Folks who ride a bike to work will tell you that there’s simply no better way to commute. It’s often the fastest way to get to work, it offers a wide array of route options, and, unlike driving or taking public transportation, doing it regularly is actually good for you.
But the numbers from Capital Bikeshare tell a stark, though not shocking, story: People ride to work much less often in the winter. Even as peak usage in warm months has climbed from about 140,000 in 2011 to over 360,000 last year, January or February usage has remained around 110,000.
Of course, those numbers don’t reflect people who own their own bikes and who might be considered more dedicated to cycling and likely to ride when the weather gets cold. However, the most recent annual report by Strava, a popular fitness app for cyclists and runners, also showed that bike rides classified as “commuting” declined 63.3 percent in the winter.
And that’s a shame! Using exercise to commute to work in chilly weather doesn’t need to be met with a cold shoulder. There are ways of making cycling and running to work safe and comfortable enough to become regular winter habits, leading to increased fitness and, best of all, the satisfaction of knowing you’re kind of a badass.
Apparel: Let’s face it: Cold weather usually isn’t a problem that an extra layer or two can’t fix. The one closest to the body should be a material that can wick away sweat, ideally merino wool, and the outermost one should be able to provide some wind-proofing.
Actually, the single most important thing might simply be gloves. I’m half-serious about starting a blog consisting of photos of people riding around wearing a heavy coat and hat, indicating an awareness that it’s cold out, but with bare hands. Folks, the single best way to ensure an unhappy winter ride is to expose the extremities that jut out the farthest and absorb all of the onrushing wind.
Daniel Hoagland, programs director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, also suggested waterproof shoe covers. That’s a particularly good idea for those who prefer to wear their work shoes while biking, as the covers not only keep your feet from getting wet — talk about something that can turn a ride into a miserable slog — but provide warmth as well.
For Stephen Regenold, a Minneapolis resident who is editor and founder of GearJunkie.com, what’s on top is most important. “If I have a warm head,” he said, “the rest of my body sort of follows suit.” Regenold recommended a versatile garment from a company called Buff, one that can wrap around the head and neck in different ways.
Illumination: This is important at all times of the year — after all, lights or reflectors are mandatory for nighttime riders nearly everywhere in the United States — but being extra visible is particularly important in the winter, when there is less daylight.
Regenold pointed out that drivers may be more surprised to find cyclists on the road in cold months. “You need to dress in bright colors, wear reflective stuff, get one or two blinking lights on you at all times,” he said. It’s worth noting that batteries for lights can drain faster in low temperatures.
Riding style: The fact that drivers might not be expecting to see cyclists also means that, even if roads are dry, a cautious approach is important. “It’s darker, there’s snow on their windshields,” Regenold said. “You’ve got to be a lot more careful and more defensive in the wintertime.” He also suggested that riders who normally take a busy road to work go just a bit out of the way if a dedicated bike path is available.
Hoagland recommended that, if conditions are wet, cyclists should “feather” their brakes before they need to use them, meaning lightly tap the brakes to shed any extra water.
Bicycle: Any kind of bike, even road bikes with skinny tires, can be used, as long as riders are cautious. Wider tires do work better in poor conditions, and studded tires are recommended for snow.
Moisture, salt and just general “gunk,” as Regenold put it, can wreak havoc on exposed cables, gears and brakes, but most bikes don’t have those parts built inside their hubs or frames the way Capital Bikeshare’s do. Cleaning one’s bike after a ride is particularly important this time of year.
Both experts suggested that those concerned about sparing their bikes the ravages of winter-weather exposure consider buying an inexpensive single-speed, preferably made of aluminum, which won’t rust. Or people can pull out an older ride they’ve replaced with a fancier version, but which still works. Regenold noted that commuters “don’t need some speed-demon bike; [they] just need something that rolls.”
Apparel: Again, layering is key. “It’s best to think less is more and dress for 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is to allow for body temperature increases,” Hadfield told me in an email. This will reduce the chances of overheating and excessive sweat, making cleanup at the office much easier. “You should feel chilled when you walk out the door. If you’re warm and comfy, you’re overdressed.”
Once it gets really cold — below freezing — you might want to consider a balaclava to protect your face, shell mittens over your gloves, heat warmers for your hands and pants over your running tights. (Hadfield also suggests a mid-layer that fits more loosely, like fleece, that insulates and moves moisture from your base layer away from your skin.)
In dark or snowy weather, wear bright, reflective clothing or a vest and flashing lights. Run with identification in your shoe or pocket — just in case.
Shoes: “Regular running shoes can work fine, but there are some models made of wind- and weather-proofing materials (Gore-Tex) that can keep your feet warm and dry. For snowy, slippy days, add a traction device like Yaktrax to your shoes.”
Hydration: “If you carry fluids on the run, tuck them under your shell and start with warm fluids to prevent them from freezing.”
Running style: If the terrain is snowy or slippery, shorten your running stride and keep your feet lower to the ground. “You will run more efficiently and reduce the risk of slipping, falling or straining muscles,” Hadfield says. Stick to fresh snow rather than ice or packed snow.
Here’s hoping some of these tips will help you ditch the car or the Metro. Just because temperatures have dropped, that doesn’t mean you need to do the same with your healthy commute.
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