5 Below: Did you bike in this weather?!

If you are a 365 bicycle commuter, or even a 363 commuter like my co-worker Jake, you get used to being asked if you rode your bike to work any time the weather gets “bad.” Pouring rain? Expect to get asked if you pedaled to work. Snowing? Expect to get asked. Freezing cold? Expect to get asked.

Initially I was frustrated by the question. “How many years have we worked together? Have you ever known me to drive to work?” I might answer.  Over the couple of decades I have been a year-round bike commuter, I’ve come to realize that most times, the people asking already know I rode my bike. The question is more of a conversation starter. The same people will say “how was your drive in?” to their coworkers who drive to work. They also ask because I bike to work in regular clothes, so you can’t tell by looking at my outfit if I rode a bike or not.

 

You don't have to dress like the famous Chris Zito rocking his fatbike on the shores of Lake Michigan at 2 degrees above zero. Photo by Greg Smith of Schlick Cycles

While I understand that now, temperatures dip below zero with 26 mph winds, there is some real value in answering the question of “how did you stay warm biking to work in this arctic weather?” Those sorts of weather conditions force even some of the most ardent bike commuters into a car if they have one. Our visit by the Alberta Clipper over the last couple of days has made biking a challenge, but I have a system of regular clothes that keeps me warm from my head to my toes and allows me to look reasonably normal.

 

Head treatment: helmet, hat, goggles, turtle

From top to bottom, below is my system to keep myself warm on a bike even on the very coldest sub-zero days without looking like an arctic explorer:

Helmet and hat: I use my regular helmet, but some people use winter helmets that have linings and vents that close. I just put a thin, windproof hat under my regular helmet and open up the straps a little and have never had a problem. One key detail is that I make sure to pull down the front of the hat so it completely covers my forehead right down to the top of my eyebrows.

Goggles: on really cold days with high winds, I wear a cheap pair of ski goggles to keep my eyes from tearing. The goggles have the added bonus of covering a lot of my face that is exposed to the wind and possible frost bite. If you are going out to buy a pair, look for goggles with very light or no tinting as it is often dark during commuting hours. You could also look for goggles with nose covers built-in or the kind that snap on. These are pretty common now. It is pretty easy to find clear Snowmobile or ATV goggles with nose covers.

Turtle or scarf: I find that if I keep my chin and neck covered from the wind, my whole body feels a lot warmer. Turtle fur neck covers are really soft and breathable.  You can easily pull them up over your chin, ears, and even your nose if you want. Scarfs work pretty well too, but if they are thick, I sometimes find the knot interferes with full movement of my head to look over my shoulder when changing lanes.

 

Pit zips are a big plus even on "breathable" waterproof jackets.

Jacket: Like most people who are active outdoors all year round, I have lots of different jackets in different thicknesses, rainproof, vented, breathable, etc. Even when it is really cold, I find I need either vents or a breathable jacket to keep from sweating. Humans generate a lot of heat and moisture when we ride bikes, and unless that perspiration has a place to go, you will feel damp and cold as soon as you stop pedaling. Personally, I am a big fan of pit zips in my waterproof jackets. The bigger the opening the better. It is also nice to be able to grab the zipper with a gloved hand so you can start the ride with the zips closed and open them as you heat up.

One other thing for the boys to remember is the need for your jacket to be long enough to cover your crotch. Unless you want to wear Gore-tex underwear (yes they make it), you need something to block sub-zero winds from freezing your hidden extremities. One of my favorite winter jackets is the London Fog Trench Coat with the lining in. You can find these for $10 at any thrift store. They keep you legs warm too and allow you skip long underwear if your office is hot.

Pants and long underwear: I have a number wool dress pants from heavy to thinner that I can combine with wool long johns to keep my legs warm. The trick is not wearing something that you are going to sweat in all day in the office. As mentioned above, long trench coats help keep your legs warm and The Bike Fed office is kept around 60 degrees, which makes it easier for me to balance the ride to work with working in the office. I also have a pair of gray Carhartt flannel lined pants that look dressy enough to wear to the office when paired with a button down shirt.

 

I think the Bar Mitts look rather nice on my black 1936 Raleigh.

 

Bar Mitts designed for flat bars fit fine on swept back commuter bars.

 Bar Mitts: My fingers start to get uncomfortably cold as soon as the temperatures dip below 40 degrees. When my friends with better circulation than me are out riding in gloves, I am in mittens. When the mercury falls below zero, even heavy mittens don’t keep my fingers warm. Bar Mitts to the rescue!

I got a pair of these “pogies” last year, and they are my new favorite winter riding partners. Made of neoprene, it only takes about 5 minutes to swap these from one bike to another with the zippers and hook and loop fasteners. I use them for mountain biking, fat biking and commuting.

 

Bar Mitts have a little Velcro cinch inside that attaches to the end of your handlebar grip. The cinches hold tight on old school grips like those found on my Raleigh and Schwinn commuter bikes.

I have the model designed for flat bars, but they work fine on swept back or “priest bars.” I really can’t say enough good things about these. Down to twenty degrees or so, I don’t even wear gloves when I ride with Barr Mitts. Below 20 (even in minus 5) degrees, I slip on a basic pair of gloves. If you have perennially cold fingers, I strongly encourage you to give them a try. Believe me, I have tried all the super heavy duty, very expensive mittens, and Bar Mitts beat them all.

Speaking of cost, while Bar Mitts cost $65, less than many of the warmest pairs of mittens, if you are on a super tight budget, you can  find online videos about how to make DIY pogies out of old kids jackets.

 

I don't like to change shoes at work, so I make these gray LL Bean insulated boots work with black wool dress slacks.

 

Lakes are great winter boots, but they are a bit to geeky for me to wear around the office

Boots: Like most people in Wisconsin, I have a wide assortment of different winter boots, from lightweight dress boots and shoes all the way up to Sorels. I tend to treat my leather boots with beeswax based Brooks Proofhide or Sno Seal to waterproof them. I just wear thick wool socks to keep my toes warm.  On the coldest days, I have a pair of LL Bean side-zip insulated boots that I can pair with dress slacks and get away with wearing in the office all day.

My commuter bikes all have platform pedals, so I don’t have to worry about winter clipless footwear on my ride to work, but if you do ride clipless to work, I highly recommend the Lake MXZ 302 winter mountain bike boots. I wear my Lakes for long winter and early spring training rides as well as mountain bike and Schlick Northpaw rides. I had an older pair of Lake winter mtb shoes that I did not like as much. These are pretty great from a warmth and waterproof standpoint. For a full review of them check out this blog post here.

The 45NRTH Wölvhammer boots are new kid on the winter clipless footwear block. At about $365 a pair, they are out of my price range. If you have a pair, let us know how you like them in the comments below.

 

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

16 thoughts on “5 Below: Did you bike in this weather?!

  1. I like when people ask if I rode in, and it’s true, they always know the answer. I’m more frustrated by the cold fetishists, who obsess about the coldness and how crazy you must be to ride out there.

    It’s impossible to convince them that, no, I am actually quite warm. No, I’m not freezing. I’m hardly uncomfortable. In fact, I’d say I AM comfortable.

    Yeah, it’s taken a while to get there. I started riding with just a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat, and have since curated a wardrobe that is equipped to handle the assorted kinds of extreme weather, from goggles to rain jackets to thermal chaps. But I don’t really wince when I check the temperature anymore.

    My new miracle piece of equipment: a down jacket. Down is unbelievably magnificent at temperature regulation and doesn’t bulk up under layers. It’s so great, you can even reduce the number of layers you wear. Even in the sub zero temperatures the down jacket handled phenomenally.

    • I’ve been looking for a down vest, but being a cheapskate who typically shops at thrift stores, I will have to wait until I see one on sale. I bet they get snapped up immediately if they make it to a resale store.

  2. a quick comments:

    For feet: Craft, Pearl Izumi and others make neoprene shoe covers you can cover shoes (even with vents) to keep your feet warm. I use them on highly vented mtb. shoes in winter and have never had a problem, even when the temps are in the single digits.

    It’s maybe the MOST crucial time of the year to make sure you have your cell phone and a spare tube/patch kit/pump on you in case of a flat. It helps to be well versed in changing in case you flat when it’s very cold. Though not clothing related, still part of commuting when it’s cold out.

    The Fiebing Co. in Milwaukee (2nd Street) sells quite a few different waterproofing products including Water Protector (can be used on fabric) and Snow Proof. You can stop down right at the factory to purchase it.

  3. I often use rain paints on my compute to cut down on the wind. It allows me to wear dress pants to work and not have to change. I often can wear a skirt then too over the rain paints so that I still can be dress casual.

    I like your reflection on the Bar Mitts! I’ve got the same problem- mittens with 40 or below and now will give them a try this winter. The hand warmers aren’t cutting it this year!

    • Carolyn,

      Just as Paul said in his comment, I think the soft shell ski pants or rain pants are a good option. I like that they serve double duty for rain and cold. For my 5-8 mile short commute, I have been relying on rain ponchos lately, but I, like Paul, have lots of gear in the closet I can pull out. Gore-Tex rain jackets with big pit zips also work great as winter shells.

  4. I too love the headshakes that I get from people when they ask “Did you ride in today?” They know the answer, I don’t know why they ask. Of course I did!

    Having worked in shops for the past 22 years, I have all sorts of specialized cold weather gear, but when I ride into my real job, I normally wear my work clothes (with a base layer) and then put some soft shell ski pants and a down coat on. My gloves? $14 deer hide gloves from Farm & Fleet. A balaclava under my helmet and goggles if it’s down around zero or below. It’s better than sitting in a cold car for half the commute.

    • Paul,

      I used to go the rain pants route for my legs. It works great and they pack up small if you don’t need them for the ride home. My only “must have” on the over pants was long zipped ankles so I could put them on over my shoes if it started to rain,snow or I got cold part way.

      And I agree about that cold car thing too. Unless you have a remote start and heated seats, half of a 10 or 15 minute commute by car is in the cold. On the other hand, I need to be careful not to stay in the house too long after I get dressed of I overheat. I’m generally warm as soon as I hop on the saddle and start pedaling. Thanks for the comments.

  5. I’d rather bike in weather like we’ve had the past few days then in the heat of summer. My only complaint is my boots make my ride twice as hard but at least i have toasty toes 🙂
    Love looking at the umshanka and scarf when I get to work to see all the frost.
    Oh and its alot better then sitting in a cold car for 5-10 minutes waiting for to warm up then drive to work to walk another 5 minutes to the building. Bikes almost always get rock star parking

  6. I wear mid-calf Bogs insulated rainboots. I got them a half size too big so I can wear wool socks and they keep my feet toasty warm.

  7. I purchased the 45NRTH Wolvhammer boots and I absolutely love them. Yes expensive but well worth the price for warm feet while exploring single track in the snow. I’ve been out for hours in single digit weather and have not had any cold feet issues. Best winter riding purchase I have made…..besides the fatty of course. 🙂

  8. Winter Biking — Booyah! Why start your day with a boring drive to work when you can instead start and finish your day with an epic adventure across the frozen tundra! One more plug here for Fleet Farm winter products: Big leather “wood chopper” mitts with wool mitt liners work great in single digit and below temperatures. They are virtually indestructible and last for years. Another great hand product they sell there for under $20 dollars: big, fluorescent yellow-green “highway worker” gloves, that have large 3M reflective strips on the knuckles (helps drivers see you as you are approaching, and they make your hand signals more noticeable too). Finally, there and at army surplus stores you can get a good deal on “to the knee” wool socks; I really like that length as a lot of days having that length saves me from having to put on a pair of tights or an extra pair of tights. I think tall wool socks and pit zips are key elements to being comfortable and not over heating on your winter bike commute. As to your neck/face/head, ski the Birkie, and get yourself one of those super thin head tubes. They are light, and very versatile, and two of those are all you need to protect your neck, face and head down to well below zero. As for males, wind briefs from Sport Hill, or Polar Jocks from Hayward. Yes, you young guys out there may scoff, and think you’ll never buy or wear something so ugly, but unprotected often the rider or skier does not know he’s getting frostbit there, but after the fact, trust me you really know and really regret it. Ask anyone who has suffered the pain of frost bite there and try for once to learn from older guys’ experience and youthful stupidity. (I’m not going to go into all the ugly details here, but talk to Dick Hertz, Peter Blister or even Rod Black, they can tell you tell you all about it.) Finally, make sure if you are on the winter roads early or late you are well illuminated with blinky lights, as drivers tend not to be on the lookout for bikers in winter.

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