Updated: Dressing For Cycling Success In Freezing Temperatures


Bikes In Snow

Bikes In Snow

I was beginning to despair that the ChainLink crowd would disappoint me. They had a pissing contest in the thread “They didn’t plow the protected bike lane in the loop this morning“. Evidently it was a race to see who could be the most surprised that the plows had not touched the biking lane along Dearborn Street. And ‘h found it necessary to have a hissy fit when notoriousDUG expressed his surprise that anyone would have been surprised, and so it goes.

I almost teared up when the conversation in the thread turned to how very outraged they all were that people were shoveling snow into the gutters, right where bicyclists ride! Of course when the current fad is to place protected bike lanes in areas which during winter collect water which turns to ice and then gets really treacherous when snow covers up the ice and you have a chance to be really surprised… But as notoriousDUG would say:

Reply by notoriousDUG 13 hours ago
This is a surpeise to anyone?

So I guess in all the excitement over “surprise” and “outrage” it was time to either go drinking or at least find a bit of “fun” in this thread “Want to have fun on an Oak Park comment board?” So these self-appointed keepers of the flame of Urban Cycling decided to rattle the cage of one of their suburban cousins (at least they were distracted from calling us suburban riders stupid for paying for the L.A.T.E. Ride while defending their policy of not allowing anyone to do one of Lee Diamond’s Tours Of This Or That Ride without paying). You have to wonder about this Double Standard but it is quite the thing in the ChainLink world.

So the cyclist in question says some things which on the face of it seem misinformed:

Bicyclists are insane riding in winter’s deep freeze!

In years past, I have noticed people riding bicycles even when it was as cold as 5 above with minus 20 windchills.  Above 50 degrees is okay, but when it gets down into the 40s and 30s, cyclists risk catching hypothermia.  Dressing up does no good as cyclists still sweat regardless of how cold it is.  And eventually that sweat will saturate all layers of clothing and render their insulating capabilities ineffective.  And in fact, there is even an extreme likelihood that once all layers are saturated, the sweat may in fact conduct the cold right to the body.  And once that happens, you are in deep trouble!  Being in that cold sweat, you may as well be staying in the water during a polar plunge for a prolonged length of time.  And that is the absolute surest way to catch hypothermia!

Bicycling when it is colder than 20 degrees above zero is downright suicidal!  And I mean suicidal!  At those temps, not only does sweat-saturated clothes conduct the cold to your body, resulting in hypothermia, but the sweat can even freeze and turn into solid ice!  And then you may as well be wearing an iceberg as clothing.  Even snowsuits will not provide any protection, especially once saturated with sweat/frozen sweat.  Not to mention massive and extensive frostbite caused by the constant wind rushing past as you ride, which at temps especially colder than 15 degrees, will affect every single square inch of exposed skin.  Also, bicycles, on only 2 wheels, are nowhere near as stable as a car, and if you hit a patch of ice on only 2 wheels, chances are, you will end up doing a faceplant right on the ground!  Even one severe enough to cause death and/or even permanent paralysis!

Seriously.  Save yourselves from the awful consequences of bicycling in the winter!  If you don’t drive or have a car and need to go somewhere, either have someone who has a car take you, or take the bus!  The attached drawing describes the dangers of winter cycling.

But if you consider the kind of silly reasoning that one Active Transportation Alliance worker gave for why a fairing should slow you down (see “Open Streets Activity – Wicker Park / Bucktown“) then what this fellow is saying is one more instance of someone “getting it wrong”. His only crime is that he was not born an Urban Cyclist and not as in the know as he should be, right?

There is in fact a thread “Need advice on frozen fingers” which deals with the same lack of understanding about suitable riding gear. But as is always the case some people have a very low tolerance of cold where their hands are concerned. But feel free to leave snide replies “have a little fun” with the ChainLinkers. I am certain they are as tolerant an any cyclists around.

But at least one respondent hit the proper tone:

Reply by Sam 12 hours ago
As a long-term winter cyclist who has learned some lessons the hard way, I can tell you that the information provided in this article can be true, if you are unwise with your clothing choices. Cotton clothing soaks up a ton of sweat, and will readily conduct your heat away when it gets wet. Many many cyclists learn this pretty quickly when they’re getting started.

That does NOT have to be where the joy of riding a bike in the winter stops, however. Wool clothing, readily available at your local thrift shop, can make a huge difference with a small investment, but the real key is great rain gear, which can be expensive in the short term, but save you BUCKETS of money in every area of your life, from health care to gasoline to anti-depressants.

Wool retains much of its’ insulating properties when wet, making it an ideal choice for winter activities of any type. A good rain jacket made for cycling or running use will keep water from snow or rain from getting IN, while still allowing moisture from sweat to get OUT. It’s POSSIBLE to find them used, although the water resistant nature of the fabrics does degrade with use, so I generally recommend just spending $100-200 on a great jacket that can easily last you through 5 winters.

Hope that’s helpful!

And helpful it was. You can make all sorts of unwise decisions about clothing when you cycle that are not just dangerous but can be deadly. That is especially true when you find yourself unable to find your bike after a late evening ChainLink drunk drinking fest. If you were to find your bike and hit a parked car on the way home and strike your head on the pavement and lie unconscious between cars for a few hours you might indeed find yourself suffering hypothermia. It is for this reason that I suggested that Urban Cyclists find a way to do what Florida cyclists do and build a “Bike Bus“.

(See “Why Chicago Cyclists Need A ‘Bike Bus’”)

There is much about cycling lore that has been lost over the past few decades. The tragedy is that in the next decade or so we will have no one who even remembers the cycling skills transmitted via the Vehicular Cycling approach. That will of course be a shame, because sooner or later the arrogance of the Urban Cyclist may have to be consumed with a bit of humble pie if it turns out that the incarnations of the segregated bike lane we are currently enamored with are too fraught with complexity. If that happens a great deal of money will have to be spent turning protected bike lanes into buffered bike lanes where the cyclists are not riding in the gutter and thus experiencing all the outrage mentioned on ChainLink this morning.

One Last Point

There are going to be lots of folks who are poor enough not to be able to afford the kind of clothing that is suitable for riding in sub-zero weather without fear of hypothermia. And that class of individuals will probably agree with the Oak Park rider cited above that riding in winter is dangerous. After all ChainLinkers are not above worrying when the temperatures climb into the danger zone in summer.

(See “Is the heat keeping anyone off the bike?“)

There is enough “misinformation and fear-mongering” even among God’s Chosen Bicyclists (i.e. ChainLinkers) to last a lifetime.

I should also share with this august group a story about the Evanston Bicycle Club’s “Hot Dog Tour Sans The Hotdogs“. The interesting thing here is that the ride leader decided to cancel the ride because of the rain. He rode up to my van while we were getting our bikes ready for the ride and he and two others (all three of whom were dressed in rain suits, how ironic). So I would never be too hard on the Oak Park writer since his “betters” are as lazy a bunch when in comes to riding in “bad weather” as anyone else. And on that particular day there was no threat of hypothermia, just the possibility that your hair gel might start to run.