cycling · winter

Winter Riding: what you do when the snow won’t come

This time last year, we were under several feet of snow here in Southern Ontario. I know, because Facebook told me. Here are some images from 29 December 2017 that Big Brother Zuckerberg shared with me as “memories” a few days ago.

A photo of a black collie mix (Emma the Dog) standing on a snow-covered rail bridge in the woods.
A snap of Kim, a white woman wearing large maroon-coloured sun glasses and a red and white toque, bundled in a black parka, smiling into the snowy wilderness.
Emma the Dog contemplates the waterfall to her left, on the snowy path in the woods.

This year, no such luck. Today, it’s 10 degrees Celsius and raining, and Emma the Dog is hiding in a mucky hidey-hole in the garden. (Cheers, Emma.)

Last year, with all the snow and my glamorous new snow shoes from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Emma and I got all kinds of exercise out on the rail trails around our home near Toronto. Walking in snow shoes is both incredibly fun and an amazing workout for the hamstrings and calves.

This year, I’ve been alternating taking Emma for extra-long no-snow walks in and around our many protected escarpment woodlands, riding my bicycle trainer while watching The Good Place on Netflix, and walking the escarpment stairs for a nice glute and quad (not to mention cardio) workout.

And then, of course, on dry days, when the temperature is zero or above, I go for that painful mixed blessing: The Winter Road Ride.

I know Sam has been enthusing on the blog recently about the joys of winter riding (in all its unexpected, stolen glory), as well as the pains of having to clean the darn bike when it’s over.

I share both her enthusiasm and the annoyance re the cleaning. But I also feel other things around winter riding, which I thought I’d share with you today in case anyone else in the community rides in winter and wants to commiserate.

1. Winter riding reminds you that just because it’s nice outside when you go to get the mail, doesn’t mean it’s nice outside for three hours/75km.

It seems like a great idea at the time. You walk the dog and it’s cool but not cold, cloudy but dry, only a bit breezy. You decide to suit up.

One of those cheeky cards, this one featuring a young woman in a parka holding ice skates, reads: “I’m over the cold already and it’s not even that cold yet.”

You climb the 150 or so metres out of the lake-side valley in which you live and are winded and cursing yourself when you finally get to the top of the escarpment and can finally start riding properly. In summer this climb is annoying but OK; today, though, you are already pretty cold and wondering what made you think this bike ride was a good idea.

You get onto “flat” land (all “flat” land to the north and west of me is a false flat, until it’s a swoopy downhill and all your cares are forgotten – roughly 35km in). You start to pick up speed. Then you wonder why “pick up speed” means you’re going 26.5kph, rather than your more usual 28kph…

2. You’re generally slower in winter for lots of invisible reasons. Because of this invisibility, you see your average speeds drop, feel demoralized, and then get even colder.

Yes, I know some people argue it’s a myth, but I’m firmly on the “big temperature drop = not insignificant speed drop” side of things. I’ve got years of riding to demonstrate this anecdotally, plus there’s a very good reason why club ride start times inch upward as the temperature drops. Cold weather riders experience drag from poor air density, rolling resistance, and extra layers of gear worn against the cold. Plus, it’s typical not to pump those tires up to max in winter, to ensure you’re in a better position to navigate winter obstacles and debris on the road.

(Want to know a bit more of the science? Here’s a pretty good article by the folks at FitWerx, a top-rated bike shop in the northeastern US.)

I typically roll at 27-30kph, wind and incline depending; my average solo speed is usually 27-28kph in summer, accounting for anywhere from 400 to 800 metres of climbing (and the attendant gleeful rolling back down again at top speed). In winter, my average speed drops to 25-26kph – partly for all the reasons noted above, but also because the wind feels sharper and colder (and thus less motivating to push through) in winter, and because, given the time of year, I’m not riding for all-out, Strava-busting goodness; I’m riding to build my base and stay in my tempo (mid-range aerobic) zone as much as possible.

Logically, then, I can expect to be slower in winter, and That Is Totally Fine. But we are not logical creatures, us humans. We are rational, yes, but also deeply affective: how we feel shapes how we behave so very, very often. (Need proof? Um, you know where to look…)

So when I’m out on a winter ride, I’m already cold. And then I see my speed and go, oh feck. “I’m so slow today! What’s wrong with me??? Obviously I need to train more/better/focus harder/get me off this thing…”

3. All that gear adds weight, discomfort, awkwardness. As in: I CANNOT WAIT TO GET HOME AND PULL IT ALL OFF ALREADY.

Yes, riding at any time of year is a pleasure. And yes, if given the opportunity, I would DEFINITELY rather be riding in a pair of shorts and a lightweight jersey, with just my helmet adding a bit of extra drag.

Instead, winter riding requires the following:

  • basic shorts, not too bulky (but still really well padded!)
  • at least two, if not three, under layers (hello, wind chill)
  • a pair of thermal tights
  • a really good, insulated if possible, long-sleeve winter jersey
  • winter gloves (think ski gloves with a bit more maneuverability)
  • a cycling balaclava (to keep your head warm and also provide chin and mouth coverage if the wind kicks up)
  • a neck “snood” or equivalent (basically, a cycling scarf – mine is the fantastically-named Castelli “head thingy”, which I bought for the name alone and which I absolutely adore)
  • two pairs of socks, and maybe some hot pockets to keep your toes alive
  • shoe covers (an absolute must: cycling shoes are breathable, after all, which means the cold air gets in immediately)
A female cyclist, dressed in black winter tights and jersey and standing through a corner, models the Castelli Head Thingy, worn here around her neck (as I often do). Note: this is NOT me. This woman looks like she’s moving pretty quickly, for winter. Lucky her.

All this stuff adds weight, bulk, and makes usually simple maneuvers fairly awkward. There’s also, again, that all-important feeling that things aren’t quite right; it’s supposed to be a free-wheeling sport, this, with equal parts “wheeee!!!!!” and zooming along in a tight, fast formation. Plus just feeling the wind on your face and not going, “fecking winter wind so cold ARGH! WHY AM I DOING THIS!!!”

***

So here’s the thing. As long as it’s not freezing cold and snowy outside I ride my bike. I try to remember that I’m base-building and it’s winter and I’m trussed up like a turkey and it’s cold, so it will be OK but not AMAZING. If it’s a good day out (especially if there’s sun!) there is NO WAY I am getting on my bike trainer, Jameela Jamil or no Jameela Jamil. So winter riding and me are here to stay.

But it’s not going to be ace from start to finish. A lot of it is going to kind of suck, TBH. And I am definitely going to miss my snowshoes.

Please tell me I am not alone!

But, having said that, readers, I’d love your winter riding stories/thoughts/feelings. Do you avoid it? Love it? Notice a performance drop and feel bad about it? Notice a performance drop and not care? Thanks for sharing!

Happy New Year,

Kim

One thought on “Winter Riding: what you do when the snow won’t come

  1. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t bike since it was 3 degrees C, 30 km/hr. winds and raining steadily for 4 hrs. So we walked.

    The extra clothing layers and having lower psi for my tires, plus just less cycling mileage for my fitness, makes me slower. Usually am just happy to even cycle. No matter how short the distance.

    Like

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