Biking and cold weather
April 1, 2017
One thing I didn’t understand growing up in Florida was how people could bike in cold weather. Now that I live near Boston, I do it all the time, and I understand how. I will share these secrets with you.
The two most important things to know are that you need to shield your extremities (toes, fingers, ears) from cold wind, and that even moderate cycling generates an enormous amount of heat. Humans are not efficient motors; for each 100 watts we deliver to the pedals, we leave 300 in our legs, to be swept into the rest of our body by our remarkably effective circulatory system. Most people can pedal at 100 watts once they are in any kind of shape at all. The heat isn’t all there right away, so you also have to get used to the idea that rides start “brisk”, but use layers because you’ll warm up. Wind blocks and sweaters that unzip down the front (as opposed to pull overs) are a good thing because your thighs and torso will be warmest by far. And by layers, I don’t necessarily mean thick ones; it’s easy to overdress for a trip of more than a couple of miles, and then you’re sweaty, in the winter, which is dumb.
Another thing that helps is learning to personally quantify what is or is not endurable. For example (note, I seem to run warm, especially after ten years of biking in the winter) above 45F, I can ride barehanded, below 45F I need gloves or some sort of a wind shield. With “baggies” or “pogies” to shield my hands, I can ride barehanded down to 15F (you try it, and if it doesn’t work, you put on gloves). Without a beard I need to do something for my face below 30F, with a beard I am comfortable down to 20F. It turns out that with a wool long-sleeve T-shirt and a wind block (and gloves) I can endure 40F raining or 20F dry. (“endure” means parts of me may be cold, but not painful, and my torso and legs are warm enough to keep it that way). I don’t have a lot of experience biking in single digit temperatures, but a balaclava appears to solve the cold-face problem pretty well and that appears to be the main problem; gloves in pogies and two layers of socks handle the rest.