Baby, it’s cold outside

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:

Before the next bridge down, that narrow lead has closed. The river was dredged over 100 years ago and the channel straightened. It didn’t always look like this.

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.

Frost nip to the eyes. This was the morning that convinced me to buy goggles.

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.