Friday, November 25, 2011

Winter Bike - Part 2

I left my last post with a promise that I'd write another winter biking piece; this time, about staying alive on your winter bike-commute.

Now, let me begin with the obvious: This isn't for everybody. I personally love being on my bike and I consider bicycle commuting to be an ethical choice. It just so happens that I prefer riding my bike, to driving to and from work.  But, as I said, this isn't for everybody. Winter biking is harder than spring/summer biking. It requires preparation, motivation and commitment - much of which I covered last time. It also requires some uncomfortable realities and some strategic and tactical thinking, fast reflexes, and often, infinite patience.

Motivation. I will never judge someone for choosing the car over the bike, in the middle of winter. The reality is that we live in a bloody cold country for five months of the year and, here in Red Deer, we have distances to travel. If you live in one of the neighbourhoods - as opposed to downtown - expect commutes that are measured in kilometres, rather than blocks. To take on these commutes in sub-zero temperatures requires you to make a conscious decision to dress in layers, pack a bag with a change of clothes, ensure you have a lunch, leave a little earlier etc... It's much, much easier and more comfortable to throw on a jacket, pour a thermal-mug full of coffee, hit the command start on the car and walk to the garage. I get it. If you're going to winter bike, you've made a real commitment to a more difficult choice. I'll let you in on a secret: As much as I love my bike and love riding to work, there are winter days where I get up and decide "Man, that coffee and heated seats would sure be great today", and I'll choose the easy option. It also makes my kids happy because they get rides to school on those days. It doesn't happen often, maybe once a week.

We talked about the clothing and bike preparation in the previous post. Once you've got your bike ready and you've got a handle on keeping your cycling clothing from becoming a bio-hazard, the next step is your daily preparation. You have two options:

  1. Be a super-early-rising keener who gets up, puts on a pot of coffee, feeds the kids breakfast, has a shower, finds and packs the fresh work-clothes, makes and packs lunches for everybody and skips out the door with time to spare. If this is you, I hate you.

  2. Do the clothes-finding, bag packing, coffee-maker-loading, lunch making the night before so that you can squeeze in the final iota of sleep in the morning and delay the inevitable start to the day as long as possible. 

I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one describes my routine.

What you won't be able to do however, is combine all the jobs from option one, with the late-sleeping, day-break-avoiding sloth of option two. Trust me, I've tried. What you end up with is a panicked dash out of the house, trying to get your own bag secured, while you are strapping on your helmet, only to find that one of your bike gloves is stuck up inside it - making you wonder why the damn thing won't fit. Add in the pushing of two small children out the back door, telling them "start running, Daddy will catch up when he gets his bike", because God-forbid they're late for school. Yeah... choose one option or the other, but don't mix 'em. It just doesn't work.

Now, you're out the door, the house is locked, the kids are walking to school and you can head off to work. Phew...I'm exhausted already and we just started this thing.

Once you're on your way the first thing you'll notice is that you'll often feel like you're riding in pudding. This is due to two things: One, it is a given that no matter what direction you ride in the winter the wind will be in your face. Just accept it. You can't beat the wind. Two, the edges of the road bed, in Red Deer, suuuuuuck. In the spring and summer they're merely rutted and full of holes that threaten to toss you and your bike alternately into traffic or merely up onto the boulevard. In the winter though, those little (and by little I mean massive) ruts and holes fill with slush, ice, snow, pea soup, bacon fat and who knows what else to become bike tire traps. And, you have to ride through them. Unlike the summer, you cannot gently weave around these holes.

"Why," you might be asking yourself. Well, by my careful, scientific estimation there are like a zillion more cars on the road in the winter, effectively creating one long line of moving iron. There are no spaces to dodge into, to get around the hole. To make matters worse, this snake-like iron and plastic leviathan is controlled by humans who - let me be delicate here - turn into cold-lulled, meat sacks unable to see anything beyond the dvd infotainment system in the dash, once the temperature dips down below "chilly".

This brings us nicely to "Strategies and tactics to make sure you don't die".

First, base all your decisions on the following assumptions:

  • Nobody can see you. It doesn't matter how bright the jacket, how loud the bell, how good the lights; in winter you are beyond invisible.
  • Nobody is stopping for you. They're cold, the light is yellow, they're going through. Likely, this is because it's probably safer for them, than stopping would be. Do not be tempted to jump the light or snake a lane in the winter. Nobody is going to hit the brakes in the middle of an intersection and risk sliding into the guy in front of them.
  • All cars are broken-down, barely maintained heaps of junk. It's patently not true. But if you assume that the cars around you have no brakes, bad tires and poorly maintained steering systems, then you'll be mentally ready for things to head south.
  • The winter road will never be as good as you imagine/hope. You will always find glare ice, drifted snow, new potholes, broken car parts, dead kitties, sand piles etc... littering the curb lane and the intersections. Be ready for these obstacles.
  • Eventually, somewhere, somehow you will get hit by a car. It probably won't be serious. But it will happen. More on this, below.

Given these assumptions here then, is how you survive as a winter cyclist.

Plan your route. Red Deer is an easy city to ride in, largely because you can route-plan on the fly. Lots of side streets will take you to the places you want to go, almost as fast as the main arterials. When you leave the house in the morning, make sure you have a couple of optional routes in your mental map so that you can bail out of your main route, if things are getting dicey.

Keep your head on a swivel. More than anything else, you have to be hyper-aware of what's happening around you. You should know roughly how many cars in the in lane behind you (I count them at stop lights), if anybody behind you is planning a right turn at the upcoming intersection - this is a great place and situation in which you can get hit by a car, and what the traffic lights are about to do. You should be aware of the roads and traffic up to a block ahead of you, and you should be scanning the sidewalks for pedestrians who may be feeling adventurous. Are there yards with potentially open gates on your route? Dogs and cats aren't afraid of you and will run out into traffic. Cats will do it just to try and make you swerve into a bus - sadistic little bastards. The more information you can track in your surroundings, the better you can avoid protential problems and the more options you can find for escaping trouble.

Here's the uncomfortable reality I mentioned at the top of this article: Some day, you will eventually have a negative interaction with a car. It doesn't matter how much you've perfected your situational-awareness, how great your studded tires are, how well you've planned... eventually things are going to go bad and you will either hit or get hit by something outweighs you by 2800 lbs or more. It will hurt.

Practice falling off your bike. Go to a frozen school-yard and fall down. Do it at fast speeds and slow speeds. Get someone to push you over as you ride by or simply throw yourself off the bike. You need to know how to hit the ground effectively. Hit with the biggest amount of  body real-estate. It's instinctual to put your hands out to try and catch yourself. This is a great way to break your wrists. Try to land on your shoulders, side, or hips. Let the force of the landing get dispersed across as much of your body as possible.

Once you're on the ground. Roll. If you've broken something (on you, not your bike) your body will instinctively try to protect that part. Rolling does two things. One, it helps to protect the injured part by moving it out of harms way and two, it further dissipates energy. It redirects the energy of the impact over space and distance.

By practicing falling, you're developing muscle memory. If you get hit, your body will just "know" what do. This is important because when bad things happen, they happen with little warning and you simply can't remember fast enough, what you should do to protect yourself in a fall.

In the event that you do have to fall:
  • Once you're down, stay down. Do a self-systems test. Does your neck hurt? Does your back or head hurt? Did you black out? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Once you've established that you've not compromised anything critical - and if nobody has stopped to help - you can try to move. Be slow, be deliberate and double check those fingers, toes and neck for sensation, mobility and pain. If there's a negative change, stop what you're doing and wait for help.
  • Do. Not. Let. Anybody. Help. You. Up. If you've hit hard enough that you require assistance, just ask someone to call an ambulance and let the EMTs take care of how and when you move. Don't let passersby remove your backpack or helmet. At this point, those things are stabilizing any injuries and removing them could cause more harm than good.
  • Don't get up fighting. Remain calm, ask for the driver's insurance and registration and leave the scene as calmly as possible. The police and insurance companies will figure out who was wrong and who pays what. Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame. 

So, go forth my winter-biking soul mates. Remember, prepare your bike and gear, plan your routes and rides, assume the worst and prepare for it. With patience, a good long-range route plan and excellent short-range situational-awareness, you'll have a great winter biking season. The winter air is crisp and fresh and the coffee - once you dig your thermal mug out of the depths of your backpack, is the best you've ever had. You'll find that you have more energy throughout the day and that you sleep better at night.

See you on the road

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why and How You Should Winter Bike

So, I'll being this little missive by confessing that I took a fairly easy, cheap-shot at Granville Mag this evening. Their article "Preparing Your Bicycle for Winter" is an excellent guide to getting both your bike and yourself adequately prepared for winter, bicycle commuting - in Vancouver.

The cheap shot was easy to take, so I took it. Vancouver doesn't get winter. Vancouver gets damp, followed by wet, followed by wetter, followed by damp again. To be fair, the article does acknowledge this fact and spends its time discussing the proper methods of wet-proofing your bike and dressing in quick-drying layers. It also mentions that once the snow flies, it's time to take the bus. Pansies.

Now, I lived in Vancouver for a long time and was a regular, year-round bike commuter. Yes, commuting in the rain sucks. Big time. But the problem isn't so much that you get wet while riding. The real issue is that due to the high levels of moisture in the air, none of your cycling clothes ever dry out. At the end of every work day, you're always putting on slightly damp layers of slightly smelly clothes. If you want to be a successful and non-aromatically-repulsive cycle commuter through a Vancouver winter, get your employer to invest in a clothes dryer. Or, double the weight of your backpack and bring along an extra set of riding clothes.

So, I may have called winter riding in Vancouver "cute". My bad, but I stand by it.

However, winter riding here in Alberta is a totally different ball game. The challenge here is not staying dry, or even staying warm (layers and the energy required to ride in snow and ice will keep you warm. No, the challenge here is not killing yourself while riding and avoiding frostbite. I'm not even kidding.

Keeping warm while winter riding is a relatively simple endeavour. The rules are the same for all winter sports:

  • Do dress in layers to trap thin envelopes of air around your body. Your body heat will warm the air and you'll stay warm. 
  • Don't - read that as DO NOT - wear cotton. When cotton gets wet, it sticks to your skin and destroys that first, critical warm air envelope. Wet skin loses heat about 800 times faster than dry skin. Cotton kills. 
  • Do trap heat around your extremities. That means layers of socks (thin ones next to skin) and mitts on your hands. On really cold days, I wear my full-finger cycling gloves inside a pair of warm mitts.
  • Do wrap yourself in a windproof layer. Even I - the guy who wears shorts year-round - am not stupid enough to let the wind blast through a porous outer layer.

All of this is pretty much what the Granville Mag article was talking about - minus the rain. But given our frigid climate between November and March, there are a few extras we need to keep in mind. The big one for our bodies, is frostbite.

We all know what windchill is right? When the temperature is below 0c, the wind will make it feel colder. What lots of people forget, is that you don't need a windy day to experience windchill. The movement of the bike will take care of that for you. For instance: While I will generally stay committed to riding my bike down to about -25c, much of our daily commutes happen in the -15 to -20 range. At an air temperature of -20c, and a ground speed of 20km/h, you are creating a windchill of -29c. Exposed skin will freeze in a short period of time - the best estimate I could get is about 15 minutes. However, once you dip below that, the freezing time drops dramatically.

So, covering your skin is important. My standard winter riding outfit includes a full, one-piece, head-and-neck-covering helmet liner that pulls up over my nose. If the temperature is above about -18, I wear sunglasses. Once we start approaching -20 I put on ski goggles. I have zero exposed skin once we get down to those temperatures. I've seen and treated frostbite on other people. It hurts, it damages skin cells and in bad cases, creates ugly scars or worse. No thanks.

Now you're warm and protected from the wind and cold. Let's get to the bike.

Lubricate everything - every bearing, hub, gear, cog, chain... you name it, with thin oil. Thick oils are great for wet, warm-weather riding but in the winter they get really thick, making the moving parts that much harder to keep in motion. I just test them by dabbing a little on my fingers. If it feels like peanut oil, it's pretty good. If it feels like syrup it's too thick.

Lights. I cannot say this enough. Here in Central Alberta we have really short winter days. That means that you'll probably be riding in the semi-dark to really-dark, most of the time. Invest in a flashing-red LED for the back. Put it on your pack, your seat post - wherever; just make sure it can be seen. A bright-white LED for the front is also important. Make sure that you can position it so that you can see what's in front of you without blinding oncoming drivers. I like LEDs because winter is really hard on batteries and LEDs don't draw much power. This helps extend the life of the batteries.

Finally, tires. Stud them. All the layering and weather protection in the world won't be much comfort when you find yourself lying on your side, staring at a truck tire pass inches by your head, because you hit an ice-patch and the bike went sideways. Studding a tire is cheap, easy, and as long as you're patient, doesn't take too long:

  • Go to MEC or Canadian Tire and buy a cheap, wire beaded, heavily treaded mountain bike tire. I have Kenda Kinetics; about $20 each.
  • Take your tires to the local hardware store and buy a box of 300, self-tapping, sheet metal screws. Measure them against the knobs on the outside edges of the tires. Buy screws that are about 1/4 inch longer than the height of the knob.
  • Take all this home.
  • Book off a Saturday afternoon.
  • Using a power drill and the thinnest bit you have, drill a series of pilot holes. You're going to drill through the inside of the tire, through each of the knobs on the outer edges of the tire.
  • Using a manual screw driver (no power tools here) screw one sheet metal screw, through each of the pilot holes. You'll probably get about 70 screws per edge; so about 140 screws per tire. The finished product should look like this:

  • Do a tire swap - wear gloves as the screws don't mix well with tire irons and bare knuckles. 
That's about it for the pre-winter prep. I strongly encourage you to try it. The air, while cold, is fresh and the skies are generally clear. 

Stay tuned. In a couple of days I'll talk about actually surviving your winter bike commute. Preview note: drivers who don't see you in the summer, really don't see you in the winter.