On my penultimate day at work I was asked about the best bike route to work from my side of town – University Avenue vs Lakeshore Path – I said Lakeshore Path, hands down.
As I walked out my back door on my ultimate day, I was greeted by the lightening sky.
As the sun rose over the lake, a Great Blue Heron, backlit, was wading in the shallows. As the sun disappeared behind the clouds, a pair of Sandhill Cranes grazed in the marsh. By 5:30 AM the sky was completely overcast. If you were still in bed, you missed it. If you slept in much later, it was a rainy day. If you were riding on University Avenue you missed sunrise over the water, heron, and cranes.
I’ve said before that retirement, like voting, should be done early and often. Having just retired (for the last time?) from the longest I’ve ever been at a job, I can say this is different. As one of my blog friends said after Saturday’s post:
On New Year’s Day there was no ice on the lakes. A week later, they were totally iced in. Three more days and the river is almost frozen over. The river current is swift enough that it seldom freezes and, when it does, it’s not for long. But today, this is what we have for open water:
The road is icy enough to skate on, but it’s cold enough that I don’t want to. I did shoot a video selfie of skating on the road a few years ago. If you look fast, you can see the skates at about 17 seconds. It was early morning and I didn’t want to wake anyone to shoot the video for me.
It is cold enough to revisit winter biking clothes. The important things for extreme cold: keep hands and feet warm, and exposed flesh freezes so cover all skin.
For hands I use mittens from Empire Wool and Canvas. If it’s really cold I add liners. (Silk, neoprene, or even nitrile exam gloves can help. If you wear nitrile, your hands will be wet from sweat. That will feel weird. Wet is okay only if you stay warm. Wet and cold is not a good thing.) Most “winter” bike mitts are not made for real cold. Pogies or bar mitts are also popular, and you can wear gloves or mittens inside them. If your fingers get cold, you can make fists (occasionally tuck your thumb inside) to let your palm warm your fingers. Sometimes just holding one hand behind your back (out of the wind) will warm it up. If you get cold and then stop feeling cold (without having done something to warm up), that is a bad sign. Get out of the cold. Numb is not better than cold. The boots I use are from Bontrager but there are others. They’re not cheap, but neither is treatment for frostbite. (We could talk about treating frostbite, but that would make this even longer.) I just wear regular (wool) dress socks down to about zero, then add silk liners. The neoprene socks shown above are only for extreme cold.
Dress for the weather and for your tolerance. Usually I just wear rain pants (for wind resistance) over my work pants. The combo of tights above are for bitter cold. Down to about 25-30 degrees (-4 to 0 C) I wear just the yellow jacket shown over my regular shirt. Down to about zero (-18 C) I would add the down vest. When it gets really cold, the windfront membrane stiffens and makes crackling noises, like cellophane, but doesn’t seem to be damaged. The hat by itself is good to about 15 degrees (-10 C). After that I add a silk balaclava that lets me cover or uncover my mouth and nose. Below zero I switch to a wool balaclava that covers my nose and has a small breathing hole for my mouth (the black one above with goggles). At about -20 (-29 C) I trade that for a fleece balaclava (the blue one above with frozen eyes).
Remember also that windchill or “feels like” temperature refers to the flesh-freezing properties. The numbers noted above are temperature. You results may vary. If the wind is strong enough, I would alter the ranges a bit. The -30 referred to above was a day with actual temperature of -26 F (-32 C) and windchill about -55 F (-48 C), with the worst about -60 F (-51 C) from the wind tunnel effect between buildings. Since I couldn’t measure the wind velocity in that area where I was nearly blown backward, that’s an estimate.
The handy thing about the Fahrenheit scale is that each 10 degrees makes a difference in comfort. Bike clothes or regular clothes? Your choice. Ranges will vary person-to-person and with the wind. On a 40 degrees day, I may see one person in shorts and another in a face mask and goggles. 30s: Snug hat (cover ears) under helmet. Warm gloves. Shoe covers. Winter bike jacket over long sleeved jersey or regular shirt. Winter tights or regular pants for work. 20s: Same hat. Consider mittens (even ordinary winter lobster mitts should be okay at this temperature) or Pogies. Maybe switch to boots if you don’t have lined shoe covers. Same jacket. Wool or fleece long sleeve jersey, or consider adding down vest over work shirt. Warmer pants (moleskin, corduroy, wool – not jeans or chinos) or windfront tights. 10s: Thin balaclava under hat (one that covers cheeks). Be sure your forehead is covered. Mittens. Boots. Add the down vest. Rain pants over regular pants, or windfront fleece tights.
0s: Balaclava that covers nose (maybe mouth) under hat. Warm mittens (maybe liner gloves – having your fingers touch each other helps conserve warmth, but sometime extra insulation is needed. If they made lobster liner mitts, that would be ideal) or warm gloves inside Pogies. Jacket, vest, wool or fleece jersey vs jacket, vest, work shirt – you can also add arm warmers to work clothes. Multiple layers on legs (rain pants over windfront tights or over pants and maybe long underwear – silk, fleece, or wool, not cotton). If you don’t want to take long underwear off, you can wear leg warmers under work pants and slide them off without removing pants. (You will have to remove shoes and socks.) You can also slide arm warmers out from under a shirt. If you have old, stretched-out arm warmers, you can wear them over shirt sleeves. -10s: Add goggles. Liners under warm mitts or warm mitts in Pogies. Warm socks. Silk long underwear under jersey or shirt. Long underwear bottoms (or leg warmers) vs two layers of tights. -20s: What ever you’ve got! Your warmest balaclava under hat, or silk balaclava under warmer one. Covering your mouth will prewarm air to prevent chilling your lungs. Your exhalations will warm your chest as the balaclava guides air downward. Definitely wear goggles. Some people will breathe through a snorkel to provide some warming to the air and avoid fogging goggles. (I’ve never tried it.) Two (or three if you have very thin liners, regular gloves and warm mitts or Pogies) layers on hands and never remove the under-layer. Consider chemical handwarmers between layers. Silk liner socks under heavy wool or neoprene socks. Consider chemical foot warmers. Silk longjohns under fleece ones. Flannel-lined pants, maybe even over tights. Your knees and fronts of thighs will get coldest.
If it gets much colder than that, maybe stay home and read “To Build a Fire” by Jack London; or test this: “He knew that at 50 below zero water from the mouth made a noise when it hit the snow. But this had done that in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than 50 below.” (From “To Build a Fire” by Jack London)
In short, there’s no such thing as bad weather to ride; just bad clothes. If you have the right clothes and the right bike, you can ride in almost any weather. I’d probably stay out of hurricanes and tornadoes. When I find weather that is unrideable, I’ll let you know. (Okay, there have been a few days when it was snowing hard enough that I skied to work, but that could have been overcome with a fat bike.)
P.S. This is not an endorsement of the song in the title. P.P.S. I’ve written on winter bike clothes a few times before – this post combines them all into one. P.P.P.S. Between writing and posting, the temperature has gone up 40 degrees.
What is a “winter bike”? If you have one bike and you ride it in the winter, that’s a “winter bike”. If you have a nice bike and you ride it a lot and you don’t want to beat it up in bad weather, it may mean something else. That’s where we’re going today.
I started riding in the winter on January 1, 1966, when I got my paper route. I rode 364 days/year. After some time off (because I was close enough to walk to work for a long time) I have been back to riding to work every day (in a wintery clime) since January 1995. I don’t count riding in the San Francisco Bay Area as winter riding. I have had a few dedicated winter (or bad weather in general) bikes in those years.
The images below (except the Spot) are not my actual bikes but roughly representative.
“Western Flyer” by Western Auto. When I got my paper route, the guy I took over for said I could have the bike for ten bucks. It was what later came to be known as a “Balloon Tire Bomber” and is a lot like what subsequently came to be known as a “Beach Cruiser”. These were also the first mountain bikes, when mountain biking consisted of riding downhill as fast as possible, then walking back up. Steel frame, 26x 2.25 inch tires, single speed, New Departure coaster brake, Ashtabula cranks. It came equipped with giant steel baskets. The rears were long and deep enough to hold newspapers folded in half (papers were bigger in those days) and wide enough to fit papers further folded in thirds. The front was big enough to hold papers laid flat, or hold the over-the-shoulder newspaper bag stuffed to the gills. I equipped it with a center-mount kickstand (like on a motorcycle). Traction was not an issue carrying that much weight, and streets were plowed earlier and more frequently in those days. Pro: indestructible, simple. Con: heavy.
Schwinn “Varsity”. I inherited this bike from my dad around the time he died. Steel frame, ten speed (2×5 Huret Allvit, labeled “Schwinn Approved”), sidepull brakes (Weinmann, labeled “Schwinn Approved”) with “safety” levers (which I removed), 27 x 1.25 (?) tires, steel rims. With derailleur cables mounted on the downtube, and no fenders, they tended to ice up from the slush kicked up by the front wheel. The bike became a single-speed in whatever gear I was in when it froze. Rim brakes on steel rims are terrible when wet. Skinny tires are lousy in the winter. Some folks say they will cut through the snow right down to the pavement. Some folks are wrong. Pro: cheap (free). Con: heavy, poor traction, poor braking, frequent gear failures, wet feet and back.
Specialized “Globe”. This was the first bike I bought for bad weather. It was a great concept. The execution was poor. 7-speed Shimano Nexus internally-geared hub, rear roller brake, front V-brake, fenders, chainguard, generator lights, built-in lock, 26x 1.5 tires. The rear brake worked great in all weather. The cheap steel chainring teeth broke off readily. The mounts for the fenders and chainguard broke. (I was able to fabricate new ones from low-temperature thermoplastic scraps I keep around the house, because replacement parts were not available.) The lock jammed frequently, so I stopped using it so it would jam in the unlocked position. The lighting system (which cleverly used a copper strip running along in the inside of the rear fender to bring power to the taillight) never worked right. The rear light had to be rewired before I took the bike home from the shop. The front light burned out frequently – my guess is they did not appropriately match the output of the generator to the input need of the bulb. I came to carry a redundant lighting system and spare bulbs at all times because it would fail so frequently. Then the light mount broke and it just fell off while riding – luckily, not into the spokes. The riding position was upright, with the rider’s weight on the rear wheel. The wheelbase was long. As a result, the bike was unstable in turns in dry conditions, deadly in wet. I made frequent visits to a mechanic on the way home from work, with quick repairs made while I waited. I don’t know how many chainrings I went through. Finally, there was a catastrophic failure of the rear hub while crossing a 6 lane divided street pulling my kids in the trailer. I found the cranks spinning effortlessly (and ineffectually) and jumped off to run the rest of the way across the street. The mechanic opened up the hub, thinking he could weld the cog back onto the hub body. He said it was not repairable – just not enough metal in there to weld. A new hub would cost almost as much as the bike. He then opened up a newer one and said I must not have been the first to have this failure, as the newer hub was beefier inside. He suggested I contact Specialized and Shimano. I gave Specialized a list of the problems. They put me in touch with the bike’s designer. He essentially said, “You’re right. The bike isn’t made for the way you use it. Too bad.” (See paragraph 3, previous post re: testing.) Shimano didn’t respond at all. Pro: Interesting concept. Roller brake simple and effective. Fenders, lights, generator, chainguard, rack, internally geared hub. Con: Doesn’t work. Frequent repairs. Catastrophic failure. Heavy. Poor handling.
Raleigh “M60” Mountain bike. My first foray into the world of mountain bikes. Aluminum frame, front suspension, V-brakes, 3×7 gearing (low-end Shimano Acera). I figured if I equipped it with fenders, lights, rack, and studded tires for winter, I could ride it in all weather. It had a crankset with cheap stamped steel chainrings. The right crank and rings were welded together as a unit so the rings could not be replaced without replacing the crankset. I did that several times, as the whole crankset was cheaper than good rings. I had to replace the wheels, as the braking surface wore down from winter grit (sand and salt). I eventually bought a second set of wheels so I could swap wheels seasonally instead of changing tires. The wheels I bought had aluminum spoke nipples. They crack under load. Luckily I had saved all the brass nipples from the trashed wheels, so I could replace nipples as they failed. Anodized aluminum spoke nipples may look cool, but they are worthless. I replaced the derailleurs multiple times due to winter’s toll. I finally overhauled it thoroughly and gave it to my son before I had to spend any more money on it. I had gone through at least 3 drivetrains and wheel sets. Pro: generally reliable (meaning it didn’t break down in use, it just needed frequent overhauls), top tube cable routing keeps them out of the gunk. Con: Expensive upkeep.
Spot Brand “Five Points”. Aluminum frame, steel fork, Sram 3 -speed hub, Avid Elixir hydraulic disc brakes, Gates Carbon belt drive, 700x40c tires. (700×32 studs in winter – narrower so they would fit under the fenders despite the studs) All of the experiences above led to my current bad weather bike. The internally-geared hub of the Globe was a good idea but the more gears you put in a hub, the heavier it gets, the more fragile it becomes, and the more expensive it gets to replace. I briefly considered the 14 speed Rohloff hub, which I had heard great things about. I considered the NuVinci CVT (continuously-variable transmission). I went with a 3-speed because Sturmey-Archer has made 3-speeds longer than I’ve been alive and some of those older than I still work. I need a lower gear in the snow than I do in the rain, so I didn’t think a single speed was the best choice. 3-speed it is. (I looked at two-speeds, where you backpedal a tiny bit to shift gears – a system I recall from Schwinns in the 60s (and still made by Sturmey-Archer) – but decided to go for 3 speeds and disc brakes instead of a coaster brake. Disc brakes seemed to be the way to go for reliable braking in all weather. The rotor is farther from the wet roadway than the wheel rim so it gets less wet. It has a smaller diameter so braking friction dries it more quickly. If it wears through, it is cheaper to replace than a wheel. Cables can freeze up. Hydraulic brakes have been in use on cars for a long time. They use DOT brake fluid (not mineral oil, as do some bike brakes), so I figured if I’m going to ride when it is -30 degrees, I want what works in cars when it’s that cold. I spent a lot of money on chains over the years and a lot of time cleaning and lubing chains at least weekly in the winter. To clean the belt means bringing the bike into the basement and slowly pouring a bucket of water on the belt as I turn the cranks, then letting it dry overnight before I ride it the next morning – and that’s only so the water doesn’t freeze. That made a belt drive the only way to go. Five plus (almost six) years later I don’t regret the decision. I have replaced the belt once so far. Seeing how it failed, I know what to look for in hopes that I can replace it before failure but not too soon. If I had to do it again I would get better brakes than the Avid Elixirs. Each time I change tires or remove a wheel for any reason I have to re-center the brakes. The pistons tend to stick so one caliper will drag. Lubricating pistons is fiddlier than lubricating a rim brake pivot (and needs to be done much more often). Bleeding hydraulic lines is more time-consuming than changing cables. Pads on disc brakes are much thinner than those on rim brakes, so they have to be replaced more often and cost more to replace. The original front pulley (AKA chainring) was plastic. The teeth wore down and I had to replace it. The replacement is aluminum so I hope it lasts longer. This may be the last winter bike I buy; at least while I continue working. Pro: Light, reliable, low maintenance, well-equipped, works in all weather. Con: brakes could be better.
All studded tires are not created equal. Some studs are too soft and wear down quickly. Some studs pop out of the tire. I use only Nokian/Suomi – from Finland, where they know snow) or Schwalbe (from Germany). There are many studded models from Suomi/Nokian – the more studs, the better the traction and the higher the weight.
One decision to make is: Do you want inexpensive components so you can replace them as they wear out, or higher quality in hopes they will last and/or be rebuildable? I have chosen cheaper components for winter. The Raleigh above was equipped with Shimano Acera. I went through derailleurs every couple of years. My Bruce Gordon has Shimano Deore XT derailleurs that are still going strong after 30+ years. Is that because I sprung for better parts, or because it stays inside all winter? I suspect the latter is a bigger contributor.
I have never owned an E-bike. One could be a winter bike. Battery life is greatly reduced in cold weather. Unless your commute is long, that should not be a problem.
You may notice a fat bike is not on this list. I’m told that a fat bike is the way to go in “brown sugar” – the mixture of melted and refrozen snow mixed with sand and salt that tends to collect in intersections and at the edges of roadways. Fat bike is the way to go through unplowed streets or trails. Fat bikes are heavy (and even heavier if you put studded tires on them – fatties work in snow but not on ice). I wouldn’t want to ride a fat bike in summer rain – it would probably be a strictly winter bike – that would make three commuting bikes instead of two. I can’t justify that to myself. If I want to head out on trails in the winter, I’ll put on my skis.
It was sunny, hot, and humid when I left work. A light wind; a great day for a ride.
I arrived early at the meetup point. Someone said there was a thunderstorm in Dodgeville headed straight toward us. As I waited for my friends to arrive, I checked the radar. A thunderstorm cell was headed our way and looked like it would arrive just as we were to start. The air turned cool. The wind died. The sky turned dark. The wind picked up. A few raindrops fell.
The rain stopped. I checked the radar. The storm cell had changed from a yellow to a green spot and had veered south. It would be raining on the roads we were to ride, but would probably move east ahead of us. We saddled up and hit the road.
I had forgotten to bring a cue sheet, but these were roads I know well. I rode the 30+ mile route from memory. We rode on some slightly damp roads but never felt more than a few drops, just enough to cool us down a bit.
As we rode along Dougherty Creek, we came upon a steep and deeply verdant hillside with a small herd of Brown Swiss cattle. I imagined this is what Switzerland looks like and why the Swiss settled here and called it New Glarus.
The ridgetop vistas were stunning, as usual. The corn is probably neck-high. The short and steep climb from Dougherty Creek to the ridge seemed easier than usual. The broad sweeping curves we carved at 35+ mph on the descent into town brought ear-to-ear grins to our faces. Pizza and beer closed out the evening.
I raced a train to work today. As I approached the tracks that I would parallel, I heard the crossing bells. I didn’t hear a train horn so I figured the engine was not nearby. Rounding a bend I saw hopper cars going my way. It was time to guess – if I was near the end of the train I could head for the nearest crossing and wait; if I was near the head of the train I could try to outrun it and cross up ahead.
I figured action beats inaction so I continued parallel to the tracks, and upped my speed. Approaching Brearly Street I heard the train horn. I was gaining, and knew I’d made the right choice. Approaching Paterson I saw the engine and knew I could pass it. I had three more chances to cross before I would have to revise my route. Approaching Livingston I heard the crossing bells come on and knew I couldn’t make it there. I found a reserve and went faster. As I approached Blount Street I knew I could make it. I heard the engineer back off the throttle a bit for the upcoming curve. Just then, the warning bells started. I had the train by more than a block, it was moving at 12 mph, and I could go just a bit faster than I was already. The crossing was a new one with rubber at the tracks so it was a smooth crossing. After I crossed, I backed off. As I turned on Main Street I saw the engine cross Blount. I felt the burn in my lungs from a hard effort. I still had 4.5 miles to cool down before I got to work.
Taking it easy, I made the turn to Carroll Street. The walk light at Johnson was on, which meant I knew I could make that crossing. It started to blink “Don’t Walk”, which meant I could make it as long as I didn’t dilly dally; my light would turn yellow on the 11th blink. I made the crossing and now I could sit up and take it easy the rest of the way. I could get to the wooded lakeshore path and enjoy the beauty of a cool and crisp morning – a morning that required a jacket. I could watch the dappled sunlight filtered through the trees. I could look out over the sailboats gently swaying on their moorings. I could wave to the early morning runners. And I could arrive at work way earlier than I planned, thanks to that early morning sprint.