Testing the limits
By Kierstin Kloeckner
“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”
― Dr. Seuss
I may love Dr. Seuss, and view many of his books as gospel, but growing up in Minnesota, we never imagined many winter days we couldn’t go out to play. It was either cold (45%), really cold (50%), or too cold to go ice skating (5%). I grew up in a household, and a neighborhood, where we would test our limits outside. We had a simple equation we used to determine if we’d venture out. If the time it took to warm hands and feet past the burning needle stage was longer than the time spent outside, we’d stay in…if not, we’d head out dressed in so many layers we could barely walk. I remember the days when school was cancelled (back then it had to be -20 actual temperature) and we’d all celebrate and head to the nearest ice rink or sledding hill with a warming shelter. Mind you, these were the days when chemical warmers weren’t used, and we couldn’t even imagine the electric shoe/boot inserts you can find today. No, we’d clomp and waddle blocks away in our Sorels and snowpants, our skates draped around our necks, skate for 10 minute intervals until we couldn’t feel our feet, sit in the warming house until we could, and then head back out. We did this routine for hours or until we had to go pee so badly we didn’t risk not being able to remove our layers fast enough.
Today seems so different to me. No longer do parents allow their kids to walk a mile to school in ten degree weather. No, they must be driven to school so they don’t “freeze” and adults will head to the grocery store three blocks away in their cars and let the car idle while they run quickly inside to grab a few items. We, as humans, have become ridiculously lazy and soft. When our ambient temperature falls outside of the 60-75 degree zone, we complain and use our energy zapping devices to make sure we don’t feel any discomfort. We are, in fact, a slave to comfort. But what if we could train ourselves to be “comfortable” in a wider zone? What if we could actually change our brain to react differently in both sub freezing or hot and humid conditions? I joke frequently with my friends we have not actually evolved as a species, that we have devolved. Otherwise we would have found a way to grow more body hair or fur in the winter and shed it all like dogs or cats in the summer. Luckily, our giant brains have devised a way of sorts to do this…and it’s called clothing layers.
Most of us have heard the saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” and it’s true! Think briefly about how the polar explorers, like Shakleton, Admunson, Perry and Scott explored the polar regions, living mostly off pemmican and biscuits (with a small ration of whiskey!), surviving in the most extreme conditions for years at a time. Their clothing made mostly of animal fur and skins, their bodies carrying very little extra weight. Now, we have engineered products where we no longer have to use animal products if desired, and instead layer up with used soda bottles woven into clothing. We can wick the sweat away from our bodies, insulate against heat loss, and survive in -70F if need be with the proper education and food. In essence, there are no real excuses to stay inside during the six month deep freeze known in the Midwest unless there are underlying health issues.
I first began my journey into the world of winter cycling back in 1990 at age 16. I was working at a coffee shop a few miles from home, didn’t have a car of my own, and didn’t want to constantly rely on my mom to drop me off and pick me up if she needed the car that night. Although I was raised riding bikes and racing, the thought of winter commuting never registered in my mind until I got so sick of racing I decided to give it up and get a mountain bike. With all the cash I had saved in hand, I walked into the now defunct Kenwood Cycles in Minneapolis, and purchased a Bianchi Peregrine mountain bike. I had no clue what I was getting myself into and I had no knowledge of winter commuting other than knowing the layers I would wear for skiing. My first true winter ride to work was in a blizzard. My mom wouldn’t let me take the car in the snowy conditions, and me being too stubborn to call in and cancel my work shift, I chose to bike to work via the city paths. I survived. And I actually had quite a bit of fun! That ride changed my life. It changed how I viewed cycling and what was “proper” cycling season.
Many years later, I helped form a winter cycling advocacy group here in Madison, WI with a friend. Although at the time, I didn’t love or really even like winter riding, I much prefered it over driving or working out inside a gym. I felt alive outside and having the solar system be my guide early winter mornings on my way to work calmed me.
Now, winter commuting and riding has become so popular in Madison, as well as other Midwestern cities, bike shops see business year round by selling studded tires, fat bikes, lobster mitts, LOTS of lube and doing maintenance on the salt eaten steeds.
So where to start you ask? Baby steps. If you haven’t done much winter riding, I’d suggest seeing how long you can keep riding come fall, before the snow falls or starting to commute a month earlier come spring. Many cities now have workshops held by advocacy groups teaching newbies how to dress for all conditions. Here in Madison, we have an annual fashion show with models demonstrating different layering techniques for everything from 35 degrees and rain to -20 with windchill. If your city doesn’t have one, bike shops are great resources for how to get started.
Here’s my simple guide, and please remember everyone runs differently with core body temperatures so you may need to adjust.
For fall and spring, or anything from 33 degrees to 50 degrees, I like light layers. I will wear shoe covers over my cycling shoes up to 45 degrees because my feet tend to run cold and will use my lobster mitts as well for my hands. From there, I keep layers on my torso light, add arm warmers to prevent stiff and cold wrists, a buff for my neck and a lightweight hat or earband. I also love wind jackets that breathe well. I try to dress in a way I’m a bit chilled for the first twenty minutes or so and then warm up. The moment I feel myself breaking a sweat in anything below 45 degrees, I stop and take a layer off or readjust because sweat CAN make one hypothermic in above freezing temperatures.
For the deep freeze, down to -20, I could care less about ease and I just dress to stay warm. I have ridden fifty miles on my fat bike with Sorel boots on and couldn’t be happier! I never clip into the pedals in temps below 20 because the metal cleats pull heat away from my feet…in fact I much prefer a wide based plastic pedal with small spikes. On some bikes I use bar mitts with a light glove underneath, on others I wear my winter expedition mitts which have very little dexterity but tend to keep my hands toasty. I always wear a balaclava and often will layer an ear band underneath to protect from ear infections. I use a pair of light tights or long underwear and either the Pearl Izumi Amphi tights over or a pair of wind pants with articulated knees. On top, I like a mix of layers and will often bring a small bag to switch them out if need be or if something becomes sweat laden (moisture kills come winter). I will also always bring an extra layer in case I have a mechanical issue and I have to stop for a longer period of time, as well as one or two chemical warmers for the same reason.
If there’s any one tip I could give new winter riders, it would be to carry a pannier or small pack with them the first year and have multiple layers in that pack in case changes have to be made. Every year, even though I’ve been doing this for 29 years now, I go through a “relearning” process and it takes me a week or two to feel comfortable again. Lastly, laugh at yourself during the learning process and remember, no matter what, things could be worse…you could be stuck in a car in a traffic jam!