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. 


Get in Gear: Clothes and Equipment for Optimal Winter Riding

by Justin Bernardo
Owner, JB Mountain Bikes

Photo courtesy of New Zealand Press Association
Bicycling in the winter is great fun and a fantastic way to maintain an active lifestyle once the temperature begins to drop. To make the most out of your winter cycling experience, make sure your bike is in good working order and that you’re dressed (i.e., “properly layered”) for the colder weather you’ll be riding in. For those new to cycling in the winter, I’ve included a breakdown of what you will need to get going once "Old Man Winter" starts blowing.

Bike – Specific bikes for snow riding are becoming increasingly popular, including “fat bikes,” which come equipped with exceptionally wide 4” and 5” super fat tires.  The truth is, almost any bicycle can be ridden year round.  Many cyclists choose to use an old mountain, road, or cyclocross bike during the winter to spare their new(er) bike the additional wear and tear created by winter riding conditions.  It only makes sense that you wouldn’t want to take your brand new road racing bicycle out when the streets are covered with salt, cinder, and possibly ice.  Additionally, some riders will attach fenders to both front and rear tires, so as to minimize road / trail spray.  The important thing is: most any bike will provide comfort and safety during winter rides, as long as it is in good working order and you are paying attention to the trail or road and riding at your own level.

Tires – Tire choice can be very important depending upon the kind of winter riding a person is looking to do. For trail and off-road riding, larger volume, knobby tires, and even tires that include metal studs (if riding icy terrain) are excellent choices. For unpacked snow, your only choice may be large volume mountain bike tires.  (If the snow is deep enough, it may be “fat bike only” terrain.)  In any instance, go with a lower tire pressure than you would for your normal MTB riding.  The lower pressure tire will flatten out more on the surface of the trail and will consequently provide a more secure grip.

For cyclists looking to stay on the road during the winter, a “maximum protection” road tire is essential, such as the Gator / Gator Hardshell series from Continental. These tires are built with an extra layer of protection against flats, which happen more frequently during the winter, mostly due to the sharp cinder that is spread on the roads.  Unexpected roadside flat changes can really diminish a cold weather riding experience; so minimizing them is crucial to your enjoyment.

Clothing – When it comes to winter riding, the cyclist’s mantra goes something like this, “the key to staying out and on the bike is staying comfortable, the key to staying comfortable is staying warm, and the key to staying warm is layering.”  To this end, always start off with a base layer to wick away moisture from your body. Wool is preferred, but there are many good synthetic materials that also do a nice job. From there, depending upon how cold it is, and how long you are going to be out riding, you may want to add an additional base layer. The base layer(s) are usually followed by a light, insulating layer that will act to trap in heat. Finally, either a long sleeve winter jersey or a long sleeve winter coat can be added as the outermost layer. It’s particularly useful if these out layers include zippered vents (usually under the sleeves) so that the rider can zip and unzip to regulate the amount of heat being retained.

The legs, feet, hands, and head are next on the list.  For your legs, I heartily recommend insulated bib tights as opposed to standard tights since bib tights give more coverage, stay in place better, and ultimately keep you warmer.  For the feet, I recommend a good pair of wool socks and, if the temperature goes low enough, some toe covers or booties. If you’re willing to invest the extra money, winter specific cycling shoes are the next step up. For hands, insulated cycling or ski specific gloves rated to the temperatures in which you intend to ride are essential.  Nothing will make you turn around quicker than cold hands and painfully numb fingers.  Additionally, a winter riding hat or skull cap for under your helmet is a must, as is cycling specific eyewear (designed for minimal fogging since it allows for specific airflow behind the lenses).

Lighting – Given the fewer daylight hours during the winter, you may need lights, especially if you plan to ride after work. The tail light is most easily addressed.  All you will need here is an inexpensive red “flasher or blinkie” light so that anyone approaching from the rear can spot and safely avoid you. For the front light, you must ask yourself:  do I just need to be seen, or do I also need to see? For the latter, when a rider is riding aggressively and wants to be able to react as if they were riding during daylight, a high quality helmet (recommended) or handlebar mounted lighting system is the only way to go. These can cost between $200 - $400, but are well-built, reliable, and have a battery life which, when fully charged, will assure 3 – 4 hours of high visibility light. If, however, you only plan to pedal around the neighborhood at dusk, a much less expensive handlebar mounted light will do the trick.