Words by Thom Parsons
Commuting through the winter by bike is like that anecdote about boiling the frog: if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. This works much better metaphorically than it does literally. You throw a frog in boiling water—it freakin’ dies. Think about it. When you throw a lobster in boiling water what happens, does it hop out? Of course not. (And I’m glad, because that would be terrifying.) The second part of the saying goes: if you put a frog in cold water and gradually raise the temperature, it will hang out until it is boiled alive. “Well, this is rather nice; the warm water is helping work out the knots in my lower back. I should really learn to stretch prior to rigorous hopping, oh my, what the…Rosebud.”
It’s the same principle with bike commuting. If you stay on the bike through the fall and make the gradual transition to winter riding, that first 23° day isn’t going to come as such a shock, but, you take three months off the bike to focus on more important things, like getting fat and depressed, and that first really cold day is going to feel like you’ve been thrown into a pot of boiling water.
I live in a town 35 miles from Boston, a town full of giant red pick-up trucks. I work in Boston… in cycling advocacy, and up until a few months ago I rode my bike, or did a bike/train/bike commute 100% of the time. Because that’s what you do when you work in cycling advocacy and you’re not a total D-bag. And you don’t own a car. But, see, that is the thing: I bought a car. Not just a car, but a miniature van (like a van, only smaller). When that happened, scientists in a lab in Nevada saw the D-bag-o-meter go right off the charts. “Good God Phil, what the hell was that? Rush Limbaugh isn’t even on right now…I think some hypocritical loser from Boston that spends all day trying to get other people to ride bicycles just bought a minivan and decided to not ride his bike, ever.”
Then I spent over four months commuting to the city by car, hating every minute of it. I’d be sitting in traffic going: “GOD DAMMIT! WHY DID I DRIVE? I AM A STUPID, STUPID MAN.” And yet, I would get up and do the same thing again the next day. I think Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same insane thing over and over again even though it makes you totally insane and expecting it not to keep making you totally insane.
I tried to be less of a loser in certain ways. When I’d stop at our local café in the morning, a quaint little place called, adorably enough, “Dunkin Donuts,” I would ask for an egg and cheese sandwich with no bag, just the wrapper. To the staff of Dunkin Donuts this was noteworthy and I quickly became known as “The No-Bag Guy.” I’m sure if there were a woman who always insisted on a bag, they would call her “The Bag Lady.”
If you’re going to drive a miniature van to work and get a cryogenically frozen puck-of-egg sandwich at a drive-through window, one way to salvage a shred of non-D-bag-ness is to ask for no bag. (You can make your own joke about taking the bag out of D-bag if you want—I ain’t goin’ there.) Of course, a better way to achieve this is to have oatmeal for breakfast and ride your damn bike to work like a man. A man in a leotard, but a man nonetheless.
After a few months of wallowing in self-loathing, one day I woke up from a dream. In the dream I was watching T.V. There was an ad on the T.V. for Weak Sauce—“Weak Sauce: Now With More Thom.” I walked down to the bathroom, looked at the reflection in the mirror and said “OH MY GOD, A VAMPIRE!” Luckily, just before I staked it with a dental pick, I realized that vampires don’t have reflections and that I was looking at a particularly sleep-deprived version of myself. That raccoon-eyed version of me looked the other me in the eye and said, “Hey, Thom, stop being a D-bag.”
I decided right then and there that I would start riding to work again. Even if I had to jump right into that boiling pot of water…that was, in reality, a freezing cold February day.
When I do actually commute to work by bike I have three options:
1.) Ride my Schwinn Varsity the five miles to the commuter rail during off-peak hours, throw it on the train, ride it the mile or so to work on the other end, and then repeat the process in reverse in the evening.
2.) Ride my commuter bike, a singlespeed road bike with panniers and duct tape on it that I call the “AThomination,” one way to the city, 35 miles, then take the train home in the evening.
3.) Ride my commuter bike both ways for a grand total of 70 miles.
The first one might sound nuts to members of the non-cycling world. The second one might sound nuts to some members of the cycling world. And the third one might sound nuts to all but about three people in the cycling world. Sad thing is…I used to be one of those three people. I’m not anymore, believe me. When I tell you that I once drank luminescent tequila in a national park in Utah, you don’t have to believe me, but believe me on this one.
The first day I decided to commute, I chose the 35-mile, ride-all-the-way-in-and-take-the-train-most-of-the-way-out version. My first thought when I woke up was: “I don’t want to do this.” It wasn’t a thought so much as something I said out loud and then followed with nervous-serial-killer laughter. My ride to Boston isn’t all that intimidating, really, it’s just 35 miles of mostly flat terrain. It’s not exactly like summiting Mt. Everest without oxygen while giving a piggyback ride to a Herve Villechaize impersonator you kidnapped from Vegas. (If it were exactly like that, this would be a much more interesting story.) Still, those 35 miles loomed in front of me like a fifth helping of tuna-macaroni salad at Old Country Buffet.
I’ve jumped into the boiling pot of water and I have neither hopped out nor died. Yeah, it wasn’t really a boiling pot of water, it was just a cold week in February, but hey…I wonder if we should try freezing a frog to switch up the metaphor a little, make it more applicable to this scenario. We don’t have to use frogs, necessarily; we could use anything that hops…wallabies might work. We’re gonna need a bigger freezer.
This story originally appeared in Bicycle Times #18.
Want to commute but feel like are too many roadblocks in your way? Stay tuned for tips on overcoming commuting obstacles later this week, right here on bicycletimesmag.com.
The Skycrest Insulated Snap Shirt and Stio Dulcet Soft Shell Pant have carried me through the coldest days of fall riding and will serve as an essential warm layer for winter commutes, mountain bike rides and cross country skiing.
There are so many options when it comes to lightweight synthetic-insulated jackets, but I found the Stio Skycrest Insulated Snap Shirt to offer a great balance of a performance and casual aesthetic. I’ve been wearing this jacket everywhere.
The Skycrest has the style of a button-down shirt in jacket form, offering a loose fit, snap front and a relaxed hem. The snap front and unfitted hem makes this jacket a good fit on the bike, providing plenty of air circulation. Between the jacket’s 60 gram insulation and windproof nylon, it had to be quite cold to wear this on a ride. As a performance piece, the Skycrest felt comfortable on an overcast 30-degree day or cooler. In a casual setting, I’ve worn the jacket into the 50s.
Synthetic insulation has several advantages over a fowl-based insulator: it’s water resistant, fast drying and less expensive. While synthetic jackets won’t pack as small as down, they’re quite compressible. I packed the Skycrest in a 4.5- by 8-inch stuff sack, and it could pack even smaller.
Both the Skycrest Shirt and Dulcet Pants have a DWR finish, helping them tolerate wet weather. Other details are loose-fitting elastic cuffs that can be pulled over your gloves to trap heat, and generous fleece-lined hand pockets. I don’t ever put anything in chest pockets, but these flap pockets are large enough to fit an iPhone 6.
I’m drawn to clothing that isn’t overly branded and there’s no text on the front of the Skycrest. You’ll find the Stio pinecone logo embroidered on the back and a small Stio tag stitched in the side seam.
The Skycrest Insulated Snap Shirt is available in Black Iris, Biking Red and Dresden Blue. Available in sizes XS-XL for $155.
Temperature management is one of the biggest challenges of riding through the winter. While a pair of waterproof, breathable rain pants offers excellent weather protection, they’re often too warm outside of all but the worst conditions. A soft shell pant is more versatile because it turns some weather, but offers far more breathability for most riding.
The Dulcet Soft Shell Pants are made of water-repellent nylon with a brushed interior. They have a skinny fit, a long cut and generous stretch. These pants are unlined which makes them suitable in a broad range of temperatures. I like keeping my legs on the warm side, so I comfortably wore the Dulcet pants over cycling shorts up into the low 50s. Doubling up over long underwear takes a little effort due to the slim fit and textured interior but the ankle zippers facilitate that by offering a wide leg opening. It’s like putting on snow pants; tuck your long underwear into your socks.
I often commute in hiking boots throughout the winter and the Dulcet’s long length and zippered ankle worked great for trapping my boot laces.
Unlike pockets on the average women’s skinny pants, these are large enough to use! My entire hand fits inside, so they’ll easily carry the essentials. The YKK pocket zippers have a catch preventing them for coming open; it’s a slight lift and pull motion to release the zipper.
The Dulcet Pant can be worn multiple days without washing. The water resistance allows mud to be wiped clean with a damp cloth. Stio recommends these pants be washed cold and dried on low. Drying is one way to to freshen up the pants DWR coating. Take a look at REI’s suggestions for keeping a DWR performing its best.
The Dulcet Soft Shell Pant comes in two colors: Tap Shoe (black) and Fallen Rock (tan). These pants hit below the natural waistline, but run true to the hip measurement. Available in sizes 2-12 for $150.
More info: stio.com
We recently published other reviews of women’s cycling clothing, including a technical hoody and cycling tights from Pearl Izumi, bibs and a wool jersey from Svelte London, and an insulated vest from Giro. Check them out!
Were in the thick of it now. Winter. This round of Button Up & Bike is focused on a small group of go-to items that make a big difference in cold conditions. The prevailing characteristics? Warm, water repellent, and wind resistant. Some are an investment, but their functionality outweighs the cost. Many we’ve worn happily for years, biking and otherwise, and they don’t show signs of giving out on us anytime soon.
Walz Plaid Wool Ear Flap, $33: This 100% wool cycling cap from the Walz Winter Collection is my favorite for the cold months because it keeps the wind out of my ears and looks cute. The flap is generous over the ears and provides more than enough room to tuck away unruly hair. Walz caps are all U.S.A. made and feature many styles and patterns, in addition to personalization options. -Emily
Neck gaiter: A neck gaiter can really help hide from the elements. I really like this gaiter because it’s not squeezing my face, fogging up my glasses while I attempt to breath. This is an old Buff Windstopper that doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but you can pick up a slightly different version with the Bicycle Times logo in our online store. Surly makes a wool, moisture wicking neck gaiter and Marmot has a GORE-TEX gaiter. Both look like they have a similar fit and would get the job done. -Trina
Ryders Eyewear Via Photochromic glasses: The Via Photochromic glasses automatically adjust to the amount of sunlight you’re currently dealing with. Wearing sunglasses does not always work in the darker winter months so a transition or tinted pair of glasses is great for protecting eyes from cold and snow. The Via’s have wrap-around coverage and fit under my helmet with issues. Retail price: $100. There is a less expensive version of the VIA with a non-transition lens tint, designed for medium to bright light for $50. -Trina
Wool jersey: This is a must for my cycling closet. The Bicycle Times wool jersey has three back pockets and is made of merino wool. Merino wool is soft, comfortable and warm. I’ve had my wool jersey for three years and have put it through the wringer. A few minor sewing repairs have been in order, mostly due to battles with a thorn bush. Price is $125, but on sale right now for $90. -Trina
SmartWool NTS Mid 250 Baselayers, $100: Merino wool is the queen of all baselayers. Who can argue with apparel that’s warm, moisture wicking, and odor resistant? SmartWool baselayers come in mid, light, and micro weight. I’ve found the mid-weight Zip T and Bottom the ideal candidate for cold weather, but because merino is ace at temperature regulation I can wear it comfortably all day. I like the high quarter-zip collar to vent or block the wind and unlike some long underwear tops, this one is presentable when worn solo. -Emily
Bar Mitts, size small, $75: How I pedaled through winters past without these things, I’ll never know. What a difference! Wind and moisture be gone, these neoprene sleeves are the answer to cold cycling hands. Most days I wore only a pair of mid-weight gloves and my hands were toasty; at times too warm! I didn’t have any issues shifting or braking, but I’d recommend sizing up to a medium for a little extra space and ease of getting your hands in and out while riding. There are also versions for drop bars or flat handlebars. I’m confident that these neoprene sleeves will keep my hands happy for years to come, making them well worth $75. Or, scoop up a pair on closeout for $45! – Emily
Outdoor Research Aspect Jacket: Any softshell is great for cycling, but I’m partial to the Outdoor Research Aspect Jacket due to its large chest to waist vents. I begin my ride with them closed and unzip as my core temperature rises. The body is roomy compared to your average softshell making it great for layering; I often wear two wool shirts and a fleece vest underneath. The collar and waist have an elastic drawstring to trap heat in and the bright color is good for daytime visibility. Outdoor Research no longer makes this jacket but the Showers Pass Portland Jacket has similar characteristics at a price of $175. -Emily
Novara Stratos Gloves: I have trouble keeping my extremities warm in the winter, especially on a windy day, but these waterproof Novara gloves do just the trick. The elastic cuff allows me to cinch down over my jacket keeping the heat in and the elements out. I’m a one finger on the brakes kind of person so I prefer to have my middle and index finger separate. Unfortunately, the Stratos are no longer available in women’s, but the men’s are still out there for $38, and they’re tech compatible. -Emily
Hiking boots and wool socks: Hiking boots are generally what I wear in winter or rainy weather. These LOWA boots have GORE-TEX lining, are lightweight, waterproof and breathable. A pair of good boots with wool socks (sometimes 2 socks), result in happier feet. The LOWA Bora GTX I’ve had for 2.5 years and they’re still in great condition. A good pair of long-lasting hiking boots will cost you about $120-$250+. -Trina
Craft Women’s PXC Storm Tight, $125: These Craft tights are breathable and warm, making them great for both city riding and mountain biking. They’re 100 percent poly, with a super soft lining and a wind resistant front. The stretch fabric and ankle zip allows me to easily pull them on over long underwear or jeans. They also have an opening by the knee that provides a little more movement while pedaling. -Emily
Vittoria Arctica MTB, $245: I had trouble finding women’s SPD cycling shoes that were winter friendly in a size 6.5, so I was thrilled to stumble across the Vittoria Arctica MTB. You’ll usually find me in my hiking boots on city commutes, but I wear these for longer rides as well as for mountain biking. The waterproof membrane and neoprene top keeps the moisture out and the knobby sole keeps you from slipping around at the store or in the woods. Vittoria offers narrow and wide widths as well as low volume upon request. -Emily
Want to ride all winter but on a tight budget? Check out our post Winter Riding on a Budget!
Now go ride!
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Giro may have made the perfect “shoulder season” footwear with the Alpineduro. Seriously. These are amazing boots.
Looking more like a pair of Italian hiking boots than the typical tech-y bike shoes, the Alpineduro fits in perfectly with Giro‘s New Road ascetic of performance riding wear without the typical racer influenced design cues. At $200 they slot in below Lake’s winter boots, and right around the same price as Shimano and Specialized winter boots.
The upper is synthetic leather, with very few seams or panels, meaning less entry points for water. A seam-taped waterproof bootie inside the shoe keeps out any water that might find a way past the outer materials. Insulation is provided by Primaloft, and Vibram contributes the sole. The toe and heel have minimalist rubberized protectors to protect these high wear zones.
Between the rockered sole and not-too-stiff nylon shank, these boots are very walkable, and the cleat pocket is just the right depth for grind-free walking and easy clipping in. I never have issues with traction on any surface, and are they comfortable enough to wear all day off the bike. I wouldn’t recommend taking a really long hike , but for rambling about, climbing over rocks, or just hanging out at the bar or campsite, there are few cycling footwear choices that are better for all around use.
My feet stay warm down until about freezing, and after that they start to get cold, but that mostly seems to come from the cleat. A thicker pair of socks might help, but between the typical narrowness of Giro’s uppers and the general snug fit—even after going a half size up from my normal 43.5—I could only fit a mid-weight hiking sock without cutting of my circulation. In the 20s and teens I prefer the Lake MX303’s, below that I usually just switch to standard winter boots and platform pedals. You mileage may vary, as my feet seem to get cold easily.
I like the lace closure, but the little elastic lace keeper pulled out of its stitching after a few weeks. Giro caught an early production run issue having to do with a newly trained employee. It is a minor issue that should be corrected now, and seemed to affect only a few pairs. I just tucked the loose ends of the knot under the crossing laces. When I think about it, I’ll just resew the end of the elastic myself, should be a 5 minute job.
While most of my riders this time of year are pretty short, I did spend about 22 hours straight in some awful weather during a 175-mile trip in early December, including a good bit of wet rail-trail, getting lost, and a lot of riding around in rural Pennsylvania in the middle of the night. The weather ranged from high 50s at the start, to high 20s. There were at least eight hours of rain in there as well, and a pretty serious sleet storm. All in all, a real test of a pair of shoes.
I didn’t bring rain pants on this trip, so eventually the water stared running down my legs and into the boots, but up until that point, my feet remained dry and comfortable. The low back on the boots prevents achilles tendon rubbing issues, but it is so low it may cause some issue with rain dripping of rain pants and into the boots. Giro is working on a pair of gaiters to go with this boots for riders looking for more coverage. I look forward to trying a pair out.
After my feet got wet, my wool socks and the insulation did a fine job keeping everything warm even as the temps dropped. I changed socks once, and expected to shove my now dry foot back into a swampy mess of a boot, but after only a few hours of rain free riding it was only slightly damp inside. Impressive, considering how waterproof they are.
Other than adding some arch support, I’ve been comfortable in these shoes, but I do wish for more toe box space. Some wiggle room for my toes is always appreciated. If there was some way to allow for some volume adjust to compensate for thick or thin socks, I’d be ecstatic. Maybe if the laces ran down further towards the toe? That seems to work on my non-cycling winter work boots.
If I was planning to do a lot more mountain biking in these, I’d want more aggressive lugs at the front of the boot, or maybe even a couple of screw in lugs. But really, there are already plenty of winter shoes like that on the market. I’m digging these for all around mixed surface use.
And finally, I am glad to see the synthetic leather outer. As much as I love leather, riding around these parts in the winter exposes footwear to a lot of road salt. Without regular care, that road salt will mess up a pair of expensive leather boots in a hurry. The outer material shows no sign of being affected by the salt, and clean up quickly with quick wipe with a paper towel.
I’ll admit I’m a big fan of how these shoes look. Simple, understated, classic. But theAlpineduros aren’t just all show. With the type of riding I like to do, and the amount of cool and damp weather I see, these boot may get worn more often than anything else I own.