Cold

Ride time temp 24˚ F. Light wind. The snow from last week’s blizzard has mostly melted out, but where the sun eats away at the remaining piles you will find slick, black ice creeping across the pavement.

This is the thick of it.

Fleece-lined knickers with tights over top. High wool socks. Baselayer and midlayer and windproof outer. I wear two pairs of gloves, one thin but warm, and one windproof, because I prefer to have the use of all of my fingers, even in the bitterest.

When the sun shines and the wind is light like this, the cold is just the cold. It’s ambient, only really amplified by your own speed. Descents hurt, but the flats, where you can build some heat in your core, are more than tolerable.

The river is frozen in great, sweeping, Nazca lines of blue gray ice, the wind-swept ripples of its final moments of fluidity preserved there like fossil. Ducks dabble at its edges, tuck their heads under their wings, nap.

At these temperatures, of course, if the wind picks up, you’re hosed. A ten knot westerly will turn the evening commute into a survival race, extremities smarting with the struggle to keep blood in fingers and toes. You duck your head to keep your face out of the line of fire and focus on turning the pedals over.

South of 20˚, you run into mucoidal problems. A mentholated something pops up in the back of your nose. Your snot is freezing. Uncomfortable. Disconcerting. Even in a balaclava, the bridge of your nose stings. Your cheeks turn red and maybe start to itch. I call this “face cold.” One probably ought not be riding when it’s face cold, but one does, because that is just how it is.

But today it’s not face cold. It’s just regular cold, and we will be lucky if it stays that way. Brief periods of warmth only serve to melt what ice is there. When the mercury dives again, it leaves the roads all slick and dangerous.

No. Better just to stay cold. And dry.

Photo copyright Matt Person©

24 comments

  1. Rick

    My favorite quote for the winter from one of the hardmen of the past:

    The thing about the cold is that you can never tell how cold it is from looking out a kitchen window. You have to dress up, get out training and when you come back, you then know how cold it is. -Sean Kelly

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  3. Chromatic Dramatic

    24 degrees… that’s nothing… I went out riding the other day and it was 8 degrees, but that was Celsius and the middle of Summer.

    Living in Sydney I just can’t imagine riding in conditions like this!

  4. James

    Ugh! I don’t miss riding in those conditions! When I lived in Wisconsin we used to ride on the frozen lakes while the temp was in the 10’s and 20’s! Stay safe whilst riding when it’s cold!

  5. Bryan Lewis

    We have similar conditions here in Maine except a few degrees colder, so quitcher whinin’. My record-low commute so far is 12 degrees. MnBicycleCommuter thinks 12 above is balmy.

    It sounds like you need to work on your hand and face gear. Those little charcoal hand/foot warmer packets are cheap miracles. Especially the foots.

    Ski goggles. A head band across the ears and nose if you can’t stand a balaclava covering your mouth.

    Put on some fat and grow a beard.

    I’d suggest studded tires for the slickness but you’d say they’re slow, which they are. Put ‘em on a spare pair of junker wheels so you can pop them onto the bike in the morning when you see the slickness. Yesterday morning I didn’t have them on and regretted it because of the melted/refrozen road shoulders.

  6. Randomactsofcycling

    You guys are hard! When I lived in Melbourne, my record cold was -2 Celsius. No snow or ice but an ice cold wind off Bass Strait. Keep it up, you’re inspirational.

  7. Michael

    I am originally from the province of Quebec, more specifically far northeastern Quebec. We used to regularly tap out our base miles in the late winter/early spring in temperature averaging around -10 celcius not including wind chill.

    I was just back home over the holidays and went out for a ride with a wind chill bordering on -21 celcius.

    there is no such thing as bad weather, just poorly dressed people.

    FYI, Vaseline is a great way to insulate exposed skin on your face on the really cold days.

    Nowadays I live in perpetually dark, dank rainy Vancouver where it rarely goes below freezing except on those beautiful (and rare!) sunny days in the winter when we blip below freezing a smidge such as this past weekend.

    Really it doesn’t take much to layer properly, a quality merino wool base layer is best as it regulates body temperature over a wider range than the synthetic stuff. Good gloves and good head gear are the most important items on the list.

  8. David A

    When I went training in Belgium in the winter the PROS and other riders put fenders and cyclo-cross tires on. The snow and ice on the roads was bad, so we always made our way to Holland where the bike paths were salted and dry. The PROS spin fast and wore layers of the crappy clothes we had back then. A balacava and scarfs and a rain jacket with sleeves cut off under your winter jacket. It didnt matter what the weather was like when it was time to get hours in we had to do it. I remember slipping and sliding with cross tires sometimes, always added some excitment. When it was too much ice or snow we rode the rollers 2 to 3 times a day for 30mins at a time.

  9. Doug P

    This morning it was 20 and clear in Burgundy for the baguette run. Like we say in Sacramento about the heat…it’s a DRY cold..I prefer dry and 20 to wet and 50. As far as clothing goes, good shoe covers make SO much difference! And thanks, Rick, for the Sean Kelly quote!

  10. sophrosune

    Nice stuff, Robot. You paint a vivid picture. I guess these types of tales always bring out the, “yeah, but when I was riding my tricyle across the Antarctic in my bathing suit…” But to me it’s all good. It’s these conditions that remind me that we cycle not just to keep fit, or because we love the gear and the camraderie, but just to be outdoors in the elements, whatever they may be.

  11. Hitto

    Amazing really the luxury of modern protection from the cold. Windproof, breathable, micro-layered, wicking fabrics, body geometry fit etc. A couple of years back in the UK I was amazed to have ridden a 20 mile commute quite comfortably only to find that my water bottle had frozen solid.
    We are at the other end of the spectrum here in Australia at the moment. Sweating before the first pedal, tar spots melted on the road, sunburn, salt & sweat encrusted, sticky sports drink on your brakes & frame, empty water bottles, and that beautiful feeling of a post ride swim, airconditioning and an ice cold drink.

  12. rich_mutt

    i can’t stand riding the trainer, so i’ll ride until it’s into the low 20’s. for some reason my gloves stopped working this year. i’ve taken to wearing the 2 glove routine- a heavier than normal base with the lobster claw style on the outside. tip from my ice-climber friend: use the warmers on your inside wrist instead of on the hands. it’s warms the blood in the myriad capillaries that lead to the hands.

  13. Robot

    The thing about the cold is that it gives us another way to confront our limits, which is where we learn the most. You can go far. You can go hard. You can go steep. You can go fast.

    Can you go cold?

    I rode one day last winter when it was 7 and there was a 40mph head wind. There were all sorts of warnings about even being outside. Staying upright in the wind was as challenging as moving forward appreciably. I remember it being very, very loud. Of course, I was geared to the max, so the cold wasn’t actually so bad. It was everything else. I would never choose to ride in those conditions, but it was a cool experience.

  14. Bikelink

    +1 on a beard (low tech), ski goggles (clear so you can see at night) (medium tech), and high tech clothes.

    You’ve got to commute where you’ve got to commute, but I’ve recently ‘discovered’ that cold outdoor training = mountain biking. More continuous work (so not hot/cold/hot/cold), slower speeds (less headwind), trees (less wind in general), and a chance to not dodge cars.

  15. Scott

    Enjoyed hearing your tale. This morning, in WI, temps were in the single digits, but the roads were mostly clear with ice ‘chunks’ on the roadsides. A beard, ear cover, embrocation, and gloves inside mittens help me. The difference between running and cycling at these temp. is a reminder of the power behind wind chill! Be safe

  16. J

    There exists a quiet beauty in seeing both single-digit and triple-digit temperatures on the same thermometer in one year.

    After 2 years riding 300+ days out of the year including regular 3+ hour rides in the morning before work in the winter, I’ve found that the heated foot beds and gloves are simply the best investment I’ve ever made.

  17. Bryan Lewis

    I’ve found the answer! Last night I was reading Ski magazine (feels like Bicycling mag… you can’t possibly be adequate with your current gear). There was an article about a newish ski-race-prep technique, warming up on a stationary bike. There was a a picture of a skin-suited, boot-wearing guy on a ski-resort balcony, pedaling a spin bike while chatting on a phone.

    Not really a revolutionary idea but the theory was reasonable. Get your core temp up before expecting your muscles to function at their best in the cold. I vaguely recall some actual measurements, but hey, it was a paper mag that’s already been recycled and I’m old.

    Anyway, before your winter commute, hop on your trainer for ten minutes. Throw in some situps and pushups for a little extra core heat.

    Don’t mention it.

  18. Jim

    I’ve been riding the mountain bike all winter, including a lot of night / pre-dawn rides. The woods are comfortable to ride in until you’re at or below 10 degrees F. A singlespeed 29’er is pretty much the opposite of, and precise reason to stay off, the trainer.

  19. Touriste-Routier

    For conditions as Robot has cited, I’ve gone from wearing 5 layers of wool to a single long sleeve base layer with a Castelli Radiation jacket on top. Yes it is expensive, but it sure beats the Michelin Man layered approach. I can’t believe how much better the newer clothes are! Now if they only could come up with something similar for hands & feet… Great Sean Kelly quote!

  20. Nelson

    To all you cold weather cyclists, I give you a lot of credit. Once the mercury dips below 40f, I put the bike away (which is 4 or more months in Michigan) so I run. Running in 20f is like riding in 55f. Plus, its a nice change.

  21. todd k

    A nice cold day can feel refreshing. I am *lucky* in one regard in that my body runs warm. I generally need only a base layer, a wool based jersey, a shell that is windproof, some fleece based tights and a nice thick wool hat down to about 25F. (We rarely go south of that here and when we do we typically have freezing rain or ice that keeps me off the road). I have found that I do need to double up layers on my feet and hands, though. A little bit of embro doesn’t hurt.

    The only thing i don’t like about riding in sub freezing weather is changing flats. You suddenly go from nice and warm to bone chattering cold. And some of those winter tires can be a real bear to take off in colder temps!

  22. Erich

    There is a particular tension that exists when the temps drop. When weather is kind and winds are low, the tension relates more to the dynamics of speed, achievement and perhaps the county line sprint. In winter, it feels more internal – more a question of personal fortitude. As Robot said, ‘can you go cold?’ Just getting out the door is something special.

    Here’s to those of us who crank our frigid machines in concert with Mother Nature’s dark season.

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