27 January 2014

How Am I Biking In This Weather?

Slowly.  And carefully.

If roads are wet, I slow down.  If they're icy I slow down even more.  Wet brakes don't work very well, and ice, slush, and snow make falls inevitable.  And it's much better to fall while moving slowly.

In the on-going effort to encourage drivers and pedestrians to notice my presence, I thought about getting an air horn. 

A decade or so ago, hiking in Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness, the proprietors of a lodge tied an air horn to a sign a mile away on the other side of a lake. A blast or two brought them chugging over in an outboard motorboat, and they brought my hiking companions and me to the lodge so we could pick up food and supplies we'd mailed there before starting the trip.

Then I saw a biker using an air horn near Penn Station.  Notice I said "saw," not "heard."  The blast, piercing in the Maine woods, barely penetrated the cacophony of midtown Manhattan. I gave up on the air horn and bought better lights instead, investing in rechargeable, painfully bright lights for both front and rear.

The other challenge of winter biking is keeping warm.  Or at the very least, avoiding frostbite and hypothermia.

I've spent a lot of time outdoors in the winter -- skiing, snowshoeing, stacking wood, shoveling, hiking, sledding, walking, skating, jogging. I find biking to be the most difficult to stay comfortable -- though it must be said I've never hunted in the winter, or gone ice fishing.

The goal is to keep hands, feet and face warm, but not overheat the core, so you're supposed to dress so you start chilly, or ride slow so you don't break a sweat.  That's the theory.  In practice, I can't manage it much: either I sweat, or I have cold fingers and toes.  So I keep several blazers and a can of deodorant at my office, and carry a clean shirt.

I don't own super-duper high-tech warm winter gear, so it's all about layers. At 40 degrees, dress wool pants or tights covered with rain pants, a shirt, a sweater, a windbreaker.  At 30 degrees, I add long underwear, or rain pants if there's any precipitation in the forecast; at 20, sweatpants over the dress pants; at 10 degrees, rain pants over all three.  For upper body, same deal: wicking layer against the skin, one or more layers of fleece or wool depending on the temperature, and wind/waterproof neon-yellow jacket.

For the feet, wool socks, heavier as it gets colder, and leather boots, which I lace looser than I would for walking or hiking to make room for insulating air inside.  For the hands, windblock fleece covered by wind/waterproof mittens for the coldest weather.  A headband for my ears in milder weather; a lightweight hat as it gets colder, plus a waterproof cover over my helmet all winter long.

I use glasses in all weather to protect my eyes, but the rest of the face is tricky: I sometimes cover up with a scarf, but the glasses fog up, and if it's cold enough, the fog freezes on the glasses.  Bad visibility in bad conditions is, well, a bad idea.  Below about 25 degrees, I use Dermatone, a Swedish miracle product that's basically chapstick for your whole face.

Biking in winter weather isn't as much fun as biking on a nice sunny 75-degree day.  But driving in rain and sleet and snow is pretty awful, too.  Riding a bike in cold, wet weather isn't as bad as it sounds: it's fifty percent clothing and fifty percent attitude.