Now that it has warmed up by 70 degrees F (-26 to +44) [think of it – that’s like 20 to 90 degrees in 3 days], we can look back at the cold weather. What does the well-dressed cyclist wear at 30 below?
I can’t tell you, but I can tell you what I wore and what worked. We’ll go from head to toe (head, shoulders, knees and toes, for the younger set).
For the head: balaclava, helmet hat, and helmet. My favorite balaclava is no
longer available. I now have three of them. For cold weather I use a silk one with the face open – keeps the chin and cheeks warm. For colder weather I use a merino wool one with eye and mouth openings. I can inhale through the nose (and through wool to warm the air before it reaches my nose and lungs) and exhale through the mouth opening to avoid fogging/freezing lenses. For coldest weather I use a fleece one. There is no mouth opening. Some exhaled air stays inside it and is directed down toward my neck and chest. Some fogs my glasses. Exhaling forcefully helps direct more air away from the face to minimize fogging. I may join those who wear ski goggles and let you know how that works.
Upper body (from the inside out): silk turtleneck, wool jersey, wool arm warmers, down vest, windfront “softshell” jacket (thin fleece).
Feet: over-the-calf silk liner socks, neoprene socks, Bontrager Old Man Winter boots (two layers). [Brand name mentioned because this is kind of a small niche and I don’t know how the few other brands out there function.]
Hands: Silk liner gloves, Empire Wool and Canvas bike mitts [brand name mentioned because most “winter” bike mitts are not really made for the cold, and to give a plug to Kevin Kinney, maker of these mitts up in Duluth MN.] Some folks swear by bar mitts/pogies. Since I haven’t used them, I can’t comment.
All photos shot in available light except the last one, to show the reflective stripe on the mitten.
Just to be clear, in “normal” winter weather I just wear rain pants over my work pants and the jacket (plus vest if 20-25 degrees and arm warmers below that) over my work shirt. The complete change of clothes is only for extremes.
Okay, now it’s cold. Those of you who recall my Winter Biking post know I delivered newspapers as a kid, and that my parents had a rule that if it were colder than -20 degrees F, I could get a ride on my paper route. I decided to keep that rule as an adult, and ride my bike to work as long as the temperature remained above -20.
I broke that rule this week. Bus service isn’t great on Saturdays, so I rode to work. This is what -21 degrees F (-30 C) looks like. The fog on the lenses is from bending over to lock my bike. I was able to see better than that while riding. I am happy to say that my new Bontrager Old Man Winter boots kept my feet warm(ish) with just dress socks. Now that I’ve tested them, I’ll wear warmer socks next time.
This was the first time it has been cold enough to wear that fleece balaclava. Silk glove liners inside my mittens also helped.The title, by the way, is from Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) in “The African Queen”.
Temperatures that cold are fun for other things besides riding. If you throw boiling water into the air it will evaporate before coming to earth. (The actual demonstration starts at about the one minute mark of the video.) If you blow soap bubbles, they freeze. When the break, they shatter like light bulbs. The sensor on my phone had trouble dealing with all that white, but a frozen bubble sits in the middle of the photo.
(If spacing or formatting look weird, WordPress has changed its editing software again and it is pretty buggy.)
Six inches of new snow followed the cold, and -30 comes next. (Update: it never got that cold, but close, and by Friday afternoon should be above zero.) Now I know people are getting soft. No newspaper or mail delivery today (Monday). Also, when it gets cold enough, the snow squeaks when you walk on it.
This morning (Wednesday) we added wind to the cold. -26 plus a 20 mph wind (with a brief shot of 30 mph headwind) yielded a wind chill of ~ -50. (F and C are pretty close together at that point.) About a half mile from work, I thought my rear tire was going flat. There was no way I was going to stop. I was willing to sacrifice the tire and tube. A bit later (when I entered the infamous Pharmacy Building wind tunnel – the cause of that brief but monstrous headwind) I realized I was going flat, not the tire. At that point, my lenses fogged and froze and did look like the picture above. The final climb up the hospital driveway was done by memory as much as vision.
I learned that the wind proof membrane in my jacket gets stiff at that temperature. When I moved, it sounded like I was wrapped in cellophane. I feared the membrane had become brittle enough to shatter, like the bubbles I blew. It still seemed to work the next day. The sound of the tire studs biting into the ice was deafening. I wanted to record all those sounds, but didn’t want to uncover my fingers to work the phone. (Besides, the battery went from 100% to 20% charge just sitting in my pocket during the trip.)
The last time I remember a cold snap like was back in my radio days. I read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and an except from Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” (which takes place on a planet referred to, in English, as “Winter”) on the air that day. I recommend both if you want to curl up with a warm beverage and read on a cold day.
You’ve probably read that this cold is due to the “Polar Vortex”, and you may have read claims that this somehow disproves global warming. Au contraire! A high altitude warm air mass made its way to the pole, causing the vortex, which normally circles the pole, to split and send a lobe southward over central North America. It is currently colder in Madison, WI than in Fairbanks and Point Barrow, Alaska, as well as Lapland (Saariselkä). Parts of Siberia are still colder.
For the climate change deniers, or those who don’t fathom the difference between weather and climate, the National Weather Service reports that, between 1869 and 1999, the temperature in Madison, WI dropped to -20 degrees Fahrenheit an average of 12 times per decade. Since 2000, it has happened twice – in 2000 and this week. The average number of days per decade when the daytime high remains below zero has fallen from 15 in the 1900s to 2 this century. The Winter Biking link above also contains a link to lake freeze data from the University of WI Limnology Lab, which also supports the conclusion that winters are shorter and milder than they were in the 1900s.
We’ll see what the groundhogs think tomorrow.
So when some old codger says that, when he was a kid delivering papers, he often rode his bike in below zero weather and seldom does now, he is telling the truth. If he tells you he walked five miles to school (uphill both ways) and he and his brother took turns carrying each other because they had one pair of boots between them, he may be pulling your leg.
It’s only November. The summer floodwaters finally receded. I got rid of the sandbags in front of the basement windows and the side door. What next but our first accumulating snowfall? Temperatures have been below average all month. Windchills in single digits in the morning twice already. Pulling out winter gear, I was reminded that my jacket zipper doesn’t actually work. It is a double zipper and I have to zip both to the top, then zip one down, in order to get the jacket to stay closed. The zippers on both winter shoe covers have now failed completely. I remembered that one of them wasn’t working most of last winter. Oh yeah, the other one died late in the season. Since I bought the jacket 15-20 years ago and the booties were given to me used about ten years ago, I guess it was time to replace things. Oh – and the under-helmet hat was stretched out enough that it no longer really covers my ears. Time for shopping!
Brand name alert! I was picking up a hat at the bike shop the other day and, on the way out the door, stopped at the sale table. A pair of boots convinced me to check back on my day off. Bontrager Old Man Winter boots were ⅓ off. They came out with a “new and improved” model this year, so the old ones had to go. I checked back and they were comfy and warm; more expensive than booties but, if you ride a lot in winter, or need bike shoes anyway, they’re cheaper than buying shoes and covers. They run small (my road shoes are size 43.5 and my mountain shoes [bought generously-sized to fit thick socks in them, since I wear sandals to commute when it’s warm] are 44…I bought the boots in a 45) so try them on. Don’t try to buy online unless you like to return things.
They felt light on my feet so I weighed them tonight. A shoe and shoe cover weigh 775 grams on my scale. The boot weighs 625 grams. Double those weights for a pair. (Both weights include SPD cleat.) On the way to work this morning (temperature 16º F, wind chill 5º) my feet were toasty warm. On the way home at 28º they were almost too warm. They are a two-layer boot, with a soft inner liner and a shell that fits over them. You put them on as separate pieces – it seems to take no longer than putting on a shoe and then a shoe cover. The liners could be worn around a cabin like down booties in the old days; though the sole is not designed for that so I don’t know how durable they’d be. I don’t know about overall durability yet, since I’ve worn them once, but they seem to be a hit. We’ll see how they work when it gets below zero. (You can click on the pictures to see them bigger.)
liner and boot
bright, reflective, warm, wind resistant
cover your ears!
I’d wondered about Windstopper™-type fabrics. I found a jacket also on sale (again, last year’s model). It was light and fleecy. Riding home last night after dark into a 15 mph headwind at 20º I stayed warm. Riding in today I stayed warm. I bought it big enough to fit a down vest and arm warmers under it when it gets really cold. I think I found two new items. If you live in Wisconsin and are a Bike Fed member, your member discount applies to the sale price!