I received a desperate text message this morning at 7:40 a.m. from a first-year cyclist, and I quote: “Wanky! Toes froze! Bundled up butt but still chill! Help!”
At that very moment I was sitting on the bench at the tarck, enjoying the warm air in the climate-controlled, peaceful, and toasty Home Depot Velodrome as I prepared my first volume of excuses for sitting rather than working out. My first impulse was to tap out a dissertation on proper attire for SoCal winters, but it was so pleasant there on the bench that I just sort of nodded off, even as I imagined all the clever and useful advice I would send to the poor little frozen bike bunny.
Now that I’m finally awake after a brief nap here at the office it seems like a good time to provide a little primer for those who are going through their first cycling winter in the South Bay and environs.
Warming strategies in LA
I see most people fall into the abyss of winter misery by thinking that “it’s going to warm up later” as a justification for starting out with inadequate clothing. By the time the sun rises and warms things up, they are frozen so solid that the entire ride has been miserable beyond belief. Worst case scenarios abound . A common one is that the forecast is wrong (surprise!) and there’s a cloud cover, so you’re forty miles from home, hands and feet completely numb, and it never gets any warmer. Another crap scenario is that a howling wind kicks up, further freezing you to the bone.
The dress for success plan is therefore to dress so that you’re warm for the coldest temperature on offer, and to dress in a way that allows you to strip shit off if and when it does in fact warm up. The winter months rarely get so warm that even if you end up leaving on all your stuff it becomes unbearably hot, whereas rolling out insufficiently clad is a recipe for unmitigated misery of the very worst kind.
Keeping your parts good and hot
1. It gets cold in the South Bay, and all you snickering Mainers and Vermonters can go kiss my ass. The winter average lows for PV in Dec/Jan/Feb/Mar are 46, 47, 48, and 49 degrees. Since virtually all rides north go into Malibu, you have to take their averages into account as well: average lows for the winter months are 38, 39, 41, and 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Please don’t send me the average low for Nome, or Waukegan, or the UP–that you chose a shit place to live is not the issue.
2. If you’re leaving early in the morning or before sunrise, you’ll often be riding in the high 30’s or low 40’s. East Coast denizens will scoff at these temperatures, but they’re no scoffing matter: when you factor into the windchill a riding speed of 15mph on a 40-degree morning, the effective temperature is 23. Here’s a handy dandy chart to give you an idea of how cold it really is out there on “sunny” Southern California winter mornings. After browsing the chart for an explanation of how the wind chill is calculated, you’ll quickly realize what you already knew, which is that meteorologists don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about and can’t agree with each other on anything. You can also tattoo this handy-dandy formula on your leg if you want to convert wind chill using the formula for relative discomfort: T(wc) = 0.0817(3.71V**0.5 + 5.81 -0.25V)(T – 91.4) + 91.4
3. Bottom line is that Novice Cyclist didn’t need no wind chill chart to tell her that her parts was froze. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s in the low 40’s when you start out, regardless of the predicted high, you can be frozen solid by the time the sun warms things up, especially if you’re heading up-canyon into the Santa Monicas.
4. Lube up good. Use warming embrocation. I use Mad Alchemy, and am still waiting for those thankless bastards to reach out and send me a couple of free tubs for all the unpaid whoring I do for their sorry ass product. Rub it on your feet, tops and bottoms, and in between your toes. Rub it in really well. This will go a long way to preventing the onset of the dreaded Froze Toes Syndrome, whereby your pedicular digits turn into miserable lumps of tortured flesh that feel as if they are having to repeatedly listen to 80’s pop songs by Barry Manilow. You can rub it on the back of your neck and shoulders, especially if those areas aren’t too Yeti-like. The huge benefit to embro is that your legs aren’t bound down by tights or leg warmers. You’ll pedal more easily and with less fatigue. Some people believe that cold temperatures damage knee ligaments and tendons, although there’s no scientific research that supports this contention. Bottom line is that if going bare with embro hurts your knees, cover them up.
5. Wear a skullcap. 20% of your body heat is lost through the top of your head. For cyclists, who range from deficient to wholly devoid of brain matter anyway, that amount increases to 50%. Moreover, male cyclists of the Collins/Caron/Smith/Couderc/Glass Hip variety who are missing a head rug dissipate heat even more quickly.
6. Wear shoe covers. I’m amazed at how many people get out in the high 30’s with nothing on their feet except shoes. A cheap pair of cotton covers that go around your shoes will almost always keep your feet warm for the first hour or two while you’re waiting for the sun to heat things up. Heavy duty neoprene booties may be required if you’re a total wuss or if you dislike any significant discomfort when you cycle. Of course, since cycling is pretty much synonymous with discomfort, winter may be the perfect time to sell your junk on Craigslist and call the whole endeavor an expensive, failed experiment.
7. In addition to your undershirt, arm warmers, and jersey, consider a long-sleeved jersey over that and, if you just can’t stand the chill, a form-fitting jacket shell for the outside. Please don’t do like Arkansastraveler and wear a big red inflatable liferaft jacket that fills up with air and is visible from the moon. It creates a great draft for whomever’s behind you, but it flaffles and baffles and whiffles and biffles, it looks like you got tangled up with a spinnaker on your way out the door, and it is a hazard on windy days as you’re liable to catch a lee wind and be carried out to sea.
8. Ask around before you invest in gloves. Cycling gloves are notoriously overpriced and shitty. I finally found a pair of Fox MTB long-fingered gloves that work great. They’re thin but warm and are good for anything but the extremely cold temperatures you’ll come across at a high altitude, early season race like Boulevard. It’s better to put on a thin pair of cotton or wool glove liners underneath another light glove rather than bundling up with giant bearclaw mitts that you would otherwise use to wield an axe or wrestle alligators. The closer your fingers are to the brakes and shifters, the better, and huge thick gloves should be avoided unless you’re a total wimp who likes to crash.
9. Develop a thick skin. All your tough-ass friends in Colorado, Wyoming, and Maine will brag about how wimpy our winters are and how 40 degrees is a “heat wave.” Keep in mind they’re saying that from the comfort of their indoor trainer in the basement, parked next to the furnace. 38 degrees with a 15-20 degree wind chill is cold anywhere, for anyone. Also keep in mind that their adaptation to miserable weather, sleet, snow, mud, and subzero riding conditions is how they rationalize the fact that where they live sucks, and where we live doesn’t. If that’s too much to remember, just practice saying, “Fuck you” until they go away.
10. Stop being a candyass. In order to enjoy cycling, it’s not necessary to enjoy being miserable, but it certainly helps. What is necessary is to accept that you’re outdoors and that the outdoors don’t really give a fuck if you’re cozy or not. No matter how you prepare, there will always be some element of approximation that either leaves you too cold or too hot. Quit whining; it’s not going to kill you or even give you frostbite. Didn’t Stuart O’Grady come up with a cute little acronym once upon a time? HTFU, maybe?