Commuting in the Cold. Will I Survive or Freeze?
Author: BEN PARKE
Winter has arrived in Minnesota, and that means cold temps. We’ve had a pretty mild winter so far, especially compared to last year, but this weekend we had a big drop in temperature. One morning a week I have an early commute. It just so happens that morning coincided with the coldest day of the winter so far. The air temp was above zero Fahrenheit, but the wind chill was -8 Fahrenheit, a very brisk -21C for those of you that speak Celsius. I will freely admit that is cold. Very cold. While my car is finally running again, I felt in the name of science it was necessary to see what it would be like to ride the Bülk when it’s this cold.
I opted to wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt today along with warm wool socks, thin gloves, and my winter cycling shoes. Naturally I carry windproof pants, a warm coat with hat and warmer gloves should I need to stop and get out for any extended period of time. I also have my phone on me for an emergency. My commute passes through mostly commercial areas meaning a warm place to wait is generally close at hand. Another important safety point is double-glazed windows to reduce or prevent fogging. I have the FogCity visor insert and just double-glazed my side windows DIY style this weekend.
The first three or four minutes are always the coldest. This is where having a heated garage would be nice (it’s on my to-do list). Once I’ve been pedaling, especially uphill, things warm up inside pretty quickly. I’ve had a few cold rides now and have noticed a big difference in interior warmth with the closed footwells of the Bülk compared to the taped shut footwells of my Quest XS. This is a game-changer for keeping your feet from freezing, even with insulated shoes. The hood does a great job of keeping the warm air in and the cold air out as well. With this cold of temps, I ride with the NACA duct closed. I find a cold breeze buffeting your face at these temps unpleasant.
I have read that double-glazed windows and the FogCity insert are only effective down to single digits. I can confirm that is true. My side windows remained clear enough to see out of, but the FogCity insert did get a heavy visit from Jack Frost. I could still more or less see out, but I did end up opening the visor enough to see out underneath it. Unfortunately I didn’t think to bring glasses so my eyeballs did get kind of cold.
The ride in is largely uphill with a short 9% grade at the end. By the time I reached that hill, I was sufficiently warm enough to open the hood. Note the amount of steam coming out while I’m riding. Even at the top of Bush Lake Rd while sitting at the stop light steam was coming out the visor while I had it open.
As far as rider comfort, despite it being incredibly cold and the fogging issue, I was very warm and comfortable while riding, much more so than last winter with my Quest XS. The closed footwells have a considerable impact on reducing cold air intrusion. Even the hole for the headlight does not seem to be letting cold air in. The velcro strip to cover the vent for the air intake from the nose works great as well and the NACA duct when closed keeps cold air off your face. I would recommend bringing glasses with you if you need to crack the visor in the event it fogs over.
The final aspect is speed. Cold air is denser than warm air. Rolling resistance also increases in the cold. Up to about the freezing point, 32F or 0C, the impact of the cold is not too dramatic, but the moment you cross that freezing point, things really slow down. I’ve been averaging 16-18 mph on my commute. While that’s not especially fast, keep in mind that the ride in involves around 300 ft of elevation gain in 4.5 miles, has 10 stop signs, and 10 stop lights. On the way in I usually average 15.5 mph. The ride home is usually over 20 mph average. Yesterday was 18 F with a wind chill of -1. I averaged 14.7 mph. Today that dropped to 14.1 mph. Normally my early morning commute is slower anyway because my legs aren’t fully awake and fueled.
Now, I’m not in any hurry with my commute. I enjoy riding and I don’t mind a couple extra minutes of exercise. My view is that winter riding is great training and will make me stronger for next summer. It can be a little disappointing to be so much slower when you’re used to zipping along and it certainly makes pedaling more work, but exercise is good. If I were trying to get somewhere on a schedule in the winter or had a longer commute, adding e-assist to a velomobile would be worth considering. As I get older, that is an option I’ll keep on the table.
The ride was much more pleasant than anticipated. In fact, I didn’t even really suffer. It’s great to know that it’s entirely possible to comfortably commute with my Bülk when it’s bitterly cold. I will leave you with one tip though: bring a dry shirt. It’s not much fun to sit through an hour of work in a cold damp shirt.