Wednesday, February 2

Descent into Darkness

Riding in subzero temperatures is daunting to say the least. Motivational and external pressures are major obstacles to your best laid plans and most hearty good intentions to ride no matter what.

Last evening I endured some stern looks when I announced that I would be riding come morning. I was (am still am) confident in my abilities to mitigate the effects of cold temperatures on the human body. I know how to layer. I know how to keep warm.

I've worked and played outdoors during winter my entire adult life. As a matter of fact I prefer recreating outdoors in winter. So when I say I am confident that I can do this, it’s not a blind confidence in perceived abilities. I've tested my theories on dress. I've suffered through bad decisions. I've improvised and adapted. And of late I've applied all those years of experience to riding a bike in winter in Colorado. It wasn't a huge deal.

Having said all that: be it known that I benefit from an engine that always runs a little hot. I can stay warm when many other people are cold. I sweat when my co-workers are complaining about it being too cold in the building. I'm the Little Furnace That Could. What works for me might be dangerous for someone else.

"But negative double digits!" you exclaim. I don't stay warm in my birthday suit romping about in weather like this. I'm not superhuman. There is at least a minimum effort I need to make to stave off hypothermia.

So what did I do right that made my ride tolerable this morning? First of all, I was cold. I wasn't shivering or shaking. I didn’t get any frostnip or frostbite, but my toes were numb and my stomach looked like it did after one of those red-belly sessions the freshmen received from the upperclassmen back when I ran cross country. Hazing is wrong.

I started out with the typical dress from back when it was between 20°F and 40°F. I had an underlayer (my chamois tights on bottom), work pants, polypro t-shirt over long sleeved shirt, a long sleeved wool shirt and a shell over that. I had a thin pair of socks under my thick socks and I wore my insulated boots.

On my head I had a thin balaclava and my thick fleece balaclava over that, then my helmet lashed over everything. The last pieces were my ski goggles and Thinsulate Gore-tex gloves.

After twenty minutes of riding I stopped, removed the shell, took off the thick fleece balaclava and helmet. Then I put on a thinner fleece hat over the thin balaclava to replace the thicker one, with the neoprene face mask underneath both to protect my face. I should have started out with this configuration. I think if I had, I would not have had the problem with my goggles frosting over.

My fatal mistake was covering over my breathing holes, as previously noted, but otherwise I think I've discovered the perfect configuration. The problem I run into is that I second guess myself and when I see temps 20 degrees below what I'm used to I think I need to add more. By the time I got to work I was basically dressed the same as a 40 degree day. I was only slightly colder.

The only time I really felt cold was when I was descending down the CCT into Golden and was going 10-12 mph. That's when my belly turned red and started to sting from the cold air blowing through my shirts.

What is always at the forefront of my mind, and what should always be a consideration for anyone heading outside when the temperature is below freezing, is that there is ALWAYS the possibility that you could be sitting or standing still, exposed to the elements, if something goes wrong.

Say you crash your bike on some ice and break your knee or ankle or (heaven forbid) knock yourself out. You should be prepared to sit and wait for help. This might mean carrying a down jacket in your panniers or the trunk of your car. Shoes that will protect you while walking through snow are important. It really sucks to be wearing dress shoes and changing a flat in the snow, or walking two miles in bike shoes in the snow because you bent your fork when you hit the tree.

It's one thing for me to assure you I can get from point A to point B on my bike over snow and ice and successfully battle the cold. It's another thing to accept the fact and prepare for the eventuality that my winter bicycle commute may involve activities other than riding my bike. I assure you: I am prepared. It's as much a mindset as being physically prepared with adequate clothing and the knowledge of where warm shelter is and where help in forms other than a cell phone lifeline lie.

Tonight I reached home, well after sunset, the Laser ebbing in power with frost-less ski goggles. It was strangely peaceful to drop down into Golden as the sky turned a pale orange off behind the Flatirons. As darkness closed around me I took comfort in the effort it took to keep the bike moving toward home. It was cold, but my furnace was stoked.

I walked through the door to be greeted by my family with warm chili, homemade cornbread and grilled cheese sandwiches. It made the ride worth it.

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