Riding, Being Safe and Having Fun in the Cold–Things to Think About

By Bill Plock

This article will hopefully point out some not so obvious challenges, ideas and solutions to help you enjoy winter riding outdoors more.

Riding outside in the Colorado winter comes with increased risks, but often with un-anticipated rewards. I, like so many, have come to enjoy indoor riding much more thanks to my smart trainer (Saris H3) and my motivating software, Zwift. But it doesn’t replace the crisp Colorado air and snowy vistas and a sense of not only being outside and refreshed, but sort of conquering the elements too. 

Yes, as we know, there can be single layer, short sleeved days in the middle of Winter here along the front range, but rarely is it good to leave the house without at least a vest, gloves, arm warmers and “legs”. For me, come mid-November the toe covers are on and stay on until  March. 

Let’s talk about a few things.

Shadows: The sun angle is lower and causes much deeper and darker shadows. So much so if you look at these two pictures you will barely see a rock (about the size of the palm of my hand) in the shadow about 8 feet ahead compared to when I moved the rock into the sun a few inches to the left. These pictures were taken at 1:30pm. Hazards like rocks, potholes and especially ice are well hid by shadows, even narrow ones from a fence post. Also the colder surface temperature in a shadow can house clear “black” ice—super dangerous to cyclists.

The rock is located in the shadow of the first post on the right
Moved the rock into the sun

Visibility: With the sun angle lower, sun glare happens much earlier in the day and is more intense and lasts longer. Bright colors or lights won’t be as effective. Wearing a lightweight vest or jacket and leaving it unzipped makes it flap and draws attention (as long as it’s not too annoying to yourself). 

Roads vs. Bike paths. While bike paths might offer a safer feeling with no cars, they can often be much sloppier longer after a snow storm. That’s because most paths follow the grade of the land so they slope in one direction. Thus snow or water on the sides tend to drain into the path rather than away from it like on a road. Roads are generally “crowned” in the middle and slope towards drainage and dry out quicker and sit higher than the surrounding land.

Route Planning: Avoid riding past 4pm for reasons noted above with sun glare and quick temperature changes. If riding late, avoid riding into the sun so plan your routes accordingly. Also, riding in canyons can be very unpredictable with even deeper shadows. They hold snow and ice longer and coatings of mag chloride used to melt snow can leave roads looking almost wet and further disguise ice. Cold air pockets in canyons can drop temperatures very quickly. Rides with steep climbs that make us sweat might make us extra chilly going down, so bringing a large, thin, easy-to-put-on jacket for descents is often worthwhile. Routes with short climbs, rolling hills and some more technical turns offer variety which can be good for “moving around” on the bike with standing and shifting hands that will help keep you warmer. 

Body fatigue: On a road or triathlon bike in particular, you will feel the road more in the cold. The bike feels stiffer in the cold, your body is typically stiffer so eventually you will feel more fatigue from the jarring and vibration than when it’s warm. Lowering your tire pressure 5lbs or so can make a big difference in comfort.

Clothing: In general we all know about the importance of layers and the wonderful fabrics that allow moisture wicking and wind blocking. Probably the biggest bangs for the buck are a good base layer for your torso, toe covers, arm and leg warmers, neck gators, and a skull cap. All of these can be fairly affordable and when added to jackets, vests, jerseys etc, can make a huge difference in comfort. They carry easily, and can be easy to take off and on in changing temperatures. Water and windproof fabrics are great, but can sometimes cause sweating which will eventually make you cold. If it’s sunny out, maybe just opt for basic gloves and outerwear. 

Fit is king, just like a bike. The better the fit, the more comfortable, the better blood circulation and the the better the experience.  Thicker socks or gloves may cause worse circulation and make you colder. Keep extremities dextrous and warm; numb feet and hands are not good! Also note Gloves too big can get caught on gear and brake levers or catch your hoods when shifting your hands and can cause a crash. 

Latex gloves can be a life saver. Combined with another glove, they can add a lot of warmth and are great for unexpected moisture and are super easy to stash in your bike bag–and very cheap.

Toe covers provide really good protection. Neoprene ones are the least expensive but can cause sweating more quickly so for a few extra dollars consider a breathable but water/wind proof fabric.

Full foot covers are great when it’s really cold and going to stay cold. They may make your feet too warm though if the temperatures climb. It might be best to start with toe covers that you can use in a much bigger variety of temperatures and if they aren’t enough you can always get full foot protectors. 

All in all, it takes a while to figure out what’s going to work best to keep you warm, but try, it will be worth it. Just be a bit more cautious and aware and enjoy the snowy vistas!

2 thoughts on “Riding, Being Safe and Having Fun in the Cold–Things to Think About

  1. When its cold and I want to climb, I find the climbs with a long gradual side, and a short steep side. You spend a lot of time climbing the long side, and then have a quick cold descent. In Boulder, you could ride up lefthand to the backside of lee hill and descend lee hill. You’ll get cold on the descent, but since its only 7-10min you won’t get too frozen. If you were to descend lefthand, well you’d spend a lot more time in the cold and may not warm up afterwards.

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