Few cyclists dare to tackle the fluctuating forties on a year-round basis, Indianapolis cyclist Jeff Barnd is one. Jeff is a devoted daily commuter who has ridden in all varieties of Indiana weather, including cold weather that would make the abominable snowman call a cab. Although not yet a small wheel enthusiast, Jeff has generously agreed to share his cold-weather riding tips for any small wheeler ambitious enough to give it a go.
How did you become a bicycle commuter? Did you work up to it? Was it a conscious decision? Did you lose a bet?
I began the biking adventure about 10 years ago. My workplace was 11 miles away. There was not a bet involved in starting to bike. I started in the summer when the weather was good and started cycling a couple of days a week. I had noticed a locker room in our office building and thought it would be an opportunity to augment my running with some daily cycling. The fitness boost was very noticeable.
What are your limits for cold weather commuting? How cold is too cold? In the fleeting moments of any given morning, how do you decide to ride or drive?
For cold weather commuting there really haven't been any temperature limits. I've biked in -5F weather. With the wind blowing, the temperature feels like -15F. My gear is good to -20F. As long as no skin is exposed to the air, the temperature isn't a source of trouble. My biggest issue occurs with fog/frost obscuring my vision since I wear glasses. Once the biking routine is established it's not a decision in the morning as to drive or bike, it's simply a matter of deciding what to wear.
Tell us about your bike. Do you use the same bike all year round? If so, what changes, if any, do you make to it to prepare for cold weather?
I normally ride a road bike during good weather and when the trails and roads are snow and ice free. My ice bike is a Cannondale hybrid. The tires are changed out in early December with studded tires produced by Kenda. The metal studs provide incredible traction advantages. Ice is not a problem. In addition to the metal studded tires I have Moose Mitts that attach to the handle bars. The Moose Mitts act as a wind breaker and keep my hands warmer. They also keep hands drier when it rains.
Note: Cannondale does make a small wheel urban bike! Feel free to substitute as needed. Jeff suggested the possibility of making your own studded tires for small wheel bikes, but be careful if your tires come in contact with the frame during the fold, as they do on the Brompton. A protective frame wrap could save some excruciating scratches.
What about clothing? What works? What doesn't work? How is it that you can ride through things like freezing rain and oily roadside slush and still show up at the office in slacks, button down shirt, and tie?
Clothing options change based on the temperature, wind, and precipitation. I wear polypropylene thermal layers. They are lightweight, space saving, and very effective at keeping one warm. Two thermal layers and a light wind breaker is more than effective at 20F. Keeping the body core warm is very easy. Hands, face and feet can be challenging without the right gear. The best footwear to keep warm is waterproof boots. Regular running shoes are fine over 40F but below that waterproof/wind-breaking boots are best. For my office appearance, I have some nice shirts from Jos. A Banks, Traveler Slim Fit, as they do not wrinkle.
Cold hands can be crummy, so I recommend for the best experience cycling that insulated lobster-style gloves be used. I have two pairs that I find effective. I also will wear a thin glove inside the lobster gloves when the temperature is under 20. I also might use lightweight waterproof glove covers to add more warmth to the lobster gloves when it's around 5F or below. At 0F three thermal layers and a light windbreaker works fine. Waterproof travel bags from Ortlieb are a great way to carry clothes to work. They attach to my bike’s rear rack and I’ve had the same set of pannier bags since I started biking.
The head requires some creativity at times, but I have experienced some great rides when I use my ski helmet on rides under 30F. Ski goggles are also a necessity under 30F. Balaclava face masks are great to keep the skin from chilling. I'll wear a lighter one when the temperature is over 30F. When the temperature is 15F or lower I'll wear a mask produced by RU Outside called the Fog eVader. It works great to keep my glasses from fogging/frosting over. Ski pants work great when it’s 20F and under. In the future, I'd like to try a snowmobiling helmet with a full face shield. I think this will reduce the fogging and the amount of gear needed to stay warm and make negative zero temperatures more comfortable.
A flat tire would definitely be a bummer when cycling under 20 degrees. I've been very lucky on this issue, but it has happened once when it was two degrees. It was too cold to change the inner tube, so I resorted to leaving my bike behind and walking the final mile to work. When it's icy on the roads, studded tires are very much a requirement. In any weather, most cyclists seem to have very poor rear-facing lights. This is a big safety issue. Really bright rear lights are really important. I use three, with one on the back of my helmet because batteries can go out at any time and with three, at least one should always work.
Also, commutes to work are normally pretty enjoyable but I have found that in the afternoon that the commute home can be crummy when the temperatures are 15F and below. Cold handlebars easily suck the warmth from hands/gloves. In the future I'd like to try heated handlebar grips produced by AME.
Understanding the risks, what are the benefits or rewards of bicycle commuting and particularly cold weather commuting?
The daily routine created by cycling to work is a very effective way to stay fit and with the right clothing even moderate temperatures in the 30's and 40's can be enjoyed by anyone.
If the streets and trails are covered in deep snow, I may drive to work because the effort of biking in snow can be very tiring and exhausting. The city does not clear the bike trails, so I may lose a week or two of biking due to the snow. Light snow falls of 2 to 4 inches are manageable and even fun to ride in.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in taking up daily bicycle commuting?
Safe and comfortable cycling in any weather requires a really good head light. Lights with 800+ lumen are fine, but I've found that my eyes really appreciate the brightest light I can obtain. I've been using HID lights from Light and Motion. The latest iteration of Light and Motion SECA bike lights are now LED based and provide 2000 lumen. These lights essentially add car headlights to your bike. It's a great experience. Really bright rear lights are essential. I really like the rear safety lights produced by SERFAS. The USB-charged ones are really convenient. For the beginner, try warm and dry weather days and give a bike commute a spin. Having a locker and shower at your workplace is also important. Talking to someone that already commutes by bike is a great way to build up the courage to ditch the car for a new adventure. And, of course, wear a well-fitting helmet.
Thanks to Jeff Barnd for an great primer on winter commuting in central Indiana!
If you have questions about Jeff and winter riding, please submit a comment and ISWE will beg Jeff for some more information.