Overcoming Commuting Obstacles: It’s Too Cold!

Ed. Note: The Overcoming Commuting Obstacles article was originally published in Bicycle Times #15, and offers solutions to common commuting roadblocks, written by a variety of people in a variety of places. I’m publishing each obstacle/solution as its own short post, one or two per day all week. 


Words by Andy Bruno

The first obstacle to get over in cold-weather riding is the mental one. The decision to brave the elements is often harder than choosing the appropriate gear for your ride. When you’re warm and cozy inside your bed/house/car, the prospect of getting all geared up and facing physical discomfort in the form of cold, ice, snow, and/or rain doesn’t seem all that much fun. Indeed, often the first 15 minutes of a winter ride are uncomfortable, but after a good warm-up, the fun begins. I know this fact well, but on some foul weather mornings I still find myself rationalizing about why I’d rather drive to work or skip the trail ride and stay at home and drink coffee. The reason? Inertia. It’s the resistance to changing your state of comfort. On one hand, you’re warm and dry. On the other, you choose to exchange those luxuries to be cold and wet. When I think about it, I know I will be happier if I ride no matter what the weather. But the mental and physical preparation for the ride often seems insurmountable. Obviously it’s not, and what it comes down to is that you just have to push on through and get on your bike. Below are a few tips that make it a little easier to get moving during the winter months.

– If you know you’re riding in the morning, get up a little earlier than usual so that you can fully wake up and get your body physically and mentally prepared.

-Before a ride, I try and warm up a little inside before leaving the house. Not so much that I break a sweat. Something as simple as climbing up and down the steps a few times or doing a few push-ups or sit-ups to increase my heart rate is all that it takes.

-Get enough sleep the night before a ride. This is sound advice all year long, but it’s especially important in the low-motivation months of winter.

-The more you ride during the winter, the easier it is to get motivated to ride. Again, this is true all year long, but more pronounced in winter.

-Get your bike and gear ready to go the night before you ride. Riding in the winter takes a little more preparation, so it’s best not to leave it until the last minute. That only gives you an excuse not to ride.

Once you get outside, your comfort level on the bike is critical so that you actually stay on your bike and enjoy the ride. The right gear can make that happen. 

Photo: Evan Gross

Photo: Evan Gross

Check out some of our tips for gearing up for winter riding on a budget, and read Thom Parsons’ story about resuming his 35-mile commute in the middle of February in Boston—guaranteed to make you laugh, and maybe inspire you to get out there yourself!

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Boiling the Frog: A Boston Commuter Journal

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.

Illustration: Julia Green

Illustration: Julia Green

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. 


 

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Review: Bontrager RXL Softshell and Race Thermal tights

Bontrager continues to improve upon and expand its women’s line of cycling clothing. I’m always pleased to see when high-end offerings get women’s-specific versions, such as the RXL Softshell Tight reviewed here, and versatility in investment pieces. Neither of the bottoms have built-in chamois, for example, making them endlessly useful through winter and allowing you to choose the right padding for each ride. Both of these pieces have comparable men’s versions, as well.

RXL Softshell Tight – $130

I was told when I started working here to expect inconsistent product review times. Some items could be written about right away—their virtues and flaws would be obvious. Then, there would be bicycles, gear and other items I would have to stick with for a while to figure out. These tights fall into the latter category.

I know, I know, they’re just pants. But they’re fancy pants.

Bontrager weatherproof tights

The downside of this relationship is the fit. The RXL doesn’t stretch as much as I think “tights” should and I find them a tad short for ensuring warm ankles (I don’t have long legs). They’re too fitted around my cyclist thighs and too loose at my little waist. I can’t hoist them up enough to prevent the crotch from sagging and have caught the pants several times on various saddles.

That said, they might fit your body type just fine. Mine is apparently called “spoon,” which is like an hourglass figure but with a smaller chest. Anyway…

The upside of this relationship is everything else. The RXL Softshell Tight is a very nice product that, fit issues aside, I still wore the heck out of over the past couple of months and will continue to reach for on cold, snowy rides. They are pre-bent at the knees and have a nice rise in the rear to prevent gaping when bent over. The RXL tights are windproof, water resistant and lined with a light, cozy fleece (Profila Thermal fabric). As advertised, these thick and hearty pants kept me warm and dry on the most frigid of outings, including a multi-hour fat bike ride through spitting snowfall and temperatures in the low teens.

The ankle area of the tights is longer in the front. The shorter back of the ankle allows for unrestricted pedaling motion with cycling boots and the longer front means less cold air seeping through your laces, but I’d rather see an overall longer length.

The quality of the RXL Softshell Tight is impressive. They’re impeccably made and full of nice, little touches like a drawstring at the comfortable, yoga-pant-inspired waistband, ankle zippers and reflective detailing. My pair has been through the wash several times and so far, so good. I would also be perfectly happy wearing them hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Sizes: XS-XL
More info: bontrager.com

Race Thermal Tight – $90

The Race Thermal Tights were designed to be performance tights that remind the wearer of yoga pants. They are versatile for winter activities, both on the bike and off, as well as layering for winter warmth.

Bontrager Thermal Tights

The Profila Thermal fabric is the same medium-thickness, smooth-faced, cozy fleece as the RXL tight, but without the windproofing front. The outer fabric of the tights feels particularly hearty. I think they would work better than a thin base layer tight for tramping around in thick, snaggy underbrush, should you find yourself on a rather adventurous outing. The tights also wick and breathe as advertised, preventing clamminess when you heat up too much on that hard road ride.

These tights offered me some of the same weird fit issues as discussed above, and I’ll confess that I heard some ripping noises in the waistband area the first time I put them on and had to yank them up over my thighs (but sizing up would have meant serious waist gaping). Again, I’m willing to concede that women with other body types won’t have this issue, but I like to think of tights as generally more stretchy and universally shaped enough enough that one-design-suits-most. Admittedly, because of the tight fit, I can’t comfortably get chamois liners under these tights, so I primarily wear them running and snowshoeing.

Speaking of the waistband, it’s wide and soft, but the comfort factor is interrupted by harsh, itchy seaming on either side near the hips. Because of that, I always make sure to have a long under shirt tucked in if I’m wearing them. This might be a problem with my pair, only, so try to find these at a Trek dealer to try out before purchasing.

Sizes: XS-XL
More info: bontrager.com

 

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Button Up & Bike: Winter Wear

BU&B - Intro image-3

BU&B - Intro image-3

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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

BU&B - Winter (11 of 16)

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

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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

BU&B - Winter (13 of 16)

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

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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

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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!

Don’t let us keep you, button up and bike!

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This Just In: 45North Sturmfist Cold Weather Gloves

Just in time for the first Polar Vortex of the season, cold-weather specialists 45North has new gloves to keep your hands warm this winter. For those of us that keep riding into sub-freezing temps, cold feet and hands can turn an otherwise enjoyable ride into a sufferfest. And the only thing that may be as bad or worse frozen fingers and toes? The pain when they thaw out.

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Sturmfist 5

45North has your feet covered with the Wolvhammer boots (which we reviewed last year), and hands too, with the Cobrafist extreme cold weather pogies, but the Sturmfist 4 and 5 are the first glove offering from 45North. While new gloves aren’t often news we’d find the need to cover, 45North is based in Minnesota where it gets truly cold, and 45North only does cold weather gear for cyclists, so new gloves are a big deal.

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Sturmfist 4

From the press release:

“The Sturmfist collection will be available in two different models. The five-fingered Sturmfist 5 incorporates a 100% Merino wool liner for total moisture control and keeps hands protected in 15–35ºF conditions.

For days when the mercury plunges below 15°, there’s the four-fingered Sturmfist 4. Utilizing a double glove design, Sturmfist 4 features a removable 100% Merino wool liner glove, and is rated for more frigid, 0–15ºF days. The Merino wool liner is also available separately to be used as a replacement for mid-ride freshness, or with 45North’s Cobrafist pogies.

For the ultimate blend of wool and insulation technology, Sturmfist 4, Sturmfist 5, and the Merino Wool Liner will be arriving at retailers next week for $130, $100, and $50, respectively. All pieces in the collection will be available in sizes 7, 8, 9, and 10.”

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Merino Liners

The most interesting aspect of these gloves is the use of Aerogel in the palms and fingers. Aerogel claims to have the lowest thermal conductivity of any solid. This is the same material used for the insoles of the Wolvhammer boots to insulate the bottom of the foot from the metal cleat. In this case the Aerogel will help keep hands from losing heat to metal handlebars, shifters and brake levers.

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With more features including conductive patches on thumbs and first two fingers, Polartec Alpha insulation and Polartec waterproof  and windproof Neoshell outers, there are not corners being cut here. Since 45North is one of the many brands that falls on the the umbrella of Quality Bicycle Products, most local bike shops should be able to order some Strumfist as this is post. I wouldn’t wait around if you are interested, it seems that cold weather gear is always, always, always sold through much sooner than anyone expects.

By the time this is posted, the odds are good 45North will have full details on its website: 45north.com.

 

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Have thick skin? Take the Icy Bike Winter Commuter Challenge

Icy Bike Winter Commuting Challenge is not designed to be a competition, more a challenge to those willing to put on some gloves and shoe covers, get out there to show what you’re made of and keep the pedals turning through the winter. Bicycle commute to work 52 times between October 1 and March 31 and not only will you’ve earned badass status, you can attend the Icy Bike Gala. Join the Facebook group to track your progress.

ChainRing Films has even made a short film about the experience, A Winter of Cyclists. Watch the trailer here.

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