What it’s really like to cycle at -17C

This past weekend, I’ve been out cycling a few times in temperatures as cold as -17C.  That’s just the air temperature.  When you factor in wind, it feels much colder.  On cold days like these, I tend to ride slower and I choose routes that are sheltered from the wind.  But sometimes, the wind is unavoidable.

I found this chart online that shows the wind chill at different temperatures and wind speeds.  On really cold days (below -15C), any wind can make it feel a lot colder.  Note the warnings at the bottom of the link that show how long it might take to get frost bite.

Needless to say, below -15C, exposed skin can get really cold very fast.  So it’s very important to cover up.  I wear 4 to 5 layers on my upper body, including: short-sleeve merino wool t-shirt, thermal arm warmers, long sleeve merino undershirt, thermal jersey and jacket.  On really cold days, I’ll add a vest under my jacket to keep my core warm.  On my bottom half, I wear two pairs of wool socks in my winter cycling shoes and I’ll add toe warmers, which allow me to stay out a little longer.  I wear bike shorts and thermal knee warmers under insulated Gore-tex winter cycling pants.

For my hands, I have heavy-duty snowmobiling gloves that are bulky but warm.  On my head, I wear a head band that completely covers my ears, and two buffs – one around my neck, chin and cheeks and a second that covers the sides and top of my head.

And this system seems to work for rides up to about 90 minutes.

But what is riding at that temperature like?

Let’s face it.  -15C is cold and when you step out into it, no matter how you’re dressed you’ll feel it and you’ll want to start moving right away.  I find that I need to balance effort and speed on my cold winter rides.  I want to ride hard enough to stay warm, but I don’t want to go too fast because it’s colder because of the wind that is created at higher speeds.  Also, the harder I work, the more I’ll sweat, which makes it colder.  (Even when my body is cold, I’ll sweat during a workout).

On these cold rides, a fatbike is ideal for me.  A good effort will still be reasonably slow (to reduce wind effects).  My first three rides of 2018 were all about 15 km, but lasted between 60 and 90 minutes (average speeds 10-15 km/h!).

On these rides, the small uncovered spots on my face get cold first.  I have worn ski goggles to cover more of my face, but typically, I wear clear riding glasses.  They fog frequently, but they help keep the cold air out of my eyes.  The buffs that cover my face help, but it can be harder to breathe, so I often pull them away from my mouth.  This, however, exposes more of my skin.  So it’s a balance between warmth and comfort, and during rides, I’ll often switch between full cover and partial cover of my face.

My toes are usually next to feel the cold.  My winter shoes aren’t as insulated as I’d like, but they’re big enough that allow the extra thick socks and toe warmers.  At these temperatures, my toes will eventually cold, usually after about 90 minutes (depending on the temperature and how much I’m riding into the wind).

The rest of my body is well insulated and moving, so I don’t get cold.

I tend to ride fairly close to home on these rides.  If I have a mechanical issue with my bike, I may have to walk home (I won’t be fixing a flat on my fat bike at -15C!).  I’ve discovered most of the local trails through nearby neighbourhoods, and the Grand River Trail (GRT) gets a lot of pedestrian traffic.  Once walkers have packed down the snow, there’s usually a perfect singletrack trail for fatbiking (see the photo above!).

So on those bright, cloudless days with the sun shining brightly and the mercury reads -15C, it is possible to get out for a bike ride; in fact, it’s enjoyable!


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