Riding at the fringes: Visibility, Warmth, Traction
Many people have come to the realization that bicycle riding isn’t just for the summer months and would like to ride into the autumn and begin to get some base mileage during the spring. For most people that want to extend the riding season there are three subjects that need to be addressed for cooler and lower light riding; these include (1) visibility, (2) warmth, and for the truly adventuresome, (3) traction.
I Visibility: See and be seen
One of the things that we need to acknowledge is that people tend to see what they expect to see and for a lot of motorists cyclists in the autumn and spring are not a common sight. Being safe on the road or trail is everyone’s responsibility and each of us should do what he can to be safe. For the sake of our fellow road users and for our own safety it is imperative that we are visible when riding.
Some of the things that make us more visible is to (1) dress in brightly colored clothing, (2) have reflectors on our bicycles and clothing, (3) use lights both front and rear, (4) be aware of the angle of the sun and how that influences our and other road users ability to see what is right in front of them, and (5) make sure that the motorists clear the frost off their windshields before they pull out on the street! We have control of 80% of the things that can make us more visible and we need to use these four components to make us easier to see and therefore safer while cycling.
Let’s look at the first four one-by-one and in order.
(1) Dress in brightly colored clothing.
Black may be flattering but it definitely does not enhance one’s ability to be seen. Neon orange, green and yellow are all popular colors for jackets, jerseys and tops of all kinds and wearing these will make you easier to spot. Avoid dark colors like black, blue, or anything that is not eye catching from a distance. If you are the type of rider who doesn’t like to attract attention to himself you should reach outside your comfort zone and be prepared to have motorists stare at you and cyclist comment on your garish appearance. After all, there’s a place for vanity but risking life and limb is probably too high a price to pay for the privilege of not standing out!
(2) Have reflectors on our bicycles and clothing.
Bicycles sold in the USA come with a variety of reflectors that reflect headlight beams back to the motorist thus attracting his attention to your presence. Sometimes reflectors fall off and sometimes image conscious owners remove reflectors. When daylight hours are scanty then precious reflectors can be especially helpful in keeping us safe. If your bike does not have at least a rear reflector you should add one if you will be riding in low light. In addition wheel, pedal, and a front reflector can be helpful as well.
Don’t forget to include yourself when adding reflectors. Reflectorized ankle straps and clothing will make you more noticeable to other road users.
(3) Use lights both front and rear.
There is no substitute for effective lights. If you are riding your bicycle between one-half-hour before sunset and one-half-hour after sunrise then you are legally obligated to have illuminated lights on your bicycle so that you are visible to others. Lights come in a dizzying array of quality and some are merely beacons to alert folks to your presence while others are powerful enough to be seen in direct sunlight from over a half mile away.
As I have been a bicycle commuter for over three decades I have come to the conclusion that more is better. To see where I am going I use at least one bicycle mounted headlight and pair that with a bright headlight that mounts to my helmet. As the law states that bicycles being ridden at night must be equipped with lights, if you choose to have only a helmet light you are entering what could be seen as legal limbo: Because of this reason I always have at least one light on my handlebar and another on the back of my bicycle even though I usually have high intensity, extremely powerful and illuminating lights attached to both the front and rear of my helmet.
As I do most of my night riding on a bicycle that functions primarily as a commuting bike I have equipped this bike with a basic headlight, a re-chargeable, high-intensity headlight and four taillights. When riding this bicycle at night I also use a helmet that has attached to it a high-intensity, rechargeable headlight and a matching taillight and have two lights attached to reflective straps that I wrap around my ankles. I have oft been likened to a Christmas tree when all my lights are flashing!
Riding in low light is harder for both the cyclist and also for other road users. Depth perception suffers for many at night and being able to see obstacles in the roadway or trail can make the difference between staying upright and taking a tumble. Good lights help level the playing field so that motorists have a better chance of responding to you sooner and with greater courtesy and give you the ability to perceive an obstacle from a greater distance and thereby be able to respond to it sooner, safer, and more smoothly.
(4) Be aware of the angle of the sun.
The sun shining in our eyes makes it very difficult for us to see: This is also true for motorists. Because drivers may not be able to see us when the sun is low at early morning or at the end of the day we should be very cognizant of what roads we are driving on when and in what direction. I try to avoid busy roads whenever reasonable and am even more likely to do this when the sun is blinding the drivers with whom I am coexisting.
If I have to travel east when the sun is coming up or west as it is setting I will plan my route with more care and be open to detours than I otherwise might. We all need to remember that traveling a few extra miles in order to keep ourselves safe may be both a life rewarding and life extending practice!
II Warmth: Finding your “baby bear”
No matter what the temperature is our bodies are constantly in need of shedding heat. Of course the cooler the air the easier it is to lose heat and when the mercury drops our needs change from losing heat quickly to losing heat slowly.
The temperature, wind chill, sunlight, degree of exertion, and personal preference will all influence how warmly one should dress for cycling. In the heat of summer our biggest concern is to lose heat quickly so that we remain comfortable and safe so most of us will ride in shorts and either a sleeveless or short sleeve top. However, as things cool off we need to utilize different articles of clothing to stay safe and as comfortable as possible. Different people have varying problem areas that crop up when cycling in cold weather and these include (1) our head (including our ears and eyes), (2) hands, (3) feet, (4) arms, (5) legs, (6) groin, and (7) core. Our requirements will vary with changes in temperature but these are a few products that can keep us comfortable as temperatures drop.
Cycling specific clothing will come in very handy when it comes to keeping our heads warm. As many multi-use hats and head-gear is bulky and will not fit safely and comfortably under helmets thin but warm cycle specific head-gear is a must.
There are various hats, balaclavas, skull caps, head-bands that cover the ears and forehead, neck warmers, and “Dog Ears” that can be used singly and in combination with one another. Frequently these items come in both a basic version and one with a nylon “wind stopper” front for even colder weather. As my ears start feeling the chill at temperatures in the mid to upper fifties I will Velcro “Dog Ears” on a helmet as soon as things start to cool off and add additional items to them as the weather gets colder and colder. For riding in single digits I will use a combination of “Dog Ears,” a nylon front head-band, a nylon front balaclava and a light-weight-breathable neck gator that covers my mouth. All of this fits comfortably in conjunction with my helmet because it is all designed from the ground up to be used by cyclists. The neck gator is a thin material as I find that covering my nose and mouth with other, heavier material will cause my glasses to fog.
Eye protection as simple as clear safety lenses work fine for low light conditions but in bright sunshine we’ll want to use dark lenses with U.V. protection. Bigger lenses do a better job of keeping the wind out of our eyes and I have tried ski goggles but I have not had good luck with them as I have had them fog up and freeze thus making them ineffective!
Of all the areas that can bother a rider in the winter I have the biggest problem with my hands. I suspect that three plus decades of year round riding and numerous instances of frost bite have exacerbated my problem.
A possible problem with bulky gloves and mittens is the need to manipulate brake and shift levers and to have a secure grip on the handlebar. Mittens are warmer than gloves but provide less control and reduce our ability to manipulate brake and shift levers. “Lobster gloves” or mittens that split at the ring and middle finger are a compromise between the two extremes. For colder weather I get longer “gauntlet” style gloves that extended further up my arms to prevent a bone numbing gap between my jacket sleeve and glove. I will also buy my coldest weather gloves one or two sizes larger than usual thus enabling me to wear a thin glove or liner inside my winter gauntlet.
All of these gloves detract from dexterity and I can only go so bulky before I can no longer safely ride the bike. An item that does not add bulk but does add warmth are “Bar Mitts”- exterior, neoprene handlebar covers that add both an additional wind barrier and more insulation. These come in styles for both “road/drop” style handlebars as well as “mountain” style handlebars.
Two final items to consider are electric gloves and chemical hand warmers. I have just started riding with electrically heated gloves and find them a wonderful addition to my cold-was armament.
Keeping my feet warm is not as big of a problem for me as are my hands because I can keep adding layers without impeding my ability to pedal efficiently and safely! I ride with cycling shoes that snap into the pedals with cleats and these come in a range of temperature configurations from sandals to winter cycling shoes.
In the height of warm weather I frequently ride with well vented shoes sans socks. As things begin to cool off I add lightweight and then heavyweight socks. My temperature cut-off for summer shoes with warm socks is about 50 degrees; below that I will start to include additional measures for keeping my dogs from barking.
Shoe covers or “booties” are the next tool in the box for keeping toes warm. These come in varying degrees of temperature taming qualities with the mildest being neoprene toe covers, followed by lightweight and then heavyweight outer covers that go a long way in keeping warmth in and wind out. There are also rain covers that are not insulated that can provide additional warmth and wind protection by placing them directly over the shoes or in addition to insulated booties.
Riders who know that they will be riding in the most extreme of cold temperature can benefit by wearing insulated winter shoes. I buy my winter shoes at least one size larger than usual thereby giving me the ability to wear multiple layers of socks without cramping my feet. Additionally, winter shoes can of course be augmented with booties and rain covers for those whose feet suffer in the cold or who will be riding in the minus degree Fahrenheit range.
(4 & 5) Arms & Legs
Keeping our limbs covered in cool weather will add comfort to our rides. Our knees are especially vulnerable to damage from cold weather because they are traveling in circles and of course moving forward at the same time. Keeping our knees covered is important even before our legs start to suffer from the chill. I will start to wear knickers when the thermometer reads 60 degrees and add lightweight and then heavier tights as the rides go from cool to cold to frigid.
I am a huge fan of light weight arm warmers for cool temperatures. These cover my arms when I first start out and haven’t built up extra internal heat through exertion and are great for long rides when we start on a cool morning but ride into warmer and warmer daylight. I also use arm warmers for commuting in cool weather where I need sleeves in the morning but not for my early evening return trip home.
I am not a big user of leg warmers as I find that they don’t stay put and migrate down my legs. I also find that I am less fussy about having my legs be just the perfect temperature as I am the rest of my body so I will wear knickers if it is cool in the morning and the slightly extra, unneeded warmth won’t bother me if the temperature rise to the point where they are no longer necessary later in the day: The same ability to make do at varying temperatures holds true for tights as I will put up with a bit of extra warmth on my legs without it causing me too much consternation. I like tights because, unlike leg warmers, they stay put and don’t slip down my legs.
Tights come in a variety of thicknesses or plies and range from thin Lycra leg coverings to insulated tights with a wind-stopper front fabric cover. My needs in degree of cold preference is predicated on temperature, wind speed, amount of sunlight and how early in the cool season it is. I know most everyone in Iowa will call a 60 degree day in July cold while the same temperature in December is considered tropical! Our perception and acclimation to cold will influence our insulation needs.
As a generalization I will start to use knickers at temperatures in the low sixties, move on to thin tights when riding in the fifties and upper forties, wear insulated tights in the thirties and forties, and finish with insulated wind stopper fabric tights for temps in the mid-twenties and below. Only experimentation and experience will demonstrate what combinations work best for you.
Keeping our bodies, “trunks,” or “cores” warm is essential for comfort and safety. I find that I am most picky about keeping my core comfortable as compared to any other part of my body as I feel that if my core is hot or cold then I am hot or cold where as if my ears, hands, or feet are cold I feel as though those parts are hot or cold.
Many people will overdress when riding in cold weather with the expectation of shedding layers as they progress on the ride and have warmed up. This is a great strategy for keeping safe and comfortable but not one that I tend to use. Instead I tend to go out dressed for the end of the ride and suffer with being cold for the first four or five minutes.
I don’t like to stop and peel layers because I am usually en-route to or from work while riding and have not allotted extra time to remove layers of clothing so I am willing to suffer a bit up front in order to be comfortable for the majority of the ride and to keep myself from having to stop and peel off extra clothes that I only needed for the first few minutes of an otherwise comfortable ride. Either strategy works well and you’ll need to see which of the two fits better with your goals, personality, and time restraints.
As I said earlier, what works for one person may not be ideal for another so I urge everyone to pay attention to what they are wearing at what temperatures and in what conditions to find out the best solutions for an individual’s particular needs.
III Traction: “Slip sliding away” is for Paul Simon!
Traction concerns will be greater in the fall and spring which tend to be wetter than the summer and of course winter riding is more demanding still, as well as potentially more dangerous.
For greater traction on wet pavement wider tires work better. If you are certain that you will never ride in the snow then tread is really not a concern for pavement traction whether wet or dry. This is because bicycle tires are too narrow and bicycles are ridden at too low a speed to allow for hydroplaning. Tread does matter for unpaved surfaces and riding in ice or snow.
As you are considering better traction because of wet conditions you may also want to add fenders to your bike to help keep you dry and warm when the road is wet and uninviting. Some bicycles can add neither wide tires nor fenders because of “wheel- well” space issues but if yours can accept wider tires and fenders I would encourage you to add them for early spring and late fall riding.
If you are considering joining the hardy few who ride year round and in all conditions there are bicycles that accept extra wide, four inch width tires that help when riding in snow. Many bicycles can have studded ice tires installed which allow for riding in very slippery conditions. Of course, just because you have control of your bicycle that doesn’t mean that the motorists have control of their cars when the roads get slippery so prudence is an important virtue if you wish to try winter riding in comparative safety!
Extending our riding season can bring us both health and recreation benefits whether we decide to add another month at the end of summer and maybe another in early spring or go all out and dedicate ourselves to riding year round.
IV Poem: I will leave you with a cycling poem:
Ode to Car Free Cold Weather Commuting
I pressed my head into the sheets as the wind howled loudly through the streets.
My dream was just to stay abed but harsh reality reared her head.
“Get up,” she cried into my ear, “arise, take flight, avert your fears!”
I knew right then I must awake and onward rushed I; my commute to take.
My goal to get to work was high but no fossil fuels would use I.
The quest on this ice cold day was to ride my bike through cold and gray.
Too use a car for my short hop would be the work of a weak fop.
So winter attire I did don to protect me as to work I traveled with the new dawn.
My ride was mounted and the warmth departed as I left behind my safe, calm harbor.
My steel stead was girded in cold war attire as I entered the abysmal frigid mire.
The way was paved with wayward diamonds instigating trouble beneath their snowy confinement.
I traveled through the bitter cold arriving as my work did unfold.
The ride was cold, this is true, but no part of me was feeling blue.
My jaunt to work was sweet release from winter’s disturbance of the peace.
Tomorrow’s yet another day but I wonder how the riding is in Bombay?