Riding Through The Winter

The great downside of living in New England is the weather. Six months of the year, you know it's going to be cold and wet, and the other six, you can reasonably expect that it will be cold and/or wet. A good friend asked me for some information on riding through the winter, so I'm replying to him here.

In short, the challenges of winter riding are: staying warm, staying dry, and staying clean. Doing all of this on a budget is an additional challenge. I'll propose some handy tricks for doing so here.

In short, my tips are: get good, warm clothing, wear Gore-Tex or similar, install fenders, and wear shoe covers.

Staying Warm (Managing Heat)

This is the most obvious challenge of riding in cold weather. You need to stay warm over a range of temperature differentials. You need to not freeze when you first head out, but not overheat when you are working hard.

The human body loses the majority of its heat through the head, as powering the brain uses a substantial portion of your blood supply. As a result, you should certainly keep your head warm. Muscles will be more apt to keep themselves warm, since their surface area to volume ratio is fairly low, and they increase in temperature during operation. Correspondingly, your joints, genitals, and extremities will get the coldest, since their surface area to volume ratio is relatively high, and there is less tissue there to absorb heat.

Cyclists will always need to wear more clothing than runners in cold weather, due to the effect of wind chill. A trained cyclist going 18 MPH is working about as hard as a trained runner at roughly 7:30 pace, or roughly 8 MPH (though I may be mistaken?). That difference alone is responsible for a roughly 5 F difference in perceived temperature.

My rules are: keep the knees and elbows covered below 68 F, wear long gloves and a hat below 60 F, wear warmer socks and tights at about 50-55 F, start adding more layers below 45 F. Below 30-35 F, I want to make sure that every square millimeter of skin is covered with at least one layer.

Preferred clothing in cold conditions is made of either merino wool or synthetic materials, is easily removable to facilitate dressing in layers, and in the case of a garment for the upper body, has a long zipper to allow temperature regulation. Gore-Tex, a trademark for a type of synthetic microfiber fabric, allows gaseous but not liquid water to pass, which in turn, will allow your body to breathe while keeping you warm.

Recall that clothing works to keep you warm by insulating you through keeping air close to your body, and by preventing heat from escaping by being constructed to keep that warm air from escaping. A counterintuitive result is that, when you enter a warm room after being out in the cold for a while, you should undo as much clothing as possible. This will allow warm air to come in contact with your skin, and allow your clothing to "recharge". Just think about how warm a fluffy towel is when you take it out of the dryer, and how long it can stay that warm.

If you have one of those water bottles that advertises keeping beverages cold in hot conditions, realize that it will also work to keep beverages warm in cold conditions. Bringing hot tea on a ride will help!

Staying Dry

Water is your enemy in cold weather. Be it from internal sources (i.e. perspiration) or external sources (i.e. road water, rain water), water will only make you cold and miserable. Going back to the theory that warm air in the voids of your clothing keeps you warm, we can easily see why. Water will fill all of the air voids in your fabric, replacing warm air with cold water. Since it has such a high heat capacity, and a correspondingly high heat of vaporization, cold water will suck all of the warmth out of your body in an attempt to equalize the temperature between the water and your body.

We want to be able to keep dry by repelling water, while allowing sweat to evaporate. Gore-Tex fabric accomplishes just this, as mentioned earlier, though there are plenty of non-trademarked fabrics that achieve this goal as well. Having a breathable, water- and wind-repellent outer layer is the best you can do. Note that most low-end rain jackets do not breathe, and will make you get wet from the inside!

It is important to supplement your good outer layer with a quality base layer. Synthetic fabrics and merino wool will retain much of their heat capacity when wet, whereas cotton will not. Therefore, if it is very cold outside, and particularly if it is wet, do not wear cotton, at all!

If the roads are wet, your feet will very likely soak through. To prevent this, you can get shoe covers or "booties" to prevent water from entering your shoes. If your feet do get wet, change socks as soon as you can, and work to warm and dry your shoes using old crumpled newspapers to transfer most of moisture from the shoes.

Staying Clean

If you are riding in the winter for the purpose of transportation, staying presentable is a priority. Most of the tips I have recommended above will keep your base layers fairly clean, but to be sure, there are additional steps you can take. These tips are most helpful if you cannot shower or change after a ride and before your various non-cycling obligations.

In addition to wearing shoe covers, consider wearing an additional pair of leggings over those you wish to keep clean. Your ankles and shins can get muddy and wet as well.

In the winter, when snow and muck are everywhere, a rear fender is a must. The most rudimentary variants of fenders attach to your seat post, and prevent your rear wheel from spraying muck all over your backside. Fenders that more closely follow the contour of your wheel, and either attach to your seat stays and fork (for racing bikes) or to special mounts (for bikes with enough tire clearance) will do a better job of preventing road spray. A mud flap for the front fender will do even more to help keeping your feet clean.


There is plenty you can do to keep riding through the winter. Good clothing and ample preparation are your friends. Consider warm clothing to be an investment, not an expenditure.

There is no such thing as excessive cold, only insufficient clothing.


#6: Cyclocross Bike Built

So, in anticipation of the coming cyclocross season, I ordered a no-name frame from the Internet and built a cyclocross bike with some spare parts I had laying around, including an Ultegra build kit and DT Swiss / Chris King wheels. By "no name" I mean made by Kinesis, which makes more bicycle frames than you would suspect. I spent all of yesterday evening completing the build, and took it for a test ride. I forgot how finicky cantilever brakes are to install.

So, here it is: #6.


Bicycle Number Six: Procurement Update

I spent a couple of hours on the telephone and Internet today rectifying some of the issues in the parts I have available to build #6, my hybrid cyclocross/touring bike project.

The issue that's been killing me for a while with this bike is the incompatibility of the chain stays. After speaking with Hank at Henry James, I found that the 12 degree bend oval chainstays I have do not have the correct dimension for the bottom bracket shell I have. The solution here was to order a fresh set of straight oval chainstays.

This brings a caveat: I will have to increase the wheelbase of the bike in order to comfortably clear a 700x32c tire, the construction requirement. I'll see if comfortably clearing a 700x35c is a realistic possibility when I re-draw the bike in a CAD program. I'm okay with long chainstays, but not so long that it will make the bike sluggish to handle.

With the correct chainstays, and the silver brazing flux I ordered, all I need to build the frame is a jig and a torch! Instructibles has some directions for a rudimentary jig, which merely holds one tube at a time in plane. My goal here is to build the frame in as sustainable a fashion as possible, which in this context, means using infrastructure that I can easily and conveniently use for future frames, whether or not I stay here in Cambridge.

The fork is the other challenge of building this frame. I want to build my own, but I don't have the facilities to bend my own fork, nor do I foresee having time to build the correct fork bending apparatus in the near future. Nova Cycles offers a fully sloping cyclocross fork crown, which incorporates a 7 degree bend at the crown, while also providing the required strength and width for a good cyclocross fork. The bike will look a little funny, with these fork blades poking out at an odd angle from the head tube, but I have a greater chance of making a functional fork this way. I decided a while back that the fork would be threaded, and I'm going to stick to that conviction.

The parts should be in by the weekend. Maybe I'll make some progress this weekend. Before anything, I need to re-draw the frame in a CAD program, and determine the lengths of the stays (precisely) and the fork blades (estimate). Being able to braze the main triangle together, and cutting and mitering the stays to their final lengths and shapes, would be a huge win.

I'm still debating what color to paint the bike. The current winner is dark blue.


The PowerCranks Will Continue Until Morale Improves

In looking forward to cyclocross season (!), I've begun my Fall round of training. I've never done any cyclocross racing before, and my primary focus is glory in the upcoming spring road racing season. Nevertheless, racing cyclocross looks like a good way to stay fit and entertained this semester, and broaden my horizons.

At present, I don't have a cyclocross bike. I'll comment on that in a later post.

I'm resuming my training indoors, on the rollers, using the PowerCranks, effective this morning. This begs the question, why bother riding inside when the weather is still quite nice? I offer these arguments.
  1. Indoor riding affords me complete control of my environs. I can keep my heart rate and power within narrow windows, and not have to worry about abrupt events that interrupt my training.
  2. 60 minutes of riding the PowerCranks feels like two hours of riding on the road. This is a useful property when time is limited.
  3. When riding indoors, a mechanical has less chance of making me late for class at 0930.
After today's training session, and one last week, I've realized that the PowerCranks, once again, feel foreign. I've lost about 25-30% of my power on them, no doubt a result of incredibly poor training this summer. I should have most of my strength back in about 6 weeks, just in time for the first collegiate races! Of course, I'm trying to increase my strength and lose weight at the same time, which is tricky at best.

Cyclocross racing involves a fair amount of jumping on and off the bike, and running. By riding the PowerCranks, I'll be training additional muscle groups that can help in the non-cycling aspects of the race, as well as help me stay solid on the bike.

It's something of a gamble. We'll see how it goes.


Open Bicycle Route: New York, NY to Santa Barbara, CA

As part of my obligations this summer, I designed a bicycle route from New York City to Santa Barbara (via Boston). I know that it can be hard to find cross-country bicycle routes, so I'm posting electronic versions of this route here. Enjoy!

The first archive is a .zip of GPX files. You can explore these in Google Earth, import them into any recent version of DeLorme Topo USA, navigate them directly on a GPS device (like the Garmin Edge 705), or do whatever you want with them.

The second is a DeLorme Topo USA 7.0 transfer file. I'm not a fan of proprietary file formats generally, but this is helpful for Topo users.

Disclaimer: There is no guarantee as to the quality of the routes, either expressed or implied. In fact, I can guarantee that there are some roads here that are quite hostile toward bicycles. It is ultimately your responsibility to be safe.


Bicycle Number Six

Back in December of 2005, Dan Dadap, Craig Cedemark, and myself embarked on our then-aptly-named "Build and Bike" project. The idea was simple: we would each build our own custom steel frames and forks, using parts from Henry James and tips from the Paterek Manual. I decided then that my frame project, #6 in the numbering scheme, would eventually lead to a cyclocross bike.

In January of 2006, we debated about the specs for the bikes, and I designed a frame with a short seat tube and relatively long top tube, with clearance for 700x35c tires. We calculated the frame size using Tim Paterek's frame calculator, spec'd and ordered tubes, and calculated the miters using a piece of software provided by the IHPVA. I even mitered my main triangle, which was ready for brazing in March of 2006.

So, what happened since then? I wasn't sure if my bottom bracket shell and chainstays were compatible - there was way too much clearance there for my liking. Dan, with some prior experience, didn't know if this was acceptable. We never got around to contacting Henry James.

After that, I've been constantly busy with coursework, or nowhere near a machine shop.

I'm resurrecting this project now, for a myriad of reasons. First and foremost, I want a cyclocross bike in time for November's racing season. I can't afford a new bike right now, so finishing this is my best option. Secondly, being back at MIT and with Mike Short around, I have machine shop access. Third, well, I want to tie up loose ends. It's been almost three years since we started this project.

Here is where things stand now:

I've contacted Henry James about the bottom bracket issue; that's the first of many hurdles in completing this ambitious project. I think I'm finally ready for this.


Bike & Build: Suggestions for Improvement

This will be the last Bike & Build related posting on this blog.

Run trips from west to east. Trips currently run from east to west. The argument is that the western half of the country has more climbing, less water, and less services, so you should save it for last. Foot per foot, the east coast has more climbing than anywhere else in the country. Furthermore, putting the mountains and desert first, with their perceived level of difficulty, will make people take the ride seriously. Finally, the roads out west are evenly graded, have fewer cars, and are wider than the roads in the east. There is no reason to continue to repeat the same mistake, year after year.

Another benefit of running trips the other way is that the wind will be in your favor, and about three-fifths of the country becomes a slight downgrade. You can have shorter days in the desert, as people are still getting up to fitness, and longer days out east, where flatter terrain, tailwinds, and numerous services make longer days possible.

Make cycling the central tenet of the organization. According to Chris Webber, one of the problems with HBC was that they didn't pay enough attention to their cause. Bike & Build does a fantastic job here, but does so at the expense of quality of cycling. Everyone should be clear that, six days a week, everyone will be on their bicycles - and not in the van - for many hours. Everyone should have done a century ride prior to the start of the trip, and be comfortable riding in a group, changing a flat, adjusting brakes and derailleurs, and staying hydrated. If riders can't do this by the start of the trip, they are unprepared.

Ban alcohol. Ethanol has no place on a ride like this. It interferes with recovery, and leads to poor judgement calls by riders and leaders alike.

Operate on a better budget. The budget, as it stands, provides $1.10, $1.50, and $1.90 respectively for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, per person, per day. It is impossible to give cyclists enough protein and nutrients on this budget. At the same time, a lax van policy can lead to thousands of dollars spent on fuel. You can make riders raise $5000 each, give them better bicycles with nothing lower than Shimano 105 10-speed parts, be stricter about the van, and feed them better.

Cap the trips at 29 people. Sure, increasing the trip capacity to 32 brings in $12,000 in donations, but it also mandates three van shuttles for build sites, which cost precious time and money. 29 people is exactly two trips with a 15-passenger van. If you bump the donation requirement, and buy fancier bikes, you can easily compensate for the additional funds raised by 3 riders.

Improve the gender ratio. My first trip had 14 men and 18 women; this trip had 8 men and 23 women. Skewing the trip toward one gender necessarily changes the structure of the trip. I'd like to see gender equality on these trips.

Be more explicit about the requirements. Almost nobody reads the policy guide or the entire rider guide prior to the start of the trip. They should - many things come as a surprise to them at the start of the trip.

Train the leaders. Many people who lead trips - especially those who have ridden trips before - have no idea what the real requirements are. I would suggest a leader "camp" over a long weekend in the winter or spring, where all of the leaders are forced to live three days in the life of the trip and see what trip leaders do first-hand.

Train the riders. As mentioned above, many people have no idea what they're undertaking: a cross-country bicycle trip is serious business, not just a random good idea that a dorm buddy mentioned over drinks. Too many people come on to the trips completely and totally unprepared. I can appreciate the position of a new cyclist, but I think a regimented training program should be mandatory when signing up for the trip.

Be original. What works for AmeriCorps or worked for HBC doesn't need to work for Bike & Build. Start from scratch, make the manuals clear and to the point, the policies reasonable and strictly enforced, and the gear guide realistic. This is not to say that ideas and policies garnered from other organizations are verboten, but simply that all policies, new or adopted, should be subject to due scrutiny. (I'm sure they are.)


Starting Over

A quick update: I'm working on re-posting some of my (back-dated, edited) blog entries from this summer's ride. Expect updates soon!