03 April 2013

Bike Commuting: Practicalities

I used to think in terms of biking weather and other kinds of weather, but when I took a sabbatical in Cambridge (UK) a few years ago and depended on my bike for transportation to the library, the supermarket, and anywhere else I needed to go, I learned to carry rain gear and just keep moving.

That said, commuting by bike year-round can feel like a bit of a project, especially when winter weather returns after one day of spring and you have to put all those layers on yet again.

In late spring, summer, and early fall, if it's not supposed to rain or snow, I just wear work clothes.  I keep some blazers at the office so as it gets warmer I can ride in shirt sleeves.  (I also keep extra deodorant and hair gel at the office.)  A skirt with boots, as long as the skirt is loose enough to pedal in, can be easier than long pants, which tend to get caught in the chain. There are various ankle accessories that are supposed to peg the pants, but I always find they come off as soon as I start pedaling.  If necessary, I stuff pant legs in socks.

In cold weather, the trick is keeping the extremities warm but not overheating the core. I use a medium weight wool coat with a reflective vest made of fabric that helps to block with wind.  If it's really cold I start the ride wearing a scarf or neck gaiter that I can take off as I warm up, but mostly I'll just live with being chilly for the first five or ten minutes.

Feet: In winter, I wear wool socks with shoes or boots that are loose enough to allow for some air to help keep my feet warm. If it's below about 20 degrees, my feet still get cold, and I have some neoprene overshoes from when I used to bike long distances in cold weather -- but for the amount of time I'm on the bike at any one time, I'll live with cold feet rather than hassling with one more thing to put on and take off (and repeat, three more times throughout the day).

Hands: Can get very, very cold if it's even chilly.  You can get winter bike gloves, but winter gloves designed for skiing also work fine. Main thing is they need palms and fingers with some traction.  It's also helpful if they're breathable.  I accidentally bought down-lined gloves a couple of winters ago in an end-of-season sale (I only noticed the fill after I'd paid), and I have to say they're wonderful.  Even when the temperature goes down into the teens (the coldest I've biked in) they keep my hands warm.  In temperatures around freezing, windblock fleece works; above 40 I use lightweight long-finger bike gloves.

Legs: if there's precipitation in the forecast, I have rain pants that go over whatever work clothes I'm wearing.  Getting overheated can be a real problem, so depending on the weather I might be best off with light-weight tights and a skirt that I can put on when I get to the office.  If it's quite cold, I might want wool pants.  Neither the rain nor the wind pants are specifically biking gear -- I originally bought both for hiking.

Ears: Like hands, can get very cold.  Two great accessories here, for which I paid retail, and which have been worth every penny: a Gore-Tex helmet cover to keep the wind and rain out of the vents and trap some warm air around my head, and a Pearl Izumi head-band, lightweight enough to use with the helmet but somehow incredibly warm on the ears.

Want to try it?  Start out on a day when you can dress down a little bit and the weather is nice, and build from there.