In case you’re reading this months from now and wondering why I’m blogging about winter biking in mid-April, the ground is currently covered with 3 inches of snow and there’s more on the way. The past 3 times I’ve biked to work, I’ve considered it my last commute in snow until next winter. Tomorrow I will be making another last commute in snow.
Four years ago I started riding my bike to work. Not every day. Just once or twice a week mainly as an alternative to my intense martial arts training and jumping rope. Biking was fun and there seemed to be no end in sight. Then winter rolled around and I hung my bike up in the garage and reverted to less interesting forms of exercise and eventually to none at all. The following winter I was determined to ride my bike throughout the season and did with some success. The winter after that I purchased a Surly Pugsley which allowed me to commute in more conditions and ultimately ride more frequently.
Along with choosing the right bike, my clothing choices have been extremely important – probably even more so than the bike itself. After my third season of cold weather commuting, I’ve learned that wearing the right gear can really make or break the experience. By far the biggest challenge was finding the right clothing combinations that allowed me to stay warm without overheating and arriving at work in a sweaty mess. I still don’t always get things completely right. But, on a good day, it’s 15°F outside and it feels like room temperature on the saddle.
Obviously, different people will have different preferences and needs. My clothing strategy has been largely influenced by the following factors – climate, terrain, budget and length of commute. The absence of a showering facility at my place of employment also plays a role. And you can’t forget personal style, or lack thereof.
- Climate: Twin Cities, MN – Cold (0-35 degrees F) and usually some snow and ice to deal with.
- Terrain: Over the Mississippi River – a good mix of downhill, uphill and flat terrain.
- Budget: Not completely cheap. But not willing to buy high-end stuff either.
- Length of commute: 11 miles
- Showering facility at work: None
- Personal style: None
The only noteworthy point on style is that I’ve always preferred buying multifunctional items that I can wear while not biking without looking like a misplaced cyclist. The bike helmet is fairly specific. But most of these items get used in other activities.
-Bell Slant helmet
-Seirus Neofleece face mask
-colder conditions: add Seirus balaclava as base layer
comments: Neoprene face masks are a great invention.
-base layer: SmartWool or IceBreaker medium baselayer
-mid layer: old PolarTec-like pullover
-outer layer: Montane LiteSpeed jacket
-colder conditions: add more mid layers
comments: For me, light, wind resistant and breathable fabrics such as Pertex are the best value for an outer layer. Conventional rain-jackets don’t breathe well. Higher-end materials like Gore-Tex and eVent are great, but overkill in terms of cost for my needs. I haven’t tried a soft-shell for an outer layer, but I’ve heard good things.
-base: SmartWool microweight long underwear
-pants: Prana Stretch Zion pants
-colder conditions: add Prana Stretch Zion shorts over pants
comments: I wear these pants for almost everything but rock climbing which they were apparently designed for.
-cold conditions: Manzella softshell gloves (polyester/spandex)
-colder conditions: Continental Divide ski gloves (100 gram Thinsulate insulation)
-coldest conditions: colder gloves + generic liners
comments: These are all cheap gloves and work just fine. I’ve tried two different brands of lobster gloves and, while I see the appeal, I couldn’t get used to the feel of not having the use of all my fingers.
-a variety of wool socks (light to mid-weight)
-cold conditions: North Face Iceflare Mid -20 boots
-colder conditions: North Face -40 boots
comments: The -20 boots have an ideally slim profile, but fairly deep tread lugs. The -40 boots are wider with a relatively flat tread profile. Both have pros and cons. While neither are perfect for biking, they’re both great all-purpose boots.