Clever Training

Cold Weather Cycling

Cold Weather Cycling
Nicholas Chase

While I’m happy to say that we Floridians have been enjoying at least what is more than slightly Baltic temperatures, the cold temperatures we do get down here are still rough on our low cold-tolerance-bodies. Even though I was prepared for cold weather cycling while in Chicago for Christmas, the “anticipation” was a just sad attempt at boosting my mental toughness. I lasted 90 minutes and found myself ill for the next 2 weeks. That’s right—I never shy away from a cold challenge, even swimming 42 minutes in 48-degree water without a wetsuit at Iceland’s open water swim championship. While I don’t enjoy the cold, I feel like I can endure better than most during training and racing. How is that, you ask? This fine piece of writing is about to unroll how YOU cannot only prepare to dominate the cold weather during winter riding but also proceed to rub it in your friends’ faces when they bail.

It all starts with the right gear and the right frame of mind. Based on coaching athletes around the world—meaning I hear many different complaints about all types of climate—I think I’ve gained a great understanding on how to advise you. For starters, temperatures below 30 degrees are doable but under 20 is a different ball game. Here are some game-changing conditions you should plan for during your cold-weather cycling journey:

Brutal Wind Chill (Especially When You’re Sweating)

As much as we all love a tailwind, it can quickly ruin all hopes of survival.

Take the time I almost died three years ago while riding up Kitt Peak outside of Tucson.  It was unseasonably cold, and I was all alone for a 10-day camp of fun in one of my favorite training grounds. I decided a 100-miler wouldn’t quite be hard enough and added a climb up Kitt Peak as a kicker. At its base, Kitt Peak was 50 degrees, so over 8,000ft vertical, it was under 30 degrees (and yes there was a bit of ice on the roads). Bundled up in many layers of exquisite Rapha base layers, jackets and gloves – I felt awesome about cycling in this particular cold brand of weather and was even sweating up a storm while climbing with the wind to my back. After seeing ice,  I knew it was going to be a bad idea to keep going, but there was a safe-enough path of asphalt I could traverse, so in the name of Forrest Gump I figured I’d gone that far…might as well keep on going.

After quick selfie at the top with the observatory in the background, I started my descent and was immediately taken to a new world of worry. With 9 miles still left to descend and a raging wind of who-knows-how-cold blasting deep into my bones, I was death-gripping the brakes and creeping at 3 mph on 10% grade, beginning to doubt I would make it down. I actually rode into oncoming traffic because it was lit by the sun and basically no one drives, let alone cycles, up to Kitt Peak when it’s this cold. So once my forearms were officially locked up with total loss of motor control, followed by a slight gust of cold wind that brought me into the guardrail, I pulled over and seriously assessed my bleak situation. I came to the quick conclusion that there was no way I was going to be riding down in this weather, maybe not even walking, with still 8 miles to go. Within 20 minutes of me cowering in the sun, shaded from the wind, a large truck, my savior, a gentleman heading up for his shift scooped me up and brought me down to the bottom where I counted my blessings over and over.

The takeaway here is,  yes, you can still stay warm when it’s very cold out and your body is dry, but once you soak your clothes in sweat you could be in trouble. Hence why you should always carry a dry base-layer in a bag or another wind blocker. Heck, you could even bring along those small heating packs like they do for skiing. When it’s windy, the “wind chill” temperature should never be overlooked because it can be 20 degrees colder than the ambient air. However on days when it’s 40 - 50 degrees (no wind), a light base layer, arm warmers and toe warmers is really all you need.

Sunshine is Key

Make sure you look for that sunny/cold day as your day to give your cold-weather-toughness a chance.

Part of my decision to ride in Chicago in sub-30 degrees was because it was bright and sunny with clean cycling paths. Even two weekends ago when I raced HITS Naples and the air temp was 40 degrees, the numbing headwind didn’t feel so bad when the sun was hitting my bare skin... That mental boost I felt while riding down kitt peak, counting my lucky stars was lifted by one lane of the road not covered in shade. Those who know, riding on a cold and cloudy day makes it feel even longer and harder….mix in the wind and you’re ready to turn around for any excuse. ”Did I make my bed? I should turn around immediately and check it out.” Those are the types of lame justifications that will come to mind as you battle the trio of cold, clouds and wind.

Speaking of cloudy, I was once riding in San Francisco over Christmas and after one successful ride in the afternoon, I thought the am would be okay. I rode from downtown, across the Golden Gate bridge and down into Sausalito. It was pretty cold, with zero sunshine and an ugly headwind. For some reason as I passed through the small town of Sausalito, I saw a diner that was opening and in the back of my mind thought “I bet it’s warm in there”. 20 minutes  (and one hot chocolate) later, I was back on the road and absolutely freezing within minutes. No gloves, toe warmers, jacket and positive attitude were going to help warm me up. Another reason why it’s worth sleeping in and riding around noon when the sun can warm you from all angles.

You Can Still Succeed in The Snow

If the roads are clean and you’re riding in the early stages of a snowy day, totally fine.  I’ve even ridden when it’s a bit slushy, feeling as safe as I would in the rain. It’s once that ground is covered and slick where you should sit your butt on that indoor trainer. No amount of warm clothes will buffer a broken bone.

My most vivid memory of riding in serious snow was in Salt Lake City, up Little and Big Cotton Canyon. Much like my trip up Kitt Peak, the base of the climb was just fine, but when we got closer to Alta—a ski resort at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon—there was a lot of standing snow on the road with flurries in the air. Again, in the true nature of Forrest Gump, I figured I’d dragged my butt up into this cold-stricken valley, might as well keep on going all the way to the top. Again, the descent was terrible, but I was with a group and we had a follow vehicle with extra warm clothes (learning from my previous mistakes, I knew to have a change of clothes or extra layers for the descent). We all bundled up like mad and took off, feeling great with neoprene overboots, bib-tights, winter mittens and neck buff, a stellar hat, base layer, long sleeve jersey and winter jacket – I was like a bubble wrapped rocket! Success!

 

Know Your Route

A route is only as good as the amount of planning you put into it.

I’ve had some terrible experiences where seemingly great roads turned gravel, yet I kept going only to receive 3 flats – exhausting my spares and patience. A decent cold-weather ride I did was in Switzerland, outside of St. Mortiz was up Bernina pass and into Italy over Livigno pass. I saw some pro cycling teams along the way, boosting my warmth along with the knowledge that this adventure would keep me high as a kite. Hey—sometimes the journey is enough to keep you warm even though you’re praying for a creepy yet warm van to take you back home.

If you know your route will provide some reprieve from the elements or you can pop in for a warm drink somewhere, it really makes a survival ride a sur-thrival (yes that’s a real thing) ride. Also, you should ensure you don’t encounter any un-rideable areas…like I did. Sometimes there is a mountain tunnel where bikes are not allowed. Lucky for me on this particular journey, there was a van pulling a trailer that would bring bikes through once every hour…which fortunately for me was within 10 minutes of my realizing my folly.

This brings me to my last point about knowing your route. Whether you’re in a foreign country or happen to embark on a cold-weather ride a decent distance from home, do make sure to carry some money (make enough of each currency if you’re riding in and out of foreign countries). A little pocket change might be helpful to reward the truck driver, bus or random person who bails you out of bad cycling conditions. And don’t forget your ID because, well, you just never know.

I’ve lived in Florida for a number of years and am also fortunate to work with athletes around the world. As their coach, I am faced with multiple issues when it comes to training indoors. Athletes who live in traditionally warm climates like Florida or California often give me some pushback on indoor cycling. However, on the other hand, those who are used to snow tend to accept that it’s a part of their life and overall plan. Cold-weather cycling is a relative term that, condition-depending, should be taken seriously; if the roads aren’t safe, you should definitely learn to embrace the indoor trainer. Even if you’re wearing a Superman cape under that cycling kit, you can’t overpower sub 20-degree weather and ice. So be safe and make sure you also have your phone because Uber is usually close by to save your butt!


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