Sweltering v. Freezing: Better for Bicycling?

The whole country seems to be pretty hot this week. Chicago has been at a high of 90 degrees, including during my ride home yesterday. As I sat at a stoplight in the sweltering heat of the direct sun, car exhaust swirling around my head, I fondly recalled the winter. But is one really better than the other?

Summer Bike

In the sweltering summer:

  • I wear a tank top and skorts, carry my work clothes with me and change in the bathroom at work after freshening up with an Action Wipe or washcloth.
  • My hair gets sweaty, especially my bangs.
  • I ride more slowly to stay cooler.
  • I slather on sun block to keep my sensitive skin from burning.
  • Lots of other cyclists are on the road with me.

Winter Bike

In the freezing winter:

  • I can wear my work clothes on my bike.
  • I have to wear extra clothing layers – tights, leggings, scarf, gloves, wool socks, snow boots, ear muffs.
  • Oma is the bike of choice, equipped with studded tires.
  • I ride slowly to watch out for slush and patches of ice.
  • Lights are essential, as my commute is usually in the dark.
  • Only a few other cyclists are out there with me.

Both extremes have their challenges and benefits.  Of course, the best weather for cycling is between the extremes, which is most of the time.

How do you deal with the different seasons?  Would you choose sweltering or freezing, if you had to pick one?  And why oh why do most people choose to ride their bikes on the hottest days and abandon them after Labor Day?

  • http://www.girlcanbike.com Fiona

    I can’t bike when its sweltering and I have never rode in the winter….I for sure love biking in the Spring in mild but sunny weather though.

    My body can’t handle temps over 80F unfortunately

  • http://ipstenu.org Ipstenu

    I like Spring and Fall the best. I have a poncho and use that to protect me from the rain, but other than that … March through May and September through November are my favorite months.

    I only have the one bike (my wee Dahon) so biking in the ice is out of the question right now. But. When it’s cold and dry? I’m out there. Same as today with it’s 91% humidity.

  • http://my2010ishere.blogspot.com Amanda Z from NYC

    I’m a *HOT* weather honey!!

  • Jennifer

    People in Scotland tend to moan about the bad weather but I’ve started to appreciate lower temperatures since starting to commute by bike. Even on our hottest Summer days the temperature is rarely above about 15 degrees celsius at 8am, about 58 degrees fahrenheit. I have to deal with rain now and again, but I don’t mind that too much. We tend to get reasonably mild (but wet) winters too. I’m envious when I see your pictures of intense sunshine though!

  • dukiebiddle

    I prefer freezing to sweltering. Anything above zero F I can dress for. When my city’s official midday temp hit 105 F yesterday I just had to jump on my bike to see how that felt.

    Conclusion: not good, but is was only moderately humid. It was more of a sizzley heat, as opposed to a chokey heat. Still, I was peddling like a grandma on a boardwalk… slooooow.

    Like you said, extremes are not pleasant, and if temperatures are below 0 or above 100 I’d just prefer to not ride, but given a choice between 10 degrees and 95 degrees I’d choose 10 degrees every time. 10 degrees is fun, actually.

  • neighbourtease

    Bring on the heat. New York’s winter lasts from October-May as far as I’m concerned.

  • http://bikingandbaking.blogspot.com/ Maria

    I guess I’d choose summer only because I do occassionally skip my bike commute in the winter because of street conditions. That’s never an issue in the summer. Heat in Colorado isn’t really an issue because its so beautifully dry!

  • http://1 spacemodular

    When it gets too hot, I often find myself pouring water over my head from a waterbottle…

    If I had to choose – I will take the cold over the heat. I can always wear more layers. The heat won’t let me be cool after a certain point.

    My wife is opposite, she won’t bike much below freezing – it gets too cold for her, even with extra layers and foot/hand warmers.

  • http://www.realhartford.org Kerri

    I prefer winter, even with navigating snow banks and ice patches. Of course, if this question were posed to me during a cold snap, I might answer differently than when we’re experiencing a heat wave.

  • http://www.dfwptp.blogspot.com Steve A

    If I have to take the heat to get the long days, it’s a good bargain. I hate riding over an hour before dawn in the winter.

  • http://nowforthen.wordpress.com Evie

    I’ll take freezing over sweltering any day. If it’s above, say, 85F and humid, not only do I have no desire to ride my bike, I have no desire to walk, talk, or function in general.

    The cold, on the other hand, is invigorating.

  • http://theplannersdreamgonewrong.blogspot.com jason

    i don’t really like either extreme, the days which are most hot/humid and cold/icy i ride to the el. i would say i stay on the bike at least 90% of the year in chicago.

  • philippe

    I can fight cold. I can’t fight the heat.

  • http://freckleddiaries.typepad.com Catherine

    I’m refusing to ride to work this week (and two weeks ago when the weather was much the same). I *do* have an e-bike which in theory makes the whole thing a lot easier but I wouldn’t voluntarily sit outside sipping lemonade in a hammock in the shade in this heat for 45 minutes, so 45 minutes in the partly-to-fully sunny trail on my e-bike just isn’t appealing to me. (Also, the e-bike needs some serious maintenance, so that also goes into it).

    We’ve been above 95 more days than I care to remember (yesterday: 103, today probably 105) with the dew point at or above 70 (officially “extremely uncomfortable to oppressive”). Dew point, by the way is the measure of humidity that actually makes sense. Relative humidity is relative to the temperature so when the temperature is stupidly high, the RH looks artificially low. (Here’s a good explanation: http://www.shorstmeyer.com/wxfaqs/humidity/humidity.html). Also, Weather Underground does dew point forecasts, which I’ve found really very useful in planning/preparing for my ride. Just an FYI.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I absolutely cannot stand heat and humidity. If they actually plowed the trails after our blizzards this winter, I’d have been out there in 10 degrees and sleet. I might not have been joyful about the conditions, but I’d have still been there. These days? It’s all I can do to get myself to ride the 10 blocks to the Metro station.

    And even then, I take Metro to the House side even though I work on the Senate side. Why? The House’s Metro stop is across the street from their buildings, the Senate’s is a 10-ish minute walk from our buildings. It is a 25 minute walk from the House side to the Senate side—all in underground tunnels, which are air conditioned. Yep, almost 3 times the walking time to avoid 10 minutes outside. I really, really, really cannot stand heat and humidity!

    • dukiebiddle

      Semi-related to your last paragraph, my father was a LOC librarian for 40 years, but also did a brief stint as a draftee in military intelligence about a year after he started working for the Library. During their cloak and dagger drills, where they would practice tailing and tail shaking in D.C., he would always shake his tails by taking them into the tunnels. That was before the I.D. card days. Sorry to go off topic, but if you ever find yourself being followed by a spy or something, you know what to do. ;)

      • http://freckleddiaries.typepad.com Catherine

        That’s so funny, and I can totally picture it. I got my first internship on Capitol Hill almost (gasp) 10 years ago (I was a child prodigy and I’m sticking with that story….). Over these many years I’ve worked up here 4 “bursts” (2 internships, a temp job and my current year and half long spurt) for a grand total of 3 cumulative years running around these buildings.

        I still get turned around in the tunnels sometimes.

        I also “discover” new (to me) nooks and crannies fairly frequently. Just yesterday, I had to meet with some people in the Capitol itself and found myself in an elevator that is (no joke) smaller than my desk–a converted dumbwaiter shaft, it turns out. Apparently that’s the only way to get up to this particular section of the building. Crazy.

        • dukiebiddle

          My only personal experience with the tunnels was when my father brought me into work when I was 4 because Mickey and Minny Mouse where there to meet employees’ children or something, but was in some other building than the one he worked in, so he took me into the catacombs. When we go to the room with Mickey and Minny Mouse, Mickey was busy with other children, so I had to meet Minny who terrified me because she was a girl. Nothing changes. :(

  • http://bikesovercars.blogspot.com/ Zweiradler

    Both extremes have their disadvantages. I prefer freezing, because you can always put on an additional layer of clothes – but you just can’t take off another layer in the summer when you already have taken off everything. :) My body isn’t very good in handling high temperatures either, so I’m always happy when it’s less than 80 °F outside.
    The problem in winter is that many roads and paths don’t get cleared of snow properly, so riding a bike is often impossible although I’d like to.

    Nico

  • http://sweetheartsholdhands.blogspot.com/ Nicola

    I’ll take freezing please! I’m not a fan of the rain though. If I’m riding home I don’t mind, but I hate turning up to work looking like a drowned rat.

  • http://bobbinandsprocket.blogspot.com/ Amy

    Six of one, half dozen of another for me I guess. Since I work outside year round, I’m stuck in whatever the seasons have to offer. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Summer I can strip down as much as possible (and in the extreme heat, I’m not shy and will throw modesty right out the window, to the legal limits anyway), dump water on me and carry on. Sometimes I stop and jump in the creek too. :) Winter I can pile on the wool, and pedaling keeps the blood moving which helps keep me warmer until I get to work and can get the heater going. Really, either time of year, the commute is the most comfortable part of my work day.

  • http://www.portlandize.com Dave

    I definitely prefer cold to hot. It’s easier to regulate your temperature when it’s cold out than when it’s hot – you can only take off so many articles of clothing before it’s indecent/impossible :)

    I’ve never really ridden a bike much in snow (though it has happened a couple of times in Portland), and it’s worked out alright, but we’ve had temps down to 10-15 F and I’ve been able to ride quite comfortably with the right clothes.

    On the other hand, on a day that is above 80-85 F, there is just simply no way I’m going to be comfortable. I ride every day of the year regardless (including a number of days over 100 F last year), but I definitely enjoy the cold weather more.

  • http://whatwouldanerdwear.blogspot.com What Would a Nerd Wear

    so funny because i was thinking this yesterday too, stopped at a big intersection. i tried to summon back my freezing fingers and dripping winter nose.
    still, i think i’d take summer over winter.

  • Rob

    I’m currently preferring sweltering to freezing, but that’s only because my preferred way to work closes in the winter (unless I were to make my ride to work a cross-country skiing / bicycling biathalon).

    • dukiebiddle

      Transportation advocates really do have to expand the scope of future multimodal infrastructure. ;) I call for swimming lanes in our rivers, lakes and harbors!

  • http://www.inspiredcyclist.wordpress.com maureen

    Fall is my FAVORITE season and time to ride of course, invigorating weather, and amazing autumn leaves. But if I had to chose summer of winter, I guess winter…because as a few posters already noted, you can always bundle up more. Ride on!

  • http://emeraldsedai.livejournal.com/tag/riding%20clyde Anne Hawley

    Freezing over sweltering. Any day. I’m perfectly happy riding in the rain, the wind, the sub-freezing temperatures. I’m miserable riding in the heat.

  • MinNY

    Sweltering or Freezing? When it’s over 100º or below 10º, I’ll take the subway. The QB Bridge bike lane bakes in the morning sun on the Manhattan-bound up-ramp, and way up high over the river, that cold winter wind is just to much for me coming home late at night. But it’s really only horrible 4-6 days a year, and every day on the train reminds me of how much I’d rather be on my bicycle.

    • http://bikinginheels-cycler.blogspot.com/ cycler

      I was in NYC recently and although it wasn’t terrible hot outside, the subway platforms were STEAMY!
      I think it was all the waste heat from the car AC’s, but I was just dripping standing on the platform. It all the lines were like that, I think I’d just as soon ride and at least be sweaty by myself instead of pushed up against strangers.

      • Vee

        I hated being on the platform in full summer. I didn’t know any better alternative but man I hated it. I used to bring a fan. I ned to bring a fan to fan myself after a bike ride too.

  • http://suburbanbikemama.blogspot.com/ Vee

    I was at the farmers market yesterday and I drove. I saw a church friend who inquired about my bike. I said ” I just don’t bike over 90 degrees.” at least not the cargo bike… It is simply not fun.

    I would much prefer biking in 15-20 degree weather than 90 and overly sunny. My arms are scorched from so much sun. My nose is as well. the helmet feels too hot. I’m all sad. I would gladly wear my tweed helmet and scarf and fur lined hooded coat and boots with gloves anyday.

    • Scott

      You have a tweed helmet? Rad.

      • Vee

        I do, sort of. It’s a yakkay with the Jazz woven cover. I like it far better than my summer sunhat cover that I wear now.

  • http://www.bikinginchattanooga.blogspot.com/ Colleen Carboni

    I just take whatever comes in stride. If I think too much about how miserable this cold/heat is, it takes away from my enjoyment of riding and I might have the thought of forsaking the bike for the car out of misery.

    But it took me years to get to that point. At first I was always evaluating whether if was to cold, too hot, too wet, too humid or too what ever. Now it is a non issue, I just go.

  • Anne

    I prefer the winter or in between winter and summer (not that we see much of that in Chicago). I like being able to wear my work clothes when I ride in. Skorts sound like a good idea, I may have to find some of those!

  • Stuart

    I prefer summer heat to winter cold. I usually make four or more bike trips per day so the task of constantly bundling up that often becomes really, really annoying by March. I like being able to grab my bike and go without putting on a bunch of junk, even if it is 104 like it was today.

  • http://www.mnbicyclecommuter.blogspot.com/ Doug

    I’d pick winter if I had to pick one or the other. I can’t dress light enough for 90 degrees (although 90 only happens a couple times a year here). However, I can dress for anything winter throws at me. Ninety degrees and I’m miserable. Minus 20, bring it on. I love winter.

  • Herzog

    Definitely prefer 90. I just put on my fur hat, gloves, mittens, and wrap a scarf around my face and I’m off!!

    When it’s really hot, I have to wear shorts and flip flops, which really cramp my style. Plus, I get really sweaty “down there.”

    • Herzog

      Just noticed my comment got mangled somehow. I meant to say “Definitely prefer under 30 to over 90.”

  • http://girlsandbicycles.blogspot.com Miss Sarah

    Summer: No jackets, warm nights and empty streets on the way home after drinks, Dougal in the basket, Sandals, can ride variety of bikes, hot helmet-head.

    Winter: Goggles, lined helmet, parka, same boots daily, mountain bike with studded tires, crisp air, quiet streets after snowfall.

  • http://www.sheridesabike.com Karen

    Here in Flag is never gets really sweltering and very little humidity so I like biking in the summer the bests and through the fall. I like the feel of the sun and the breeze through my hair. In the winter, I need a hat and I struggle to keep my hands and feet warm, even with boots and gloves.

  • http://http//woodsmokeandlingonberries.wordpress.com amy

    I’ve biked through 9 of the last 11 winters I lived in here in Alaska and I have to say I much prefer summer. Winter here is, well winter in Alaska. Very cold, I have to wear many layers, my hands go in pogies, the panniers are stuffed full and the heavy bike with studded tires comes out. On the other hand there are less bikers on the road so generally drivers are more polite.

    In the summer I get to wear my work clothes to work on my bike and the light cross bike comes out to play. Hot days for us here are generally in the 80′s and with low humidity that is definitely tolerable.

  • dukiebiddle

    Stepping away from personal preference for a moment, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that more often than not cities that are ahead of the game for transportation cycling are at the very least not hot and quite often cold.

    Completely unscientific longitudinal geographic survey, in relation to cycling as transportation:

    Portland, OR or San Diego, CA?
    Minneapolis, MN or Houston, TX?
    Boston, MA or Atlanta, GA?
    Amsterdam or Barcelona?
    Copenhagen or Naples?

    It isn’t a perfect theory, as there are plenty of *not hot* places where transportation cycling sucks, but it just seems to me that the better cycling cities are all not sweltering.

  • Lanie

    We don’t really have winter in Austin (well, barely), so I guess I’d have to say I prefer the heat? It took me a few years to get used to it, though. And I get tired of putting on sunscreen twice a day. But I usually don’t slow down in the summer- you get sweaty just opening the door and the air moving by my skin cools me off!

  • http://randomrando.blogspot.com Ed L.

    I’ll take freezing over sweltering any day, but like most posting I prefer the days in between the two. 50 degrees and cloudy would be the perfect biking day for me.

  • http://freckleddiaries.typepad.com Catherine

    Interesting point, dukiebiddle. I think that we need to factor in the fact that with a few notable exceptions (New Orleans being one), many of the “hot” American cities didn’t really become developed until the advent of air conditioning, which was after the automobile was common. Those cities, therefore, were modeled on the car and are consequently very bike unfriendly (I’m thinking specifically of Houston and Phoenix here but this could be applied to older “hot” cities including Atlanta).

    Kind of chicken-and-egg in a way though.

  • Sungsu

    Barcelona is not a good example. It has had huge increases in cycling over the past three years, in part due to its bike share system. It placed eighth in Reuters’ top ten cities for cycling list earlier this year.

  • neighbourtease

    Barcelona had a great cycling culture last I was there. And is only occasionally very hot.

    I agree w Catherine about the development of the south wrt a/c and the car. Certainly the older coastal cities of the south are entirely different and well-suited to cycling. Charleston, Savannah, etc.

  • dukiebiddle

    Oh, I agree, and was aware of the post-automobile population boom in the sunbelt when I originally theorized. Still, I cannot think of one sweltering hot cycling city anywhere. There are lots of college cities in the American Southeast too, but you’re not going to find as many students and faculty using bicycles as transportation in them as you’re going to find in New England. Another point to the theory is that motorized cycles (scooters) are far more popular in hot and humid environments: Mediterranean/Indonesia/Philippines/etc.

  • Scott

    The conventional thinking is that it will be more comfortable if it is hotter. The bike rack at my office is completely full if it is 90+ degrees, but mostly empty if it is 60. Makes no sense.

  • dukiebiddle

    I concede: Barcelona was a bad example. Shall I replace it with Seville?

  • dukiebiddle

    But are people cycling in Charleston and Savannah in comparable numbers that you’re going to see in similarly sized gridded old towns in New England?

  • neighbourtease

    I agree with you generally. One sweltering cycling city I can think of off top of head is Beijing, though that is rapidly changing. Also Hanoi, Delhi. Others I have not visited so can’t really theorize about but I imagine they exist. But I think the definition of cycling city is kind of unbearably sad to begin with once you leave Denmark and the Netherlands.

    I think that motorization is intimately related to display of social class in environments where conspicuous conservation has yet to set in.

  • http://www.portlandize.com Dave

    I would list Tokyo as a sweltering hot cycling city – lots of people riding, and in the summer it can often be upwards of 90 F with 90-some percent humidity. We were there in July a couple years ago, and on the bus from the airport into the city, there was water literally running down the sides of the bus, and it wasn’t raining.

  • Scott

    I was in Savannah last fall and saw only one cyclist. It reminded me of my old hometown of St. Augustine FL. The city center may be small and well suited to bikes, but almost all the people live in car suburbs and use the city space to park their cars.

  • dukiebiddle

    Just for comparison sake I looked up Beijing’s and Tokyo’s average summer highs which were both just slightly below Baltimore’s (where I am). Hot and humid in the summer, for sure, but not comparable to the conditions in the true Southeast.

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  • http://www.fullhandsx3.blogspot.com sara

    Gotta say that biking this winter was a whole lot more enjoyable than biking these past couple of days. Ran into a school parent downtown while my little guy & I were climbing on the Xtra. Normally this parent sees me with the twins on our bakfiets so he came over to check out the Xtra & commented that he found us “so inspirational.” I appreciated the comment but wondered if I was just damn crazy today as I was completely soaked by sweat. I rode slowly, slowly, slowly but still….

  • Tinker

    90 degrees sounds like a cold front, in Austin. 99 degrees and 90% humidity is more typical. Early mornings and late night rides are my favorite, sometimes you get eighties then!

  • http://lovelybike.blogspot.com Lovely Bicycle!

    My attitude toward cycling in sweltering heat is actually quite similar to my attitude toward cycling in the winter: I don’t love it, I am uncomfortable… but it still feels better than walking, driving, or public transport! So yes, even in 100F and 20F, cycling is still my preferred mode of transport.

  • http://www.portlandize.com Dave

    Though I would prefer the winter, certain things can help with the weather – for instance, today it hit about 95 degrees, and after a 35 minute ride home in the hot sun, I found my wife waiting with food, cold beer and ice cream :)

    I’m a lucky man :)

  • Doug D

    I never complain about the cold and I have ridden in -50C (also in -30C with kids)
    Sometimes it gets too hot for me…

  • http://booksarebetterthanboys.tumblr.com/ Rebekah

    After making it biking through four Chicago winters (and summers), I have to say that I much prefer cold weather biking.
    It seems that winter bicyclists are more polite and friendly. Get a flat tire when it’s twenty degrees and snowing and the first biker to come by will stop and offer to help.
    I don’t even really mind riding when it gets down to the single digits (or below zero!). As long as I have the right gear I’m fine.

  • http://rosecampion.blogspot.com/ Rose Campion

    having been a car free cyclist for ten years in the Chicago area, I can definitely say I prefer the summer. There’s a joyless misery to winter cycling, it’s just never anything but a slog to work or errands for me. I think I’m a lot more cold sensitive than other people too. I’m cold, pretty much, from October to May. Unless it’s warmer than 75, I’m kind of cold. I wear a jacket/sweater until temps hit 80.

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