Pedaling in a Winter Wonderland

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People who know me well are aware of my hate relationship with cold weather. That’s a love/hate relationship without the love. Anything less than 60 degrees and I need a really good reason to go outside. Although I love outdoor activities (hiking, fishing, cycling – duh!), I just can’t get down with winter sports. I have been skiing once and snowboarding twice and barely made it up and down the slope 3 times before giving it up for hot chocolate and the warmth of the lodge. Needless to say, I never went pro in either of those sports. So forget about me getting on a bike during the winter months. While attending school at Texas A&M I was blessed with mild winters and being able to ride November through March. This is my first winter up north since 2008 and I’m really not a fan. I haven’t been on my bike (outside) since early November and I even find it hard to unbundle and get on the trainer since we keep our thermostat on the cooler side – yay oil heat.

I seem to be in the minority here as I keep hearing all about everyone’s lovely winter rides. How do they do it? How do they motivate themselves to get on their bikes when it is below freezing, dark, snowing or raining, or all of the above? I decided to get some answers in hopes of shedding some light on what is a mystery to me, and maybe even gaining some inspiration to do some winter biking myself. I’m sure all of my Embrocation readers already ride throughout the year and know what it takes, so just humor me while I investigate this topic for myself.

My awesome (virtual – although it would have been awesome to have this group all in the Bilenky shop together) panel for this topic: David Kirk – owner at Kirk Frameworks; Bike Snob NYC; Dan Langlois – Bicycle mechanic at Bicycle Therapy and racer for Rapha Continental and Bicycle Therapy; Harry Schwartzman – Bicycle Industry Sales Rep and NYBikeJumble; Isis Shiffer – Painter and framebuilder at Bilenky Cycle Works; Allan Z. Rodzinski – retired professional bicycle racer; Selene Yeager – Health and fitness advocate; Bicycling’s Fit Chick and racer for team CF; Eric McKeegan – Ad Sales Manager for Dirt Rag and Bicycle Times magazines; Jorge Brito – Philadelphia bicycle messenger; and Harlan Price – Cycling skills coach and racer for Santa Cruz Bicycles.

The winter bikes utilized by my celebrity panel included a Steelwool Tweed, Schwinn Suburban, Specialized Epic, unnamed mountain bike, converted single speed Trek, a Circle A, and a Bilenky track bike. A prize to whomever can match each bike to the correct panelist! Fenders are a must for cold, wet riding, as are waterproof gloves, flat resistant tires, and thermoses of coffee. While fenders are needed for wet weather, studs are a necessity when conditions are icy. Living in Montana, I would say that David knows what winter riding is all about, and Eric mentioned that reliability in a bike is key. “Nothing worse than standing around waiting for a ride; clothing that is fine for riding is never warm enough to stand around.” Eric also lists salt and grit resistant parts along with rust proof chains and frame saver for snowy, slushy weather. So here is your reminder to frame saver all your steel beauties! An alternative to getting weather resistant parts: Harry doesn’t recommend riding your favorite bike in the winter. “It’s got to be a POS that you don’t care about. It’s going to get fucked up with salt and ice.”

I am well aware of the great cycling apparel products that are available for winter cycling. I have even bought some in the past, thinking it might push me to get on the bike. It didn’t work, but my Terry tights are the warmest bottoms I own and I sometimes wear them under jeans even though they make my butt look disproportionally large for the rest of my body. According to Dan, Jorge, Harry and Al, wool is a must. I agree, as I have a small love affair with Smartwool base layers. Buffs got two votes, Selene came in with the unexpected answer of silk turtlenecks and Isis is loving her Fifo Cycle ear flap hat. David recommends Carhartts, and if you attended NAHBS last year then you know that I’m a fan of them as well and they can indeed be couture.

When asked about their strategy for dealing with cars at night, just about everyone answered with “lights” in some form or fashion. “Really bright lights buy respect”, says Eric. I guess this means that lights are still the best defense, along with being assertive and aware of your environment. Selene describes her light set up as “enough blinkies that it looks like a 5 car police chase rolling down the street.” While Isis recommends lights like everyone else, she has a couple other methods. “Lots of lights. And taking the lane. And hammering on windows and yelling, if necessary.”

The hardest thing for me is getting motivated to go outside, so I wrapped up with that. Allan, (or Big Al to those who know him) and David said that it is simply the love of riding that motivates them. Hmmm, obviously that hasn’t worked for me. Despite the weather, biking is still the easiest option for Eric as his wife and two kids usually get dibs on their one car. I tend to go stir crazy pretty quickly, so when Selene said she would go psycho if she didn’t get out, I was able to identify with that. “By imagining my future as a depressed android” was Harlan’s answer to how he stays motivated. I’m pretty sure a depressed android is some form of cabin fever as well. Cabin fever/stir crazy/straight up looney seems to be the trend as Dan listed that as well. Jorge’s motivation is money, which is a no-brainer since not riding for him means he isn’t working. Same with Harry, as he does all of his traveling as a sales rep by bike. Isis’ motivation is the adventure that comes with winter riding. “I like being the only vehicle on the road. And how else am I going to get to the sledding hills? I live in South Philly, which is totally flat.”

While my answer to cold weather is riding indoors, Bike Snob feels the complete opposite. “For me the key is to be versatile and let the weather tell me what to do. If it’s frigid and blustery and the ground is clear I ride in the woods. If the trails are a mess I stick to the road. If riding is impossible I spend that riding time doing something else bike-related, like maintenance. The only thing I’ll never do is ride indoors. Tuning up your bike or learning how to build a wheel is a better use of recreational cycling time than spinning on a hamster wheel. Also, often in winter the streets in the city are clear but the roads outside of it aren’t, so you really learn to appreciate commuting.”

I really enjoyed hearing which songs and mantras were used for getting through cold, dark riding. From the Star Spangled Banner playing on an endless loop in his head (Al), to perfect silence (Selene), NPR (Eric), RAWR (Harry), Tom Waits (David), lots of cursing (Jorge), (which I can totally understand) and meetings with wildlife. “Well, mostly my goals are motivation, but I always relish the chance encounter with a deer in the woods. We’ll stare at each other till I can’t figure out if I’m me or the deer.” –Harlan Price

Bike Snob has survived some cold weather riding by knowing that he can bail at any time. “I admit I’ve gotten through some nasty winter night commutes by telling myself repeatedly I can always just get off the bike and hop on the subway.” Dan just focuses on what is not a good artist for staying motivated. “I just try to block out the Billy Joel really. That is the sound of your own impending doom.” I completely agree.

*Photos by Bina Bilenky and Stephen Saxton



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