Dear Umbra,

Here in Cleveland we recently endured the first snowstorm of winter. When I look out the window and see all that pretty white stuff, I can’t help but reach for my car keys instead of my bicycle helmet. Can you offer any suggestions for safe and warm winter riding?

Jon B.
Lakewood, Ohio

Dearest Jon,

Has anyone out there tried gel toothpaste on their eyeglasses as an anti-moisture measure? It’s just one of the winter riding tips I found, but I think we need to hear some testimony from the streets. If it works, a whole world will open up for our four-eyed friends — not just while biking, but running, Nordic skiing, and even walking.

Snow falling on speeders.

My winter riding is all Pacific Northwest-based, so though I have a lot of firsthand experience with wet and mild cold, some of the following tips come from the virtual biking community. There is, of course, an avid, crazy-in-a-good-way group of bikers out there who ride in any condition (search “winter biking”). One website warns that dogsleds can come up fast and silent — so watch out!

Safety first. Wear a helmet with straps tight enough that eating a hamburger is impossible. Make sure you have front and back lights in good working order, and consider adding a light on your helmet. Put reflective tape on your outer clothes, your bags, and your helmet. Change out your tires to wider, knobbier tires, or even studded tires — here you will want to scout around for good recommendations for Ohio conditions. Slightly deflated tires apparently handle well in snow, according to the crazy-in-a-good-way riders. Understand how to recognize and handle frostbite (e.g., do not rub or dunk in hot water) and, if there is any remote chance you will spend a night injured and unnoticed in the snow, hypothermia.

Allow extra time to get places, especially in the beginning, when it will be smart to ride slowly and accustom yourself to road conditions. Be observant of how the road looks and how the road feels. Just as in our cars we learn to see black ice, or prepare to drive over packed snow, you will need to anticipate how your bike handles the next section of road. From what I’ve read, a bike on ice is similar to a car on ice, in that a slow response to slipping is better than a quick twist of the handlebars. Ride extra-defensively. The shoulder may vanish once plowing begins, and cars will not expect winter cyclists.

It’s not hard to keep your body warm on a winter ride. The concerns lie in your extremities, in the wet weather, and at the end of the ride. Buy an outdoor thermometer and set it next to a window, so you know how warmly to dress before you leave the house. There’s a balance between dressing warmly enough to bike and wearing so many layers that you are sweating profusely and ready to freeze the minute you stop pedaling. I think it’s like Nordic skiing — you should be chilly but not cold before you start. Certainly dress in layers, with something wicking next to the skin (no cotton). Seek out the good hand and foot casings for typical Cleveland winter weather. Mitten covers with an articulated finger may be just the thing. A thin cap worn under your helmet will help you heat right up and stay warm throughout your ride (here’s a fancy example, but surely a thrift store will disgorge something just as useful).

In the Pacific Northwest, the dilemma is how to be water-resistant without excessive sweating. I have often decided against waterproof legs in favor of air circulation, but would wear a rain jacket. A fender will help keep you dry. Either keep dry clothes at your destination, or be sure to have a waterproof way to carry them with you.

If you don’t mind looking kinda wacko, then your imagination will be the only limit to the perfect winter bike outfit. One of my Seattle friends wears shorts, orange leg warmers, and flip-flops.

Have a great time staying fit, warm, and gas-free this winter.

Brakely,
Umbra