(Part I of our winter riding blog can be found here).
We've had a lot of winter this past week, and I find myself with a few more things to say about winter riding. By the way, there is no shame in hanging up the bike and hibernating all winter. However, what if, when you were in the fourth grade, you'd realized that no one locked the school at night, and you could enter after everyone else had gone home and play Oregon Trail and jump around on the gym mats and climb the cargo net? Winter riding is kind of like that.
For the winter rider, winter has four phases, and these phases don't always occur in a particular order. The absolute worst phase almost always comes toward the very end of winter, and often in early spring, but we'll get to that.
The first phase is fresh snow. This phase is usually awesome. No ice has formed yet, and you can ride basically any bike you want through the powder and if you crash you land in powder. Then comes the icy phase. This is when you want those studded snow tires.
Let's pause for a moment to talk about gear. Chances are, you already have most of the winter riding gear you'll need. Everybody owns lots of insulating, breathable stuff, as well as some kind of waterproof jacket. Pants, however, can be tricky. No matter what kind of pants you wear in the winter, you may feel as though you've worn the wrong pair. For fresh snow and ice, it really doesn't matter what kind of pants you wear as long as they keep you warm. Often, long underwear, jeans, and gators will suffice for trips that are five miles and shorter. I usually wear softshell pants, but I'm fully aware when I walk into a coffee shop that I look like a blaze orange doofus. On really frigid days, you'll want a balaclava. I know, I know. Nobody has ever been at their best in a balaclava, but you'll be glad you have one. Also, make sure your balaclava has a mouth hole. There will be a lot of moisture buildup as you breathe, and if you don't have a way to spit every now and then, you will begin to drown in your own mucus. If anything can make wearing a balaclava worse, it's dying in one. Get one with a mouth hole.
The third phase is where the temperature reaches thirty-three degrees or the sun comes out and the snow and ice start to melt. This is where your pants become critical, especially if your bike doesn't have fenders. Your tires will throw oceans of black road sludge up at you, covering your butt, legs, and face with tiny black droplets that are a mixture of magnesium, car grime, oil, and goose poop. These black droplets taste exactly how you'd expect. Fenders, waterproof shoes, and some weather resistant pants are important. Goggles work better than sunglasses, but beware that they compound the doofus spaceman effect of your orange pants.
The fourth and worst phase of winter only happens once or twice a year, and it usually happens in April, the day after you've stored your winter clothes in that inconvenient drawer under the bed. On this day the temperature will hold rock steady at thirty-three degrees while it dumps snowmelt on you. So far, I've had no luck finding pants that can withstand this kind of day. Softshell pants for sure can't, and even Gore-tex has failed me. Once they start to leak, water will run into your shoes. Even if you periodically stop under shelter to remove, overturn, and empty the ice water out of your shoes, your feet will experience a sensation beyond cold that words will not be able to describe until we invent a new expletive chain for it.
Because I'm tired of buying expensive pants that are awesome every day of the year but this particular one day in April, I've decided to do one of two things. If I don't have far to ride that day, I'll wear cutoffs. If I do have far to ride, I will stay home and wear no pants at all.