Saturday, December 6, 2008

Winter Bike Riding: How to Stay Warm, Dry & Have Fun

One of my friends just changed his tires on his commuter bike to a more knobby version for
better traction in the snow. In Alaska they have a winter bike race and they even put studs on their winter tires. Go dogs go! It's called the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It's for the serious winter bike rider. There is even a place called the Winter Bike School that you may find interesting if you're an avid winter bike rider.

Unlike the above, this entry is more for us city folks riding our bikes to work in the winter. If I get sick in the winter, I'll just drive my car for a few days, until I recover. Same with really feirce storms. Most of the time it is really nice to ride your bike in the winter as long as you dress properly.

Ok, ok, I'm already off the subject, so what does the movie The Perfect Storm have to do with winter bike riding? Easy- you have to stay warm and dry wearing specific gear while being athletic for long spans in bad weather.

I thought that Junger and the filmmakers did a pretty good job with both writing the story and making The Perfect Storm authentic to what it means to be a commercial fisherman on the high seas, hair raising weather and all. Their manner of dress was authentic, especially the layering. All my fishermen friends in Alaska gave it a hearty thumbs up, over beer of course- especially us longliners who have paid our dues as they say, out on the ocean at places like the Aleutians, where a lot of Pacific storms originate. Junger and George can sit at our table anytime, they just have to leave their fancy- pants hollywood friends at home. Like thousands of generations of our Alaskan indigenous fishermen (and women, for that matter), I made a living as a fisherman for years all over Alaska. We caught king crab, dungeness crab, halibut, black cod, all kinds of salmon, herring, etc. When we fished halibut we had to go out no matter what the weather was like and sometimes we hit some pretty heavy weather with mountainous waves and winds fierce enough to blow your ass right out of your pants. Now that was a sight to see.

I always thought that the simple, yet rugged oilskins you wear layered with various fabrics underneath was pretty amazing, because even in the worst storms, we'd be dry and warm wile doing extreme workouts on deck hauling our gear out of the ocean. It was important to be comfortable, because of how brutal and difficult the conditions could be. Besides, if you started sniveling on our decks, we'd throw you overboard (What happened to Dave? Have you seen that sniveling wimp? Uh, I haven't seen him anywhere capt'n... aren't the clouds purty this mornin'?).

This was made earlier this year (for my mom, actually). Riding in the snow can indeed be comfortable. Notice the layered fleece and outer shell (and the doggies who wanted to go with me to school). The Tee Harbor Jackson Bikeway.


Layering your clothing with specific fabrics and materials to stay warm & dry in bad weather is nothing new. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years, sometimes very ingeniously. You should see the waterproof shells that the Aleut and Yupik people had for their ocean-going kayaks. Man, talk about being greener than green (NO carbon footprint or toxic materials) with biodegradable materials that didn't leave a toxic mess behind. Not only that, the jacket had to perform just as good or better than man-made materials, because the weather can be fierce there, even in summer.

The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak had this example of the waterproof jacket. Hey man, do you really want to stay warm in the winter elements? You have to change your diet too. Try seal oil as a part of your diet instead of that fancy pants high tech stuff.

These days we have man-made materials like the waterproof, windproof, breathable 3-layer polyurethane-laminated nylon (for durable, comfortable protection) used in some of the higher-end outer shell jackets. We've gone high tech for some stuff, while still holding on to more time honored materials, such as wool for our layering philosophy.

You essentially need at least three basic layers that all do different things. Bundling up in heavy clothing won't work, and using the wrong materials may leave you both cold and wet, a potentially dangerous situation (nearly as dangerous as being a sniveling deckhand on our boat). You essentially need an outer shell, a middle layer and an inner layer for next to your skin. This is advice for the kind of weather we have in Idaho where we have cold rain and light snow in the winter. If you were in Alaska where I'm from, you'd need much heavier layers.

1. Outer Shell: You need a lightweight, yet durable shell that is both waterproof and windproof. There are actual designations that manufacturers have to follow in order to claim that their materials are wind or water proof. Many are just wind or water resistant, which is a huge difference in performance. Read all the labels carefully prior to buying anything so you don't have any unpleasant surprises on the road (What you don't want to realize miles from home on your bike: HEY!! I'm cold and wet!)

After doing a bit of research, I found that REI has one of the best outer shells out there. Well, next to the Aleut version that is. It is called the Novara Statos Bike jacket. It is ruggedly made, yet has an athletic streamlined fit, with features designed for a bike rider, like underarm zippers for venting sweat, a long back so that it gives good coverage, a roomy pocket in the back, a breathable yet waterproof fabric (how in the heck did they do that?), adjustable cuffs to keep out the elements, and so on. It has lots of stuff that only a bike rider goofy enough to ride in the rain or snow would appreciate.

You can't wear this shell by itself in the cold rain or snow; you'll freeze. It is designed to be worn with other layers. Part of the philosophy of layering is that you get air circulating between the layers, and this acts to both offer better insulation, and to wick away moisture from sweat. There are dozens of outer shells to pick from; just make sure that the shell you select has the features you need to be safe on your winter bike rides.

Holy crap! It's expensive! Oh well, shop around, I'm sure you can get a good deal these days. I looked at it as an investment to get me away from using a car, so you will be saving money in the long run. I've saved hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in automobile expenses this year because I drove my car dramatically less.

2. Middle Layer: This layer is generally fleece and varies in weight depending on how cold it is out there. Heavy if it's cold and lighter if it's warmer. You need to figure this one out for yourself, depending on where you live. Some are more windproof than others and perform differently with their moisture wicking ability (the more expesnive ones are higher performing). If you have a long ride, you'll likely sweat more and need a better wicking material than others.

You'll find prices all over the place and I am never surprised at how expensive these fleece jackets can be. Shop around and find the one(s) that meet your needs. I have a sneaking suspicion that they're really more alike than we think. I find that on cold days, I just put on a heavy one that I got cheap at Fred Meyer and it works great.

3. Inner Layer: Your innermost layer is just as critical as the shell, in my opinion. This is because you perspire when you exert yourself more, and this moisture can be bad if you're trying to stay warm. This means you need some kind of wicking material that draws the moisture from your skin and evaporates it. In my opinion, wool still does this better than any other material.

I've tried lots of made-made materials that are supposedly high tech with their wicking ability, and none perfrom as well as good old Merino wool. The artificial materials tend to be cold, stinky and leave an uncomfortable residue that leaves the material kind of just plain weird feeling. They don't wick the moisture as well as wool either. You'll find that a lot of the artificial wicking materials have zero insulating abilities. This is not good for winter riding; you don't want to be rode hard and put away wet...

Merino is really nice because it's soft and insulates exceptionally well while wicking moisture just as good or better than any of the artificial stuff. I'd suggest a version with a zipper; it turns into a heat exhaust that wicks away more heat and moisture depending on how open or closed you have it. These wool undershirts are pricier than most; I found some for around $30.00 at the Sierra Trading Post and got a few of them. They're more commonly priced at double that.

Misc. Cold Weather Stuff

You need good gloves and something to keep your ears warm. There are so many to pick from, you just have to find the ones that fit the temperature: Dang cold: heavier gloves. Plain cold: medium gloves. Chilly: lightweight gloves. Not cold at all: No gloves at all, man. Make your hands go nekked.

You still need to keep hydrated in chilly weather. This is where that insulated bike bottle is excellent. I'll keep warm water in it for those chilly days and it'll still be warm when I get to school. Your performance drops if you don't keep yourself hydrated, especially in the cold.

I find that my bike chain gets grungier in the winter, so I clean it every once in a while and put new lubricant on it. Don't forget your tail and head lights; of course we have less daylight in the winter. I keep a paper towel in my jacket pocket for those runny noses. I really love riding my bike to work in the winter; it's invigorating, fun and non-fanatical, you don't have to be a nutbucket about it.

Winter Light & Photography
I've been finding that the winter light is pretty cool at around dusk, so I'll bring my camera with me. This winter light is different than other times of the year and I find that I make more photographs on my bike commute in the winter than in summer. I guess this is a good subject for the next entry...


LP said...

Awesome post! People act like I'm crazy for bike-commuting during Maine winters...but this is so inspiring. I only have a racing bike with skinny tires (a steel frame Trek from the 80's that's been loyal to me for years)--it doesn't fit any kind of rugged snow tires, but this makes me think about getting at least a used mountain bike I can ride in the winter. I don't have a whole lot of funds, but wool can be cheap and I agree with your layering guidelines. Thanks!

Larry McNeil said...

I drove my car this week because I was a bit sick & want to be healthy for the winter break. One of my students who is also a bike commuter had a near accident because his breaks didn't work in the ice. His rims were iced up. Scary stuff. I missed my bike this week anyway. dang.