Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Winter Cycling - Part 2

Winter Cycling Attitude

I’ll be honest. The weather can be unpredictable, so it’s almost inevitable that you'll be cold sometimes. You'll get wet now and then, too. Ideally, if you can't stay dry, try to stay warm. My rule-of-thumb is to add an extra layer if it's raining. But sometimes you'll get wet and cold. That's when determination sets in, knowing that you have to ride through it in order to get home or to whatever destination you have in mind. After getting caught out in bad weather or changing weather conditions, you'll find that while it may not be enjoyable or entirely pleasant, you can ride.

Sometimes there's a perverse joy that comes from riding in really sloppy conditions. If you've ever ridden a cyclocross race in the mud, you'll understand. I was once thoroughly covered in gray mud from limestone dust that was thrown up by passing trucks. The reaction of others on the road was comical, but I wouldn’t want to make rides like that a regular occurrence. Likewise, I once caught a bug to go for a ride on slush-covered roads just to spin through a local park, with those knobby cyclocross tires throwing up rooster tails. It wasn’t a long ride but it was fun! But again, I don’t want to do that very often.

Riding in cold, wet weather doesn’t imply that you have to suffer. No one wants to do that - with the possible exception of an elderly aunt I know who regales us with a very long list of her aches and pains. Just be aware that the weather can change abruptly, and despite your best preparation, sometimes you'll be caught out. There's a kind of grim determination that sets in when you're part way to your destination and the cold front blows in earlier than expected. Even if it starts raining, a ride can be enjoyable. Just realize that you may not stay dry, but perhaps you can stay warm by adding another layer, even if that layer is the morning newspaper stuffed under your jersey.

Riding in bad weather will give you versatility. You'll learn to adapt quickly and a few impromptu 'lessons' from rapidly changing weather conditions will force you to plan ahead. For instance, even if the weather is supposed to be nice on a fall or winter day, I'll have gloves, a skullcap, leg warmers, and a windbreaker handy. There are times the forecasts are way off!

Skill Development and Technique

I've spent some time sitting on the pavement wondering. One moment I was riding along just fine, and in the next second I was sliding along an icy road on my butt. What happened?

I rode through the winter in Pittsburgh, PA, partly in desperation from cabin fever, and partly as a result of the guilt I felt from all that holiday over-eating. I rode in rain, wet and dry snow, slush, ice, and sleet. Pittsburgh had a lot of trolley tracks and Belgian block streets (think of them as biggie-sized cobblestones) all of them treacherous even when dry. Wet conditions were worse and ice was almost unmanageable.

My regular commute followed arterial streets because they were direct and fast. But I had another route for really foul weather that meandered through side streets and alleys. It worked well, until we had an ice storm overnight and I tried to ride the Belgian blocks. Their rounded tops made traction an iffy thing. That morning I rode out onto them and fell immediately. I tried to stand up and my feet shot out from under me! Down on the street again, I heard a woman behind me laughing at my predicament. Then she stepped off the sidewalk onto the cobbles, and she went down too! We ended up crawling off the street. It was the only way to go.

Wet snow and slush offer about as much traction as wet pavement, but they tend to accumulate on the frame and derailleurs, eventually freezing the mechanisms. Fenders help some, but they too can clog with ice. I kept cheap derailleurs for winter conditions and swapped them for my good ones when spring arrived. A liberal application of WD-40 helps to prevent ice build up, but it isn't a cure all. Eventually, I started riding a fixed gear that required little maintenance, and I'm thinking about building an internally geared wheel for a commuter.

Deep snow is much like riding in sand. It's hard going because the tires sink. The front tire tends to slip sideways when turning. The tire compresses a layer of snow as it travels forward, then slides down and to the side as it turns left or right. This is disconcerting even at low speed. I never tried it going fast.

My favorite is dry, hard-packed snow. It gives almost as much traction as dry pavement, but you still have to be careful at intersections because the heat from car engines and exhaust can melt the surface slightly, causing a glassy, wet ice that is very slick. Still, there's something magical about riding a bicycle on a sunny day when the high temperature might soar to 20 or so. The air is crisp and it seems that sounds carry a long way.

Curiously, motorists seem more courteous toward cyclists brave enough to face truly harsh conditions, even when they're traveling in the only available space - a tire track through the snow and slush. Maybe drivers think that anyone riding a bike in that kind of weather has to be a little crazed in the first place. But in Oklahoma I hesitate to ride in traffic on snow covered or icy roads. Motorists here have too little experience of such conditions, and they make too many mistakes.

In winter, you're more likely to encounter loose surfaces including sand and gravel as well as snow and ice. Tires grip better on wet pavement if you let a little air out of them. I usually drop mine from 100psi down to about 80; just enough that they have a little 'give' under finger pressure. There's an article I read recently compared wide vs. narrow tires. It says for a given tire pressure, the contact patch will be identical. That contact patch under your front tire is all your control and almost all your braking. You can make it larger simply by letting some air out of the tire, but I probably wouldn't go less than about 80psi in a 700x28 - my standard tire choice for commuting.

Brakes don't work well when the pads and rims are wet, so allow more distance for slowing and stopping. Likewise, the metal road furniture like manhole covers, railroad tracks, and the steel plates used in construction areas are extremely slippery when wet. Some 'painted' lines, directional arrows, and sharrows are actually decals applied to the road surface. They're made from a plastic material that is extremely slippery when wet. Exercise caution.

Wind is another force to reckon with through the winter. In addition to the problem of staying warm, it can greatly affect control. Gusting crosswinds are especially difficult. There's a tendency to grab the handlebars in a 'death grip' that results in tight, cold muscles, sore hands, and even more difficulty staying in control of the bike as crosswinds slam into it. A better approach is to stay 'loose' atop the bike, allowing it to move sideways under your body, while you travel in a straight line. It's almost like doing rock dodges. Your body tracks straight but the bike moves side-to-side. This is also a good technique to use when passing traffic momentarily blocks a crosswind. Large trucks will have a push-pull-push effect that can be very disconcerting. Try to anticipate it, don’t panic, and stay loose on the bike.

Fixed gear riders have a small advantage in winter. With the right gear choice, a fixie rider will spin almost effortlessly. The constant motion keeps the rider warmer than he'd be on a multi-geared bike.

You won't go as fast when it's cold. I don't know why this happens, but it's true. It has some benefits though. Wind resistance is lessened, so it's easy to wear a loose windbreaker roomy enough for a sweater underneath. But try to remember to be kind to your knees. Gear down and spin. When spring arrives, you'll be ready for the longer tours, rather than working the winter kinks out of your legs.


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