cycling utah March 2000

Bike Advocacy

Winter offers bike commuting challenges

By Rob MacLeod

It's happening again. A new season of cycling utah and despite my best intentions, it is happening again. I wanted to avoid the stress at the middle of each month from February to September and get my articles to Editor Bob ahead of time, at least for the season premier issue.

But, alas, it was not to be. I'm sitting on a plane, winging my way toward Salt Lake, and I just know that there will be an email waiting for me reminding me that today is the day for submitting articles. So here we go!

A new season requires a new theme and this year I want to share with you some ideas on power and strategy. These are familiar themes for the racing cyclist but these articles will not be about intervals and anaerobic thresholds. Instead, they will be about the power that we all have to become better, more frequent, and safer cyclists and the strategies we can use to both survive and the enjoy the results.

The strategies will consist of some purely technical tips-how to dress for bike commuting, where to find a good lighting system, and what makes a good commuting bike-as well as riding suggestions such as avoiding dangerous situations before they arise, picking good commute routes, and shaping your attitude to enjoy the fun and satisfaction of using a bike as transportation.

I hope there will be something for most everyone over the course of the season, from the tips that help new cyclists get over the fear factor to the attitude shift that I find many racing cyclists need before they can really enjoy the sport of commuting. As always, I love hearing from all of you and welcome any suggestions, questions, or even critiques of what you read here.

As a year-round daily bike commuter, one of the questions I get most often is how I can possible ride on cold winter mornings, during rainstorms, and especially when there is snow on the ground. So the topic for this article is dressing for cycling on those days when the risk of sunburn is low.

Fortunately, weather conditions in the Salt Lake area and much of urban Utah are generally pretty benign. This trip to the east coast provided a reminder of how awful winter can be when the sequence of snow, turning to rain, turning to sleet, turning back to rain left three inches of saturated slush to wade through. In the West, we enjoy generally dryer conditions and precipitation that usually remain either snow or rain.

The really surprising fact is that even parts of the country and the world that are less fortunate in their climate still have relatively few days on which it really does rain or snow. Based on figures from Germany, a country with plenty of wet weather, in Frankfurt on average only about 45 days of the year receive rain or snow between 6 and 9 a.m.

At this point in the discussion, there is an important point to make: you do not have to ride each and every day of the year to consider yourself a real bike commuter. Much too often I hear from cyclists who feel guilty because they ride most days but still take the car to work once in a while. Or from others who say they could never commute because they don't like to ride in the rain.

The fact is that even if residents of urban areas used a bike once per week, even once per month, they could make a huge impact on traffic, congestion, and parking. The head of Transportation Services at the University of Utah says that if everyone at the University used something besides a car just once a month, there would be no parking problems on the campus.

So if the weather is terrible, or you just don't feel like getting wet, then grab the bus and head for the gym or rest up for the next fine day. Chances are that by avoiding the really bad days you will save lots of wear and tear on your bike, keep a great attitude about bike commuting, and still contribute to making the world a better place.

Now for those other days, when you do feel like a bike ride.

Any bike will work in the winter, but there are a few improvements that will reduce the wear and hassles. Road salt will attack any metal part on a bike, especially the steel pieces like the bearings, the chain, and of course the frame. There are not really any coatings or lubricants that can completely shield the bike, but beware that chain oil can wash off quickly so check daily to ensure a good coating. Even if you prefer a dry wax lube for summer riding, convert to oil or even grease for the winter and keep the chain clean and well oiled. In really bad weather, chain cleaning at least weekly is a must. Even steel frames will tolerate many years of road salt abuse so just give the bike a wash when it gets so dirty you avoid touching it for fear of getting yourself dirty.

This year for the first time I have tried rubber covers for the derailleurs (called Grunge Guards) and so far the results seem good. Otherwise, salt and grime can crawl into the hinges and springs and water can freeze and reduce your mega-geared machine to a beach cruiser.

In wet weather a commuter's best friends are fenders. There is no glory in a wet stripe up the back or a shower in the face from road brine. So if you plan to ever ride in the wet, install a set of light plastic mud guards-Zefel makes some that are usually easy to find and install. Make sure to leave plenty of clearance for snow and mud.

Winter riding can mean snow and ice so that the slick tires of summer can make for some rude surprises. Switching to knobbies of at least moderate size can improve snow traction at the cost of some rolling resistance. For the real extremists, it is possible to buy or create your own studded snow tires with some drywall screws and a drill. However, these are overkill in most storms and can be a disaster on the ride home at the end of the day when the roads are clear and dry. Leave the studs for Minnesota.

A final equipment tip for winter-use some sort of protection against flats. Fixing a bike during a winter commute is never, ever, fun. Slime filled tires, optionally with tire liners, are worth every additional ounce of weight. And besides, when spring comes and you can go back to skinny slicks and narrow tubes, the bike will feel so light and fast that you'll swear you have new legs.

A critical component to safe and comfortable winter riding is clothing. Strangely enough, it is not so much the cold that is hard to protect against as the range of temperatures in a typical commute. A long downhill run can indeed be bracing and require lots of windproof clothing. The ride back up, on the other hand, can have you dripping in sweat in minutes. If you get wet, you will get chilled, and then hypothermia will set in.

There are really two tricks with clothing. The first is to dress in thin layers that you can add and remove easily, especially on the upper body. Include at least one windproof garment in the mix, but avoid bulky insulation like fleece jackets or down vests. A cyclist is a mobile heating plant-it's the motorists who are ice cubes.

The second trick is to anticipate the sudden changes in temperature that come with climbs and descents and adjust the clothing beforehand. The biggest risk is not underdressing and getting a little cold, but overdressing and getting wet. So strip down before you start to climb and try not to overdress for the short descents. Select a base layer that wicks well and this will also keep you dryer.

To get a feeling for what you need for a certain ride and outside temperature, take more clothes than you need in a bag and experiment. My uphill clothing never gets beyond heavy tights, a T-shirt or bike jersey, acrylic arm warmers, and a shell vest, at least for the moderate climate I have to deal with-seldom below 10 degrees F. My trip home requires an additional long-sleeved shell and perhaps a lightly lined vest.

Riding in winter also requires a change in attitude over the warmer days of summer. If the temperature is near or below freezing, assume there is ice around every corner and adjust speed accordingly. Drivers can have a harder time seeing out of frosted windows or over the snowbanks so assume-even more than usual-that you are invisible and ride ultra-defensively.

This does not, however, mean that you can afford to slink along at the edge of the road, out of sight and mind of the motorists. In the short, dark days of winter, it is even more important to ride visibly by dressing in bright clothes, signaling your intentions and taking a very obvious location on the road. Lighting systems also become even more important, but I will save that topic for next month's article.

The ultimate winter riding challenges are the truly awful days, when there is rain or snow falling heavily. Even if you do plan someday to take on these types of conditions, work up to it. Go out some night during a snowstorm and get the feel of what your bike feels like in a slide. Unlike a car, a bike usually crashes when it slides so be sure you are ready to deal with this. Think hard about traffic and try and ride in a way that a crash will not throw you under car wheels. Mostly, give yourself time to work into winter commuting.

Part of the beauty of winter riding and commuting is that you have stepped out and above the rest of cyclists. You don't have to admit that it really isn't much harder or more complicated that any other time of year. Your fellow cyclists and also the motorbound people you work with will never doubt your toughness or your commitment to a healthier world. They may doubt your sanity and wonder how riding in the cold can really be good for you. But you will know by how you feel that winter riding is a great way to get around.

So ride well, enjoy the winter sun and always wear a helmet.

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Editor's Note: Rob MacLeod is the chair of the Salt Lake City Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee, a trustee of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, and former president of the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club. His other job is as a professor in both Bioengineering and Cardiology at the University of Utah.

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