Winter Riding

peter_burns_brighter.pngWhat a winter! The weather has presented more challenges than usual. So far the extreme cold and bad road conditions have not stopped my riding except the day of a big snowfall. With fresh deep snow, my studded tires don't really make any difference. On Saturday the 14th of January I really should have just walked to my job in Burlington. I ended up pushing my bike most of the way from Winooski to Burlington and back, but I did catch a break on The Riverside Avenue bike path. I was able to follow the sidewalk plow up the hill until he reached Intervale Road. Then he crossed the street to head back down Riverside and I had to walk again.





Early in the winter, on the suggestion of a member of the Vermont Bike Commuters Facebook group, I bought a Coldavenger balaclava which includes a plastic breathing valve. The unit is designed so you can put your ski goggles on underneath the balaclava to prevent fogging. I can ride when it is well below zero without having any skin exposed to the elements. This balaclave allowed me to go from Winooski to Burlington when it was -18 degrees - a new record for me!

One of my more difficult rides was on January 5th. The temperature hovered around zero most of the day, and there was a strong wind. Because of the cold temperature, salt was not effective on the roads, and snow from a storm the day before had turned into a mess. I had an appointment in South Burlington at nine. Early that morning I actually sent an email saying that due to the conditions outside, I wasn't sure if I would make it.

This winter, for the first time, I have started bring my bike into my house every night. It's made a HUGE different, I can lubricate the chain and the shifters when they need it, and I have not had any trouble with my brakes or bike lock freezing. I can also leave the house fully encased in my cold weather gear. My bike used to be in an unheated shed. In single digit weather, even with gloves on, when I unlocked the bike and put on the lights my hands got cold. The key to extreme riding is to start off with warm hands and feet - even when my core heats up my hands and feet can get really cold and remain really cold if I don't start with them warm.

I was anxious while I was getting ready to go to South Burlington. The Weather Channel was calling for wind chill of -40. That is something I did not want to fool around with. I am prepared to get cold hands and feet, but if I ever feel in danger of frostbite I immediately stop and go inside. My cold weather riding is confined to urban areas, so stopping and going inside is always an option.

Getting ready for a really cold day is a like getting ready to go scuba diving. I am preparing for an alien environment. I wear regular underpants, and then thick silk long underwear. On top of that I put on a pair of Gortex rain pants and then a pair of windproof shorts. The pants don't have pockets, but the shorts do. Pockets are useful for keys. My first layer up top is a merino wool long sleeve shirt and then a merino hoody. I use a hairdryer to heat my feet, socks and boots. My boots are waterproof and insulated. Next I put on my neck and head gear. Buff fleece neck warmer, ski goggles, Coldavenger balaclava, breathing valve, windproof cap, and then the hood goes up followed by my helmet. I wear a pair of thin glove liners with my Black Diamond mountaineering mittens. These mittens have two insulated layers, an inner lobster claw type mitten and regular mittens on top of that. I warm up the glove liners, turn on my bike lights and then put on the other two layers of mittens. I'm finally layered and perhaps slightly resemble the Michelin Man but am ready to go!

I took Patchen Road to South Burlington. The road was narrower than usual because of the plowed snow, and there was some rush hour traffic, but by and large cars gave me enough room and nobody honked at me. When I ride on snow covered roads, I have to stay focused all the time or risk slipping - it is like forced meditation. I also go more slowly than usual. When I arrived at my appointment, I was fine. 

After my appointment I got ready to ride into Burlington. I had brought my purple hairdryer with me so I could preheat my socks and gloves before heading out. My bike was parked in a shed, it wasn't locked so I didn't have to deal with a freezing lock but I still had to turn on the lights and put on my pannier. In spite of the glove pre-heating, my hands were a little cold when I set off and it only got worse on the way into Burlington. The wind was brisk from the West, and my hands were pretty cold as I rode down Main Street.

I brought my bike into City Hall where there is indoor parking. I hung my bike from the rack and went right into the nearby bathroom and ran warm water over my hands to heat them up. I locked my bike and pannier and headed to City Market for lunch. Although this is not directly connected to riding, I will mention that Friday is free coffee day at the YMCA on College Street and that you do not have to be a member to benefit. I got my coffee after lunch and went over to the Fletcher Free Library to read some magazines.

At the library I put foot warmers in my boots. Later, in City Hall, I had some trouble getting my bike off the rack - the racks don't accommodate fenders very well. I plugged my hair dryer into an outlet near the rack and preheated my gloves. After I was done, and my hairdryer was in my pannier, someone came by and asked, "Do you smell something burning?" I said that I did not ;)

I rode back to Winooski by way of Riverside Avenue. By the time I got to the post office, my hands were starting to get cold again. I checked my post office box, and before setting off, I gripped a hot water pipe in the lobby while wearing my glove liners. That got the liners and my hands warm again for the final stage of my ride.

Some of my willingness to embrace the challenge of winter riding has seeped into other areas of my life. I find myself more willing to face difficulties instead of avoiding them. I am not sure if this will last when riding becomes easier in the spring, but I hope it does. Maybe I will write a book called, "Everything I Know about Life I Learned from Winter Bike Riding."