Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Techie Tuesday: Riding in Cold & Darkness

One by one I've attacked the challenges attendant with riding in winter, mostly those of riding in the cold and the dark, since it has been dry this winter, and I don't consider riding on the road safe with motorists looking through rain-spattered windows. A great litmus test for whether you've got your gear nailed, it will test you to the limit at times, but it's also been very rewarding. In Dec, and Jan I set a new PB for mileage, and then broke both of those in Feb and then again in March.

--- COLD ---

Before going any further, I should warn you that riding alone at night in the cold is dangerous, and very unforgiving. If you have a flat, or take a spill, or can't ride and make heat for any reason, hypothermia is almost a certainty, and that could be fatal if you're riding alone at night. 

There's an art to riding in cold, some finesse, endless clothing combinations to work out, and some thoughtful planning.

It's important not to over-dress, but rather, keep extra clothing dry, and in reserve. Overdressing just creates hydration problems, leaves you chilled and soaking wet, and with nothing dry to augment your protection, likely to make things worse, not better, if stopped in the cold. Always bring a foil blanket along in the saddle bag. It will make up for a few poor choices, or unfortunate circumstances.

A convertible jacket with zip off sleeves, a dry balaclava, a 2nd balaclava, 2nd vest, or leg warmers you can pull on over tights, can all save your life. Keep your legs warm at all costs. If they get cold enough to start cramping, which is a constant threat for me personally, you can't pedal hard enough to make enough heat to stay warm. Let your arms and core freeze if you must, but keep your legs and head warm.

Climbing out of the saddle on a steep hill is the best RX for warming up - if it's not already too late. The lower speed minimizes convective, motion-generated wind losses, while the extra effort of climbing out of the saddle maximizes muscle work – especially in your core. Cold legs that won't spin will still mash, and using the gluts and lower back draws on muscles that are hopefully still fairly warm.

The worst-case scenario is crashing and being knocked unconscious. You might well wake up dead, having succumbed to hypothermia while unconscious. Keep this in mind when planning your riding gear for the day, and have sufficient lighting to avoid rocks, sticks and debris.

Dressing right for cold weather riding relies on having an accurate thermometer, and a very deep pool of clothing to draw on. You can mix and match clothing to adjust for various weather conditions, but only if you have to have a good thermometer on the bike, and take note of those temps. (I'd buy a GOOD thermometer, masquerading as a cadence sensor, in a heartbeat. Garmin are a bunch of dimwits, and have added a thermometer so BAD, it's next to useless)

SMUD, our local municipal utility company, passed out some energy conservation kits last year, and part of that kit was a cheap digital thermometer which fits in my map clip perfectly. It reports to tenths of a degree, and seems as accurate as my more expensive household digital thermometer. It reacts in seconds to temp changes, unlike the Garmin 500, which has so much lag built in, it's almost useless for the 5 degree drops in temp when rolling down into a low draw along the river. 

Dressing for those transient cold spikes is important, because a couple of thousand yards of that kind of cold is enough to bring on cramping, and if that shuts down your legs, you're in serious trouble.

 Knowing where it's cold, and when, is invaluable in planning your clothing for the day. For example, upstream from Sunrise is about 5 degrees warmer than downstream, and since temps can drop as much as 25 degrees after sunset, I've taken to riding the cold part first, while it's still warm out, and the warmer part after sunset when temps are plunging. The more uniform temps make dressing much, much easier. (I set out in 75 degree temps recently, which became 79 degrees up in Folsom, and dropped to 52 a few miles from home below WBP. A 27 degree temp swing in 2 hours)

Besides temperature, wind, cloud cover, and humidity are significant factors. While temps typically fall 10-15 degrees, and as much as 30 degrees about 30 minutes before sunset, to an hour after on clear nights, overcast skies rarely allow temps to drop more than 5 degrees an hour around here.

In addition, very cold, clear nights are often created by cold, dry arctic winds here, and the dry wind greatly increases evaporative losses. These are the only nights I want to wear a jacket, which covers my armpits, because human skin tends to sweat even when cold to maintain a minimum surface humidity. (there was a lot of research into "vapor barrier" clothing in the late 70s, which I haven't read anything about lately, but it's for real) "Wind burn" is also more problematic in such dry air.

The biggest threat I've found from wind is quads quickly chilling until they start cramping, but to a lesser degree, this is true of all the leg muscles, and the feet and hands as well. The PI Barrier Balaclava does a good job keeping my face, forehead, and neck protected, but below 45 degrees cold, dry wind needs to be stopped with a helmet cover to prevent ice cream headaches and stiffness in the back of the neck.

There are lots of little changes that have to be accounted for as well. Powerbars I slip into jersey pockets are hard as bricks, so I've gone back to slipping them under the right leg of my bib shorts, against my skin. The foil wrapper helps keep my thigh warm to boot.

Water bottles, especially the Polar ones, become almost impossible to squeeze, but even the wonderful Camelbak bottles get hard to squeeze. You might also need to start your ride with warm Gatorade and an insulated bottle.

Batteries, especially NiMh batteries, don't work very well in the cold. They don't produce as much voltage nor store as much energy, as the voltage curve is shifted lower, and drops off aggressively after about 30-45% of normal durations. If you carry spares, an excellent idea, carry them close to your skin to keep them warm.

On the plus side, LED lights never have heat problems in the winter, requiring them to temporarily drop down to a lower setting. Also, running them at cooler temps may extend their lifespan somewhat. (although, 50,000 hrs is probably longer than you'll ever need them, as the technology keeps improving)

--- DARK ---

Planning for riding in the dark is much less an art, and much more straight science, than dealing with the cold. Dark just requires good lighting, although that did turn out to be a significant trial and error process. With the addition of the small Fenix E05 flashlight though, I'm pretty close to finished with lighting. With the G.I.T Lit plan, implemented as a 5-light system, you can safely ride anytime, anywhere, within reason.

The greatest danger after dark, is hitting something that SHOULD be lit, but isn't. Just after sunset there's a high risk of meeting other cyclists head-on who gambled on getting home before dark, and lost. Their bad - just make sure it isn't yours too. 

Other risks are gravel, stones, branches, road debris, trash cans, pot holes, cars coming out of driveways,  cats, dogs, wild animals (deer, especially bucks with big racks, freeze in headlights, and are likely to gore you, and they're never lit), rushing water, and low-hanging limbs. Think your lighting through carefully, but also, look around corners, and think around corners. Ask yourself if it's just unlikely, or really and truly impossible to encounter something. 

For example, it isn't very likely you'll encounter a drunk driver speeding down a bike trail at night with no lights on, but it sure isn't impossible. Metal thieves around here have been pulling out, or running over steel posts meant to prevent auto traffic from gaining access to the ARPT so they can steal guard-rails, signs, and even planking.

Being attacked and having your bike stolen is possible, as is happening upon the scene of a crime, and being an accidental witness. You might want to consider arming yourself. A S&W Bodyguard .380 is a good choice for that. Very small and light, and with a built-in laser targeting system.

You need to ride defensively to the extreme. You can't take anything for granted, and need to assume if they can hit you, they will. Cars coming out of narrow driveways can be unnerving at any time because you can't see the driver's face to check for the "Ahh Ha" look. At night, you'll never see the driver's face.

You have to rely much more on being seen and hoping the driver will keep you out of danger. For example, I've noticed at night that drivers will often wait at an intersection for a few seconds longer to "Sheppard" me across the intersection – interspersing their vehicle between me and crossing traffic – to help keep me safe. Cars will often wave you through an intersection as well, not wanting to risk a collision. If you've made them comfortable, and done your fair share to keep things safe, these kindnesses happen quite regularly, but it all depends on you being seen.

Little things help too. Like coming out into the middle of the lane at 4-way stops so you can see and be seen better. Riding down the center of a bike trail to avoid the debris and animal incursions is also a good idea. If you're going to have to take the lane to avoid garbage cans in the bike lane on public streets, do it early and robustly. Any following traffic should know, without a doubt, that you are taking the lane and are not going to move over for them.

The Fenix is the size of my little finger, but puts out 27 ANSI certified lumens of perfectly uniform light. Its light is so uniform and natural, that Velcro-ed to the top of my helmet, it's more like I can summon the sun. I magically have light when I need to read my Garmin, thermometer, gears, or highlight the 2" steel posts in the middle of the bike trail to keep metal thieves from stealing everything bigger than a dime. It's also nice to have my hands and bars lit, especially if using hand signals in traffic.

I have found one very unexpected benefit too – it cheers me up and keeps an otherwise depressing gloom at bay. Usually, within 15-30 minutes of sunset, I get a small case of SAD, and lose motivation. Quite to my surprise, having my cockpit, and the road beneath my front wheel lit, changes everything. The boredom dissipates with the darkness, and I find riding at night as invigorating as driving at night.


This is far from a complete expose` on winter riding, and you can expect I'll be back to edit this as I think of things, but the winter season is pretty much over now, so before I forgot all of these subtle lessons, I thought I should get this 1st attempt out there for the benefit of those just taking up cold spring riding. 

We recently had a cold snap and I was out riding past sunset, and the vibe was surreal. All of us die-hards were out there paying tribute to each other's steadfast determination to ride all year, through cold, dark, and occasional rain, day in and day out, thrilling at the incredible beauty seen by only a chosen few when winter sunsets just take your breath away. 

The feeling of camaraderie was overwhelming. Each rider was happy to be in the other's company, slowing down, reminiscing fondly, in a silent, shared recognition that their elite membership would too soon be revoked by warmer days ahead. It is with sadness that I say goodbye to my cold weather memories, a special fellowship of riders, and light to die for at sunset. A photographer's wet dream.

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