I was hoping to take a bike ride Thursday morning. The sun was shining from a clear blue sky, there was no wind, and there’d be great views of the mountains that had just been dusted with snow. And in Boulder, Colorado, where I live, the city plows the bike paths before they even get to the side streets!
Before owning a vehicle here, I rode a bike four miles to work every day, using the bike path alongside Boulder Creek. One winter, because of overnight frosts, I skidded and fell a dozen times. But, with several layers of warm clothing and thick gloves, I was never hurt.
So why didn’t I take that bike ride the other day?
Before breakfast, I checked the thermometer outside the dining room window…and took a double-take when the mercury showed the temperature was 13 degrees below zero. Fahrenheit that is, or minus 25 degrees Celsius! In comparison, the low temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is the closest American city to the Arctic Circle, was 12 degrees above zero F. that morning (or only minus 11 C.). So why are the meteorologists calling this an Arctic blast when it’s warmer up there than down here?
Conscious of how cold it was here in the foothills of the Rockies, I bundled up, walked outside to get the newspaper, and shoveled some snow that had drifted across the driveway in the night. Yes, it was bitingly cold! So I didn’t get my bike out of the shed.
I felt like a bit of a wimp. But then I started to think back to days I’d ridden a bike in chilly weather (including my early days in Boulder), and then remembered a few things about riding a bike in extremely cold weather.
When I first came to the United States, back in 1975, I lived for almost a year in Syracuse, New York. Besides freelancing as a writer for Bike World magazine (later acquired by Bicycling), I was working for a consulting firm, helping with the design of bike paths in different cities in the Upstate region. While there, I joined the Onondaga Cycling Club, similar to the Redhill Cycling Club that I raced for in England.
Whereas, the main social element of club cycling back home was the Sunday club run through all the winter months, the Onondaga club had a four-month hiatus between rides, from late November until late March. That’s because, as I soon found out, Syracuse is in the lake-effect snow belt that has produced some of the highest snowfalls in history, including the regional record of 102 inches (or eight-and-a-half feet!) that fell over a four-day period in January 1966.
Clearly, I chose the wrong place for my first venture of working in the United States!
With my first wife and baby daughter, we had planned on conducting a bike-only existence; and at first we did. On a Mariposa tandem (with a rear baby seat) bought from British friend Mike Barry’s bike shop in Toronto, we’d ride to the local market and stuff the food in bike panniers and a big shoulder bag. That was fine until one early-winter’s day, the town was hit by freezing rain.
One of my clearest memories is looking out the supermarket window and seeing cars sliding down the adjacent hill on black ice. Hmm…maybe a bike-only life wasn’t going to work in this climate.
So we changed plans and bought a car with snow tires. The studded rubber was effective, but that didn’t mean the car was winter-proof—or, more exactly, Syracuse-winter-proof. One morning, after overnight snow buried our short driveway, I had to dig a passageway from the garage to the street before driving to my downtown office.
The snow was wet and heavy, and the windchill was somewhere south of zero. Despite wearing the warmest clothes I owned, including ski underwear and two pairs of thick gloves, I soon lost all feeling in my fingers and toes. Yes, I was on the point of being frostbitten—I believe the medical term for what I had is frostnip.
Knowing how quickly I got hypothermic—even wearing that thick clothing and generating body-heat from the vigorous snow shoveling—I was astounded to learn from some local clubmates that a select group of cycling friends had formed what they called The Subzero Club. To qualify for “membership,” I believe you had to ride your bike in subzero temperatures for at least one hour on seven days in a single month. That’s subzero Fahrenheit, not Celsius!
Not many people qualified for this fraternity of the frozen, but it did exist, and as far as I remember, none of the members got frostbite or died. I later learned that layers of clothing, including the combination of a wool scarf and balaclava to keep your vulnerable face from freezing in the wind, was key to a comfortable subzero ride. But a bigger challenge was a properly functioning bike.
When the temperature drops to around 15 below, the cables stiffen, grease can freeze, and the derailleur gets stuck on the last gear you engaged, while the greatest risk is that the drivetrain stops functioning. I wasn’t going to take that risk on Thursday morning. I’ll wait unto the weekend, when it’s forecast to be a “toasty” 13 above zero, not 13 below.
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