Showing posts with label Weather. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Weather. Show all posts

Monday, February 28, 2011

Unsettling seductiveness

It’s February 28 and today I rode to work in shorts and a summer jersey. At mid-morning, it’s 71 degrees. Ten days ago temperatures reached the high 70s here, a record, and I was overdressed riding home in wool.

I really enjoy shedding my heavy and cumbersome winter riding clothes, and feeling for the first time in weeks the wind and sun on my arms and legs. Still this weather gives me the creeps; it’s frightening to contemplate what it may foretell. When it’s said and done I’d really prefer another month of crummy, gray, dreary – but seasonable – weather.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Secrets of winter riding, Part 2 – Control

There are only two tricks to winter riding: Don’t freeze and don’t fall. In Part 1 I explained how to keep from freezing; now for some tips on how to stay upright.

First, however, one observation. If you can find clothing that suits you, you very well may become indifferent to cold. By contrast you will – or should – never become indifferent to snow. It’s possible to ride in the stuff, regularly and successfully, but it’s not ever as safe or as easy as riding on bare pavement. If you want to bike to work over snowy roads or trails, these suggestions will help. But if after trying it a few times you’re still uncomfortable, then don’t do it – wait for the plows to come through!

Moving along. The problem with snow is not so much that it’s slippery but that it’s uneven. Ruts, ridges and hard-packed clumps will all push you off a straight line. As you ride through these spots, your handlebars will twist in your hands, your front wheel will begin to slide, and it’ll feel like you’re going to topple over for sure. But remember Newton. Your bike wants to keep going in the direction that it’s been going; that is, in a straight line. And a wheel wants to spin, not burrow! As soon as your wheel clears the immediate obstacle, it’ll pop back straight and you can keep right on riding. Your aim is simply to allow that happen.

And therein is the essential trick to riding in snow: Let your bike work it out for itself. Loosen your grip. Let the handlebars wobble and twist. Keep pedaling, evenly and steadily, when you feel the front wheel begin to lose its purchase. It feels wrong, but it works out right! (Uh, most of the time – as I said, riding in snow is not as safe as riding on bare pavement.) The feeling of nearly losing control is really disconcerting and it’s hard to suppress the urge to wrestle the bike back into a straight line. But if you fight, you will almost always overcorrect, and wind up on the ground more often than if you just let everything go.

This is one of those lessons that, I think, is best learned through experience. The next snow day that comes along, take an hour or 90 minutes, find a stretch of road that’s not too heavily travelled, and just ride around. Relax your hands, arms and shoulders. Steer in and out of tire tracks, try turning a little harder than seems prudent. Accept that you will fall, and don’t try to stop your bike if it seems to be heading that way. Weirdly, once you accept that you are going to fall, you won’t (as often). And, at 8 mph and onto snow, it’s probably not going to hurt if you do go down. The first time I rode in deepish snow (6-7 inches, on precisely one of these “who cares” excursions), I fell, harmlessly,10 times in 90 minutes before I learned to trust the bike, and its inertia.

Practice helps. The more you ride in the snow, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. (And conversely, less comfortable when you don’t – the first snowy day of each year invariably presents a challenging commute!) Also bear in mind that, staying upright usually comes at the expense of a clean, straight riding line – a sort of Uncertainty Principle for bike riders. So in snow, don’t cut things as closely as you might otherwise, and be particularly vigilant for passing cars.

Finally. All of the foregoing pertains only to snow. None of it works on ice, where you can find yourself on the ground before you can even think the word “Zen”. On 28 degree mornings following a freezing rain, I walk to the Metro – or stay home along with everyone else whose businesses have closed for the day. If you do find yourself on a patch of ice (it happens!), steer as straight and steady a course as you can until you’ve cleared it. Don’t turn, don’t brake, don’t accelerate. Maybe don’t even breathe. And during those tense few moments, relax yourself by remembering that if you fall on ice, you leave a whole lot less of yourself on the ground than if you’d fallen on asphalt!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Secrets of winter riding, Part 1 – Clothing

There are only two things to sort out about winter riding: Clothing and control. First I’ll talk about clothing. If you dress right, it’s easy to stay warm, even comfortable, in temperatures down into the teens.

Most people overdress for winter riding, outfitting themselves like Admiral Peary embarking on a North Pole expedition. The main difference between you and Peary is that he spent his day standing stock still on the hind end of a dogsled, whereas you are exercising, and generating heat. (Another difference is that you can’t simply claim to have actually made it to the office and expect people believe you for the better part of a century.) Your pedalling can add 20 to 30 degrees to the perceived temperature, and if you’ve dressed according only to the thermometer, you’ll quickly overheat. So on your torso and legs, you need to underdress a bit. My default outfit for temperatures between about 23 and 35 degrees is two long sleeve woolen layers (at least one a turtleneck), topped by a medium weight (sort of “heavy windbreaker”), lightly water-repellent cycling jacket. On my legs I wear, over standard cycling shorts, a set of winter stretch cycling tights. Set up in that fashion I may be chilly for the first five or eight minutes but by the 10th I’m usually sweating.

(I swear by a Devold woolen zippered base layer I bought from Rivendell Bicycles a few years back. Rivendell no longer sells that brand and the closest thing I can find nowadays on the Devold website are its “Multisport” zip undershirts. Rivendell is now selling a similar high-neck zippered undershirt from New Zealand, which I’m sure is superb.)

The principle of underdressing does not apply to your hands, feet or face. They benefit little from your exertions and it’s important to make sure they’re well covered - don't skimp. Experiment with different weights of gloves and socks for different temperatures – you want your hands to be warm, but arctic gloves that are good at 15 degrees can feel really confining and uncomfortable at 40. A balaclava will keep your face and ears comfortable, and you can carry it scrunched up in a jersey pocket on days when you’re not sure you’ll need it or not.

Oh, finally. All of this assumes that you’re riding straight through to your destination, where within a minute or two after arriving, you’ll be moving indoors. Once you stop pedalling you will begin to lose heat very quickly – and thanks to your sweat, even more quickly at the end of the ride than at the outset.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Winter has arrived in full force in Washington (though I suppose technically it’s still “fall”) and again I’m reminded of how much fun cold weather riding can be. The sharp air on my face and in my lungs is invigorating; it’s impossible to overheat from the effort of cycling – and there is something strangely satisfying about being one of very few people who are out and actually experiencing the weather.

Remarkably (he remarked), cold isn’t much of a problem on a bike – that is, once you’re a mile or so into the ride. (I think that first five or six minutes – which can be, well, a bit bracing – is what puts most people off winter riding.). Two or three woolen layers under a medium weight windbreaking jacket, winter bike tights, good gloves and a balaclava (for the worst days) are good for temperatures all the way into single digits.

Of course right now it’s dry, and the snowfall has been modest. It’s harder to remain quite so enthusiastic during those slippery, slushy February days when salty road crud splashes up from cars, soaks your legs and collects as puddles in your shoes. In fact the best part of those days is peeling off the cold, wet bike clothes and changing right into something warm and dry.

Which, come to think of it, is itself an advantage that cycle commuters enjoy over those poor sad souls who have to slog, in their all-day clothes, through the same crud to their offices from the Metro or parking garage. Ah, good – something to look forward to even then!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Off topic - C&O Canal trip

Before we set out my brother asked, "will we need fenders?" No, I replied confidently; weather reports are clear. Here we see the price of my hubris. (My innocent brother paid the identical price over three days, but as we know the universe is a cold and unfeeling place.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Weather immunity

Regular bike commuters enjoy a liberating indifference to weather. Take rain. A pedestrian caught without an umbrella is forced to wait out the storm or dash from awning to awning until they reach the protection of the Metro, bus shelter or parking garage. And even with an umbrella, their clothes below the waist are quickly soaked. The cyclist by contrast doesn’t care. There is only one weather metric on a bike: warmth. If you’re warm, you’re fine. And staying warm on a bike is usually pretty easy. (On perhaps the 15 hottest days of the year, the opposite holds – if you’re cool, you’re fine. Those days, drink a lot of water and ride slowly.)

In summer rainstorms, all you get is wet. And you quickly discover that wet, by itself, isn’t unpleasant at all. (One long day in the rain in 1995 revealed this truth to me.) The warm air, plus the heat you generate by riding, are usually enough to keep any chill at bay. In the cooler air of spring and fall, add a rain jacket or perhaps another insulating layer on rainy days. And of course no matter how wet you may get on the bike, when you get where you’re going, you peel off your wet bike clothes and climb into a dry set of duds. (The ordinary commuter by contrast has little choice but to wear the day’s weather until merciful evaporation completes its work.)

Staying warm in winter is largely a matter of the right clothes. With good layering and proper cold weather selections (like special lobster gloves and a balaclava), you can ride for half an hour or 40 minutes in temperatures down to 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit and honestly pronounce the weather merely “chilly”. Snow is not much of a problem because it doesn’t make you wet. The worst days are rainy ones right at or just above freezing, and I confess that I don’t really look forward to them. But even they aren’t that bad, and I ride in them too.

After a while at this you really do begin to believe you possess a special, personal kind of immunity to the weather. A couple of years ago I had to spend eight weeks in Chicago in October and November on business. I couldn’t ride to work so I deliberately chose a hotel about a mile from the office so I could at least get in a little walk each day. I know what Chicago weather is like that time of year but in packing I completely neglected to pack an umbrella, raincoat or hat. Only later did I realize I had come to believe that weather was just not something that I ever needed to worry about in travelling between home and office - having completely lost sight of the fact that this was thanks only to the bicycle and was not some superhuman trait. Luckily, taxis are abundant in Chicago even in the rain; I spent enough time in them that month.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What's so great about it?

Here are a few fun things about biking to work.

Most obviously, you get to go for a bike ride! And even when you’re crushingly busy at work, you’re outside, in fresh air, for at least the length of your commute. Of course you might not feel like riding every day (some days I dread it), but a lot of those 50/50 or even 20/80 days will tip over to the positive 10 minutes into your ride, and suddenly you'll be grateful to be out on the road again - days that start out bad don't have to stay that way.

You are miraculously able to opt out of the tedious and enervating commute that everyone else, in their cars, buses and subways, must endure. You ride through the chaos, it surrounds you, but you’re not in it any longer. Their problems aren’t your problems. Traffic jams may slow you down but won’t stop you; you can always find a way through or around. Problems on the Red Line? You don’t have to fight for a taxi or stand in line for a bus. Sure, you’ll encounter some new, small and unaccustomed indignities – like, in the rain, you get soaking wet – but you may even come to enjoy the seeming drawbacks (see below).

You’ll almost never be late again because of traffic. Ninety percent of my morning rides take between 21 and 26 minutes. My (longer) return route home requires 38 to 47 minutes. Three or four times a year a Presidential or Vice Presidential motorcade stops all traffic, including me, but bike commuters in other parts of the country can safely discount that risk.

Spontaneity flourishes. Wondering what’s down that side street? Go see. If you ride past something interesting – a new public art installation, or someone’s handing out free samples – you can just pull your bike out of the road and have a look. You won’t slow anyone down and you don’t need to find a parking place.

You’re more aware of, attuned to, the weather. And because you’re regularly out in it, extremes don’t bother you as much. I have come particularly to enjoy summer downpours. “Wet” doesn’t matter if you’re not cold, and it’s a wonderful luxury to be able to enjoy the feel of warm rain on my back and arms while all around me pedestrians are holding newspapers over their heads and scrambling for cover.

And of course, you get exercise – real, every day, aerobic exercise. It clears your mind and dissipates stress; you’ll sleep better, and you know it’s good for you in the long run.