Sunday, December 21, 2014

Uncle Dan's Winter Cycling Tips

Riding indoors sucks
I wonder how long it will be before someone asks their local bike shop to help them put their e-bike on their trainer for winter.


Are you tired of winter yet?  You could try a gravel ride.  I hear the people are really friendly.

Bryan, quick: which way is heaven?
Or you can browse bike media.  This time of year in particular, publishers seek ways to deliver content to their audience on their websites and through social media.  This means supplying a steady stream of “infotainment” to Facebook followers and the like.  Often, this content is supposed to be seasonally relevant.  

How many pictures of Santa on a bike have you seen already?
Non-profit organizations do this too.  

One of my favorite non-profits is People for Bikes.  Ever heard of them?

Did you know they're giving away a Surly Krampus?

That's my krampus though.  You can't have it.
I like Krampus.  

Also, I like People for Bikes, I really do.  I support their mission.  And, I’m a member of their organization.  You can tell what’s coming, right?  There’s a big old BUT coming.

One of their seasonal posts caught my eye recently.  The article is titled “Dashing through the Snow: Winter Bike Commuting Basics” and, although written almost a year ago, was recently reposted:  (Find it here). 

So, when I saw the title of the People for Bikes post, I was intrigued.  I can always learn more about winter cycling, and it’s often informative to hear someone else’s thoughts on the subject.

Not this time.  I don’t disagree with the premise – that it’s possible to ride a bike in the snow and in winter without dying.  It's not even that hard.  And I have nothing against the author, in fact, I don’t know him at all.  He may be the nicest guy in the world.    

But this article is not helpful to those looking for winter riding tips. 

The first tip is:
Just about any bike will work for winter riding, although you may find a road racing or time-trial bike less than ideal.”
Let’s explore that a little bit. 

People are reading the article to get tips for learning how to ride in winter.  Saying “any bike will work” is not really advice.  It’s like shrugging your shoulders and saying “whatever.” 

Imagine if, in an episode of “This Old House,” Bob Villa was teaching you how to roof your house.  Now, imagine Bob starts the episode with “you’ll need some nails.  Just about any nails will do.”  Now imagine he says “you’ll need a hammer.  Just about any hammer will work.”  

MC Hammer works everytime
This technically true.  Any tool in your toolbox can be used to drive a nail.  But if you’re using a pair of pliers to drive roofing nails, then you’re going to have an unpleasant experience and some shitty shingles.  Wouldn’t it be better to use a hammer?  And, if you are driving on sloppy, snowy, or ice covered roads, wouldn’t it be better to get some advice on the right tool for the job?

Incidentally, a search of images for "worst roofing nails" summoned this image:

If you take nothing else from this post, know now that curvy women are striking out in Perth, Austrailia.  Shame, really.

But back to the matter at hand.  Obviously, people wouldn’t watch a show about home improvement from home improvement experts, just to have them say “whatever.”  “Yeah, fuck it, just hammer some nails in your shingles.  It’s fine.”  

That should be fine.  Whatever.
I understand why People for Bikes would say that it's fine to grab whatever bike you have and ride it in whatever you're wearing.  Their mission is to get people out on their bikes.  So, rather than discourage people from riding in winter, they try to make it seem super accessible.  Like “sure, what the hell, just grab your bike and head out the door.  It’s cool.  Ride any bike and wear any clothes”  
But this, it might have just the opposite effect.  Instead of having a positive experience, a new winter rider may just head out for his first ride on whatever bike, with whatever clothes and have a miserable experience. 

The article goes on to say that not only can you ride any bike, but any clothing is fine too.  You really don’t need much for specialized clothing."  This is no help either.

But I don't want to be a negative Ned.  I don't want to just criticize, I'm here to help.  So, I have compiled my own list of tips for winter riding.  

Uncle Dan's Top 7 Tips for Winter Cycling:

(1) Don't.  Winter riding is probably not for you.   

It's cold in winter.  Many riders who are better than me don't like the cold.  Their solution?  They don't ride outdoors in the cold.  Shocking, I know. 

You probably won't enjoy it.  It's cold.  Your desire to ride has to be stronger than your dislike of the winter weather.  It’s not for everyone. 

(2) If you do it, don't tell your families and friends about it.  Nobody cares. 
Remember the first time you rode with no hands as a kid?  You probably shouted "Look Mom, no hands!"  She didn't really care then, and she doesn't care that you ride your bike in the snow now.

And enough with the snow-selfies already.

Duck-face snow selfie.  The goose is all like "look at me, I'm waddling in the snow!"
Also, your friends and family don't want to hear about your bike ride anyway.  They will react with either boredom ("Is he talking about bikes again?") or annoyance ("He's one of the assholes in my way when I'm headed to Dairy Queen for an Oreo-fudge Blizzard.").  So just keep it to yourself.

(3) If the roads are dry and clear, it's fine.  I take back everything I just said.  
If the roads are clear, and there's no precipitation, just about any bike will do.  It's just like any other day of the year, just colder.  For these days, just dress warmer (see below).  Just go ride your bike.  The remaining tips are meant for riding in winter when there is snow, slush, or ice. 

(4) Use wide tires at low pressure.  
There is a spectrum of sloppy weather.  Easiest to ride on are roads that are merely wet, and have been salted and plowed.  On the other end of the spectrum is ice.  In between is snow, ranging from slush to powder to glazed hard-pack and to super-frozen “drift” snow. 

On the slippery stuff, it's best to take a page from the mountain biker’s playbook and use wide tires at low pressure.   

Take fat bikes, for example - they are booming for winter riding.  What fat bike riders have found is that the ultra-wide, low pressure tires offer a huge contact area with the ground, providing grip where narrower, harder tires slip. 

Fat biker
So, if you want to ride in winter weather, at least lower your tire pressure.  This will give you more grip on the road and will provide better handling in slippery situations.   

Better yet, ride a bike with wide, low pressure tires.  Me, I prefer a 29er with fenders.  I run at a decent pressure when the weather is dry and drop the pressure for precipitation.
I know that some people will say they ride their fixies with high-pressure skinny tires all winter and they’re fine.  Yeah, you can do it.  And you’re a badass for doing it; congrats.  But you’re better off on a mountain bike. 

When powder gets ridden into ruts and those ruts harden in the winter sun, narrow tire bikes get pushed around like a rollerblader on cobblestones.  And have fun when the slush turns to ankle-deep slop and the bike is trying to find friction in the corners!  Narrow, skinny tires just won’t work as well in these conditions.  Even pro road racers use bigger tires at lower pressure for bad conditions.  

Are those (gasp) 28s?
(5) Disc brakes.
In wet weather, your rims get wet.  When it's cold, the wet rims freeze.  And when you try to use rim brakes on frozen wheels, you don't stop.

Um, nope.  Image from
I learned this lesson when I had to lay down my bike to prevent rolling through a red light at a downhill intersection.  Dammit. 

Disc brakes don't freeze.  Therefore, disc brakes.

(6) Relax.  Also, learn some bike handling skills.
I can't teach you bike handling skills in a blog post (or anywhere else, really).  But what I can tell you is that, as my bike handling skills have improved, I crash less in winter.

Not to say I don't still fall down.  I do.  Usually, a fall happens right after I think "Hey, this bike is handling pretty well in the snow."  Once this thought crosses my mind, a crash is imminent. Proof of god, if you ask me.

You shouldn't take my advice on bike handling.  But, here it is anyway: relax.

When I hit an unexpected patch of ice, I try to relax and roll straight through it, centering my weight on the pedals.  This goes against every impulse in my body, which is screaming "STOP" or "GET OFF THE ICE"!

I want to tense up, get flop sweats and grab a fistful of brakes.  Or try to change course for a clear patch of pavement.  But braking and turning will likely cause me to slide and crash.  So I fight the urge.

I slow down gently (if possible), modulating the brakes, and I don't change direction unless I have to.

Also, learn how to fall.  Falling hurts, but is sometimes necessary.

(7) Wear layers and not cotton. 
I previously explained my approach to dressing for cycling.

The gist of it is this: wear layers.  The underlayers should be wicking, because you will quickly heat up and will sweat.  Cotton sucks.  It holds the sweat close to your body and can make you very cold and uncomfortable.  
It seems like 10 degrees colder when you ride a bike than when you walk.  So, keep your hands, feet, and face warm.  Your trunk will take care of itself with a couple layers.

So there it is.  Be brave, as brave as you can.  But not more.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

I Have a Lot of Layers

Smiling like an idiot
Ok, I have a lot of bike friends.  And whenever the first snow hits, I get flooded with selfies of people snow biking.  "Hey, look at me, I'm riding in the snow!"  Like it's some kind of accomplishment.  It's not.  It's fucking reality.  We live in Ohio.  It snows for like five months.  So, your options are: ride a bike on a stand in your basement or go ride in the snow.

Fuck bike trainers.  A bad day outside is better than the best day on a bike trainer.  Therefore, ride in the snow. 

So, you saw too many snow selfies too?  Then, you're probably rolling your eyes at the above picture.  Fine.  I get it.

Just because you ride your bike in the snow doesn't make you special.  As I have previously observed, a trained animal could do it.

By the way, my snowbike (shitbike) is back in business.  I hosed off last year's road grime, slapped a new layer of grease on every part (especially the saddle) and it's good to go.  Also, I put a new saddle and tires on.  A white Selle Italia Flight with titanium rails.  Because, only the best will do for shitbike.

 Anyhow, I ride my bike to work every day, rain, snow, or shine.  Why?  Because for me, the worst day commuting on a bike is better than the best day commuting in a car.

Still, when I arrive at work, some of my coworkers are mystified that I was able to ride by bike in the cold without immediately dying.  I attribute this to the fact that some of them never go outside.  Seriously.  They go from their house to their car, which is preheated in their attached garage, to the covered parking garage at work, then to their office.  Repeat this cycle for the trip home.

For these folks, the walk into the supermarket on Saturday is the only time they spend outside during a regular week, and these 90 feet are miseable, suffering, and cruel.  I am sad for them.

I love being outdoors.  Even in the cold.  I like the sting of cold on my cheeks and the feeling of a numb chin.  I like the air so cold that it hurts your lungs.

Of course, I prefer 70 degrees and sunny, but the cold is nice in its own way too.

In any case, for friends and family who don't understand how I can bear to cycle in the cold, let me explain.  It's easy.  See, it's all about layers.

I don't mean like hair layers.  I don't have many of those.

Although I do have a variety of clip-in hair extensions for various social occasions
I mean like clothes.  I keep it pretty simple.  I wear the same clothes all years, I just add more clothes as the temperature drops.

In best conditions - anywhere from 100 degrees down to about 60 degrees - I wear only the base layer.

Like I said, I will wear this all year.  Although I do change the shorts when the people on the elevator with me start to complain.  The base layer is: liner shorts ($15 on sale from Bike Nashbar), hiking shorts (like Marmot, although there are cheaper options), a wicking t-shirt (not cotton), my helmet (usually), and bike shoes.

My ride to work is relatively short - it's less than 8 miles one way.  So, some of this may be overkill.  For instance, I can comfortably ride in jeans and sneakers.  But, like I said, this is my year-round wardrobe, so I like to keep it consistent and just add layers.  Plus, often, I ride before or after work for longer rides.  And it's my gear, so shut up. 

The most important thing for me is moisture-wicking materials.  Whether it's hot or cold, nothing is worse than having wet clothes stuck to your skin.  And layers help some of the moisture escape, rather than trapping it in under heavier clothes.

So this is what i look like in the base layer:

The other important piece is my backpack.  I prefer  a backpack to a messenger bag.  With the chest-strap buckled, the backpack stays in place - even on mountain bike trails.  Messenger bags tend to slide around and need constant adjustment.

Backside of dork
For weather between about 60 and 50 degrees, I add a longsleeve shirt, a cycling cap, wool socks, and lightweight gloves.

Then, for temperatures from about 50 degrees to about 40 degrees, I add a windproof jacket, heavy weight gloves, and a cycling cap with ear protection.

Usually, by the time I need this gear, it's getting dark early, so some of my gear is reflective, so cars can better see me.

Tron dork
Then, for about 40 degrees to about 30 degrees, I add a neck gaiter, a padded vest, cycling tights, and winter boots.

Warm doork
 Finally, for weather below freezing, I add leg warmers and arm warmers, a fleece cap with ear flaps, and I use the gaiter as a balaclava.

Cold dork/Michelin Man
"I can't put my arms down"
Properly dressed, any ride can be pleasant.  And, as the temperature drops, so does traffic on the bike path.  Some days, I don't see another soul - it's just me and the quiet, bright snow.  What could be better than that?

So there you have it.  Be brave, and be layered.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The End Is Near

Photo from here
You remember playing the "what if" game, right?  It's when someone proposes a scenario and you have to say how you would react.  Like "what if you were President?"  (Easy, I'd outlaw Dr. Phil).  Or "what if you found a bag with a million dollars?"  (Easy, I'd buy a swimming pool and fill it with Cheez-whiz).  What if you could change one part of your body?"

But one of my favorite ponderables was always "what if the world was going to end tomorrow?"  That's easy too.  First, I'd punch Dr. Phil, then hug my family, then I'd go ride my bike.
Really, what this question is getting at is, if you only had a few hours left, how you would spend them.  The idea is to find out where your happy place is.

Our collective fascination with this issue may explain why newspapers always have stories about death-row inmates' "last meals."  (Easy, I'd have a swimming pool's worth of Cheez-whiz and some Red Bull and vodka).

Or maybe I'd have some of this guy's Ramen noodle donuts.

From Culinary Bro-Down
Also, you should go read that blog (and thanks Stevil for sharing it).  It's better than mine.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  Ok, you're back?  Great.

Anyhow, this time of year, the weather always starts to play the "what if" game with me.  It's 60 degrees and sunny today, but what if it's 20 tomorrow?  What if it's 35 and raining?  What if there's an arctic polar sharknado?

And, if you live all but like three states (fuck you, Florida), then you know that over the last week, all we've heard about is the impending polar vortex.

So, I have been riding my bike like crazy.  I've been riding so much that I have a salt crust on my helmet straps, my legs ache, and my family forgot what I look like.  But I keep riding, because the end is near.

A whole lot of fat headed to Mohican.  Not you, BA, the bikes.
On a side note, others have said it before, but why don't the people in all those apocalypse shows like Walking Dead and Revolution ride bikes?  Seriously.  If there is an apocalypse, I'm grabbing a shotgun and the fatbike and I'm heading for the woods (sorry kids).

(I already have the parts)
Anyway, what a great week of mountain biking it has been.  I have ridden all week with guys who are faster than me and tried to keep up.  Saturday I rode with Bryan at Chestnut Ridge, Sunday with BA, Bryan, James, and Brandon at Mohican, and Tuesday with Jeff at Lake Hope.

More fat

Tuesday at Lake Hope was especially nice.  With sunny temps in the 60s, I didn't even mind that I kept losing the trail because of all the leaves.

I have been desperately trying to squeeze as many rides in as I can before the weather gets nasty.  The anticipation of shitty weather is driving me outside, like a kid who got in trouble at school will walk home as slowly as possible.  You know what's coming, you know it's inevitable, and you know it will suck, so you'd better savor the last few good moments.

There's probably a metaphor about my life in here somewhere.  Something about middle age and death.


But, here's the thing.  The arctic volcano is already here and I still went out and rode at Chestnut Ridge with my friend Mark today.  I had a great time too.  It was 30 degrees but the sun was shining and the air was fresh.

Mark is faster than my camera

So maybe all that anticipation of awful was for nothing. Yes, it's cold, but actually, it's still quite nice to ride a bike. And when it snows?  Let's find out tomorrow.

Be brave in the cold!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I Like Lee Likes Bikes

Because nothing says you've got "STREET CRED" quite as much as writing it on your bike.
I found the remains of this bike chained to a pole in Philly, left to fossilize like the skeleton of a wildebeest glistening in the African sun after the lions, hyenas, and vultures have picked every scrap of meat from its bones. 

I remember, upon seeing this carcass that Bike Snob had mentioned this very bike back in 2009.  Back then, the bike was still in its youth, frolicking with the other fixies and proudly displaying its long bullhorn bars to potential mates.  Yes, in those glorious days, all it took was a paypal account to obtain "STREET CRED."

A fine specimen
Philosophically, I think the bike has more "STREET CRED" in its present, decaying state, chained to a street pole and left to die, than it ever did in its prime.  In its current state, the bike is a sort of art installation - a self-fulfilling irony; a meditation on street cred.

But whereas in Philly, the measure of a man is STREET CRED, in Colorado, they use a different metric - Colorado Rad Units (CRUs).  CRUs are determined by a person's ability to live in ColoRADo, their cycling palmar├Ęs (not to be confused with palmares), and their general ability to get RAD.

On this scale, Ned Overend rates 10 CRUs, because he once lived in Colorado and has an amazing list of wins on mountain, road, and cyclocross bikes.  And he's RAD.

Photo from

Also, he may or may not have been the inspiration for Ned Flanders from the Simpsons.

Photo from bikerumor
 And Missy Glove, who also lived in Colorado comes in at 9 CRU.

Not just because she's RAD and had a ton of wins, and is insane on the downhill, but also, because she was arrested in New York with 400 pounds of marijuana and nine cellphones in her car.  This is worth 2 CRUs, all by itself.

Me, I have 0 CRUs.  I don't live in Colorado, I don't have any racing palmolives, and I have a hard time with being RAD.

So, like a good nerd does when faced with any problem, I bought a book.  Not just any book, but this book:

I have carried this book around and read certain sections several times.  Some sections were easy to incorporate, like braking.  The book definitely helped me to not crash so much, but I was still not RAD and I still had a negative CRU deficit.  And some of the skills in the book involved moving the bike and my body simultaneously in multiple direcations.  I am not athletic, so I was pretty sure I was not doing this right.

When I learned that one of the book's authors, Lee McCormac, was giving a skills clinic in Illinois, I jumped at the chance.

Here, Lee and his twin brother demonstrate mountain bike triple-suspension tandeming.  Picture from Lee Likes Bikes.
Lee one of those guys who seems to use a couple extra percent of his brain potential.  He is a writer, part of a team that won a Pulitzer, and left a high-paying tech-industry job to follow his passion in mountain biking.  I'm jealous, and somewhat in awe of this decision.  He is a former racer, with serious cred (not sure if it's STREET CRED) and is a leading coach in mountain biking nationally.  His training method is widely followed.  He has recently served to train the coaches of the NICA youth cycling league.

So, I  figured I could learn something from him.
I talked my buddy Peter into driving.

We went to a Mexican restaurant whose name translated into "the party ranch" or "the ranch party."  It was neither.
The great thing is that Peter has a minivan, so both our bikes fit in the back without the need for a rack. Honestly, I think his minivan is the main reason we're still friends.

Anyhow, we joined a group of five people at the Farmdale Reservoir trails near Peoria Illinois.  There are arround 15 miles of trails here.  There's a little dirt jump park, sweet single track, and some little "fun dips" - gravity dips as the trail winds back and forth across a ravine.  It even has a (Midwestern) downhill run.  In short, it was the perfect place to do some skills training.

Lee drops science
This trail system is maintained by the Peoria Area Mountain Bike Association (PAMBA). I had the pleasure of meeting PAMBA's Vice President, "Tall" Paul Larson, who joined us for this clinic.

Paul (left) watches as Lee (foreground) demonstrates the proper way to fold a fitted sheet.
As a side note, I wish mountain bike organizations wouldn't go by acronyms. But it is common practice. There's PAMBA, COMBO, CAMBA, HMBA, MOMBA, and, my favorite, MMMBA (Mid Michigan Mountain Bike Association). There's pretty much every permutation that ends in "MBA" (Mountain Bike Association") or the lesser-used "MBO" (Mountain Biking Organization).
Anyways, Lee spent an entire day with us.  We learned how to "pump and screw," among other techniques.  We even rode this little jump.

So, what did Lee teach me?  Well, for one thing, that I suck, although I'm pretty sure I already knew that.  And, honestly, he couldn't have been nicer about my general lack of awesomeness - he didn't mention it at all.  For how much energy Lee has, he's surprisingly laid back.  It was a great deal of fun to hang out and ride with him.  But still, riding next to him and watching his skills, compared to my abilities, it was like shining a flashlight at noon.

What I really took away though was some fundamentals that I read from his book that I wasn't executing properly.  In the last couple weeks I have been practicing, and I can already see improvements in my cornering speed, my ability to clear obstacles, and my overall speed.  And I learned that I need to work on core strength and balance.

Not surprising, looking at the spare tire I'm carrying in this picture.

Want to know Lee's techniques?  I'm not telling.  And I wouldn't do them justice anyway.  Go sign up for one of his training sessions, like I did.  It's worth your while.  Maybe we can even get a big enough group together to get him to come to central Ohio for a weekend.  What do you say Lee? 

So did I pick up any CRUs?  No.  I still suck.  But, thanks to Lee, I suck a little less.

Be brave!