Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter Moans in Old Cyclists' Bones (but here's how you can beat the chill)

by Matt Cinelli
with contributions by Jim Sheipe, Owner, Wolverton’s Cycling

It’s nearing the official start of the winter season, and I can feel the cold, moist air deep in my bones.  Although the climate is only a few degrees colder here in Berks County than in my former home in the Delaware Valley, the piercing bone-chill that once visited me around the third week of January now arrives before the middle of December.  This discomfort makes me want to leave my bike in the basement and curl up under a warm blanket.

But for a cycling enthusiast like myself, there are ways to make cold weather rides almost as comfortable as a long winter’s nap.  Proper attire and carefully considered routes help this 50-year-old keep the wheels turning when the mercury drops below the 40 degrees mark.

Jim Sheipe of Wolverton’s Cycling and Fitness, located on Kutztown Road in Muhlenberg Township, recommends keeping the chill at bay with a windproof thermal jersey and tights under a wind block jacket, sometimes called a “shell.”  The key to finding the right garments, he says, is selecting materials that will prevent wind and water from penetrating, while still allowing perspiration to evaporate and pass away from the skin. Qualities to look for in a performance fabric are lightness, breathability, and comfort with the greatest heat conserving characteristics.  Gore-Tex remains the industry standard. 

If I’m working hard enough, my body makes enough heat for my core region.  It is the extremities—ears, fingers, toes, and of course, the face—where cold seems most biting during winter rides.  Sheipe suggests a balaclava or a skull cap under your helmet for the face and head, toe covers or thermal booties for the feet, and thermal windproof gloves for the hands.  While I’ve found that covering my whole face generates too much heat when I breathe, a fleece headband over my ears works wonders.  My latest discovery for the feet, the Gore-Tex sock, has made all those years of sloshing through small creeks with frozen feet only a memory.  Finally, my choice gloves are still the pair I bought in a boating shop during my honeymoon to the west coast of Scotland.  Made by Trespass UK to withstand the wet and wind of the North Sea, our Berks County winters are no match for them.

Now that you are properly dressed, it’s time to choose a route.  Here’s where my twenty years of winter cycling experience have proved invaluable.  First, the flat, open road is a brutal place for wind chill.  I search out routes with hills.  Not only are hill repeats good for building leg strength, they offer a welcome relief from direct wind.  Since I cannot do hills all day every day, my second option is to select a loop within my local suburban neighborhood that will give me 10-15 miles with 4-5 circuits.  It’s not the same as a 15-20 mile tempo ride, but these shorter rides enable me to maintain just enough fitness over the winter to keep my endurance up and my weight down.

Lastly, an option I discovered during business trips out west is off road riding.  Today, so many exotic flavors exist: downhill, cross country, all mountain, and free riding.  But I just relish the chance to be outdoors in winter and let nature shield me from the wind and cold.  We are fortunate in Berks County to have several outstanding venues like Blue Marsh, French Creek and the Mount Penn / Antietam Dam trail system.  A little further afield are Jim Thorpe, Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley, and the Brandywine State Park / Woodlawn Trust in Delaware County—all within an hour by car.  The conditions off road permit me to ride in temperatures as low as 20 degrees, and the aforementioned clothing makes for a toasty riding experience. 

While the technical challenges of some of the Mount Penn and French Creek trails are now beyond what my surgically repaired knees can handle, with due diligence, I’ve found trails at both of these locations that are within my skill set and below my pain threshold.  Just getting out there and riding—even, and perhaps especially, in the cold—keeps me agile.  It also gives me hope that I’ll be riding at least as long as my friend and local cycling advocate, 84-year-old Emily Weidner. 


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