Riding into Winter: A Second Opinion

Long-Distance CyclingSoon after posting my column encouraging people to bicycle through the winter, especially if they live in a relatively mild climate such as the Pacific Northwest or in one of the warmer zones of the country, I came across conflicting advice in Long-Distance Cycling, a 1993 book by the editors of Bicycling Magazine.

The editors provide six rules for riding through winter, drawn largely from people who live in Colorado, a place where winters are cold. They start off with advice that seems to contradict my encouragement that cyclists keep at it through the gloomy months. “Take it easy,” they counsel their readers. “The first rule for riding through winter is: Don’t ride through winter—at least not too hard.” They warn against the dangers of riding so much during the off season that cyclists will burn out part way through the summer.

They do encourage cyclists to stay in shape with indoor riding on a stationary bike and cross training in other athletic activities. Even in warm climates like Arizona, they say, “it’s important to get off the bike to clear your head. It’s fine to keep riding, but the pressure should be off.”

The other rules for winter riding make it clear that despite the advice in rule one, they do expect cyclists to continue to ride even during cold winters in higher elevations. “Dress Properly” is the second rule. Several suggestions are given, including layering, generous use of wool, special protection of knees, chest, hands, feet, and face. They suggest how male riders can protect against penile frostbite.

Rule three, “Be Flexible,” makes allowance for variations in weather, with pleasant days interspersed with harsher winter days. A flexible attitude and schedule allow cyclists to stay in when things are bad and get out when conditions improve. One writer acknowledges a change that I too have experienced. As I grow older, my cutoff temperature for winter riding has gotten warmer. In Indiana, my winter rule for recreational cycling was 35 and sunny. In the Pacific Northwest, I’ve added ten degrees.

“Get Fat Tires” is a rule I would never have thought of. Their point is that winter time riding is designed to help cyclists stay in good condition. A mountain bike with knobby tires will allow cyclists to “crank along” at 12 or 13 mph rather that 20 mph on a road bike. You will minimize wind chill, but still get a good workout.

The next rule is to rearrange routes to avoid hills and wind.” You get really warm going up hills and then you get cold going down. It’s especially important in winter to check the wind and try to ride into the wind going out and with the wind at your back on the return.

The final rule: “see and be seen after dark.” Here they make a few suggestions about wearing clothes that can be seen at night, using lights and reflectors, and trying to get out during the day—during noon hour, for example.

The editors finish off their rules for winter riding with a strong word of encouragement: “So, don’t let bad weather make this your winter of discontent. Instead, mix weight-training and aerobic activities with some no-pressure winter riding. When spring does come, you’ll be fit and eager.

So what am I doing on this 27 degree, gloomy, snow-spitting day? I’m sure not out there on my bicycle. I’m sitting in my warm condominium writing this blog.

Oh, and I’m dreaming of my near-New-Year’s-Day half-century, which this year I hope to do while visiting my son in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. In fact, the thought is so happiness-forming that I may do two and credit one of them for next year when I might be someplace cold.

3 Responses to Riding into Winter: A Second Opinion

  1. Winter, all weather riding isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great way to maintain fitness. And let’s face it, if you love riding, you’ve just got to ride. I don’t own an indoor trainer, though even when I get one, I’ll mainly use this so I can work in some extra hours around work and family. Having the right gear is essential. I live in a pretty mild part of the world in Australia, but even here I need all the layers – merino. winter jerseys, thermal bibs and jackets. Personally, I also find winter is a beautiful time to ride, as long as I’ve got the right gear on. There’s nothing like pulling into a little town and warming by an open fire or enjoying a nice hot mid-ride lunch. As for hills, the work keeps you warm and strong. Happy riding!

    • Thank you for the positive word on cycling in the winter. I have happy memories of some winter rides from my many years in Indiana where winters are cold and the streets get slick. As I indicate in the current post, my criteria for when weather permits cycling have changed a little now that I have become an octogenarian, but I want to stay in good cycling condition all year round. It is a goal that will serve many cyclists well.

  2. Joe Culpepper says:

    Thanks for these additional comments, which seem to confirm the pattern I will be following. I like the encouragement not to feel guilty when you can’t keep up a warm weather regimen, and the different goal for winter of staying in shape but also intentionally having a slower pace. That sounds like a good rhythm to me, & spiritually/theologically certainly fits with the wisdom of a sabbath season. When we go to GA next week, I hope to get in a couple of rides while there on the old Schwinn that I keep at our family home! I may even ride on New Year’s Day, too, & think warm thoughts of you a bit further south on your bike!

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