Arctic Air Bike Commute…Or Not?

The ride home today was cold, a dry and bitter 15 degrees.  Nothing compared to the cold expected for tomorrow morning, though.  -4 to be exact.  That’s -4 fahrenheit, -20 celsius.

The headline on the Chicago Tribune today:

An arctic cold blast from Siberia will barrel through the Chicago area tonight, driving temperatures below zero for the first time in a year and creating dangerous wind chills that could hit nearly 30 below.

Alright, team – who’s gonna ride their bikes with me tomorrow?  :)

I’m not one for riding to prove anything, but I’m attracted to the idea of pushing the limits with the temperature.  When we had an arctic blast last year, I set out to ride and gave up after less than a mile, as my hands started to hurt unbearably.  I rode directly to the nearest L train stop, locked Oma up and took the train the rest of the way to work.  I blogged about my defeat here.

But I learned from my mistakes and came up with a game plan to avoid that downfall tomorrow.  Pretty simple, actually: lots of layers, a scarf wrapped around my face and, the piece de resistance, hand and foot warmers that I will remove from the package an hour before leaving.  Maybe even two warmers per mitten.  That was my biggest problem last time – I didn’t open my hand warmers until I’d already set out, not knowing that they need time to warm up.  Also, I might ride Betty Foy, since the pavement is bone dry and I could go faster, thereby creating more internal heat and cutting the commute time by 5 minutes or so.  I’ll have a tail wind on the way to work, at least.  The ride is only 5 miles.  I think this will work…

…Or not.  Who knows?  I may wake up in the morning and think, “forget this madness.”  I’m not going to lay my reputation on it.  The wind chill scares me a little bit.  But there’s no shame in trying.  :)  Stay tuned.

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67 thoughts on “Arctic Air Bike Commute…Or Not?

  1. Carolyn I. says:

    The bundled layers does the trick. I think that your idea of using Betty Foy is good too as I found that I kept ‘warm’ as long as I kept pedalling. Mind you, I go up a slight incline to work and that makes me warm. I wrapped my face good with the alpaca scarf that I have, and have hat over head…just my eyes/glasses peaking through. You wearing your safety glasses again?

    Can you double layer your gloves? I know it helps for me. I have a fleece shirt which you put your thumb on the end of the sleeves so that you have no bare arms between gloves/jacket/sweater. Hand warmers are good too of course. I wish I had brought some along when I was snowshoeing recently in -17c, my toes froze and and those would have helped them warm up. It made for an uncomfortable snowshoe as there was no place to warm up while we were out.

    • Mitch says:

      If you double-layer gloves, do you still have the use of your hands? That’s always been a sticking point for me (mittens drive me crazy), so I probably wear less glove than I should.

      I was at a “winter bike fashion show” recently, where several of the participants showed off their “bar mitts,” which enclose the ends of the handlebars and keep the hands warm. You can wear light gloves inside the mitts (or double-gloves if you want), and the ones I got for my daughter have pockets for hand-warmers.

      The people who make bar mitts have a website at: Other companies make similar products, and they have names like bullwinkles, pogies, etc.

  2. Thom says:

    Dottie –
    I think you NEED to do this,
    and I think you CAN do this!
    Get those heaters cooking, layer up like crazy,
    and give it the old Tar-Heel Try!!

  3. Sara says:

    I’m going for it! My strategy is just go-go-go. Pedal as fast as possible when possible and try to catch all the red lights. Good luck!

  4. Dottie says:

    These comments are pumping me up for the ride, as are the overwrought news stories about the weather. :)

  5. The worst windchill I’ve been in was -35F in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I had a hard time doing anything at all outdoors. We were on a cross-country drive; ill-prepared for that level of wind and cold. Nowhere near properly dressed. :) Good luck!

  6. Veronica says:

    As someone who is currently experiencing the Siberian death-ray of freezing cold that you are about to get, might I suggest that you take a day or two off from riding your bike. It is literally so cold that your fingers (lovingly nestled within 3 layers of winter gloves) will ache within a couple minutes of being outside, and if you think about going outside to fetch your mail without putting thermals on then your jeans will start to stick to your leg-skin by the time you make it back inside. The high today was -21°F, the low last night was -38°F. And normally that would be fine and I wouldn’t complain, but it’s the wind that’ll kill you. Even the slightest breeze *hurts*. It’s too cold to snow. This is NOT biking weather, no matter how prepared you think you may be.

  7. Miss Sarah says:

    Haha, I say do it! -20 C is just around my cut off mark. Just a few degrees colder and I usually can’t ride because the chain actually seizes up. But the body isn’t that cold because you’re working so hard. Just the bike may suffer.

    I haven’t been able to bike lately because there is so much snow. The roads are scarcely passable on foot when I am walking Dougal. The plowed main streets are okay but the residential ones are brutal.

    However, I saw my friend Oliver out the other day. He is a very strong rider:)

    Good luck tomorrow!


  8. E A says:

    wind out of the west… so neither with you or against you technically. ;-)
    i may bust out the hand warmers for the first time this season for tomorrow’s ride.
    my first bike winter my rear brakes froze up and i still rode. like miss sarah said – i think the mechanical issues are harder to deal with than the bodily ones. protect all exposed skin surfaces and go.
    let me know if you achieve victory over the weather. :-)

  9. cole says:

    i have been riding in winter for years. i used to ride on days like tomorrow just to prove to myself i could. its just sucks, there is nothing fun about and have you ever had frost bite on you face? it sucks. tomorrow i need to do a lot of running around but its nothing that cant wait till saturday. my advise is if you need to prove to yourself that you can do it then psych yourself up and head out. after the pain comes numbness and its not so bad.

  10. Gina says:

    I’m excited for you Dottie! Best of luck! I would love the chance to ride in such extreme conditions because it would cause me to cut my emotional dependence with cars.

    Then again people in Copenhagen do this sort of thing, in the same conditions or worse, all the time.

    But us Americans are so indoctrinated to *believe* that we are helpless without cars.

    • philippe says:

      Gina, such temperature are an rare occurence in Copenhaguen. It drops below freezing level, but not to -20°C.
      I’ve no experience with bike riding in such a weather. Skiing, yes, biking, not biking.
      Good luck with that !

  11. Sungsu says:

    What, Canadian Arctic air isn’t enough for Chicago? You need to import cold air all the way from Siberia? ;-)

  12. Jenna-Lee says:

    Where I live, in the lovely, but (apparently) hard-to-pronounce land of Saskatchewan, it reached -45 with a wind chill today, and I saw bicycles aplenty pass by the window of the shop where I work! I was inspired (and rather charmed by their seemingly pleasant moods! Smiles on such a cold day? Indeed!). I say if they can do it, you can do it! Hoorah!

  13. Mike says:

    The temperature in Winnipeg has been about -20C or below every day for the past couple of weeks (longer, really, but I was away for the holidays). I’ve ridden in that every day. Earlier this week, it was -33C when I set out with the kids in the bakfiets to take them to school/daycare. In that time, only the tip of my nose got cold one day, when I had it uncovered (-25C is too cold for exposed skin, apparently). However, I’ve got these:

    No chemical hand or foot warmers required (big ugly winter boots keep my toes warm). I wear wind- and water-proof jacket and pants over my other clothes, with long underwear and a light fleece jacket, a balaclava, a Bern ski helmet with no vents, and ski goggles. Light wool gloves are sufficient under the pogies for my hands.

    I was looking at your previous post about winter wear, thinking it sure would be nice to be able to dress that lightly at some point. Of course, my outfit would be a bit different than yours.

    Nothing on the bike has seized up, but I’ve got a horrendous squeal coming from the front rollerbrake (or maybe the hub), because there’s a tiny bit of water in there that freezes into ice and rubs against a rotating metal part. If only there was a bike shop in Winnipeg that stocked Shimano rollerbrake grease…

    • David says:


      I’ve no idea what kind of grease Shimano specs for the pivots in their roller brakes, but the only trick is to find out what kind of grease it is. Then you can get it an an auto parts store, industrial supply store, etc. However, it doesn’t sound like grease is going to do anything for that problem if your understanding is correct.

      • Mike says:

        What I need is this:

        It is not available from an auto parts store. It could be that Shimano is lying to me, and I could use something generic, but I’m not going to take that chance.

        If I’m right, there is a tiny droplet of water/ice somewhere in the brake. What I need to do is clean it out, and the only way to do that is to re-pack it with the appropriate substance, as I understand it. I haven’t opened it up yet, though. I may discover more when I do.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          I special order about 70% of my bicycle components and supplies through my local bike shop. I’ve never been told that they didn’t have access to the products that I needed. Surely your local bike shop has a contract with a Shimano distributor.

          • Mike says:

            Of course they do. But they like to place a small number of large orders, rather than a large number of small orders. Y’know…because they don’t like going out of business. Bicycle parts are not in high demand right now in Winnipeg. Most bike shops here are primarily ski shops right now.

          • dukiebiddle says:

            Yeah, that’s annoying. My old LBS would do that collect a bunch of special orders over the course of several weeks thing, making the customers wait up to a month for special orders. That’s why it’s my old LBS. My new LBS puts in their special orders every Monday and receive them every Tuesday. I don’t think the new LBS is in danger of going out of business anytime soon, which isn’t to say their economics are the same as a bike shop in Winnipeg in winter.

        • David says:

          Ah, I see. Finding out what the composition of the grease is in order to find a suitable substitute is a lot more work than mail-ordering the Shimano-approved stuff!

          • Mike says:

            Also, it is almost certainly not just “grease”. It’s inside a drum brake, so it’s got to act as a lubricant unless it’s under high pressure, at which point that would be bad.

  14. Mike says:

    I should also point out that I can exert quite a bit without going fast. All told, with both kids in it and my weight, the bakfiets is easily over 300 lbs. Also, the longest trip that I have to make (recreational journeys aside) is only 5km, which is quite a bit shorter than your commute, Dottie. The kids only have to go about 3km, so they’re not out in it very long, and they’re well bundled in snowsuits, and enclosed by the canopy. They occasionally get slightly cold fingers or toes, but that’s about it.

  15. Bettina says:

    Good luck!!! I can’t wait to hear about it! The coldest weather I’ve cycled in this year has been about -10°C, and I have to say I didn’t really take any extra precautions other than yet another layer underneath. But I do see how that might change with -20! So… have I mentioned I can’t wait to hear about how it went? ;-)

  16. nicolas says:

    no doubt in my mind that you can do it. whether you should is for you to decide.

  17. Nuresma says:

    Good luck Dottie!
    Keep us reported :)

  18. cycler says:

    I’ll take cold over snow!
    I think the coldest I’ve ever ridden was 3F, Ski gloves and a puffy down coat. My main problem when it gets so cold is my eyes tear up, something I still haven’t solved. I see people with ski goggles, but that seems too extreme for me.

    About 3 inches out there this morning and coming down like crazy- they say we’re on our way to 5 to 8. and then we’re getting your siberian air…

    • dukiebiddle says:

      A tip I picked up from Dottie, which works great for me, is safety glasses like these. Not to say they look awesome, as they clearly do not, but they’re significantly less freakish and less “local news story about winter cycling idiots” -ish than ski goggles. Also, the bright yellow temple arms and DeWALT logo are hidden snugly under my hat.

    • Mike says:

      Ski goggles are very comfortable. They don’t fog up as easily as glasses. They protect eyes from wind and falling snow. With the right filter (lens), they are very effective at reducing glare. The one downside to most goggles is that they limit peripheral vision somewhat, but there are some that are much better than others.

      When it gets really cold, I stop caring how I look.

  19. Liz says:

    You are braver than I am but if desperate enough, I will ride. Keep in mind that if you go faster the wind chill will increase [-10 degrees per mile per hr., I think].

  20. Dottie says:

    I’m heading out now. :) Mr. Dottie did it and texted back victory.

    • Scott says:

      I ran into the Mr outside the Willis Tower last week. Good to hear he is riding in this weather like a champ.

  21. BikeBike says:

    There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices!

    Get out there! Have fun!

  22. cris says:

    -20C is right around our own cutoff … the cold is starting to get painful at that level, but it’s doable if you keep a positive attitude. I remember having it be that cold when I was commuting to work two years ago and I got a flat tire; and had to peel off my gloves to use my metal tire iron. Kept thinking of Flick from a Christmas Story getting his tongue stuck to a metal flag pole.

    didn’t ride in today. Our other cutoff in the middle of a snowstorm is if we can’t see the asphalt on our street then we won’t ride. Plows were keeping up on Tuesday’s storm, but were definitely lagging this morning.

    • Mike says:

      A flat is the one thing I worry about. With the bakfiets, there just isn’t a way to patch it on the road (realistically). I wonder how cold it needs to be before self-vulcanizing patches won’t adhere to tubes? And there’s no way to get the rear wheel off the ground…

      Fortunately, the roads are much cleaner in the winter than in the summer, so I’m less likely to get a flat.

  23. I’m curious, also, because I gave up this morning when I saw 27F on the thermometer. Yes, that’s above zero. I nearly tried, anyway, just because I thought I could, but then realized that all of my base layers, which I just got out of the dryer, were not dry. Ouch.

    Less than 30F, however, actually is bitterly cold down here in Austin. It is a strange, strange year when it gets colder than that. I do not deal well with the cold, but by contrast, I feel fantastic in the heat of summer.

    • Scott says:

      I grew up in Florida, and remember thinking that sub-30 degrees was intolerable. After living in Massachusetts and Chicago, now I like the cold weather better, especially for outdoor activities like riding a bicycle.

  24. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by katelincarter, Let's Go Ride a Bike. Let's Go Ride a Bike said: New post: Arctic Air Bike Commute…Or Not? […]

  25. Lynnety says:

    I’m with you in spirit. I would bundle up with you and ride.

  26. Dave says:

    I remember temperatures like that from when we were in Lithuania – particularly one day when we were in the small town of Anykščiai, and we went for a sleigh ride, and it was about -20C. The horse had icicles hanging from it’s belly. It was gorgeous though, because it was bright and sunny, and everything was glistening brightly because it was coated in ice (the ground, the trees, everything). The biggest problem I had that day were my feet, but I was standing on the ground, which presents more of a problem I’d guess than riding a bike. We had to go huddle in the stable with the horses while other people were out in the sleigh, because we couldn’t stay outside for more than about 15 minutes before our feet started hurting from the cold. But I can see my hands and face getting really cold while riding a bike in temps like that because of the wind created while riding. I’m sure you can do it though. Good luck!

    Here in Portland, I’m not worried about freezing, but rather, drowning. We’ve had several days in the last couple of weeks with minor street flooding (entire road surface covered in water in some spots). Once I get enough daylight to take some photos, and get the roll of film in my camera finished and developed, going to do a post on that one :)

  27. Scott says:

    I rode in the -20 windchills last year without a problem. I have a synthetic north face jacket and ski gloves that keep me warm. The only problem was a tiny bit of frostbite on the tip of my nose after a couple days of riding in the super cold.

    Today I took the train, but there ended up being 20 minutes of walking (counting both ends), while my bike commute is only 30 minutes. On a sunny but brutally cold day like today, I think riding the bike is actually easier.

  28. Coreen says:

    Go Dottie! You can do it!

    It didn’t get above -20C (with sub -30 windchills) for the last couple of weeks here, but I’ve been riding through it (thankfully, the cold snap has finally broken and it’s currently a balmy -8C). Now that I’m not riding bikes with derailleurs, I’m finding that I’m not having any issues with freezing parts, either.

    • Mike says:

      Ooh! It’s only -8C in Edmonton? Now you’ve got me hoping that warm air will make it to Winnipeg soon!

      • Carolyn I. says:

        Warm weather IS coming your way Mike. It was -17c (-25 w winchill) in Prince George on Sunday, but today is is +1! Of course, could or could not be lots of snow. We got dumped 25 cm this weekend, making it hard to bike..I walked for the first part of the week as it was so deep.

  29. cycler says:

    And how was it???
    I’m waiting with bated (frozen) breath!

    That cold is coming our way, which means that the snow isn’t going anywhere for a while, which means I’m not sure I’m biking anywhere for a while. SIGHHHHH
    I walked 3 of the 5 miles home from work last night- was talking to my folks, and just decided to keep walking instead of take the train, it took the edge off the lack of exercise.
    The Scientist and I have a date day planned tomorrow, maybe we should get guest passes at a fancy gym and swim and play basketball and otherwise get some good exercise inside.

  30. Treesounds says:

    Dottie – I think your commute would be considered “short”, no? 3 mi one way? You should have no problems.

    I wear a neophrene face mask.

    However, today I drove. Anyway my bike needs a lot of cleaning from all the winter, been slacking on that.

  31. Eric says:

    The coldest absolute temperature I’ve experience was -47F (in Upstate New York). I didn’t bike that day, but I did go for a hike. As long as you’re dressed for it, it’s survivable…

  32. Iyen says:

    If you cover your face with a scarf, make sure that it’s folded over so that it has four layers, or so. I discovered that if the scarf is too thin, it becomes cold and condenses your breath which then turns into cold ice.

  33. Maureen says:

    Go Dottie Go! WOW, you are an inspiration!

  34. Janet in NorCal says:

    In Aspen, the snowboarders hop off their boards at the end of the day and hop on their bikes. The helmet, goggles, jacket, pants, gloves, boots, etc that keep them warm (and safe) on the mountain do the same for the bike. Do you have some goggles?

  35. Rob says:

    I had a successful 18-mile (round-trip) commute today and yesterday! Well, until I crashed and burned in Bartlett today… time to find some zip-ties and create snow tires. Nothing broken, fortunately.

    The temperatures I wrote down in my log were… 14.8° (F, for you Canadians :-D) and 11.0° going home for Winter BIke To Work Day… -7.0° F (!!!) and 7.0° (actually 2.8° when I got home) today. (I own a digital thermometer, and live in a low part of Carol Stream.)

    I was warm mostly thanks to the balaclava. Unfortunately I also think I caught a cold, but I can’t really blame that on a bike commute.

    • Iyen says:

      Sorry to hear about the crash! Can you describe how it happened?

      • Rob says:

        Well, we recently had that nasty slushstorm that promptly froze over. Bartlett plows their bike paths, but they don’t salt them, so most of my route through Bartlett is iced over. (Unless I take the road, which is salted. The alternative is to share a lane–mostly no shoulders–with traffic going 45 mph, which I’m not entirely comfortable with.)

        My tires can grip rough ice pretty well, especially since I have a relatively heavy bike. Lately, the ice has been melting in the sun, then refreezing overnight. So there’s really slick, smooth ice next to bare patches of asphalt, and some rough ice.

        Fortunately I just tipped over and slid to a stop (I’d be nuts to go much faster than 12 mph in those conditions), so there wasn’t any harm done. But I think I’ll share the road next week, or until all this freakin’ ice melts!

    • Dave says:

      I crashed the other day too, on some wet moss on the sidewalk in front of our apartment, just as we were pulling up coming back from brunch – just turned at too sharp an angle, and the wheels went right out from under me. No injuries at all except my hands were sore for about an hour, but I scuffed up my saddle pretty good. Thankfully I was getting a new one anyway :D

  36. Timoohz says:

    All you people who are afraid of cycling in the ice, snow & cold need to get the proper equipment. If it’s often slippery, you get studded tyres. If it’s cold, you put more clothes on. If that is not enough, the amazing EST will protect you no matter how cold it gets! :-)

    Keeping my face protected without fogging up my glasses is the problem for me when it’s below -30C. Everything else I can wrap up, but I must be able to see where I’m going. Not fast, but going.

  37. Not sure whether it’s just your pictures, but the Lakefront really does have a very special colour scheme. After reading your blog for the past 2 years, I’d recognise those shades of blue anywhere. I never knew that Chicago looked so “arctic” before!

  38. SM says:

    Here’s to hoping you beat the minus frigid temperatures!!

  39. Doug says:

    It took me five years to get the clothing figured out for extreme cold, but now feel like I can dress for anything. I bicycled to work yesterday here in Duluth, Minnesota. It was -21F with a -41F windchill. I overdressed and was a bit too warm.

  40. Step-Through says: Never tried them but when I used to ride a motorcycle I knew a lot of people who swore by them. Good at windblocking, obviously, then layer gloves and mittens underneath.
    Layer everything – 3 hats (two wool, one fleece) build up a ton of heat. Who cares if you can’t get a helmet over them, you have plenty of padding anyway. Every part of your body should have a windblock layer and multiple insulating layers, plus a thin fitted layer closest to your skin. The biggest mistake people make is squeezing those extra layers under their usual stuff…layers only work if they are not compressed, so your outermost layer(s) need to be a size or two larger than your inner layers.

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