December 29, 2011

Riding a Bike in the Winter Isn't Extreme

This post is for those who want to ride in the winter but are intimidated by the hype that it’s only for bike fanatics. This post is also for those who contribute to the you-must-be-hardcore winter biking myth. More often than not, my encounters with “winter cyclists” involve them telling me about something I need. Studded tires. A crappy mountain bike. Reflective outerwear. Performance fabrics in bright yellow. If I didn’t already bike I would feel overwhelmed by the seemingly complex (and potentially expensive) activity.  

I know I've patted myself on the back before for trucking through the winter, but the attitude that it takes something special and isn't for everybody keeps more people from doing it. A more casual approach, I believe, will inspire more people to ride year round.  Instead of discussing gear, share experiences that show how the winter can be experienced in a more fun way by getting around by bike. Talk about how you benefit by staying active and connected to where you live, work, and play, as well as all the places in between. 
Get more sun in the winter by riding your bike. 

The following are some basics that I have learned that show you don't have to consider yourself hardcore in order to get around on your bike during the winter months. You don't need a bunch of extra expensive and nerdy gear either. Though, you will need a bike, a good attitude, and a couple of other things.

If you've spent a winter in Wisconsin you probably already have everything you need - wool socks, warm boots, coat, scarf, gloves and a hat. If you are outfitted for walking places during the winter (and not just for a dash from house to car), you are basically outfitted for biking. You don’t have to swap your favorite outfits with Day-Glo windbreakers or other recreational biking gear. You can stay warm while expressing your style.  

The first thing is to not overdress. 

One nice thing about riding a bicycle in the winter is that if you don't have on too much clothing, you won't sweat much. You will build up heat as you ride so you will regret wearing that down parka over a warm sweater, over a thermal, over a t-shirt, etc. Keep in mind that once you get sweaty, it is easy to become chilled once you reach your destination. I know that if I'm wearing something that would keep me warm if I was just standing around outside, I'm overdressed. I find it’s best to be a little cold for the first five minutes of biking so I can warm up as I go without becoming overheated.

Wool clothing is great in the winter, therefore, it is also great for when you're riding your bike in the winter. Wool, alpaca and cashmere will keep you both warm and dry by wicking moisture from your skin. You can find wool, alpaca and cashmere at thirft stores for a bargain. One of my all time favorite garments for any season is my Ice Breaker merino wool camisole.

Ladies, don't be afraid to ride to work in your skirt just because it is cold out! Leggings and knit tights will keep you plenty warm, especially if you double them up. I prefer wearing skirts in the winter because leggings are warmer than jeans. Also, a pair of tights under your jeans will add warmth without the bulk of long underwear.

If you wear a helmet, a liner is nice and will keep your ears toasty. Or, any warm hat will do. My head and ears don't get cold if I'm wearing my helmet.

Handkerchiefs are my favorite accessory. They are great in the warmer months to dab the sweat from your brow and in the colder months for runny noses.

There are those days with a -20 degree windchill, though, most winter days aren't that cold. If you have far to ride on these bitterly cold days, it's worth it to pull on some ski goggles, huge mittens, that down parka, and anything you have that will break the wind. Note that this is an exception. Goggles and similar gear aren't an everyday requisite.  

To state the obvious, if it is snowing or if there is ice on the path, use more caution and give yourself more time to stop. You can always stop riding to walk over ice patches or drag your bike through a snow drift. Not just in the winter, but year round, I choose routes where I'll have the least contact with cars.

Studded tires aren't a necessity! Sure, there will be some days that you will have to go more slowly due to less traction, however, most of the time the studs will create too much friction on clear paths and streets. Some people swap out the tires on their bikes with studded ones as they feel necessary, but I think for most people that is just an obstacle to riding their bike in the winter. If you don't mind going more slowly your normal ride should do just fine.

You may or may not want to use the same bike year round. That depends on your bike and how much time you are willing to put into cleaning off the salt as well as what kind of bike parking is available to you. Some bikes hold up better to the salt and handle better over ice and snow, but any bike can be ridden on most days.

There's nothing to winter biking, just riding your bike in the winter.

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