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The Buzz on Safe Winter Riding
By Buzz Feldman
Have you ever wished you could ride longer into winter but weren't sure how to do that and feel comfortable, warm and safe? You're not alone. Here are a few pointers to get you started:
First off the question often arises, "Will the City do anything about snow that remains days after a snowfall in the south side bike lanes on many City streets?" The answer to that question is that the City Public Works Department does not have money budgeted or available to address that problem. Besides, where would they put the snow that it wouldn't create a problem? Our best hope is for an early spring and warm temperatures between snow storms.
Regardless of road conditions, cycling in winter can be fun and exhilarating when we follow safe riding techniques and dress properly.
to the Road:
Riding in winter requires us to remember that as cyclists we are simply driving slow moving vehicles and, as such, we have the same right to the road as any other user. Motorists own a car (or pick-up); they don't own the road.
Visible and Predictable:
Every time we ride in traffic, we must be visible and predictable to stay safe. When snow and ice have accumulated in the bike lane, conditions require riding to the left, out of the bike lane. To do this safely, we must ride in a straight line about two (2) feet to the left of the accumulated ice and snow. While this may seem counter-intuitive, doing so accomplishes two things. Firstly, our visibility is increased to motorists behind us and, secondly, it allows us room to swerve right if necessary. Potholes or other road hazards may not be immediately noticed when covered in snow, ice and dirt. Do not hug the piled up ice and snow on the right. That would require you to weave left to avoid the accumulated snow and ice and thus be unpredictable to passing motorists. There may even be a car by your left shoulder at the exact time you need to move left; a truly unsafe condition.
Caution at Intersections:
Often icy patches will be encountered at intersections and at adjacent driveways due to runoff. These circumstances may require you to swerve way to the left to avoid them. Be sure to scan over your left shoulder for oncoming traffic before doing so. On one recent commute to downtown, I had to move to the left and into the oncoming traffic lane to avoid an icy patch. You may have to do the same. Just be sure no motorists are coming from either direction before swerving that far left. Otherwise, be prepared to stop and let traffic pass before proceeding.
Additionally, we need to use extra caution at intersections where sand accumulates. These areas will be quite slippery so slow down and avoid leaning your bike as you make any turns.
Dress for the Conditions:
Okay. Now that you know safe winter riding techniques, let's give some thought to comfortable dress.
With the proper attire, winter riding can be quite enjoyable and a great way to stay fit. Once when caught riding in an unexpected snowstorm, a companion remarked, "There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear." Remembering that has brightened my spirits and gotten me out the door on many occasions when I might have driven or hitched a ride.
I have often had people tell me that they won't ride if it is below a certain temperature. My response is often to ask them if they ski or snowshoe. If the answer is, "Yes", I suggest they dress similarly for riding as they do for comparable temperatures when they are skiing or snowshoeing. Skiing when it is 20 degrees is ideal for me. I never get either overheated or cold. The same is true when biking. The benefit that cycling has over skiing is that there are no cold lift lines or chair lift rides; you are continually moving and burning calories, which keeps you warm.
One caveat: if when you leave for your ride you are comfortable from the get-go, then you are probably overdressed. Unless the ride is only a mile or two, you should begin the ride a bit chilled. It may take you one or two miles to burn enough calories to warm up but, if dressed properly, from then on you will be quite comfortable.
The secret, of course, is to dress in layers. Not only does that keep you warmer but it also allows you to shed a layer or two if you begin to get too warm. And, yes, that can certainly happen, even on the coldest days. The other factor to consider is that as you begin to perspire (and you probably will) that the perspiration needs a way to escape so that you don't stay damp and get chilled as a result. Many of the best winter garments have a wind proof membrane in the front and a mesh or breathable fabric for your back and the back of your legs. These types of garments are referred to as "wind front". Some people prefer Goretex fabrics for cycling. I have never felt they allowed enough perspiration to evaporate and thus I became clammy and uncomfortable. In any case, avoid cotton fabrics since they hold moisture and dry slowly. Nylon, polyester, thermax, etc. are materials that work well. Fleece is good. Wool is even better since it retains its insulating properties, even when wet. Avoid anything that is loose and could cause a crash, such as a scarf or baggy pants legs.
For many, it takes trial and error over two or three years to figure out the winter riding clothing mystery. Here are a few things that work for me. Because everyone has a different tolerance level for cold, they may or may not work for you.
On the coldest days, I start with padded lycra cycling shorts or padded short liners. Over that I put on long underwear bottoms and a wind front undershirt followed by a long sleeve nylon fleece base layer. Next comes fleece lined cycling tights (wind front on the coldest days) and a fleece lined or wool jersey. A mid-weight, wind front jacket is usually enough.
For the feet, wool socks, the thickest I can find. My shoes will have neoprene toe warmers or full neoprene booties if it's really cold.
For my hands, I often use snowboarding gloves with a liner.
My head will have a skull cap that covers the ears or perhaps a balaclava that provides additional coverage. If it is cold enough: two balaclavas. And, always a helmet. It will have a wind proof rain cover on cold days.
On days when it is not so cold, of course you won't need as much and adjust accordingly. That is the trial and error part I mentioned above. It makes riding a fun adventure.
Now, if I can move my arms and legs, I may actually be able to pedal the bike!
was reproduced from a Sierra Club website with permission of the