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Cycling Sun Nov 28 2010

Icy Riding

Fall 2010 has been exceedingly kind to Chicago cyclists. Besides only a few rainstorms and abbreviated chilly days, most of the season has been balmy and comfortable.

But that's all changed. The inevitable has made itself clear: winter is now on its miserable way. Unlike many other activities, cycling makes few allowances for precipitation. And sometimes it revels in it. Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong both earned their world champion stripes in hellish, wet races that saw large portions of the field excised by crashes caused by slick roads. In amateur cycling, there is a whole subculture that speaks to the "Epic" ride defined by venturing out in conditions that would have most normal and sensible people inside by the fireplace.

But that's riding in the rain. Here in Chicago and the rest of the Midwest, serious cyclists who want to ride year-round contend with ice, snow, slush, and salt. Winter's a different animal -- and while riding in the rain has its visceral thrills, winter riding can be just plain perilous.

Coping with the temperatures is the most important component of winter riding. Hands and feet suffer most, as do ears. As one may have noticed by walking into a bicycle shop, cycling apparel is expensive. For gloves, skip the expensive stuff and pick up snowboarding gloves and mittens. The prices are often less and the dexterity offered close to the same.

Feet are another matter. If one uses flat pedals, any number of solid winter boots will keep feet warm through the commute. For classic utility on and off the bike, L.L. Bean's boots are a personal favorite, despite not allowing ultimate ankle flexibility. Paired with wool socks, that combo is unstoppable. For use with clipless pedals, local company Lake makes a series of fantastic winter boots. Good winter cycling boots not only keep the cold at bay, but also allow maximal flexibility, good for the cyclist who trains outside through the winter.

As for clothing, wool is fantastic and layers are the rule. Up top, a base layer of wool or wicking fabric, a jacket, and an outer water resistant layer will have one riding into the single digits. Down below, insulated tights are the rule. If one rides in street clothes, flannel-lined jeans are great, but cotton can be hellish when wet.

With regards to the bike, plenty of folks ride regular road, or preferably, cyclocross bikes through winter. Cyclocross bikes allow for wider, knobbier tires that can grip on slick surfaces better than skinny 23C road tires. Plus, CX bikes also allow for full fenders, which are crucial if one wants to avoid being sprayed by dingy, salty slush water. The dryer you are, the warmer you are, and fenders go a long way toward making that happen. Also, lights. The short days of winter often have the dedicated cyclist riding in dim and dark conditions and being well-lighted in the dark allows motorists to give ample room on the road. Hiking headlamps are inexpensive, versatile, and are easily removed. A common trick is to fix one to the handlebars and another to the helmet, providing good visibility.

All that said, perhaps the biggest tip of advice is to avoid the Oak Street curve on the Lakefront Path. The waves come and crash upon the cement in the cold and leave behind an icy rime that has caused numerous cyclists to slip, fall, and even fall into the lake. The local Lakeshore Drive detour is a good way to circumvent the ice if one's commute takes the path.

For more information, visit the Chicago Bike Winter website which has numerous resources on icy riding.

 
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joshua / January 20, 2011 2:33 PM

balaclavas are key for keeping your ears, head and face warm.
my eyes water like crazy so goggles (even protective glasses from home depot) are a must for riding in the dark.

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