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Baby It's Cold Outside!

Nike winter sports pavillion on Chicago River

It was 0 degrees during the ride this past Monday morning and again today. Add in the wind chill and it felt like -15 below zero. Perhaps I spoke too soon last week when I said You Don't Have to be Fearless to Bike Commute

People are always amazed when they learn I ride in this type of weather. Usually they say "you are brave" and act as if it's some great feat. (Or maybe some other, unspoken adjectives come to their mind.) For me, it's how I get to work. And while it is challenging, there are actually some unexpected pleasures to bike commuting in the winter.

Bike Commuting in the Winter

Sunrise along Lake Michigan bike path in early January.

For starters, it's more quiet and peaceful than riding in warmer weather. Fewer people are on the path and I wear more layers on my head, including ski googles which dims any noise. The snow and salt are cold and hard and make a strangely soothing crunchy noise as I ride over them.

Everything moves more slowly including myself. This is a result of wearing so many layers which makes it difficult to move. Part of it is out of necessity because stopping takes longer and any sudden movements on snow or patches of ice are not advisable. Slowing down also allows me to observe my surroundings better.

During this time of the year the sun is usually rising on my morning commute making for a gorgeous show. And watching the steam rise from the cold air passing over the relatively "warmer water" of Lake Michigan is incredible. I can actually see the water vapor rise in columns to form clouds and eventually deposit lake effect snow on the down-wind side of the lake. A weather phenomena right in front of my eyes.

Clothing for the Winter Bike Commute

Of course there are challenging aspects of riding in the cold. Protecting my hands, feet, head and face is an on-going task. I wear three layers of clothing on my hands including a wind shell mitt, boiled wool mittens (very dense), and synthetic glove liners. Even still cold hands are inevitable.

​I have a friend who invested in heated gloves that are battery operated. When he's riding he turns them on like seat warmers in a car. Every night he plugs in

the gloves to recharge the batteries! I haven't sprung a set

($250), but there are days when I wish I owned a pair.

However I have invested in biking boots which include a mount for cleats on the bottom to clip into the pedals, a leather outer layer, and an insulated liner. In addition, they have a mechanism for tightening the boot around your foot so that it fits snugly and air-tight. It's similar to how ski boots operate.

​Overall, the biking boots provide a superior level of protection to booties or any other shoe/boot combination I have tried over the years. Even so, after riding 9 miles in sub-zero temperatures, my feet start to get cold. I know other winter riders that have no issues with cold feet, so perhaps it's poor circulation. ​

On my head I wear a synthetic headband with a fleece balaclava over it. Over that, my GoreTex jacket has a hood which provides a layer of wind protection. On the coldest days I wear ski googles instead of sunglasses.

The odd thing about riding in the winter is that it's very easy to overdress. My body is generating significant heat while I'm riding so my core easily stays warm - in contrast to hands and feet.

A synthetic fleece inner layer with a wind-proof, breathable outer layer is usually enough. Anything more and I start to sweat and easily chill. The same is true for legs with usually a thick layer of wind-proof, insulated tights. On the absolute coldest days I'll wear two pairs.

Wind, Snow and Ice Considerations

Steam rising from the buildings provides a good clue on direction of the wind.

You might expect, the weather conditions have a considerable impact on the quality of the ride. Understanding the wind direction and speed is critical to dressing appropriately. The difference in wind chill between a headwind and tailwind is significant. For instance, if I'm riding into a headwind, I pull up the balaclava to cover my face and put on the ski googles to prevent frostbite. No need with a tailwind.

Riding in the snow is manageable up to a point. I have wider tires on the bike (700x35) which provides a more stable ride. The tires cut a decent path through the snow but have less resistance than a mountain bike tire. After 3-4 inches of snow however, it is time to consider alternative transportation.

Surprisingly however, the wind, cold and snow rarely keep me from riding. Ice however is a different story. I have fallen numerous times due to ice and will forego the bike commute if there is an ice rain, or a great meltdown followed by a refreeze. The ice commands respect.

Overall, biking to work in the winter may be a lot different than a summer ride, but I still enjoy it. Chicago is very fortunate to have a lakefront bike path that is plowed regularly. If you have ever wondered what it is like to ride in the cold, now is your opportunity!

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