Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Few Notes on Winter Cycling in the Northeast

Yesterday's post reminds me that I meant to say a few words about cycling in winter here, mostly for the benefit of any other Californians reverse-migrating to the North East in pursuit of better housing options (or whatever other reason you might have).  I sold my car when I left California in July and since I have been a) wanting to get a house before a car, and b) holding out for a Volt, I have continued to cycle as my main transportation.  Now that I have made it through the solstice, it seems I might have enough of the season under my belt to have some initial clue what it means to cycle here in the winter.  Even after I get a car, I anticipate continuing to cycle for exercise.

The good news here is that it's entirely possible to cycle through the winter in Ithaca in reasonable comfort.  However, it does require some significant investment in clothing and gear, and it takes longer to transition from inside to outside.

The climate in Ithaca in particular is thus:

So it's cold, colder than New York City or Boston.  But not cold like Minnesota or Alaska.  My particular daily routine at the moment involves riding down the hill from my rental house at about 850' elevation to a cafe downtown at about 400' elevation at 6:30am, when the temperature is usually at or near the overnight low.  I think the coldest night we've seen so far was 7oF.  Also, there is sometimes a headwind with gusts of up to about 25mph, and thus about 50mph after adding the speed of the bike down the hill.

In addition to daily commuting and errand running around town, I also ride 3-4 hours on a Sunday for exercise.  So far, all my riding here has been done on my touring bike - a Rivendell Sam Holstein with fenders, rack, and baskets.  (So you can tell already that I'm about comfort and convenience when cycling, not about speed or fashion).

The bulk of the time, I am riding on dry salted roads.  Maybe 1/4 of the time, I am encountering either moderate amounts of slush, or icy patches.  I also regularly ride on a gravel trail when there is up to 1 or 2" of snow on it.  I have not tried riding single-track or on ice lakes, (yet anyway - I might when I get around to getting some studded tires for my mountain bike).  I haven't yet encountered deep snow on the roads.

The adaptations I've had to make are as follows:
  • Following the pointer of reader kjmclark, Peter White Cycles is a fantastic resource, both as a supplier of useful products but also as a great repository of wisdom and insight.  It's worth studying the entire studded tire page at length.  I bought from them a set of Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tires (35x700).  These seem to be a fantastic product - they knock maybe 2mph off my speed on dry road, but I have been able to cope with perfectly fine traction on ice and up to several inches of fresh snow.  Pay attention to the warning at the link above to avoid heroics, but  I have found I can get up the steepest hills around here without traction loss.  I have yet to lose a stud.  Without studded tires, you simply cannot ride on ice or any significant amount of snow, so the alternative would be to leave the bike at home a certain fraction of the time.
  • I wear several layers of fleece/wool under a heavy skiing type coat - the exact amount of layering depending on the conditions of the day.  I also use long fleece underwear under my regular pants.  So far I haven't needed ski pants to be comfortable.
  • I installed reversible pedals (Shimano M-324) on my bike.  On the colder/snowier days, I use the flat side with Arctic Sport Muck Boots with wool hiking socks.  No points for style, but I've yet to encounter a morning that made my feet cold in these.
  • On the coldest mornings, I also use two layers of gloves - thin wool gloves under heavy goretex/thinsulate mittens.  The mittens alone were not enough to prevent cold hands on the downhills, and the thin gloves are a help because I can do stuff like locking up the bike and turning lights on and off without removing them.  Pay attention to the details of the interface between mittens and coat - you want one to go clearly over/under the other so there isn't much scope for cold winds to get in between.  Typically this means a coat with straps/velcro at the wrist that can be tightened to get under the flange of the mittens.
  • Also, my experience is that you can't ride when it's actually snowing without eye protection - the snowflakes land in your eyes and hurt, and it keeps happening every few seconds.  Regular cycling goggles fog up.  So I'm using a cheap pair of ski goggles with clear lenses that have anti-fogging compound.  They work great, except that the side visibility is poor and so there are certain situations where I have to actually stop on the shoulder and look back before turning left because I cannot see over my shoulder well enough to make the maneuver safely otherwise.
  • Going down the hill in the morning on the coldest mornings is seriously unpleasant without face protection.  I initially used a fleece balaclava, which was ok into the late fall, but became inadequate after that.  My latest discovery is the Cold Avenger balaclava.  This thing is expensive and fits imperfectly, but does solve the problem better than regular balaclavas.  It has a more windproof kind of fleece, and a ventilator that does a certain amount of heat exchange between the inbound and outbound air.  My experience is that both my face and my lungs are now quite comfortable as long as I'm careful to adjust all the moving parts properly - hood, face mask, goggles, and bike helmet.  Plus I look like Darth Vader when I stride into the cafe in the morning!
Although there is a certain amount of hassle involved in figuring out what to wear on any particular day, and getting suited up, to me it's still totally worth it.  The thought of exercising by sitting inside spinning away on a trainer going nowhere just seems completely tedious versus being outside in nature watching the changes in the seasons and the landscape.  The other thing I've found is that the amount of amazement and kudos I get from bystanders for riding in the middle of winter here is quite gratifying, and out of all proportion to the actual discomfort I experience when properly attired.


Copper said...

or if you're relatively broke you can use zip-ties on your tires. Make sure that you clip off the excess and alternate the closure from teh right to the left so you can have some extra grip when turning corner.

-Minnesota ;)

Lars-Eric Bjerke said...


Is tour skating possible on the lakes around Ithaca?

kjmclark said...

Have you discovered the horrors of cookie-dough yet? With a good set of tires, you can deal with just about anything, except sand, or the winter equivalent, cookie dough. We somehow managed to get an early snowfall/deep freeze combination here, and it mostly turned into cookie dough and hard pack. The hard pack is OK, but all the cookie dough is driving me nuts.

People think I look odd with a mask over my balaclava! That thing's scary. But it's impressive how well something covering your mouth and nose helps you retain heat. I think we tend to ignore the heat loss through breathing. And the best combination I've found for hands is wool mittens under goretex mitts, though we bought my wife some pogies this past year, which she swears by.

I discovered ski goggles a few years ago. The only problem is getting a pair that fit under the helmet, but they're much easier to find these days, since more people are skiing with helmets.

And glad to hear that Peter White worked out for you. Their bike light section is even better than their tire page.

Stuart Staniford said...

Kjm - no, no cookie dough here - not even sure what that is?

Lars - I understand Cayuga Lake freezes in it's entirety only rarely and briefly, so probably not. Sounds fun though. My pond at the new house is frozen, and was almost bearing last weekend, however, so I should be able to skate round in circles soon :-)

Stuart Staniford said...

Lars - sounds like Vermont is the center for Nordic skating in the US.

Stuart Staniford said...

Copper - ingenious plan!

kjmclark said...

If you take packed snow, mix in some salt and some sand, freeze it, then have cars/trucks run it over so it collapses into mush, you get cookie dough. It looks like cookie dough, but acts like sand. That's fine for the motorists, but bike front tires don't do well on the stuff.

700s sometimes can cut through it, and some MTB tires can float on top of it if their pressure is low enough, but generally it just makes it really tough to steer, just like a sand pit on a MTB trail. It's best to slow beforehand, but not too much, and head as straight as possible through it, unless you can steer around it altogether.

Auntie J said...

This is great! It's true, you can cycle in a lot colder weather than you would think, in the proper gear. My main issue is getting too hot on the uphills, and then getting sweaty, and then freezing on the downhills. Gotta figure out how to thermostat better...

Keep us updated on how the rest of the winter goes!

Stuart Staniford said...

p-roc's Mom. At least around here lately, it seems to generally be enough to just open the zipper on my jacket. Without the windproof layer, things underneath seem to stay cool enough even when working hard.

It's definitely slower getting around - the added friction of the tires, the snow/slush/whatever, stopping to adjust clothing or check behind me, etc. That just needs to be accepted I guess.

It also can be amazingly beautiful with all the snowy fields and soft feathery trees.

kjmclark said...

Actually, that balaclava you have would help with the hot/cold problem, Stuart. The pictures show it with the face mask unstrapped on one side. So you could unstrap it on the uphill, then put it back on for the downhill. Getting it back under the goggles might be a trick, though. I have an old Greenscreen mask, so I just pull it down off my mouth and nose when I'm overheating. Same idea.

The best is February, after a snow, around 20, but with that bright, late-winter sun. For some reason, that seems to make the birds start singing, so you'll get cardinals, chickadees, and song sparrows on the sides of the road singing as like a crazy choir, all of them competing to be more beautiful. And since you're on a bike you get to hear it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information, we will add this story to our blog, as we have a audience in this sector that loves reading like this” corporate video production .

suicide kitten said...

Stuart, if I understand correctly you are working from cafe (telecommuting)? You could do that from home I assume, could you elaborate on why you prefer not to (since it involves considerable investment of time and energy)?

I enjoyed this post a lot. In London now the weather starts resembling your Ithaca descriptions, so some things may become relevant here... I have had to stop cycling over the last two weeks.

Stuart Staniford said...

suicide kitten: not a very profound reason: it's just very noisy and disruptive in the morning as the kids get hounded around to get ready for school, and I can focus a lot better out of the house. So I spend the morning in a cafe, and then head home at some point so I can get on the video link as people get into the office in California, and the house is pretty quiet in the afternoon. I also just enjoy working in cafes, and I don't mind the biking - need the exercise in any case.