Bicycling on the Coldest Day

After whining about winter on Monday, I left my bike at home and took the L train to work two days in a row. That sounds ridiculous in hindsight – two days in a row – but I really needed a short break from winter biking. The trick to enjoying life on two wheels is not to make bicycling feel like an obligation. As such, on the rare occasions when I feel burned out, I back off. By this morning, I was champing at the bit to get back in the saddle (uh, too many mixed horse metaphors?).

Sure, the temperature was the lowest of the year at -6F with -25 wind chills, but after conquering arctic air three weeks ago, I’m no longer intimidated.

Seriously, I simply threw on an extra layer of wool, wrapped a scarf around my face, tucked warming packs in my boots and mittens, and the ride was perfectly fine.  Full outfit: tweed skirt, wool leggings, blouse, wool sweater, puffy down vest, wool socks, snow boots, hat, scarf, mittens, sunglasses. The biggest difference between today and any other Chicago winter day is that my sinuses got really dry.

The feeling of being back on my bike was exhilarating. I felt like myself again. You know how they say absence makes the heart grow fonder? That is certainly the case with me and my bikes, especially when the alternative is a slow and crowded L train (though that’s still way better than driving).

One weird thing about the ride was that my bike felt exaggeratedly slow and heavy, the pedaling like churning rich butter.  By the time I arrived at work, my body was more fatigued than usual.  Talking with Mr. Dottie later, I learned that he had the same experience this morning on his vintage Raleigh.

Does anyone know what would cause this?  I have a few different theories: the arctic wind (doubtful because I’ve experienced stronger – but not as cold – Chicago wind without the same affect); the extreme cold did something weird with our bodies; the extreme cold did something weird with our cranks/gear hubs.  Thoughts?

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86 thoughts on “Bicycling on the Coldest Day

  1. Elisa M says:

    I have yet to ride in THAT cold, but my legs do take a bit longer to warm up on really cold days, so I end up feeling more tired by the end.
    I have heard that grease can get all thick and gummy at those temps, too. Ugh

    You are trooper!

    • Dottie says:

      You are a trooper!

      I’m totally with you on needing longer to warm up when it’s cold out. I’m much slower on any given winter day than on spring or summer days.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Girl Bike Love and Let's Go Ride a Bike, Barb Chamberlain. Barb Chamberlain said: By @letsgorideabike: Bicycling on the Coldest Day http://bit.ly/hizJCk [...]

  3. Iyen says:

    Did you check the pressure in your tires? Perhaps the cold weather could have lowered the pressure in them, and Schwalbe Marathons are extremely slow when under-inflated.

    • Dottie says:

      I haven’t checked my tire pressure. I bet this is playing a big part in the problem. I must sheepishly admit that I check my tire pressure … very rarely. My husband is always bugging me about that. This morning I’ll definitely put some air in before setting off, no matter how cold my fingers get while fiddling with the valve caps and how much of a rush I’m in.

      • Coreen says:

        I was also feeling a little bit sluggish this week, though I had traction like a mountain goat, so I checked my tire pressure: 10psi -oops. The cold will do that.

  4. I believe there’s more to the “cold drag” than grease getting thick. In fact it might not even be possible to feel this effect while spinning the cranks with your hands. And with sealed crank bearings in Dottie’s Oma there isn’t much she can do about it either.

    Other relevant factors:
    – Colder air is denser leading to more wind resistance. On a very cold day even a small breeze can feel like a wall.

    – More clothes mean reduced flexibility, more friction and more wind resistance.

    – Lower temperature reduces the pressure in the tires, something few utility cyclists will bother correcting.

    – Lower temperature increases the hysteresis of the rubber in the tires, meaning that they absorb more energy.

    Individually these are all small influences but collectively they certainly slow you down.

    A sports physiologist could probably also note several reasons why human performance is simply reduced in very cold temperatures. This is not my field of expertise but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear (for example) that mechanisms to keep the body warm reduce blood flow to the extremities in extreme cold or that breathing is influenced to avoid damaging the lungs.

    These days I’m fortunate to rarely have to ride in temperatures far below freezing. Most of the winter it just hovers around the freezing point and drizzles, sleets or lightly snows here in Amsterdam. But I spent much of my life in New York, Vermont and Colorado so I’m no stranger to cold.

    Keep up the great work Dottie; You set a perfect example!

    • Dottie says:

      This is brilliant, Henry, thank you! All of these individual factors certainly add up to a lot. I guess I’ll throw some air in my tires and slog onward.

      As for winters, I think I’d rather have the colder Chicago temps than sleet and drizzle. Then again, maybe not. I do love how nice 30 degrees feels…

      • The Dutch call it “waterkoud” here which is so obvious that it hardly needs translation: Water Cold. Whether it’s better or worse than plain old really cold I can’t say.

        • Jim says:

          Worse, way worse. My personal hysteresis is increased to mirror my dad’s moans and groans.

          First day of spring makes it drop to my child’s level. Giddy!

          Dottie–you don’t even have a wind barrier; are you nuts?

          Jim

      • E A says:

        We may find out next week when it’s supposed to be high 30s/low 40s and rain. :-( I prefer cold and dry.

    • Jonathan R says:

      These factors make a lot of sense, much more so than “grease freezing up.” As far as the physiology, I firmly believe it uses more calories to exercise in colder weather, making the exerciser correspondingly more weary.

  5. That’s fascinating, and I have never cycled in weather that cold. A low of 15F in Boston is the cycling limit for me, thank you!

    On a separate note, the 1st and 3rd photos are like Film Noir, only with bicycles as actors : )

  6. Gaff says:

    The slush on the headlight in photo #3 is excellent. I don’t know 100% why it moves me, but it does.

  7. Thom says:

    I think it’s due to yesterdays Cinnamon Buns.

  8. Sara says:

    I’ve had the same feeling lately, too. Something has been off and I can’t out my finger on it. I like your philosophy of taking a few days off so I may try that.

    And I really love the first photo of Oma.

    • Dottie says:

      You’ve been riding even on days when I’m scared off by the weather. And it’s your first winter bicycling, right? I’m very impressed and you definitely have earned a day off.

  9. Eric says:

    Ive found that an extra pair of tights/ect. can put a lot more strain on the legs, especially if they fit very snug. When outputting the same power, your legs will have greater resistance and in return will yield a slower rate of speed. I think any change in the viscosity of the lube would be very hard to notice while pedaling. More clothing + breathing/dealing with extremely cold temperatures equals a slower average pace from my experiences.

    • Dottie says:

      That makes sense to me. In the morning I wore thin, tight-ish wool leggings over my tights, and I can see how that would make a little difference that would add up over time.

  10. Bill says:

    Most covered it by mentioning the additional clothing. I have found when I ride in Buffalo, NY in the winter time (like today – 14 degrees and 15+mph winds and new studded tires on the Vaya) it always seems like it takes more work to get the same distance compared to warmer temps.

    Keep up the great work either way – Spring is right around the corner (hopefully!)

  11. cycler says:

    brrrrrr!
    Although I’ve got to say I warm up so quickly that I rarely have a problem with cold temps- my toes were a bit chilly this morning, but that’s because I wore thinner socks than normal.
    I did have to stop about halfway to work to take off my coat, remove the blazer I had on under, and put my coat back on, because I had too many layers.

  12. EK says:

    Dottie, what do you do for winter maintenance on your bike? Do you wash the salt off every week or at all? etc…

    Sorry my question is a bit off topic, but in all of your photos, your bike looks fantastic with nary a hint of the nastiness you have to ride through.

    • Dottie says:

      Absolutely nothing! Seriously. I should be ashamed of this. I’m terrible at maintenance. When I had a car, I rarely cleaned or maintained it, and that laziness/lack of interest carries over into my bicycling lifestyle. As much as I love and anthropomorphize my bicycles, I really don’t bother with much upkeep. That’s why it’s so important for me to ride a bike like Oma in the winter, with internal everything, she’s pretty maintenance free. Once or twice a year I bring her into Dutch Bike Chicago for a spruce up.

      • .mk. says:

        the salt in CHI will eat away at your bike over time, esp w/o regular maintenance. it’s not as easy for it to get all over everything with the full fenders, but more than yearly maintenance for a bike ridden all winter could be helpful. shops like rapid transit (north ave) even have pretty reasonable winter tune-up packages just for people like you who ride all year in the salt (they will wash & tune your bike over the course of the winter for a set fee up front).

      • E A says:

        Hey Dottie — I recently set up a stand in my bike room. I’ve been slacking on the winter maintenance too. :-(

  13. K6-III says:

    It’s pretty much down to one component…the grease in your internal gear hub.

    If you have your bike shop do the Shimano Nexus Oil Dip, as this kit allows, it’ll perform noticeably better in cold winter conditions, and it’ll be quite a bit better in the summer as well.

    http://www.slanecycles.com/shimano-nexus-internal-gear-hub-maintenance-oil-dipping-set-p-6636.html?currency=USD&delivery=223

    • Coreen says:

      Thanks! I was going to suggest this. My LBS calls it winterizing the hub, and does it for cheap. It’s considered a necessity amongst winter cyclists who use modern IGH’s in this climate.

      • Timoohz says:

        $120 for a small can of oil and a plastic bucket? How much does the bike shop take?

        • Coreen says:

          You don’t have to buy the kit – they have their own at the shop. They’ll do it for $20 or so.

          • That would be an awesome deal if a shop would open and service a gear hub for $20. It’s not difficult but it is still time-consuming, even more so on a bike with roller brakes, chain case, skirt guards etc. I would consider $30-50 fair for a “bare” bike and $50-75 for a fully dressed bike fair prices.

    • Mike says:

      How is this done? It looks like it would be necessary to dismantle the wheel completely — even to the point of removing the spokes from the hub — in order to dip it in the oil. Or are you just talking about dipping it only once, before the wheel is built?

      • No, once the wheel is out of the bike (a considerable job on the Oma) it’s very simple to remove the hub internals as a unit. This servce is recommended about every 2-3 years for a daily use bike so Workcycles mechanics can practically do it blindfolded.

        More complicated is actually diagnosing and repairing problems within the internals of a multigear hub. We do that too but only our most experienced mechanics really know their way around in there.

        Interestingly Shimano has a tendency to underlubricate their hubs so the bike sometimes feels smoother after the hub is serviced for the first time. A couple commenters alluded to that above.

        • Mike says:

          Ah, I see. Thanks for clearing that up for me, Henry. I haven’t looked into the Nexus hub on my bakfiets much yet (despite the trouble it’s giving me with spontaneous shifting), and I haven’t found a bike shop in Winnipeg that seems to know anything much about internal-gear hubs, so I’m planning to do all that maintenance myself, eventually. Do you happen to know approximately how many times that oil bath can be re-used? I’ll have two of them soon (eagerly anticipating the Omafiets), and I want them to last a long, long time…

          • We use the oil baths in our shops and I assume each can of oil is good for many dozens or even hundreds of dunkings. Keep in mind that the inside of the hub doesn’t normally get dirty and the careful mechanic will first clean a damaged hub before dunking it so the oil shouldn’t be getting very dirty.

            Your spontaneous shifting bakfiets probably just needs to have the cable tension adjusted. There’s a little window with two yellow lines above the hub just to the inside of the right, rear dropout. In fourth gear these two lines should be aligned. Use the barrel adjuster to tighten or loosen the tension as necessary. Also first make sure that the cable housing is properly seated at both ends. If this still doesn’t fix the problem it’s probably because the cable isn’t running smoothly and somebody will need to pull it out to check for dirt, kinks etc.

          • Mike says:

            I wonder if that oil breaks down over time, since I would only use it once or twice per year. Anyway, it sounds worthwhile for me to get some. Tree Fort Bikes seems to have a good price on it at the moment, at least compared to other dealers (~$70 for 1 liter of the oil, ~$20 for the dipping container, which seems unnecessary).

            If you don’t mind, I’ll send you email about the shifting troubles on my bakfiets, since that’s a bit off-topic for this discussion.

            • Mitch says:

              I have an old Raleigh 3-speed, and it’s usually a good winter bike. But once, during an epic cold spell in Madison several years ago, the Sturmey-Archer hub froze somehow between second and third gears — so it was stuck in neutral, and totally unrideable (except downhill). I had to take the bus for a week.

              Eventually the temperature climbed all the way up to 0 degrees F, the hub un-froze, and I started biking again.

            • Dottie says:

              Very interesting.

          • I really doubt the oil will break down within any meaningful period.

            And by all means contact us or the dealer to sort out the shifting problem.

  14. Cherilyn says:

    I tend to see the coldest, snowiest weather as a challenge and get out there just because. Or it could be the middle child in me seeking attention . . .

    So glad you posted this and got such great answers. I’d been wondering about the cold-induced sluggishness of my bike (and me), too.

  15. I have stayed home on our coldest days this year, which have also been our snowiest, but I think those were only in the teens. You are such an inspiration. When the temperature falls below 20 I generally work at home or take the subway.

    I rode to Manhattan yesterday when it was 20 degrees, which isn’t really a problem, hey I even wore vintage Alaia :) but I definitely notice the slow down that you’re talking about and I personally start to notice it when the weather is below freezing but I am a cold wimp of the highest order.

    I find that in the summer I can ride over the Williamsburg bridge in 3rd and 4th gears at what I would consider a pretty decent speed for a 50 lb upright bike + two-year old and assorted cargo, but in the winter, even carrying way less, I am so slow it’s crazy and have to ride in the lowest gear. All in all, the difference in time it takes for me to get where I am going is minimal but the psychological difference is enormous. Man, I love summer.

  16. Milena says:

    It’s been -15/-20 Celsius here in Toronto all week (not including strong windchill) and I have definitely been feeling that. Especially when it’s dark and the wind is against me and I just want to get home. I think it’s partly the effect of the cold on the bike, partly it’s affect on me, and partly psychological, since my face is just so cold and wind-whipped!

  17. .mk. says:

    to me, it sounds like classic fatigue. perhaps it’s a long winter of riding with a bike that needs some help (tire pressure, hub maintenance, etc), but also you riding for many months now in less than ideal weather. the two day break can often make you feel slower too, having broken your bodies normal pattern of riding everyday. tour de france cyclists always ride on their two “off days” during the 21 day event or the next day of racing their legs tend to feel like wood (not strong). so even on their day off, they’ll put in two hours or so.

  18. I have definitely experienced this feeling, and even while walking in the cold, so it’s not necessarily about the bike. I’m very sensitive since I have asthma, but I always notice that it’s harder to move through cold air and the colder it is the worse it is for me.

  19. Holly says:

    My first winter riding in Chicago. too. I’m taking a day off today. Yesterday was too much. I feel I earned it because I rode my bike to do my usual day of work (dog walking.) That keeps me out in it during much of the day. I also rode in the evening, but boy! Was I ever grateful when Julie offered me a ride home last night.

    I know exactly what you mean about that slow, heavy churning butter syndrome. Someone showed me this: http://www.icebike.org/Articles/SlowerWinter.htm

    Here I thought I was just getting old!

    • E A says:

      Ha! I was going to post the link to the Slower In Winter phenomenon, too. :-)

      http://www.icebike.org/Articles/SlowerWinter.htm

      2nd that. And I think this is the reason: “Air Density is greater and impedes your progress through the air”…. though this week when needing to be places by a certain time (esp in the morning) I know I was achieving at or near my summer times… Due to the stop lights… sometimes it’s merely a matter of catching the right timing. :-)

      I’m also experiencing dry and burning sinuses — and the dreaded bloody nose. Yuck. So I have eased up and kicked it into an easier gear and focusing more on spinning than an exertion and trying to resist the heavy breathing.

  20. Timoohz says:

    A lot of good suggestions have been said: the grease, low air pressure etc. What’s not been mentioned is the EST effect.

  21. Scott says:

    I felt the same thing on my Oma yesterday! I thought maybe the rear tire was flat, but it was fine when I checked this morning. Cruising felt normal, but getting started was sluggish.

  22. Mike says:

    I’ve certainly noticed the sluggishness you mentioned. For the past month, it’s felt that way riding a bakfiets in Winnipeg. There’s one thing that I’ve noticed has a big impact: the wind. There have been days when it’s seemed easier pedaling home with two kids in the box than it was on the way to pick them up. The thing is, when it’s that cold, I’m so thoroughly covered that I don’t feel the wind directly, so it just seems like the bike doesn’t want to go.

    It’s good to hear some hypotheses that I hadn’t considered to explain the sluggishness. In my case, I don’t buy the explanation that my muscles and lungs are being affected by the cold. I’m dressed warmly (though not at all stylishly), and can move freely and easily. The air I breathe doesn’t feel cold through my mask, and though I might be getting a bit less oxygen, I’m not at all winded at the end of the ride, so I don’t think that’s a significant factor. Grease, tires, air density, wind — sure.

    Anyway, thanks for writing about this, Dottie. And thanks to Henry for contributing to the discussion. Time to check the tire pressure…

    • Dottie says:

      Love the picture of riding a bakfiets with kids in the winter in Winnepeg. :) I also feel that I’m pretty snug and warm in my winter get-up. But I can see how below zero winds could feel stronger than normal winds.

      • Mike says:

        I don’t really have any way to compare cold versus warm wind. On the day in question, I didn’t even notice that there was wind, because I had no exposed skin at all, and my outfit is basically 100% windproof. It was a straight headwind, so the canopy on the bakfiets wasn’t acting like a sail. I was confounded by the unusually high drag I was feeling until I paid closer attention to things at a stop sign, whereupon the wind because apparent. After I dropped the kids off that day, I felt like I barely needed to pedal on the way home.

        The current warm spell really seems to have loosened things up, so I’m pretty sure grease and/or tires were playing a major role (I never got around to checking tire pressure, but I know they weren’t deforming all that much…)

  23. Danny says:

    I rode in -8 wind chill down 9th ave NYC this year and found that my headset must have had some moisture in it – because it froze.

  24. Charles B says:

    I typed up a comment yesterday, but it doesn’t seem to have made the cut. Anyway, if it’s below zero, the issue may be your lubricants. Simon Rakower, the owner of All Weather Sports (a now-closed bike shop in Fairbanks, Alaska, where temperatures drop to minus-40 and even minus-50, raw temp before wind chill) created a winter bicycling tips page, http://www.allweathersports.com/winter/winter.html, that includes results from his field tests of various bike lubricants in cold weather. Even though this site is several years old, I talked with Simon last night and he said he still uses the same products (he sells his custom-built SnowCat rims through the site). There is a large winter bike commuter community in Fairbanks, even when the temps drop well below zero.

    Charles Bingham
    Alaska Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance

    http://akpedbikealliance.wordpress.com/

  25. Jack says:

    I think you are dealing with the perfect storm, if you will.

    I read a lot of bike blogs and freezing or very cold grease is a common discussion this time of year. Some gents in NYC have had the same issues.

    However I think the physiological issues are valid as well.

    I notice you wear all natural fibers, which are nice, but also bulky and heavy. Perhaps you could find some synthetic/lighter stuff(at a second hand store if that suites you better?)

    Just a thought.

    I loved your opening statement. I often have to tell myself, “I’m not trying to prove anything” when I don’t feel like riding and my guilt sets in.

    Good stuff. Thanks. Ride Safe.

    • Dottie says:

      A perfect storm – that’s a good way to describe it. As for the natural fibers, they’re actually not bulky, especially the modern Smartwool and Ibex. Very light and airy and less constricting than performance materials.

  26. seejenbike says:

    In the winter I have to put air in my tires every other day, otherwise my rides are much more sluggish. Oiling the chain helps too, but if there’s a cold headwind there’s not much you can do but keep pedaling and suffer through it. On those days I reward myself with a cupcake for not giving up. :)

  27. E A says:

    Today felt downright balmy and a woman paying for her street parking while I was unlocking my bike commented to me about the warm weather. :-) It’s 32. Woot!

  28. Megan says:

    I’ve been feeling that way too. When I’ve checked my tires are always low, maybe the cold causes them to deflate faster?

  29. William Knott says:

    Hi,

    I really like your black and white indoor photos at the Ann Sather restaurant.

    Can I ask what camera you used and any other relevant info?

    They have a creamy Leica feel to them.

    Cheers and thanks in advance,

    W.

    • Dottie says:

      Hi William. Thank you. Unfortunately, I don’t have a Leica (yet). I took these photos with a Nikon FM2 and Ilford Delta 400 film, which I developed myself.

  30. Jason says:

    Hi Dottie,
    Looks like you’ve got plenty of comments here relating to the cold. I read up to Henry’s.

    This morning I was reading up on the Shimano tech sheet for the roller brakes that are used on our WorkCycles Oma’s and it directly mentioned cold weather will have a greater drag effect on the grease that is contained in the roller brakes. It also made more clear to me that typical roller brakes aren’t filled with grease, but that this type is. I found that interesting.

    Jason R.

    • Dottie says:

      Thanks for the info. I should probably read the instruction manuals that come with my stuff. :)

    • Gordon L Belyea says:

      I have Shimano roller brakes (BR-IM41-F)on my Batavus Breukelen, and noted the same comment in the tech info about the cold affecting the rolling resistance. What I’ve also noticed is that at quite cold temperatures (5 F and below), the front roller brake squeals. I’m suspecting that the grease is not making it to all the areas of the brake, though Curbside (Toronto) had never heard of such a problem.

  31. Bill says:

    I am glad to see you survived the blizzard. You are such an inspiration to ride in the cold. Mean while I am riding mine on a trainer indoors.

    Bill
    Atlanta, GA

  32. Doug D says:

    I am a little behind with this, but the biggest contributor is the higher density of cold air. Bearings do get stiffer and really stiff bearings will get to a point where you can feel a difference in effort.
    The biggest difference is wind drag, The higher density air and the greater surface area of the rider (more clothes) contribute to being much slower

    There is an article at:

    http://www.icebike.org/Articles/SlowerWinter.htm

    which explains this reasonably well.

    • Mike says:

      Not necessarily. I feel a big difference in effort from warm days to very cold days despite the fact that I move very slowly, with a very heavy bike. Wind resistance is not linearly proportional to relative wind speed, so it’s an overstatement to say that “the biggest difference is wind drag”.

  33. Eye Convergence Insufficiency…

    [...]Bicycling on the Coldest Day « Let's Go Ride a Bike – life on two wheels: simple. stylish. fun.[...]…

  34. Leslie Connally says:

    Does good bottom bracket/hub grease (I use eg Phil Wood Waterproof Grease) thicken at -6° I wonder?? I’ve never had my bike(s) at -6!! It would have to be a walk in freezer down here in TX! (though I hear Tulsa OK got to -10!! – colder than ya’ll!)

  35. cole says:

    yup it was all the grease in your bike getting think, its just not made to be used in such cold weather. i felt it on mine today too.

  36. moose says:

    Grease can certainly thicken/freeze at those temperatures! I most commonly hear of it affecting freewheels, which can completely fail to engage if they freeze.
    (Unfortunately I don’t have any specific recommendations for brands, but the forums at http://www.mplsbikelove.com have discussed this topic before.)
    Congrats on the cold weather rides! We’ve been doing a lot of that here (MN) recently too. :)

  37. Dottie says:

    I’m not sure, but I would think so. I doubt the manufacturers test bike grease to function unaffected in arctic temperatures. : )

    Where I grew up in NC, it would be very rare for the temperature to dip below the ’30s. But I sorta love Chicago winters now that I’m getting used to them. How cold does it get in your part of Texas?

  38. Dottie says:

    I should have mentioned in my post that I saw several other bicyclists out there today. Far fewer than on a normal winter day, but it’s worth noting that quite a few Chicagoans are “crazy” enough to bike in such weather, including you, apparently. :)

    I should not have clicked on your name to visit your website. The picture of the lovely woman in a skirt and tank top with her bike at the farmer’s market is just too much for me to handle in the depths of winter. Too early to start day dreaming about spring!

  39. Dottie says:

    Thanks for the tip – I’ll check that out. I know MN can get much colder than Chicago. You all are an extra hardy group, which your name “moose” perfectly reflects. ;)

  40. Randy says:

    I’m leaning toward the severe cold being a huge factor to your body. From a biological standpoint, the body has to exert a large amount of energy to keep it warm at those temps. Your lungs are also forced to work harder at those temps and it is difficult for them to work properly since the air is so cold and causes the lungs to close a little. You end up with lower oxygen in your blood which causes you to fatigue more rapidly. If you can breathe in through your nose to let your sinuses warm the air before reaching your lungs then it will help. However, that can be difficult when breathing heavy from riding a bike.

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