Sub Zero Cycling

While certainly not new to cycling outdoors, I tend to do it while temperatures are fairly comfortable. When traversing the US this past summer I pedaled and camped outside during two heat waves, each lasting a week. Thank you Kansas and Washington/Oregon!

When I have my choice of days to ride, I tend to ride when it’s sunny or warm, ideally both. Appropriate clothing for cycling in the summer tends to be a matter of padded shorts, enough water and sunscreen (suncream, for all the UK and Aussie readers). While in the midst of a New York winter, I am trying to fine tune what to wear in cold, colder,  and last week below freezing temperatures.

Hudson River after a cold streak in the Northeast. Also a view from the apartment. I admittedly did not ride during these snow days.

On January 2nd I dropped my bike and touring bags off at my new apartment, treating the ride as a mini-move, moving the most precious cargo, the bicycle and touring essentials. It was awkward riding a fully loaded bike again, the handle bars and back wheel commanding my attention. I had this same experience after nearly two weeks off in June. Think of the bike as a luxury sedan, a la Cadillac DeVille, that owns the road – you’re simply there to enjoy the ride and provide gentle guidance when necessary. Just like in Tennessee, a half a mile into the ride, directing a fully loaded bicycle became second nature and a smile crept across my frigid face.

A bastardized quote often runs through my mind in adverse weather conditions, “there is no bad weather, just bad gear” or something to that effect. In the process of fine tuning my selections I chose to layer up. I wore long underwear, a cotton t-shirt, medium weight bubble jacket, knit cap, neck warmer, jogging pants, merino wool hiking socks, cycling shoes, shoe covers and helmet, of course. For the life of me I could not find my cycling gloves and end up using black leather gloves. I suppose that can happen when all your worldly possessions are packed into boxes. I forgo padded shorts as the ride was only 9 miles and didn’t feel the need to add an extra layer.

The first few miles were chilly, the air seeming to cut through my helmet and knit cap, freezing my ears. My finger tips started to numb a bit and I made a fist every few minutes to push blood into each digit. Half way there I no longer noticed discomfort of the ears or hands, each extremity having adjusted to the temps with moderate effort on the bike. I actually generate quite a bit of heat in my core and could feel perspiration develop on the chest and between my shoulder blades.

Close to the new apartment. Our unit is in the shortest “tower” of the main building in the background, above the blue billboard.

The wind of the river performed its daily routine and swirled around me, providing headwinds, tailwinds and cross winds with no particular pattern. I think I lucked out though as it felt like a tailwind for a majority of the ride. This did not save the exposed skin from feeling the reality of riding at 22ºF (-5.5ºC). My nose and cheeks felt frozen as I approached the new neighborhood. I tried covering my nose with my neck warmer, but the thick garment was hard to adjust under the pressure of the helmet strap and was not breathable, forcing any hot breath pushed from my nose up into my sunglasses where fog limited my vision. With only another two miles, this was not a major issue and I pushed on with the neck warmer only coming up as far as my mouth.

When I arrived I could tell it was cold out, but overall I felt pretty comfortable. Once inside the new apartment I shed the layers to see how I fared. I think my layers were dialed in for the most part with a few slight adjustments tobe made. Here is my take on the individual pieces.

Not pictured: Leather gloves, sunglasses, jacket.

Knit cap – Synthetic blend hat. Was a little big and when pressed down by the helmet it went over my eyebrow more than I would have liked. It was certainly warm enough once the legs and lungs warmed up. I own 20 more similar hats of various shapes, sizes and thickness, so buying a new one is not a necessity.

Helmet – Kept my head seemingly safe and secure, no need to change!

Leather Gloves – More of a business look than for cycling, but felt decent in the situation. I will look to try my cool weather gloves to see if I can get away with a thinner pair in cold weather, once the body warms. I see people on bike share bicycles and many of them do not wear gloves. I am surprised they still have hands.

Jacket – Eastern Mountain Sports mid-weight synthetic down jacket. Probably a little bit of overkill once I got moving. Was warm enough to start and hot by the end. I did sweat a bit so the armpits and back were damp, but never got cold, even off my bike and snapping a few photos.

T-shirt – Cotton Tee, probably unnecessary in the whole scheme of things. Did look stylish as it was a reminder of warmer times at Florida’s Clearwater Beach Spring Training for the recent World Series Champions, the ’08 Philadelphia Phillies.

Neck warmerTurtle Fur fleece neck warmer provided serious protection for my neck and chin. It was a little tight and short, not allowing much room to position it appropriately after being secured under the helmet strap. What was covered was warm and protected, but failed to protect my lips and nose areas that tended to feel the cold the most after long exposure.

Long underwearUniqlo Heattech Tights (top and bottom) were fantastic. Reasonably priced and super light and comfortable, they were an added layer that likely made a huge difference in my total comfort that day.

Pants – Eastern Mountain Sports running pants. I have had these for years, they are running pants that I use for cycling when I need my lower legs covered. Would not provide much warmth worn by themselves, may be a bit slippery if paired with padded shorts, but were a perfect combo with the aforementioned tights. They tucked perfectly into the cycling booties or “overshoe”.

Socks – Merino Wool Hiking Socks were a bit thicker than I would usually wear, but for this ride worked well! Not quick as bulky as I thought they would feel, they kept my feet dry and seemingly warm. No complaints. I may try normal cycling socks and overshoes and see how I feel.

Shoes – My old trusty Specialized shoes. They kept me on the pedals for 4000+ miles this summer and on that cold January day. The mesh toe area often pushes too much cold air over the foot in the winter, but is nice and breathable in the other months. Paired with the overshoe, I felt great. I will wear these till they bust apart, then bronze them when they are done.

Booties/OvershoeSealskinz Mid-weight Overshoe worked perfectly in these conditions. I was able to tuck my pant legs comfortably into the top and my feet stayed warm. For some reason my right big toe is always the first toe to get cold and on that day I only felt a small amount of discomfort which eventually left. I am unsure if one could ride all day without having the toes get cold, but after an hour I was willing to keep going.

SunglassesSuncloud  plastic shades have serviced me well ever since I left a pair of super expensive sunglasses on a restaurant table after a boozy brunch. The plastic does not get super cold and the polarized lenses take the edge of the bright sun on my beautiful blue eyes (not pictured). They are cheap and offer a wide array of style options. I steer away from anything with metal as that conducts heat/cold too quickly and will eventually feel like you have ice cubes pressed against your sinus – not good!

All in all, I felt pretty great on the bike, the cold not making me swear off winter riding. I would consider riding in even colder conditions, just wanting to limit exposed skin. A few tweaks to hats, gloves, neck warmers and layers given the temperature range and I will soon find the appropriate uniform for any seasonal challenge. I suppose if I am feeling too cold, I can always just pedal harder!

Any tips, recommended products to try or comments would be greatly appreciated for riding in such conditions! Also please join the email list if you like this post or previous ones!

2 thoughts on “Sub Zero Cycling

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    1. Thanks for the read! I am not as brave as you on most days and dailed in my gear for since November, but there are a few more areas I will likely need to improve upon, lobster gloves and face protection. Other than some really cold hands, it wasn’t too bad.

      Liked by 1 person

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