Cycling in cold weather

With a few precautions, cold weather cycling is manageable

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Jack Crowe

Cycling Columnist

People complain about the cold. They do all manner of things to stay inside. Travel to southern climes to avoid it. But there is something special about cold weather cycling. It is counter-cultural.

And after a jaunt in frigid temps, most any cyclist will say, "it really wasn't that bad." And it isn't, with a few precautions.

In cold weather, everything slows down. We ditch the fancy road bikes and take out the old trusty mountain bikes. The bigger tires eat more road. Our average mile per hour dips to fifteen or less, which is a good thing since trying to minimize wind chill is a priority.

The old adage about dressing in layers applies to winter cycling. Lots of them. This past weekend, it was 10 degrees at our start with a wind chill below zero. Nine cyclists were out. We rode for over two hours and were relatively warm for most of that time.

That required every layer in the cycling gear drawer: heavy winter cycling tights covered by another layer of looser tights; six, count 'em, six layers of shirts and cycling jackets; and two balaclava's over the face and head.

But the most important part of staying warm on a bike in winter? The feet and hands. In our cycling group no one is caught dead (frozen to death?) without a pair of Lake winter cycling boots. But below 20 degrees, even these aren't enough. So I stick on my feet a pair of those foot warmers people wear at the Bears cold weather games or skiing. I also cover the Lake boots with wind resistant booties.

As for the hands, everyone has their favorite strategy. For me, it's three layers of gloves. A liner, a pair of high end Assos winter gloves, all covered by cheap pair of worker gloves from Home Depot. And it works.

My hydration strategy did not work so well this weekend. Even while riding in winter, hydration is a must. I filled my Camelback with water and wore it under my outer layer of clothing, but the water line froze within the first few minutes out of doors.

There is something bracing about pedaling fast enough to stay warm and pulling the cold air into your lungs. And after a while, you really do warm up and start sweating, which is O.K. as long as you don't stop. The core body temperature drops quickly on a sweating cyclist who has to stop and fix a flat in the cold.

A typical route for us is out the Prairie Path. Just before Route 83, we head south to the Salt Creek Trail that meanders through Oak Brook near to the old Graue Mill before heading back towards Oak Park through Bemis and Brezina Woods.

The woods were lovely, grey and desolate. They provided a little shelter from the wind too. The sky was bright blue and the air brisk. The path was well paved and clear of ice (a cyclist's enemy - a bike wheel can easily slip from under you).

And when we arrived at George's Restaurant steaming from the moist heat our bodies were throwing off, most everyone commented - my feet or hands are cold - "but it wasn't that bad, not bad at all."

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