attention to when you need to eat and drink on long trips until you anticipate your needs and not merely respond to them after you are already out-of-whack.

The same idea of tolerance is applicable to riding in non-optimal conditions. As your body and mind adapts to effort, your mind must adapt you to conditions. Learning when to shift to keep a constant level of effort in changing road conditions and gradient is one aspect of this within a ride. But also, you need to learn from experience, your own and other's, from one ride to another what you need to adapt to different conditions, particularly weather, so that it does not become intolerable or dangerous. The fact is that if one is willing to make adaptations, rides in adverse conditions can not only be tolerable, but little different from a warm, sunny spring day.

I will describe some adaptations that I made in order to at least commute twenty miles round-trip to work every day of the year.

First, you have to decide that looks are not important. Insisting that once one is chilly in a short-sleeved team or club kit, that it is too cold to ride is an attitude problem, not a reason to take five months off the bike. Many cycling kits have long-sleeved breathable shells to take a bit of nip off. But special wear is needed when the temps get closer to freezing. Gore-Tex™ outerwear is great for blocking cold as well as rain. Many days I came to work looking like a giant banana in my yellow Gore-Tex™ jacket and pants. But underneath, my work pants and T-shirt were dry. I kept my dress work shirt and tie in my desk drawer or brought fresh ones in my waterproof backpack to don after quickly wiping off.

One must be careful not to overdress to avoid excess sweating. Even arctic explorers are careful not to overdress so that an accumulation of moisture does not ultimately contribute to hypothermia. A T-shirt or jersey underneath is adequate to 25° F. It is often useful to open the shell zipper a bit to let the steam escape. Overpants over the shorts or regular street pants is equally effective. When it really gets cold, there is long cycling underwear, which you can wear two layers of below 10°F. Cycling generates most heat and sweat above the waist. Adding the T-shirt under the jersey inside the Gore-Tex™ works for 10- 25°F. And finally a light jacket over the jersey will be needed below 10°F.

Adaptations will also be needed in equipment. Cycling shoes are simply no protection from the cold. Have some plain flat pedals that you can use with cold-weather shoes. In cold below 25°F or snow or rain, I wore galoshes, with extra socks if it was below 10°F. Your toes' comfort threshold may be slightly different but the adaptations can be the same. You cannot expect perfect comfort but perfect comfort is not what cycling is about, nor is it a good thing for your mind or body. Save that for after the ride.

In cold weather, facial and hand covering is essential. This is where you will have to drop the cool-looking Oakleys™ and go for protection over style. One must consider wind and direction of travel to prevent frostbite and “brain-freeze” (otherwise called “icecream headache”). Wind chill is additive when you are against the wind, while you may need no protection at all riding with the wind. Large wrap-around shades will cover the eyes and better prevent wind from getting around causing tearing. And they need to be large enough to fill the hole in a ski mask that is useful below 20°F. When it was colder than that and I was riding into the wind, I employed additional adaptations: a heavy winter scarf wrapped twice around the face and neck with both ends tucked into my collar, and a lighter scarf wrapped twice over my forehead between the shades and the helmet and once around the back, with the ends stuffed into and filling my helmet vents. I found this more than adequate to -12°F with clear streets and -7°F in deep snow. I wore padded two-fingered ski gloves anytime it was below 42°F.

Finally, adaptations may be needed in deciding what kind of bicycle you take in inclement weather. With snow, I definitely left the road bike for mountain tires. So equiped, I enjoyed rides home from work after dark with house lights reflecting off of packed snow on the back streets. I was able to comfortably ride at 0°F so equiped and clothed.

Below zero Fahrenheit, I ran into a problem with a mult-gear mountain bike: the grease in the freewheel becomes sticky and the wratchet teeth inside get pushed open and stay that way. In that condition, the freewheel spins in both directions and will not turn the rear wheel. At -12°F and after dark (midnight, actually), I had to stop three times in seven miles and take my mountain bike inside bars and 24-hour groceries to warm up for 15 minutes before getting a couple more miles. The solution in extreme cold, as well as when street slush combined with freezing air temps would ice the derailleur, is to ride a single-speed bicycle. That type of bicycle got me seven miles to work and back home during the Louisville Great Snow of 1994, riding in two-foot deep ruts on Dixie Highway in temperatures as low as -7°F each way when no one else got in except a few who lived just across the street. Occasionally, I had to stop and climb out of the rut to let a four-wheeldrive pass or give an interview to news crews covering the disaster.

The one day I did not ride: After riding at -7°F on Tuesday, on Wednesday, January 19, 1994, in addition to the two feet of unplowed snow on Dixie Highway, the temperature in Louisville fell to an alltime record low of -22°F. (I also stayed home on Monday to shovel snow off the garage roof which was bowing and threatening to collapse and to make a few paths.) I believe that I would have been fine with clear streets and opportunities along the way to warm up. But without experience in those conditions and everyone closed, that was the one time I said 'no'. I'm sure someone reading this is from Alaska and thinking 'wimp'. I would have liked the benefit of knowing your cycling experience.


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web posted: 17 Jan 2009
last updated: 17 Jan 2009