Winter cycling – a tough lesson

It’s nice to have some pleasant weather again – if only for awhile.  We’ve had a fair number of quite cold days to deal with already during this winter season, and since I’ve added commuting to work by bicycle to my winter repertoire I’m spending much more time riding in quite cold conditions (first thing in the morning rather than over lunch after it has warmed up) compared to previous winters. You might think all the riding in the cold would make me sick of it, but in fact I’ve become even more avid about cold weather riding.  It’s a new form of competition for me now that I’m not racing – I won’t let the cold beat me!  If I resort to the indoor trainer, then I am a wuss – I have lost the challenge!

Attitude such as this is certainly helpful for overcoming the challenges of winter cycling, but it’s not enough – you also need good apparel and good technique, and even that’s not enough if you don’t keep yourself acclimated as conditions get colder and colder.  Last winter I wrote Winter Cycling Tips, in which I described my approach and some apparel to deal with the rigors of winter cycling. With the additional experience I’ve gotten this season with winter riding, I’ve made a few refinements to my winter cycling techniques. I’m actually amazed at how big an impact some of these small tricks have on my riding comfort.  For the most part, winter comfort has become routine for me – I just don’t have to think about it anymore.  Of course, when you don’t think about things anymore, you become complacent.  And complacency often leads to failure.  And that is exactly what happened to me – my failure to follow my own advice led to one of the most disastrous rides I’ve ever had.

Each Sunday I do my BugMan™ ride – a 60-70 mile route with a good mix of open flats, scenic rollers, sharp climbs and wicked descents.  It’s a tough route to do solo and takes me 3.5-4 hours to complete, which I reward afterwards with pizza and an afternoon of football.  Last Sunday the morning temp was 8ºF, but the real problem was the wind – ripping steady from the northwest at 20+ mph.  I’ve ridden in colder temps, but not with that kind of wind.  I put off the ride until early afternoon hoping it would warm a little.  It didn’t, maxing out at 10ºF, so I geared up and went on out accepting that it might be a short ride.  I took off counterclockwise from my house, which leads me straight into the sheltered climbs of Wildwood.  Early climbing is a good strategy for wicked cold days – it gets you warmed up quickly, and the slow speeds keep the wind off of you.  I did this type of terrain all the way to Castlewood – 20 miles from my house – and felt great.  I stopped at Castlewood for a biobreak but didn’t eat (mistake #1).  By this time, I knew I was comfortable going ahead and doing a long ride but knew I wouldn’t have time to do the entire route, so I cut north along Ries and Baxter to eliminate the Kirkwood/Frontenac portion of the route – this would reduce the ride to just under 50 miles.  Crosswinds were brutal along that stretch, but I still felt good despite that.  Because of the shortened route, I didn’t take my normal mid-ride Starbuck’s break, and thus didn’t have my usual hot chocolate and energy bar (mistake #2).  More importantly I didn’t have a chance to take the jacket and gloves off in a warm place so my gear could dry out a bit (mistake #3). I had done about 35 miles by the time I reached Edison and turned back to the west.  I still felt good, but I was unaware of the danger lurking beneath – I hadn’t eaten, my base layer and inner gloves were wet, and I was about the turn into brutal headwinds.  Kehrs Mill and the shelter of the forest was only 2 short miles away, but by the time I got there I was chilled to the core and my hands were painfully numb.  A smarter rider than I would’ve stopped in a nearby shop and warmed up, but it was late and I was worried I wouldn’t beat the dark so I kept going (mistake #4).  The shelter of the forest along Kehrs Mill/Strecker/Orrville/Old Eatherton and doing a bit more climbing got me warmed back up, so even though I was hungry I was feeling good again.  As a result, when I reached Hwy 109 and had only had 7 miles remaining, I decided not to stop at the gas station right there in front of me and continued on (mistake #5).  Well, the descent down Doberman completely re-chilled me (because I was wet underneath), and by the time I reached Ossenfort I bonked!  Home was only 2.5 miles away, but those were the most agonizing 2.5 miles I have ever done in my life.  I’m still amazed at how dramatically my condition deteriorated in a span of 10 short miles.  Climbing up the hill into my neighborhood was not just bad, it was scary!  I was so bonked and so chilled that I could hardly turn the pedals, and my lack of coordination had me wobbling all over the road.  I truly thought I was going to crash just trying to get up that hill!

It took me a few hours to recover from that ride.  I immediately ate something, took a warm shower, and then covered myself with several blankets as I laid in my chair.  Still, I began shivering uncontrollably.  My wife gave me some hot tea, and after awhile the shivers started going away.

I might still pass on some of those winter cycling tips that I have learned, but when you read them remember this: “Kids, do as I say, not as I do!”

BugMan Route - December 21, 2008

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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4 Responses to Winter cycling – a tough lesson

  1. Mark says:

    You get the hardman award for that ride. It was so cold that day I didn’t even ride inside.

  2. tcmacrae says:

    Thanks Mark, but I don’t deserve any awards. The frustrating thing is that the breakdown I experienced was not at all inevitable – I just got a little cocky. It was an amazing lesson – for two hours I was fine, and then the bottom fell out like a rock.

    Thanks for visiting.

  3. Boz says:

    Tough man or stupid man? I’ll let you be the judge. Either way it was another ride you can draw upon when you think you’re on a tough ride. Those visits to Bonkland are something you’re mind won’t easily forget. Like the new site, too.

  4. tcmacrae says:

    In general – tough; that day – stupid. A little humility every now and then is good for you.

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