Sending Unified Messages to Cyclists

Ice Covered Bicycle


There are two basic schools of thought among cyclists. One school of thought sees cycling as something that’s done for health, economic savings and preservation of the environment. The other school of thought sees cycling as nothing more than a part of everyday life.

Under most circumstances, these groups can peacefully coexist because their views are not mutually exclusive. In each school of thought, there is a degree of overlap with the other. At times, problems arise from one group’s insistence that their way of seeing things, and doing things, is the one true way. From such a position comes antagonism, condescension and, occasionally, harm to cyclists who are influenced by the offending group.

One such case has come to light recently in the cycling blogosphere. Several blogs fell into discussion about whether cyclists should dress in cycling attire for riding during the winter. This, of course, was aimed at cyclists who live in colder climates where it’s necessary to protect one’s body from the cold and snow.

Most commercial and professionally oriented bicycling websites advise people to dress in layers for winter cycling, in addition to wearing a hat, gloves, and foot protection — either extra socks or winter cycling booties. Such advice has been followed, for years, by novices and expert cyclists alike.

Recently, the school of thought which advocates for cycling as being nothing more than a part of everyday life, has taken the stance that no special clothing or precautions should be taken in the winter because they’re unnecessary. According to them, cyclists should just wear whatever they would normally wear for the day.

Sometimes, this would be acceptable. When riding short distances, at low speeds, a cyclist is unlikely to become significantly colder than when walking outdoors. And, in heavy populated areas, the risk of getting stranded away from help is virtually non-existent.

However, when riding longer distances at higher speeds, in more rural areas, the degree to which the cold will affect a cyclist changes, and the need to stay warm when off of the bike for prolonged periods of time due to a flat tire, a mechanical failure, or an accident, changes the scenario.

According to experts, when a cyclist is riding faster than 15 MPH, the wind chill created by the movement of the bike is 10 to 15 degrees. So, if the air temperature is 20° F and the cyclist is traveling over 15 MPH, the wind chill factor will make the temperature feel between 10° and 15° F. Most people find it difficult to stay warm when temperatures drop below 20° F.

Since wind chill is caused by the movement of a bicycle, it must be considered when preparing to ride in the cold. Cyclists cannot pretend that riding is exactly the same as going about their normal business in cold weather. According to medical experts:

“Wind removes body heat by carrying away the thin layer of warm air at the surface of your skin. A wind chill factor is important in causing heat loss.”

Further, if a cyclist gets overheated from exertion, and is then forced to stop riding, to address a problem, it’s possible to become very chilled and even suffer from hypothermia  —  a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature.

If the hands, face, and feet aren’t adequately protected, it’s also possible to develop frostbite, a condition which can cause damage to tissues, or chilblains which can damage nerves and small blood vessels, usually in the hands or feet, after prolonged exposure to above-freezing, cold temperatures. So, while there’s nothing wrong with telling cyclists that there’s no need to purchase winter clothing specifically designed for cycling, it’s irresponsible to tell them to just wear everyday clothes, as if there were no difference between the effect that riding a bicycle has on the body, in comparison to walking.

In fact, telling cyclists such things is not only misleading, but it could lead to injury   —  or in extreme cases  —  death. No matter how passionately cyclists feel about their own vision of cycling, it’s unfair to mislead cyclists into taking potentially dangerous risks.

Compromises are possible. Buying clothing specifically designed for cycling is unnecessary. Cyclists should wear whatever will keep them warm enough to prevent discomfort or injury. Making cyclists feel that they’re doing something wrong by not wearing street clothes for winter riding (as some cycling factions do) is unacceptable.

Many clothes are designed for winter activities. They are windproof, well insulated and breathable. Some models are even waterproof.  All of these traits are desirable for bitter cold winter cycling. For cyclists who plan to ride long distances at higher speeds, investing in such clothes is practical and beneficial.

A good winter jacket designed for physical activity can be used for sports, such as skiing, for general outdoor use, and for cycling. Well insulated gloves or mittens can also be used for more than one purpose, as can high tech base layers which provide insulation while wicking away sweat. Hats designed to be worn under a helmet are also more practical than bulkier everyday hats.

Clothing implementing newer technologies will make a cyclist more comfortable and will provide better protection from the elements. So, telling cyclists to forgo these products in favor of street clothes is doing them a disservice.

Of course, for urban riding over short distances, any winter clothes will do. An experienced cyclist may be able to get away with wearing regular clothes, assuming this is done from first-hand knowledge of how their body reacts to the cold when wearing these clothes.

Comprehending the risks of cold weather riding is imperative. With a good understanding of how to layer clothing for maximum warmth, a little bit of forethought, and some trial and error, cyclists should have no trouble riding through the winter months.

But, let’s stop making cyclists feel guilty for preferring to wear sports clothing, or even cycling specific clothing, to address their own personal winter cycling needs.

Cyclists of different persuasions can, and should, learn to respect their differences in style and viewpoint. They’re all cyclists, by virtue of their use of a bicycle, and as such, should focus more on what they have in common than in how they differ. And, most importantly, they should stop arguing over whose way is right and whose way is wrong.

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4 Responses to Sending Unified Messages to Cyclists

  1. Weather Guy says:

    It seems like a red herring to say that people are being made to feel guilty for not wearing regular clothes. I think everyone agrees on what should be worn in the extremes of cycling: as an urban rider (generally, street clothing) and as a long-distance fitness rider (sport clothing in layers). Each person can define where they transition for themselves.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think you may have misread what I wrote. Everyone does not agree on what should be worn in the “extremes of cycling.”

      I was referring to a discussion which recently took place in the cycling blogosphere about whether it’s necessary to wear cycling specific attire for winter cycling. This discussion originated from an article entitled “Overcomplicating Winter Cycling – Why It’s Bad.” The ideas expressed in this article are part of a recurring theme among a certain subset of cyclists who are highly critical of those who choose to wear cycling specific clothing. This article led to a discussion among cyclists on other blogs.

      Here are a few lines from that article:

      “… an entire generation has been given the impression that cycling is something that a few people do for sport or recreation and not much else. People who take their hobby seriously and who invest in all manner of clothes and gear.

      Regular citizens are hardly inspired to join such groups. …

      So. It’s that time of year again. All manner of ‘how to cycle in the winter’ guides are slapped up all over the internet. Year after year the sub-cultures put on their professor hats and look down their nose at the general population while they attempt to ‘teach’ people how to be just like them. You know… real cyclists.”

      Advocates of the view expressed in this article hold similar views about cycling, in general. To them, cycling should be part of everyday life. Many proponents of this view are opposed to helmet use and the use of clothing designed for cycling. And, they are very vocal about this viewpoint — although some of them are open-minded about opposing viewpoints.

      Several blogs responded to the above-mentioned article. Some were in agreement with the author; others expressed the same opinion as you did, namely, that people should wear whatever they they think is appropriate.

      What I was trying to convey in this post was that discouraging people from wearing clothes designed to protect them from the elements, on the pretext that cycling should be part of everyday life, may lead to avoidable injuries. And, no one should ever assume that those who live in cold climates know to dress in layers (which is what the article says). Even here in Massachusetts, where it’s very cold in winter, some people are unfamiliar with this concept, and need to be educated about how to dress to avoid cold-related injuries.

  2. dr2chase says:

    How about, people shouldn’t feel guilty and weird for not riding in “ordinary” clothes, but they also should not feel like they need to spend an arm+leg on clothing that is both winter and bicycle specific, if they’re just riding around town. I’ve spent big bucks on winter gear, and some of it really helped, and some was pointless. Some of it is delightfully functional in a multi-purpose way. We could give people better advice.

    – the anti-frostbite kit is generally useful and not that big a deal (good gloves, ordinary winter boots, a balaclava).

    – wool, really, a good idea in general. Get some you’d be willing to wear off the bike (black merino undershirts, always useful).

    – stuff like Powdershield tights (e.g., from also useful for working in snow, where jeans would get caked in ice and/or slime. Regular stretch polarfleece tights make nice long underwear.

    – a windblock with almost any clothing at all will give you more warm than you need once you start moving.

    – some stuff is specific to the person. Women can’t grow beards (beards, good in the cold). I might want something for my knees, they like the cold less than they used to.

    And yes, this is not quite right for a 50 mile ride on a 20-degree day, but that’s not very many people. I am most conflicted on whether to recommend snow tires or not. Falling on ice sucks, and I know people who’ve done it.

  3. Thehollster says:

    It seems simple enough–those who believe cycling should just be a part of everyday life should simply advise those who go fast and far to dress appropriately for the windchill, or pack an extra layer in case they’re stopped prior to their destination. It doesn’t have to be sport clothing.

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