High fashion at low temperature

…or, how do you stay warm at -30 degrees?

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).

Lower body: bib tights, winter windfront tights, rain pants.

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.

Now this, from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/02/03/684438571/women-who-dare-to-bicycle-in-pakistan

“I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”

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 img_1458earth. (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.

Winter biking

When I had my paper route I rode 364 days per year (no paper on Christmas Day).  I didn’t think much of it; it was what I had to do for my job. Nowadays people make a big deal about winter riding.  There were a few exceptions to my daily riding: when I was sick I got a ride in the car, and my dad had a rule that when the temperature was colder than -20 degrees I got a ride. (My mom once pointed out that, while it was my dad’s rule, she was usually the one who got up to drive me.) This was before wind chill was widely known or reported, so it meant actual air temperature. There were mornings I looked out the window and saw -18 and wondered how I could make it read a few degrees colder. This was at 4:30 AM and the temperature tends to continue to drop until shortly after sunrise, so I was probably out at -20 several times without knowing it. I figure if that rule was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for me, so I ride to work unless the temperature is colder than -20 degrees.

There are a few simple principles for winter riding that I have figured out over the years:winter 1) keep your hands and feet warm, 2) cover all skin when it is below zero, 3) don’t fall – it hurts more in the cold, so use studded snow tires. (Those didn’t exist when I was a kid, either.) (The mittens shown above were made by Kevin Kinney of Empire Wool and Canvas Company. They are no longer available. Maybe if enough people ask nicely, he’ll bring them back.)


It also helps to have wraparound glasses if your eyes are sensitive. Mine tend to water in the cold and my eyelashes flick the tears onto my lenses, where they freeze – when the ice sublimates (or melts and evaporates when I go inside), I’m left with salt stains that are hard to see through. Glasses do make their own problems. If you have your face covered it is hard to keep from fogging up your lenses. If it is cold enough, that fog freezes and may need to be scraped off periodically. Not needing glasses may be an advantage. I know someone who wears goggles and breathes through a snorkel.

Twenty below zero has gotten rarer these days. If you doubt the local effects of global climate change, see http://www.aos.wisc.edu/~sco/lakes/Mendota-ice.html, where you will see the history of when ice has formed and melted on Lake Mendota since 1852.

There are a few tricks to winter riding. Studded tires work great on ice and hard-packed snow. They are not great on clear pavement. Since you’re riding on metal and not rubber, you need to take turns more slowly with less lean or they  will slide out from under you. They are not great in deep snow. The worst is that brown, greasy snow that collects at the edges of roads and in unplowed intersections. If anyone knows a good solution to that snow (other than staying out of it) put it in the comments below.

Riding predictably in a straight line is more important than staying to the far right. There will be more on this in a later post. Snow tends to get pushed to the edges of the roadway and then partially refreezes. The edge between pavement and this stuff is treacherous. Rather than riding in the slop and sliding around, ride on the clear pavement in a straight line. The law in most states says to ride “as far to the right as practicable“, not as far to the right as possible. I avoid streets with bike lanes in the winter, as that is where all the slippery stuff collects. Instead I take the side roads that cars tend to avoid because they (the roads, not the cars) are slow. Since roads are crowned, as snow melts (from salt or the heat of car tires), it runs toward the edges, then refreezes. Particularly bad are roads where the middle gets full sun and the edge is in shade (think urban streets with buildings close to the street).

In the winter, simpler is better, so my current bike has no derailleurs. It has a three-speed hub (like the English three-speeds of my youth). It has hydraulic disc brakes which work better when wet, icy, or gritty. Brakes on the wheel rims take more time to dry when you apply them, plus the grit from sand and salt wears the rims quickly. Wheels last almost forever on bikes you ride in good weather (assuming you take care of them in other ways). Winter bikes go through rims in a couple of winters. And no chain, as keeping a chain clean and lubricated is an essential but messy and time-consuming winter chore. To clean the belt, I park the bike over the floor drain in the basement, fill a bucket with water, and pour it slowly over the belt, rotating the cranks so the whole belt gets rinsed.

Spot Brand bike

with detail of belt drive

Really, anybody can ride a bike in  the winter. It is not a big deal. If you are warm for the first two blocks you are overdressed. You’ll start cold and heat up quickly. I found that, when I drove to work one below zero day last winter, I arrived feeling colder than when I ride my bike. The car never really heated up fully.