Saturday, February 9, 2013

Winter Commute

Stopping on Meadow Road

About 7 or 8 years ago I rode 6 or so miles to work when my car wouldn't start because of the cold. The temperature was roughly 5 below zero. I survived the ride and arrived at work mostly overheated but with very cold toes and hands. It felt good to know that I could do such a ride, but I guess it didn't motivate me to continue until the season began to warm up.

Zoom forward to now. This winter I've been biking most days the short 3.2 mile ride each way to work but have tended to pass when the temps get down around the low teens or below.  As chance would have it, Nancy was away with the car for the last three days and so I was (gladly) left with no option but to ride -- come what may. There's nothing like "no other option" to make the choice to bike easier.

Thursday morning was a bright clear day. The temperature was hovering right around 1 or 2 degrees above zero--definitely a day I would have driven given the option, but that wasn't in the cards, so I planned as best I could and had a great ride. I arrived at work a little too warm, but not problematically so -- quite comfortable.   My hands and feet were fine although I suspect that given a few more miles that might have started to change.  As always, experience is the best way to figure out what works and what doesn't. I carry around a few of those chemical hand and foot warmer packets in case I should ever need them, but so far they've just sat in my bag.

It is way colder then it might appear in this photo: about 1 degree fahrenheit 

What I wore:

  • Ski helmet with ski goggles
  • Neoprene face mask with breath holes
  • 2 thin wool shirts
  • Chamois shirt
  • Turtleneck sweater
  • Quilted down vest
  • Waxed cotton cycling shell
  • Winter gloves
  • Large leather mitts over gloves
  • Thick wool leggings
  • Jeans
  • 2 Pair medium thick wool socks
  • Hefty hiking boots

A little later when I had cooled down and stepped outside for a few minutes I was impressed at how cold it actually was, despite the sun.

The key seems to be not having any exposed skin or even really any drafts. To do this again I could easily loose a shirt layer, or maybe the vest. I think also, for the hands, having room for air to circulate in an enclosed space around the gloves. The big over-mitts are crucial; they form little rooms for my gloved hands.

The scene crossing the Mad River was lovely. The water looked so clear

As I write, winter storm Nemo is doing it's thing. We had snow coming down all day and it was a bit of a challenge to get home. Dealing with the cold is it's own challenge, and dealing with any amount of snow is a different problem. The bike I'm currently riding has fat studded semi-knobby tires and I found that it was like biking through wet gravel or something. Hard going and tough to make headway and  stay upright and keep moving in a straight line, particularly on the hills. I didn't fall, but theres lots of sliding around. At times on the steep hill it was a real effort to maintain myself upright and to keep traction. I was able to ride the whole way home, but it felt like it was probably double the effort for the distance.

Despite the challenges, its great to take some of the mystery out of what it means to do winter commuting in the heart of the Green Mountains. I used to bike year-round in Boston, but now see that as a reasonably forgiving climate to cycle in the winter. Vermont sees much more snow and ice and truly cold temperatures.

Riding through the corn fields on the VAST trail

There is a VAST  trail (the statewide snowmobile association) that bisects my commute route home through farm fields for a mile or so. When enough snowmobile traffic has packed the route it real fun to take this little shortcut.

When winter really hits and biking becomes a bit too much of a struggle, there's always skiing... (see next post)


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