Extremely off-topic: cold-weather bike gear

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mention my bike, and/or riding bikes, juuuust a few times. I’ve been bike-commuting in good weather pretty much since I moved to MN a couple years ago, but last winter, due to construction on campus that made buses much less convenient, I kept on riding in the fall. And kept riding, and riding, on through the winter, much to my own surprise! I was sure eventually, things would get too cold to handle, but that never happened!

Last winter was particularly mild, so I know I’ve still got a lot of things to learn about winter biking (the coldest temp I’ve ridden at so far is abt 6 °F/-14.44 °C). But because I was pretty surprised by what gear turned out to be most key to continued comfort (hint: very little purchased at bike shops), and because some friends have expressed interest, I thought I’d do a quick rundown.

close view of bike tires with small metal studs visible among the treads1. Studded tires

Worth EVERY PENNY. I have a long-time winter biker friend (who has ice-raced Lake Nokomis on a unicycle(!)), who is always trying to tell me how I don’t need studs except when things are really bad, and how annoying studs are to ride on… STUFF THAT! They give me a huge confidence-boost anytime there’s any patches of ice out there – sure, you can roll across an ice patch on slick tires, but gods help you if you need to steer…

Also, they make you feel like a super hero on packed snow. Quite fun.

2. Ski goggles

I don’t see that many winter bikers using these, but they are AWESOME. I’ve had very little human-powered fun as cool as riding into a snowfall with the flakes flying at my face -but not obscuring my vision-. The goggles themselves do obscure my vision a little bit on the sides, but surprisingly little, and the kinds of scarves or face-coverings I’d need to wear otherwise would also get in the way.

They can be a little frustrating in warmer cold weather (just below freezing) because they fog up a little when I stop at a light or something – but that may also be because I wear a pair of goggles that fit over my glasses, and the glasses sometimes fog before the goggles. As long as I’m moving, they all un-fog right away, and if I notice a buildup, I’ll pull the goggles off to vent when I’m stopped.

3. Mittens

choppermittens-sm.jpgBIG LEATHER MITTENS, to be exact – of the kind often referred to as “chopper mittens” (online explanations for that moniker differ, but mostly have to do with chopping wood.) I was hankering after some “lobster claw” bike mittens for a while, but those cost $80/pair, and I noticed that the real pros (longtime winter bikers) seemed to all have filthy old leather mittens. They are a lot cheaper, the leather provides a decent grip, and they work awesomely well at keeping my hands warm and dry.

AmyMittens-sm.jpgThis kind of mitten usually comes with polyester “fleece” liners that feel awful and make your hands really sweaty. I am hugely lucky to have a pair of hand-knit wool liners (in colors of my choosing, even) made by my lovely colleague Amy West. I’d strongly encourage others to swap out the icky poly liners for wool, even if they cannot get such excellent liners as mine (viewable at left.)

In warmer weather, I wear just the leather mittens, or even just the liners sometimes. Mittens of any kind are much warmer than gloves, because the fingers get to cuddle up and share body heat.

4. Wool  (warning for discussion of slightly gross things like sweat and pit-stains)

Wool shirts, sweaters, socks, long underwear, mitten liners, hat, everything.

Gross but true, you get about as sweaty riding in the winter as you do in the summer. Or I do, anyway. Wool is a key element of my riding wardrobe because it continues to insulate even when its wet, AND because it is naturally resistant to trapping odors. There are technical fabrics that achieve the first half of that equation well, but for me, they smell bad in a way that washing doesn’t help even after just a couple wearings. Wool sweaters resist smelliness through multiple wearings, and wash clean every time. The only wool clothes I have that don’t smell super-fresh after a wash are the tight-fitting shirts, and those only smell where that inevitable deodorant buildup gets into the armpits.

Being a lifelong cold-climes resident, I already had wool sweaters that could be dedicated to the commuting cause, and socks, and a hat, etc. Have plans to do some thrift-store digging for old wool pants to put _over_ everything when it gets colder. But I’ve really invested in wool shirts – they’re my everyday baselayer starting in early fall, now.

Quick review of brands, because wool baselayers are a little trendy lately, and costly:

  • My one Ibex shirt is the prettiest color of wool shirt that I own, and also far and away the most expensive (even though I think I bought it on sale.) It doesn’t feel particularly itchy, but it’s not exactly smooth. Extremely lightweight, great for fall days that start chilly and end up sunny and warm on the way home.
  • I have a ton of Terramar wool shirts, both the midweight Thermawool line, and the slightly lighterweight (and unfortunately named) “Hottotties” line. These are far and away the most affordable brand I’ve tried ($30-50 on Campmor.com, often on sale.) Only available in black and dark plum, but both feel pretty good against the skin. The Hottotties ones are cut well (no, seriously, someone rolled down their car window to ask me the brand name at a stoplight once), and they have thumbholes, which are extremely convenient for layering.
  • I just recently got a couple SmartWool hoodies on sale. Definitely the most comfortable against the skin of all the brands. Usually pretty expensive. Available in more colors, but the ones on sale were pretty bland. Cut well. The thumbholes are even more robust than in the Terramar shirts.

I don’t think most men’s wool shirts come with thumbholes. That’s sad. Speaking of the unfairness of men’s-styled fashion…

5. Boots

I have two pairs of calf-height leather boots that I wore through most of last winter, one Merrell and one Keen. (They cost a bunch (but are things I’d have been wearing anyway). One was new last year, one from the year before. Hopefully both to last for a few more years at least.) These are awesome for keeping the wind off my shins, and I -don’t have to carry a change of shoes- to look presentable for work!

People who wear women’s-style boots have a big advantage here, because few men’s-style boots go up so high on the shin, and a lot of men’s-style boots are cut so wide that they are pretty clumsy on a bike pedal.

6. Windbreaker

I don’t have this one all the way solved yet. Wind-proofing is extremely key, especially on the front of your body, and waterproofing is important is slushy weather. But so is venting heat.

I wear a very wind- and water-proof REI windbreaker as a top layer, with the pit-zips all the way open on all but the very coldest days. A lot of days, I also unzip the jacket front (and sometimes even my sweater) partway through the ride – it’s helpful to have a zipper-pull that’s easy to grasp with mittens on. On really wet/slushy or -extremely cold- days, I also have a pair of big ole rain pants that go over my lower half.

I say this one isn’t completely solved, because the waterproof jacket and pants inevitably are soaking wet on the inside – from moisture generated on the inside – by the time I get from one end of the commute to the other. But they dry quickly if left inside-out.

7. Lights/reflectors

LittleMyGlimmis-sm.jpgIt’s DARK IN THE WINTER. Without lights, NOBODY CAN SEE YOU.

I have a big, bright headlight, a flashy white light on the front of my helmet, a flashy red light on the back of my bike, and I have a spoke light that I haven’t gotten on yet. I would like to add at least one more rear-facing red light, on me or on the bike.

My studded tires have a reflective rim (which makes me -much- more visible from the side. The next non-studded tires I buy will also have this.) My zipper pull (on view at right) is a reflector (and a grumpy & headstrong icon of Finnish children’s literature!) (I’ve seen this great product, “Glimmis” around, mostly in Scandinaviana stores, but I’ve only seen the Moomin characters -in Scandinavia-.) My jacket and pants (and warmer-weather bike gloves) have reflective highlights. I’ve added reflective stickers to a bunch of surfaces on my bike, bike bag, and clothing (and need to add some more.)

8. Random other stuff

I do have a neoprene facemask. It fits well with the ski googles, but it’s not that comfortable (and sometimes gets a little snotty, ick.) I wear multiple layers of socks – and on the coldest days I’ve ridden, even that isn’t enough. I’ve heard a layer of newspaper inside your shoes can help, and do mean to try that.

– Falling down really doesn’t hurt _that_ much, especially if you’re sticking to speeds that feel safe when it’s icy. But then, I have both a) years of experience in contact sports, so may have skewed perceptions, and b) lots of padding. (ETA – I have fallen way more often in warm clear weather, and in rain, than I ever have in winter. And not with any frequency under any conditions.)
–  I imagine biking in the cold would be a significantly different experience for someone whose body mass is a lot lower than mine, or even for someone who is of similar mass but with less insulation. I suspect gear choices might work out quite differently for those folks.

So, anyway, that’s some stuff I’ve learned. Here’s a couple other sets of useful hints and tips:
http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/11/20/surviving-cold-two-wheels-10-tips-winter-biking-minnesota (Thanks for the link, Meghan!)

And now, back to your irregularly-scheduled copyright-geekery…

Incidentally, all the images in this post are ones I took myself, so consider them under the same CC-license as the post. (Though the Little My Glimmis contains other folks’ copyrights & trademarks.)

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