Wednesday, February 23, 2011

First vs Second Winter of Cycling

With my second winter of cycling drawing to an end, I am thinking about the differences between this year's and last year's experiences. I am certainly a better cyclist this time around, and I've also gone through a great deal of trial and error as far as what works and what does not. Here are some notes comparing this winter to the last:

Choosing the right bike for winter
Before last winter began, it seemed that everyone around me was saying that I needed a "winter bike" - a "beater" type mountain bike. I considered it, but ultimately stuck with my Pashley and it worked perfectly well - as did my vintage Gazelle this winter. After my two winters' worth of experience in the snow and salt, I would say that my ideal "winter bike" is one with a chaincase, an internally geared hub, drum brakes, and stable handling. After seeing others struggle with frozen and rusted derailleurs, I would not ride a derailleur bike for transportation in the winter. After getting snow stuck under the calipers on one of my bikes and being unable to stop while going downhill, I will also never ride a rim brakes-only bike in winter.

Road conditions
Last year the amount of snow we had was typical for Boston: It snowed regularly, but not overwhelmingly, and the roads were mostly kept clear by the plows. My classic upright bike with its regular tires was just fine under those conditions, and I did not feel the need for studded tires. This winter, I admit it: Had I gotten studded tires from the start, life would have been easier. But who could have predicted that we would have one crazy blizzard after another this time around? It's too late now, but next winter I might buy studded tires and keep them around just in case.

Temperature control
Last winter this was a huge problem for me - my biggest problem in fact. I just could not get the layering right and would constantly feel either too hot or too cold. This winter I embraced wool, and these problems disappeared. I am converted to such an extent, that I have now sold or given away most of my non-wool clothing, and wear a combination of stuff I've knitted myself and stuff I've bought from technical wool brands like Icebreaker, I/O Bio, Ibex and Smartwool (I plan to write a comparative review of different items from these brands soon).

Recreational cycling
Last winter, I hung up my "sporty bike" (at the time my vintage mixte) in early November and did not retrieve it again until April. This winter I rode recreationally all through November and part of December, and managed to go on a couple of winter rides even after it began to snow. I also got a trainer and began to "cycle" indoors when it became apparent that this winter would me much worse than the last.

Adjusting expectations
If you live in an area with harsh winters, the simple fact is that you will likely cycle less during the winter season - no mater how tough you are. Though mentally I was aware of that last winter, I was not prepared for it emotionally and found myself in a constant state of frustration as a result. Despite this winter being much worse than the last one, I knew what to expect this time around and it was much easier to take. I still cycle for transportation, but my traveling radius has decreased. I also walk a lot, take public transportation, and spend more time working on projects indoors. That's just how it's going to be until (I expect) mid-March or so, and I have adjusted my expectations accordingly.

I know that many of my readers took up transportation cycling around the same time as I did, and are now going through their second winter as well. Have you noticed any differences? lessons learned that you could share with others? And for those who have been cycling for longer, does it get easier with each winter, or are there ups and downs depending on the year?

35 comments:

  1. I have been biking now for six years. Four years in a climate where it snowed for four days, melted for two, was complete dry for there or four days and then would snow all over again. This would go on for the whole winter. Now I am in a climate where the snow comes and comes and comes (there is a lot of it) and it gets cold. I have used the same bike in both conditions and found that there are big differences but also a lot of similarities. I think winter biking does differ based on the winter conditions, but I believe it has more to do with whether or not you love biking or just like it and have chosen to commute and the bike was a good idea. The more you love biking, the better your experience will be in winter conditions. The less you love biking the harder it will be. More experience as with anything is always better. I find I am quite comfortable now during winter and can bike in colder weather than I thought I could. I agree with you that I would never consider biking on a bike that didn't have and internal hub or enclosed brake system, like coaster brakes or the like.

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  2. Really good advice! This winter sure was a rough one. I think that any cyclist who made it through this year should count it as several winters' worth of experience.
    For me, after a decade of winter cycling, it's less of a struggle to ride every day because it has become so routine(and I have, so far ridden to work 5-6 days a week, though there were a few days where it was only part way and I hopped on a train).
    What's made it bearable for me?
    -having 2 studded tires (previously, I only had one on the front or none)
    -wool - so true about the wool
    -having a choice of 2 winter bikes - one with an internally geared hub and the other a single speed/coaster brake. Variety, and no derailleurs!
    -embracing the challenge, because in winter, every ride poses new challenges, and then celebrating each milestone.

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  3. This winter I embraced wool, and these problems disappeared. I am converted to such an extent, that I have now sold or given away most of my non-wool clothing...

    Once you go wool you can't go back! ;-)

    Don't worry Velouria, the snow will melt. (At least that's what I told myself at the end of every Connecticut February I've ever experienced, which was a lot!)

    And the ultimate irony: here in Portland we're under a "Winter Storm Warning." They're predicting a few inches of snow after a month of spring-like conditions. And a couple inches is all it takes for this city to shut down...

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  4. After seeing others struggle with frozen and rusted derailleurs, I would not ride a derailleur bike for transportation in the winter.

    Really? I've been riding at least 4 out of 5 weekdays this winter, and I haven't seen this once. Where are you seeing people with frozen derailleurs? I've seen some rusty chains out there (as I have seen in summer, as well), but I haven't seen anyone mucking around with a stuck derailleur.

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  5. I'm fortunate that we don't have particularly harsh winters. Last year, the coldest it got overnight was about 1℃. I do expect, though, that it will get quite wet now that we seem to have kicked the drought.

    Our main issue is the hot summers. We only had one day this year that got up to 40℃ (104℉), though this year we had a week of humidity hovering around 90%. You really don't want to be cycling in either of those.

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  6. This is kind of my third winter of having a bike. The first I didn't bike at all. Was not ready to family bike and got depressed and bought the Sorte at the beginning of march and then biked all though to warmth.

    Last winter I did well. The snow is my big issue. I rode on the halfway a lot through winter and I was just thinking that last year presidents day I spent the weekend riding around town. It was cold and sunny and perfect. This winter due to snow I haven't biked since mid dec. On the warmer days recently it just didn't work- ( too far to go, could only bike with sorte and the thaw didn't melt enough yet) So I'm grumpy this year and hoping that next year is more like last year in temp and snow.

    yay march is next week!

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  7. I live and ride in England and while we don't get anything like the snows you get in boston - I'm on the south coast, in Sussex - cycling in winter is a very different experience to that of summer. I ride about 30 miles a day, for pleasure, since i work from home and have no need to commute, and do my rides from 4:30-6:30am meaning in winter I ride on dark,, unlit country lanes, in freezing mists, occasional snow, patchy black ice, much drizzle and rain and temperatures down to about 18F.

    i seldom miss a day. I just deal with it. i ride my expedition tourer in winter - 26" wheels, 40mm Schwalbe marathon-plusses, drop bars, derailleurs and canti brakes, and with this bike, in the conditions described above i have no trouble whatsoever. For lighting i use a Lupine Betty rechargeable light that throws out a lot of lumens - I need them on those inky black mediaeval lanes in the Sussex weald.

    I use sportswool and thermal bib tights and Assos winter gloves, and keep a spare of cycling shoes one size larger than normal to accommodate heavy woolen socks. I am out for over twio hours and have no troubles with cold.

    I love being out on my bike and am happy riding all through the winter, have for years and no doubt will continue to do so.

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  8. I'm in my second year of bike ownership and second winter. Last year I only did 117 miles during December through February. This year (with 5 days to go) I've done 202. And like you, we've had a harsher winter this year. So I'm feeling pretty good. Didn't make any changes to the bike, but I've found I can dress warmly enough to get out in temps down to 11 degrees. BTW, I do have rim brakes and derailleurs, but haven't had any problems yet. I've been very anal about washing the bike and oiling parts.

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  9. This winter was definitely the hardest for me so far (I've been riding year round for many years). This is because it is my second year with a long commute (12.5 miles each way) and because the weather has been pretty harsh here in Pittsburgh.
    I got winter cycling boots this year, which I thought would make a huge difference in my ability to tolerate cold, and perhaps they did, but the cold weather (I cycle down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit) left my toes quite numb at the end of the ride. The Toasti-Toes foot warmers do work, but are too expensive for regular use. I have not yet found a satisfactory solution.
    My other clothing is the result of experimenting over the years: Merino wool base layer tops worn with or without a silk under layer depending on how cold it is, an assortment of gloves from uninsulated to lobster claws, insulated tights, Merino wool socks with a silk base layer sock on cold days, and a balaclava or headband.
    I have also had to deal regularly with maintenance issues, especially around derailleurs and brakes. This is mostly just a matter of keeping things lubricated, but sometimes requires cable adjustment. Winter is hard on bikes.
    The route I take avoid cars for the most part. I have not noticed much difference in driver behavior between cold and warm weather.
    I find that I get a hell of a lot of respect at work for biking in the winter. That plus the exercise plus the daily experience of being in the weather (and seeing the sun rise each morning) plus being able to eat whatever I want makes it worth it.

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  10. I'm in Washington State and our Winters are pretty mild by contrast. But, we certainly have our very cold days and lots of moisture. I too have gone to wool, and I finally have overcome my biggest obstacle: fear of being too cold at the start of my ride. Once I started layering for how I'll feel after 10k or so, everything got better. I now enjoy the coolness of being just about warm enough much more than the overheatedness of dressing warm enough for the start. Even if I peel layers off, I seem not to be able to get it right as well as when I "underdress" for the start.

    Intellectually I've always known this, but it just took me a while to trust my body. Love that wool, though.

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  11. I like fleece. It breathes well. But that's only when it's dry. When it's wet, I use thin Goretex. Biggest difference now from my first winter? If I don't ride to work, I don't feel guilty, I don't regret it and I get back on the bike first opportunity. Maturing as a cyclist is just growing in responsibility for my continued activity, discerning the kind of herd of bikes best suit me here, and learning how to best take care of them.
    Your blog helps with all of those. Thank you.

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  12. somervillain - But do you not have an indoor garage space where to store your bike while at work? People who have to leave their bikes locked up outdoors for the duration of a workday often have derailleur problems on days with freezing temps. A friend who rode a mixte roadbike told me that she left her bike outside her work overnight after that happened, but of course the next morning it was even worse. So the bike ended up just staying there for two weeks. I think that explains why there are so many bikes buried in snowbanks in Cambridge this winter.

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  13. I just got a new wool t-shirt from Joneswares, really nice and I hate to take it off. They make some real nice wool cycling cloths, made in USA too. SO check them out.

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  14. adventure! said...
    "And the ultimate irony: here in Portland we're under a "Winter Storm Warning." They're predicting a few inches of snow after a month of spring-like conditions. And a couple inches is all it takes for this city to shut down..."


    payback time : ))

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  15. But do you not have an indoor garage space where to store your bike while at work? People who have to leave their bikes locked up outdoors for the duration of a workday often have derailleur problems on days with freezing temps.

    Nope, no indoor garage space, just covered. And, my winter bike is left on my porch when it's not locked at work. So, it's never in a closed-in space. I just make sure the bike has a new chain at the beginning of the season, and well-oiled derailleurs. I've never had a problem. In fact, the only problem I ever had with freezing temps is cables freezing up (which can happen on any bike), and this was before I did my own work and made sure the cables were new and of high quality.

    But I do agree that an IGH bike with chaincase would be most desirable in messy winter conditions. But the only bike that I have with those features is my DL1, and there's no reason to subject what I consider to be a parade-bike to the corrosive effects of winter. Since I happen to have a derailleur bike that I really don't care for, but keep in excellent mechanical shape, it does the job just fine.

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  16. Velouria-- Yeah, I guess! ;-)
    But I'll take 2 days of snow over 2 months, fer shure!

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  17. Anon 3:17 - That sounds fantastic. I too work largely from home and would love to implement a daily 4:30-6:30am ride into my schedule. And I am still kicking myself that I was not interested in bikes when I lived in England. The area where I lived was cycling heaven and many of my friends cycled, but alas not me!

    Jon Webb said...
    "...I find that I get a hell of a lot of respect at work for biking in the winter. "


    Almost every time I've been out on my bike since mid-December, I've gotten "wow" types of comments about it, including just earlier today when exiting the grocery store!

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  18. The kind of snow I sometimes ride in, the entire rim is covered in ice, several inches of external spoke length are covered in dense ice/snow mixture, there is snow and salt and crap all over the IGH and icicles are hanging off the bottom runs of the bike.

    In those conditions my shifting and braking both feel the same as they do in the summer, since the entire system is enclosed.

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  19. somervillain said...
    "Since I happen to have a derailleur bike that I really don't care for, but keep in excellent mechanical shape, it does the job just fine."


    While I understand that point of view, I don't like riding bikes that I don't care for. If I ride it daily for transportation, I want to love it. The only bike with a derailleur I have at the moment that is suitable for winter cycling is my custom built mixte, and I do not want to subject it to salt and snow. I did ride it a couple of days ago for the first time since early December - but carefully, and still felt guilty afterward!

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  20. This is my fourth year of winter cycling, though only the second I've experienced in Minnesota. Winter cycling in Nottingham was much easier (and warmer) and the biggest issue to contend with was the occasional snowfall or freezing rain.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions reached about wool, it is one of the best clothing options. Here the winters are very, very dry and sunny so the biggest issue is the wind which seems to go right through anything. Also, when the wind chill drops below -10, it really isn't a good idea to be breathing the air directly.

    Just this past week I took the DL-1 out to the store as the roads were completely clear and the temperature was right around 18 degrees. Unfortunately, the very next day we got another foot of snow, so I'm stuck indoors again.

    The biggest culprit when it comes to bike damage around here is probably the grit sand and salt. However, it keeps the roads clear and allows me to ride my winter [in]appropriate bicycles around town.

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  21. I've probably been riding in around Boston for about 12 years now. In the first few years, while I never specifically stopped cycling in the winter, I had definitely cut back. I had a coworker who commuted on a Cannondale road bike year round and would ride it through the occasional blizzard. She was the primary impetus for me to man up and get serious about winter cycling. Like, if she could show up at work on her Cannondale with its skinny tires and no fenders, what was my excuse?

    Over time, I got more comfortable with the cold; and also acquired additional gear. When I started, I was a very typical urban newbie, with my hybrid Trek 720, riding in jeans and a big jacket and sweater. I always rode derailleur bikes back then and always left them locked outside because I lived in apartments with no bike storage. I never had to deal with frozen derailleurs, but it was still hell for maintenance. I'd start learning about layering and would buy running tops and long johns; but technical wool didn't really exist then or wasn't as easy to acquire, so my winter wardrobe was mostly centered around fleece and various flavors of polypropelene. In 2003, a friend and I rode around New York, as part of a Critical Mass contingent for the Feb 15 antiwar protests. My God, that was a cold day.

    I bought fenders for the first time when I switched to the Trek 520 in late '03. I also started doing a 13.5 mile round trip commute, and I had committed to being a year round commuter and not letting the seasons affect when I ride. I learned to distrust bike paths in the winter. I really learned the value of windblocking layers and good gloves.

    I started doing brevets in '06 and that became an impetus to do long recreational rides in late winter. I bought my first Ibex wool jersey in fall of '07 and slowly added to that collection. In '08, I switched to a company in downtown Boston and cut my commute in half. I stopped driving my car in the city. Later that year, a friend loaned me my first fixed gear. After a year, I gave it back and built my own specifically for winter. In 2010, I rode through four snowstorms.

    Over the last few years, with the exception of some brutal days, the winter has not affected how much transportational cycling we do or where we run our errands. We still commute. We still hangout in the same places or at friends' parties. Honestly, yes, there may be certain evenings where I have a wretched commute home and I don't fancy the notion of taking a shower, getting changed into social clothes and going back out again ... but usually a bit of dinner and a warm cup of tea will change that mood.

    Recreational, countryside stuff definitely takes a hit, but it's usually because we're skiing or snowshoeing instead :) We don't suffer from the sort of cabin fever that some folks go through, but I think that's because we've built up a decent level of experience and comfort with being on the road. That just takes time.

    It does get easier. The steady acquisition of gear and figuring out what works for you helps. Recognizing winter as its own season with its own adjustments and opportunities is important. I like riding in winter because it means that I get to wear wool and fancy long coats and kickass boots to work. When the cold makes the light outside so beautifully clear and the air so delightfully crisp, why spend it indoors?

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  22. MFarrington said...
    "I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions reached about wool, it is one of the best clothing options. Here the winters are very, very dry and sunny so the biggest issue is the wind which seems to go right through anything."


    My formula is wool jersey baselayer + densely knit merino sweater + wool coat. The ones I own are virtually windproof, unbelievable!

    cris - Wow, thanks for that write-up. I am impressed to know that you have been commuting in the Boston area for that long. Up until a few years ago it couldn't have been easy!

    I agree entirely about distrusting bike lanes in winter. Even now that the snow has mostly been cleared from them, they are strewn with debris, gravel from broken asphalt, and who knows what else. I was trying to ride along Somerville Ave and then Beacon today and it was terrible; gave up on the bike lanes and cycled on the road again.

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  23. MamaVee - For me, the snowstorms have made Newton extremely difficult to cycle in because the unplowed snow at the edges of the roads eliminated the shoulder. Thankfully, most of the snow is now melted. I'm curious if you share my frustration.

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  24. Snow, ice?
    That's the white stuff in my calendar pictures of Vermont, right?
    It's 80 and humid in Texas today.

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  25. thanks, V, while I agree that Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have had great progress, and I welcome that progress I don't necessarily think about riding in the late 90s or early 2000s as particularly hard or exceptional. I started riding because it was faster and easier than taking public transportation, and cheaper than driving. I didn't necessarily need bike lanes or infrastructure, but I realize that I probably have a different risk\reward equilibrium than some others. silentq and I spent the last couple of days watching an adventure sports film festival in Arlington and it sort of illustrated that we all have different tolerances or strategies for exposing ourselves to risk or danger. As you can see from my history, my evolution as a cyclist was rather gradual and I was taking smaller steps than you are from year to year. It was just a matter of getting accustomed to the hazards and being comfortable with them.

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  26. I think it gets easier. I have been riding through winter for 3 or 4 years. I got a designated winter bike this year, and sold my trainer. I now ride as much in winter as any other time of year (admittedly fewer miles, though, since my winter bike is heavier and slower than my road bikes).

    I should buy stock in Ibex. My entire cedar chest is stuffed with it. It's great stuff.

    Red

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  27. Iyen, yes I do share your frustration! I haven't even attempted as the few times I had time to go alone were night time and while I have lights I just felt that mashing up hill in the dark on narrow roads was simply not smart.

    But it's getting better! Now the potholes need fixing!

    and...iyen- keep an eye out- I'm going to organize a Newton bike to brunch event soon!!!

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  28. "...I should buy stock in Ibex. My entire cedar chest is stuffed with it. It's great stuff."

    Cedar chest! I want one : )

    I like Ibex better than Smartwool and equally well as Icebreaker.

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  29. I've ridden a bike here in NYC for around six or seven years, but never rode in the winter until I got a real utility bike in 2009. I stopped riding during my pregnancy (I won't stop for the next one!) and when my son was a newborn and during that time they made me lots of protected bike lanes. Oh hey thanks!

    Last winter was a lot easier than this one, despite my bicycle not being as good for me, because it snowed much less and I could ride almost everyday. This year I barely went out on a bike between Christmas and the end of January. It's really nice to have returned to normal.

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  30. "when my son was a newborn and during that time they made me lots of protected bike lanes. Oh hey thanks! "

    : )) don't you love it when that happens

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  31. Hey, winter isn't over yet, but one can hope. Just getting snow now on the west coast, although not much where I live. The snow falls and melts, but I've enjoyed the cold. I've already heard red winged black birds so I hope they are okay in this chill.
    I've ridden year round for years, but the rediscovery of wool a few years ago really improved things. I've considered replacing my wardrobe with wool too, but I have too many clothes. I'd like to replace all my long sleeved tops with wool ones if I can find all the colours I want. As it is I only wear my wool tops except for cotton or bamboo tops as a layer. Silk and wool! merino wool panties are sooo nice. Last summer I would always grab my icebreaker tshirts instead of cotton, always had a wool sweater on hand for biking in the wind, after swimming, cool mornings and evenings. I also have some lovely icebreaker and ibex dresses that are classy, warm, cool, and meant for cycling. I find icebreaker to be the best quality.
    I hunt for wool at thrift stores and charity shops. Years ago it was easy to find good quality wool, now even on the second hand stream wool is scarce. I have bought some beautiful wool skirts and pants simply for the fabric because one cannot buy wool fabric like that anymore, or to buy a new 100% wool item would cost alot. I will turn them into skirts, pants and knickers that are cycling friendly.
    My latest discovery is leather. I would NEVER wear leather, but needed a pair of warm gloves because my mittens would always slip around on my handlebars or I wouldn't be able to grip hard enough on the brakes. So, leather gloves with cashmere linings were a miracle. Leather blocks out wind. It's been to cold to go out in just my new but old leather jacket to discover how it is for biking.

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  32. somervillain said:

    >the only problem I ever had with freezing
    >temps is cables freezing up
    >(which can happen on any bike)

    I used a Sturmey Archer S2c hub this winter
    which helped with that problem. Two gears
    and a coaster brake without cables:

    Sturmey Archer website:

    http://bit.ly/96GAdM

    my review:

    http://bit.ly/fjAzMT
    http://bit.ly/fFsyhV

    John I

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  33. Hiya,

    Have you seen these:

    Kitted Handlebar Mitts -
    http://road.cc/content/review/14056-lowie-merino-handlebar-covers

    ideal for a home knitting project

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  34. My best set-up for winter is a beat up MTB frame converted to single speed with a coaster brake, straigh bars with extensions, handmade aluminium mud guard and a B.17 Standard saddle because leather doesn't freeze and it's soooo comfortable.
    It works very well even at -30°C, a bit of lube on the chain once a month and air in tires, that's all it needs till the big overhaul each spring.

    I hope you liked my testimony. ,:-)

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  35. this winter I learned to love my leather coat, low hip length. It kept out the wind and most of the rain. When it was really, really cold I wore an old London Fog with the fuzzy fake fur lining and it did great. Finding comfortable biking shoes was hard. My winter snow boots were giant clunkers, so I wore black leather tennis shoes (the kind for waitresses and nurses) and when it was really cold I put a plastic bread bag on over my socks to keep out the wind. (learned that trick living in northern Indiana as a kid)

    Scarves are your friend. Everyone in the Netherlands wears them and I figured out why. Once your neck gets cold, its all down hill from there.

    My favorite winter bike is still my 26" Union vouwfiets folder. The pedals clear the ground at about 5 inches-- incredibly low, but if I start to slip I don't fall far. She's a 3 speed petal brake with front calipers.

    The worst problem I had this year was my 3 speed shifter getting wet and freezing up. Putting the hair dryer to it fixed the problem, but biking that day was a pain only in 1st gear.

    Rona

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