Caitlin Starr Cohn has a Ph.D. Apparel Studies at the University of Minnesota. She wrote her dissertation on women’s bicycling dress from 1868-1900. She became obsessed with bicycles starting in 2011 and eventually realized that she could combined bicycles and clothing into one research project. She lives in Minneapolis with her equally bicycle-obsessed husband, as well as a cat, and eleven bicycles. She cannot actually ride a high-wheel and frequently has helmet head.
Follow her on twitter: @velostarr
A while ago ago I read a blog post (which, perhaps for the best, I can no longer find) that talked about boys’ and girls’ bikes from the 1970s. These children’s bicycles came with a top-tube that could be removed to convert the bike from a “boy’s” bike to a “girl’s” bike. The author of the blog argued that these advertisements demonstrate that there is no need for a top-tube, which is just not the case. Children’s bikes are not the same as adult bikes, so it’s not a fair comparison.
I love my mixte-frame bike, but it’s also my heaviest, most cumbersome bike. It’s hard for me to carry up stairs, for example, despite its “pick-me-up” handle. On the other end of the spectrum, I have my carbon fiber Silque that weighs less than twenty pounds. Granted, it’s hardly a fair comparison, given that I use them for very different types of riding. The former is my favorite commuter/ casual bike and it allows me to sit upright in pretty much any outfit. When I ride the Silque, I always wear spandex and my road shoes and I only use it for recreational rides.
Both bikes, plus my hardtail mountain bike, are women specific design, but what exactly does that mean? The Silque looks like a typical road bike, as does my mountain bike. Only the mixte-frame bike looks like a “women’s” bike.
As explained by an article in Cycling Weekly, women specific design bikes typically have different angles (longer head and shorter top-tubes) that are meant to work better for the average woman who typically has longer legs and a shorter torso relative to height. These averages are just that, though. Anecdotally, I know a couple where the man has relatively long legs and prefers “women’s” bikes and the woman is the opposite.
I should say that women specific design bicycles actually work really well for me. I’m 5’4″, with long legs and a very short torso. I also have tiny hands (thanks 4’11” grandma!). However, my proportions don’t represent the average woman, so a lot of women might be fine without a women specific design bike.
Dana MT Eaton, and one of the women interviewed in Cycling Weekly argue against the designation of Women’s Specific Design. Eaton points out that when someone buys a custom bike, it is designed based on their measurements, not their sex. I am inclined to agree that the designation of Women’s Specific Design is less than helpful, particularly given the assumption that men’s bikes are normal and women’s bikes are specialized. I am very happy that bikes exist that work for my proportions, however, I would love to see bike companies rebrand their bikes based on fit. That way, for example, a shorter guy with long legs will know he can buy the same bike as a woman with similar proportions. For the time being, though, I can live with Women’s Specific Design if it means I can find bikes that fit me.
This post should be prefaced by stating that, due to poor planning and general bike pickiness, I only had the experience of cycling in Vienna and that even there I only biked for about an hour and a half. However, I observed the impressive infrastructure and many cyclists (in all kinds of apparel) in Munich and Salzburg.
My husband, M. and I went to Austria and Germany for two weeks this fall. This tale would be more impressive if we were cycle touring, but wandering through cities we observed a lot of other cyclists, dressed in everything from suits to spandex to dirndls. And yes, you see a fair amount of dirndls and lederhosen on every day people. I particularly enjoyed seeing fashionable women riding to work, with the woman in dirndl (pictured) being the highlight. Sadly, I didn’t get nearly enough photos of the range of styles people rode in, but plenty of people commute slowly to work and don’t need to change upon arrival.
The infrastructure in all three cities is truly impressive. Munich and Vienna both have over a million people, but even smaller Salzburg (at 146,000) has a large number of off-road bike paths and bike lanes. Additionally, the drivers are so much more considerate of pedestrians and cyclists than American drivers, even in Minneapolis. As far as I could see, they stopped at all crosswalks where there were pedestrians. When we biked in Vienna on the road, drivers politely drove at our pace until it was safe to pass and gave us a wide berth. We saw parents biking with little kids on their own bikes on the road, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Minneapolis, except maybe on a side street.
We noticed that cyclists on road bikes rode, well, on the rode and did not race along urban paths. The bike traffic on paths moved relatively slowly, as did we on our heavy rented bikes. I will say that we didn’t ride outside of the city, where less bicycle traffic might make it safe for road cyclists to ride on paths. Additionally, unlike, say, Minneapolis’ Greenway, which is relatively wide and allows for safe passing, the urban paths usually were too narrow to make it feasible for a cyclist to easily race along passing people (although we were politely passed by a few slightly faster cyclists that were unfortunate enough to get stuck behind us).
We were too jetlagged to feel up to biking in Munich, but we saw bike paths leading everywhere and will certainly bike there the next time we’re there. In Salzburg, the small farm/pension we were staying at had a small bike shop just across the street, but, like many stores in Austria, it closed early on Saturday and was closed Sunday, which was the day we were leaving. We also found a beautiful little shop, which didn’t rent bikes, that had presumably costly commuter bikes and accessories. M. is understandably particular about saddles, so city bikes and cruisers with wide saddles, both of which were easily available, were out of the question.
In Vienna we found a Trek store, which rented bikes, and finally managed to get out and ride a bit. They only had hybrids in two sizes 50 cm and 55 cm. M. is 6’2″, so he ended up stuck on a bike that was quite a bit too small, but given that he’s done almost 50 miles on the same size bike, a cruise around town was fine. The former was the largest (or rather the highest off the ground) 50 cm I’d ever seen, and was far too large for me, so I ended up with a step-through frame. Unfortunately, despite having handbrakes, it also had coaster brakes, which I loathe because it’s impossible to get the pedals in the right position.
We ended up riding without helmets, as they only had mediums. I need a small and M. needs and XXL, so given that we were riding about 8 miles an hour, off we went. We biked to Schönbrunn Palace, which is about 8 km southwest of the store. I find riding a bike I’m not used to in a new place to be a little unnerving, so I was a bit nervous in both directions, but I wish we’d had a chance to bike more. I mean, really, I barely biked enough to have formed an opinion. Mostly, I came to the conclusion that bikes with couplers might be worth it to make it easier to explore by bike on future trips.
Today, one might think of the term “women’s bicycle” in a couple of different ways. Casual riders may think of women’s bicycles based primarily on appearance. Although many men also ride drop-frame (step-through) or mixte frame bicycles, at least in the United States, they often are thought of as women’s bikes because they allow the rider to wear a skirt more easily than a diamond-frame bicycle. This understanding of masculine and feminine bicycles dates back a long time.
However, there are also performance bicycles designed with women in mind. Women’s Specific Design (or WSDTM as Trek calls them) are meant to fit average female proportions better than other bicycles. As a side note, there is an inherent problem with thinking of bicycles as “normal” bicycles and women specific bicycle’s, rather than as men specific bicycles and women specific bicycles, but more on that later.
Since the very earliest bicycles- velocipedes- manufacturers have developed bicycles for women. For women who rode velocipedes, there were early drop frames, which allowed for shortened skirts over bloomers. Women’s velocipedes had seats, while men’s had saddles, which had more to do with propriety than a deep understanding of how anatomical differences might affect comfort.
In 1885, the Rover, which some argue is the first modern safety bicycle was introduced at the British bicycle exhibition known as the Stanley Show. In 1887, Dan Albone introduced the first women’s safety bicycle known as the “Anfield Ivel.” The first mass-produced women’s safety bicycle, made the Starley brothers, who also invented the rover, hit the market in 1889.
The first women’s bicycles were designed to accommodate a woman in skirts. Some women did dress in knickerbockers or other modified costumes that allowed them to ride a diamond frame, but it was not the norm. Drop-frame bicycles had disadvantages. They had less structural integrity and thus tended to be heavier than men’s bicycles. Women riding in long skirts were forced to add accessories like heavy chain guards in order to ride safely. Still, specialized women’s bicycles contributed to making bicycling acceptable. They allowed women to wear skirts and also did not force women to straddle a bar, which had sexual connotations. Additionally, their heavier weight made it hard to ride very quickly, which was considered unfeminine.
In a later (post-vacation) entry, I’ll discuss modern women’s bicycles and why there is much more to them than being able to ride them in skirts. Indeed, for performance bicycles, skirts don’t come into the picture at all.
Over several years of reading mainstream articles about cycling, I’ve noticed a tendency for writers for criticize cyclists for wearing spandex. Henry Jeffreys, a cyclist who has worn spandex in the past stated (presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that it’s “bad for the soul.” Certainly, spandex cycling clothes are not the most flattering, but does one always have to look good when exercising?
I often care about looking good while biking. I was rather mortified on my first date – a road ride- with my now husband when I saw that I was wearing spandex and he was not. Generally, If my main purpose for going on a ride is to get somewhere, then I’ll usually dress for my destination more than my mode of transit, although bicycling does tend to put a damper on wearing silk. My commute is only two miles, so I bike in whatever it is that I’m planning to wear that day, which might consist of a dress or a blouse with a skirt or narrow pants. When I ride to work, I also tend to ride my upright bike with platform pedals so I don’t even need to change my shoes.
For many people, casual riding (or even less casual riding) in every day clothes may work perfectly well. Much of the time, I’m happy to throw on whatever and bike. However, spandex cycling clothing serves a purpose. Well, it can serve several purposes, but I’m not here to argue for or against wearing team kits when not racing or whether or not riding covered in logos is problematic. I’d argue that it’s main purpose is comfort, and regardless of how silly it may look, it certainly succeeds at being comfortable.
As much as I don’t especially enjoy standing around in padded shorts, a chamois really does make a huge difference on longer rides. I have regretted most rides over about 15 miles when I haven’t worn cycling shorts, and yes, that includes longer rides on my cruiser. I don’t especially care about jokes about spandex. Trust me, I get that bib shorts look silly, but I am troubled by the animosity towards cyclists, which seems to be magnified when cyclists wear spandex. I also realize that on the internet one can find someone who hates pretty much anything imaginable, so I try not to read to much into it, but here I go, reading into it.
Understandably, people associate cyclists who ride very fast regardless of context with spandex, but I’ve seen people do absurd and dangerous things on bicycles wearing all kinds of clothes (never a ballgown, but I’ll let you know if that ever happens). But this association between cyclists in spandex and biking like a jerk does not necessarily reflect reality.
Jeffreys wrote that it’s more common for Lycra-clad male cyclists to act like maniacs, and that it’s rare to see women who aren’t racing wearing Lycra. His statement is at least anecdotally accurate, but I don’t really think it’s their tight clothing that’s the problem. I also see plenty of women riding in spandex, although it’s true that most of us aren’t wearing team kits. Certainly, I’d love to see more women, perhaps myself included, joining racing teams, but that’s tangential for the moment.
Not being part of a team, my spandex cycling apparel is admittedly a bit visually quieter than that the costumes worn by your average male road rider. Yet, it’s functionally pretty much the same: the shorts protect me from discomfort and the jersey allows me to carry objects without having to load down my road bike. Unlike when I ride in a skirt, I don’t have to worry as much about my clothing staying in place.
Without conducting research, I can’t say why many cyclists choose spandex. I’d hazard a guess, however, that many people would say that when going on long rides, it’s the best choice because it’s more comfortable and practical than any other option.
Quite a lot has already been written about women’s bicycling dress in the 1890s, although my dissertation is the most detailed research on this project that I have been able to find. There is, however, a fair amount of misinformation about what women wore. A common claim is that the majority of women gave up corsets and skirts when they adopted the bicycle, which just isn’t true.
It’s certainly a compelling story- that women discovered the bicycle, threw off their cumbersome garments, and rode into a liberated future. Yet, while there are numerous visual examples bloomers (or knickerbockers), there is not much evidence that they ever became the norm for cycling. They often were considered peculiar and even immodest. They revealed more of a woman’s legs than typical dress and their split form made it possible for women to straddle a diamond-frame bicycle, such as the one pictured below.
They were an easy target to make fun off and satiric magazines like Punch,Puck, and Life regularly made fun of women in bloomers. The myriad images are no doubt part of the reason that so many people believe bloomers were common.
So if women didn’t wear bloomers, what did they wear? Typically, women wore shortened skirts, although how short could vary widely. Some skirts were only three inches above the ground, whereas more daring women might wear a skirt that fell to just below the knee. It’s impossible to establish the average length, but most skirts were probably between lower calf and ankle length. Some women also wore skirts that were divided, almost like extra-wide culottes. These skirts required much more fabric, but some writers believed that they were safer and kept women’s skirts in place. The ideal divided skirt would look just like an ordinary skirt.
Women typically wore matching or coordinated jackets for cycling, but they also could wear a shirtwaist (blouse) tucked into their skirt. Some of the jackets I studied had boning for added structure. Many women continued to wear corsets, although tight-lacing was not recommended. There were special bicycling corsets, although in some cases companies may have marketed a special “bicycling” corset to convince women they needed more corsets. Some women adopted less structured corsets or health waists, which could have less boning or even cording in place of metal bones. Corsets would have provided bust support, although I have found no written examples were this purpose is articulated.
To the modern eye, many cycling costumes may not appear all that much different than other types of every day dress, but there are functional differences. Cycling costumes tended to be made out of sturdy wool, although there were linen costumes, as well. Some had features such leather stitched around the hem, which would protect the skirt from ripping if it got caught (and presumably also made it harder for the skirt to catch). Some women would not have purchased or sewed specialized costumes, but there were numerous options available for those who had the means and inclination.
To the surprise of no one, finishing my dissertation took up absolutely all of my writing energy. So now that I’ve done with my Ph.D. (a day that seemed unreachable), I now can return to exploring this topic in a more accessible way.
For my research, the written sources I used were written for a public audience. Most of the articles and all of the cycling guides were didactic. That is, most writers were attempting to teach their readers about cycling, which frequently included advice on how to dress. Granted, I was looking for information on women, which may have biased my methods, but I found much more advice on how women should dress as compared to how men should dress. In the future, I would like to dig more deeply into men’s dress in order to have a more complete understanding.
My project really wasn’t focused on what the average woman wore or how she might have experienced dressing for cycling. It’s true that I could have analyzed articles for this information, but given the performative aspect of writing for the public (and late 19th century mores), I wasn’t comfortable reading that much into their personal experiences. Franky, just writing about what styles were recommended was a huge undertaking and certainly enough for one dissertation. As interesting as it might be to get at the identity of these women, that’s another project entirely. I’d love to look at diaries and letters, but I have no idea what I’d find.
I am, however, planning to talk to cyclists living in the Twin Cities to learn about how cycling impacts/ relates to their personal style. The styles of dress have obviously changed greatly since the 19th century, but it will be interesting to learn how much the conversation has changed. Up next will be a description of an exemplary 1890s cycling costume.
In the last two weeks, I have biked both in snowy Minneapolis and in a winterless suburb of Orlando. It remains to be seen how it will feel to bike again in Minneapolis after getting the chance to bike again in shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. Granted, at the moment it is in the 40s and raining, so it isn’t exactly a return to winter cycling.
Assuming I am dressed correctly, the cold is not my biggest obstacle when it comes to winter cycling. The necessity of dressing for the cold, and determining the correct layers, is a bigger challenge. Dressing for the cold and riding in the cold may seem to be more or less the same issue, but to parse a bit more finely, I’ve found that once I dress correctly, the cold is no longer very troublesome. Granted, I’m fortunate that I choose when and where I ride.
I recently attended the Winter Cycling Congress, which was conveniently held in Minneapolis this year. How to dress for winter came up multiple times. Unfortunately, it was not the central focus of any presentations outside of a pecha kucha on how to layer. If I weren’t trying to finish my dissertation (hence the rather long absence), I would have liked to have conducted interviews with cyclists on how they dress and thinking about what to wear to bike in the cold.
Throughout the conference I found it interesting how often the idea that one didn’t need to invest much money in clothes for winter cycling came up. It’s certainly possible to buy almost everything at thrift stores (and I personally like to use my dad’s old cashmere sweaters as a mid-layer on really cold days), but I do think there is something to be said for specialized clothing. I’m especially in favor of specialized clothing for longer rides. Soft-shell tights with articulated knees, like the tights I have from Bontrager, make for much more comfortable rides. For commuting my biggest clothing necessity is a day-glow yellow windbreaker, mostly because people aren’t necessarily expecting cyclists in winter.
It seemed that there was some level of discomfort with explicitly discussing what factors would affect someone’s interest in and ability to invest in optimal gear– and not just in regard to clothing. Some attendees were critical of fat bikes. This is my first winter with a fat bike, and mine even has studded tires, and I love it. I’ve biked in previous winters, but always somewhat tentatively. Having a fat bike makes winter bicycling much more accessible and enjoyable. Of course, a fat bike isn’t necessary for biking in the winter, but it can certainly help make winter cycling less scary. For those who can’t afford/ don’t want a fat bike but want/need to bike in winter, studded tires are a huge help. Clearly, some people manage to get by just fine without them, but I’m far too nervous about falling for that, except on days where everything has been cleared.
For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, fear of falling is actually a bigger challenge than the cold. An even bigger fear is having a car lose control and hit me, but I’m lucky to live a couple of blocks from a trail. I’ve found that off-road cycling with my fat bike is the most fun I’ve ever had at three miles an hour. One day we rode at the River Bottoms just after it had snowed several inches, so the snow was not yet packed down. Sadly, I never seem to remember to take photos when cycling, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was quite lovely.
We weren’t the first fat-bikers to ride the trail, so there was about an eight-inch wide path of packed snow. As far as bike handling, it’s the hardest biking I’ve ever done. I kept veering off in one direction or the other and barely saving myself from falling, although there are worse fates than falling into the soft snow. At one point, we saw the outline of an arm where someone else had lost their balance. At this rate, I may even be a mediocre mountain biker by the end of winter.
During the nineteenth century, men’s dress clearly needed less adaptation for cycling than women’s, but men also wore specialized clothing. Unfortunately, men’s clothing tends to be neglected in studies– including in my own dissertation, but I do hope to expand my studies in the future.
Western men’s clothing used to be just as decorative as women’s clothing (if quite a bit narrower in silhouette), but starting in the late 18th century, men began to adopt increasingly plain three-piece suits. J. C. Flügel famously referred to men’s transition from decorative to somber as, “The great masculine renunciation.” During the nineteenth century, men typically wore a jacket of some type, a vest, a shirt, and trousers. Men’s clothing was dramatically different from women’s clothing.
Based on images, it appears that men’s clothing did not tend to be greatly adapted for riding a velocipede. Men generally are shown wearing three pieces suits and full-length trousers, although they could be tucked into tall boots or worn under spats. Men may also have strapped their trousers down to keep them from catching. Images of men on high-wheels in the early 1870s often show men wearing narrow long trousers. Men’s dress bicycling dress seems to have changed starting in the mid-1870s.
Beginning around 1850, men began wearing short pants known as knickerbockers for riding, shooting, and hunting. In previous centuries, many men had worn knee length trousers, which were sometimes known as breeches. It appears that men who bicycled began to take their cue from other sports and integrated knickerbockers (which were cut full and buckled at the knee) or narrow breeches into their bicycling wardrobe.
A jacket, vest, and breeches or knickerbockers became the typical costume of gentleman cyclists. Some men continued to ride in long pants, which was probably especially common for men riding to a particular destination, such as work. For more serious riding, knee-length trousers were more functional, as they were less likely to catch. Cycling knickers also contained useful features such as reinforced crotches, so abrasion would not shorten their life span.
Granted, by today’s standards, with many cyclists dressing in spandex with padded shorts, these clothes hardly seem entirely functional, much less comfortable, particularly for warm weather riding when even light-weight woven wool must have been quite uncomfortable. There are images of men wearing only a vest and a shirt, and in some instances only a shirt, so men most likely adapted how they dressed based on weather conditions.
Many bicycling clubs had uniforms, which clearly identified members. Uniforms also served as a way of keeping out men who could not afford to purchase one. Early high-wheel clubs were quite exclusive. As David V. Herlihy has explained, during the 1870s British clubs often required that members be able to pay for a bicycle, a uniform, and dues. Additionally, they needed to be nominated by a current member and their admittance was determined by vote. The first American high-wheel bicycle club was formed in 1879, at Harvard, which suggests a similar level of elitism.
According to Jesse J. Gant and Nicholas Hoffman in Wheel Fever, men’s cycling clothing became less formal by the end of the nineteenth century, and tended to be woven out of lighter materials, such as light-weight tweeds. However, as there are very few extant garments, it is difficult to establish how much materials changed during the late nineteenth-century. The Los Angeles County Historical Museum has a men’s cycling suit made out of linen, which would have been much less durable than wool, but much cooler to wear.
Men who took part in serious races were able to wear much more informal and better adapted clothing than most other men. Based on images, it appears that racers wore knit wool, which was a common enough material for both men’s and women’s undergarments. During the 1890s, men raced in short-sleeved or sleeves shirts, along with shorts that fell to mid-thigh (and sometimes even shorter). I am not sure when this type of cycling clothing became common, but Harper’s Weekly featured men wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts in 1886. This type of cycling clothing looks remarkably similar to what many cyclists wear today.
I’m at the point in my dissertation where I really should be focused entirely on revising, and not collecting any new data. I am mostly succeeding in this endeavor. However, I started working on revising my chapter on women’s dress and velocipedes, I found myself falling into a vortex trying to fill in some more gaps about women’s clothes.
It turns out that newspaper archives are a dangerous place to wander into if I want to get anything else done. Thus I have found myself searching through the Access Newspaper: Academic Library Version, which is an enormous repository of scanned newspapers (the British Newspaper Archive is also a great resource).
In 1869, velocipedes were wildly popular. When I looked for the term “velocipede” between 1868 and 1870, I ended up with 4,893 results. Narrowing my search to adding “dress” and any combination of “women,” “woman,” “lady,” and “ladies” led to. . .2,005 results. “Velocipede” and “bloomers” gave me a more manageable 24 results, most of which did not really lead anywhere helpful. There are also a number of other terms I could have tried, such as “bicycle,” a term that was in use by the height of the velocipede’s popularity.
This resource also does not give me any French language resources, which would lead me down a slower and more intensive path. I can read/translate French when I need to, but it’s a rather slow process compared to working in English. And it’s not like doing this kind of work in English is fast, either. Fortunately, I can scan through PDFs with word searches– which is much, much faster than working with actual documents– but the scans are often poor quality.
There is very little descriptive information regarding velocipede dress. As discussed in a previous entry, I have been able to piece together a general sense of how women may have dressed, but there just isn’t a complete picture. Granted, trying to determine from bits and pieces what options women may have had is part of the fun of research, at least from my slightly strange perspective. I’m afraid, however, that is time to cut myself off from the research vortex and focus on the information I do have.
Originally, I had planned to talk to a few people about dressing for winter cycling, as well as describe my own (somewhat limited) experience. Then I asked Christine Bachman-Sanders, of The Golden Tandem a few questions and she provided me an enormous amount of information. As Christine actually did most of the work here, I will simply include my questions and her answers. All images are courtesy of Christine.
When did you start biking in winter (if you remember) and what prompted you to start?
I think my first winter biking excursion was in 2011 when my partner, Ian, and I biked from Boston to Block Island, RI–about 100 miles each way–for a weekend of snowy riding. On our tandem. This is when we learned about the magic of leg-swings every hour and chemical hand warmers. We made the trip again the following two years, each time managing to catch another cold spell and significant snow-fall, which just made our pit stops for hot tea and pie all the more justified.
I’ve been an avid cyclist for ten years, and do plenty of long-distance touring in all weather, but while living in Boston and New York City, I often took the subway on rainy days and during the winter. Upon moving in August 2014 to Minneapolis–the cyclist’s dream city–I decided to commit to bicycle commuting year-round.
Last winter, 2014 – 2015, was my first official all-winter, every-day bicycle commuting. It was such a joy! I loved knowing that no matter what the day brought, I’d get a chance to be out on my bike. I was very nervous at first about whether or not I could really stick it out. I’m from the northeast, so winter isn’t new for me, but I was intimidated by Minnesota’s reputation for extreme cold. I know last year’s winter wasn’t the coldest on record by far, but it was certainly the coldest winter I’ve ever faced. That said, I was amazed by how easy it was to continue biking through even the chilliest and darkest days. A few things really helped to keep my motivation: 1) I decided early on that I simply wasn’t going to take a single day “off.” If I had to get somewhere, the bicycle would be my only option. I knew that if I made even one exception and took the bus one day instead, it would be much more difficult to convince myself to continue cycling on the hardest days; 2) I’m really cheap. Why take the bus when riding my bike is free?; 3) I have never owned a car, and hope to make that a life-long reality. Biking through the winter was one way I was able to test whether this car-less lifestyle is sustainable and achievable for me. Very happy that the answer was yes!; 4) My partner is also a winter cyclist. Knowing that he would also be out every day was enough motivation (and competition) to ensure that I’d brave the elements, too; 5) I love being outside and moving my body. I know the winter can be an especially isolating time because of the freezing temperatures and shorter days. Getting on my bicycle every day meant that I’d get at least an hour of outside time. This is also the only designated part of my day that I don’t have to do anything else–it can be meditative for someone who doesn’t like actually mediating.
What type of winter riding/ distances do you do?
These days, most of my winter riding is my daily commute. I ride almost every day for a total of about 12 miles. This is a good distance because my commute isn’t long enough to risk actually getting too cold. For me, 30 minutes of riding each way, even on the coldest days, is manageable. As long as I’m wearing the right layers, I can maintain a comfortable and safe temperature. On a ride longer than that, I would need to make some larger adjustments to my wardrobe and perhaps even make chemical warmers a consistent accessory.
As a long-distance tourer, I brave the occasional long-distance ride in the winter, like the 100 mile trips between Boston and Block Island, RI. This kind of winter riding is quite different from the daily commute. I risk becoming much colder on these rides, because I’m outside for so much longer, and I’m usually biking at a lesser intensity in order to maintain my energy for 8 hours on the bike. As a result, the key to long-distance winter riding is to make many, many stops. I make it a habit to stop every hour at least to swing out my legs and arms, make sure the blood is flowing, grab a snack, and when necessary, take refuge in a warm place for a warm drink. I also tend to wear more clothing when long-distance riding, and have plenty of back-up layers for when I need to make a longer stop without finding a place indoors.
For someone who is just starting and doesn’t want to/ can’t afford to invest a lot of money, what is the basic winter gear you would recommend? Any fancier gear that one can live without but you absolutely love?
Clothing is super important for winter riding. It’s really all about the wind-stopping layers. Many first-time winter cyclists (like me!) make the initial mistake of wearing too much. When I ride, I wear much less clothing than I would if I were walking or waiting for the bus. That said, dressing for winter cycling is a project. There are lots of moving pieces, and many decisions to make based on weather and riding conditions. Once you get the hang of your winter system, it becomes automatic, but knowing what to wear when is a learning process. For me, the following items are all essential at different times, and while the cost can certainly add up, there are ways to get creative and re-purpose items you already have. Here is everything I wear on the bike:
Light-weight wind-stopping jacket
I wear the Patagonia Houdini. This isn’t cheap, but if you can find it on sale, it’s my absolute favorite shell. I use this as the outer-most top layer, and depending on the temperature, I can wear more or less underneath. As a result, I use this jacket on cool days in the spring and fall, and every day in the winter. It’s also super light and and packs down into a tiny ball, which is great news for any backpacker or cycle tourist. Keep in mind that while this jacket does an awesome job stopping the wind, it has no insulation and is not water-proof. I replace this jacket with a rain shell on very snowy or rainy days.
Breathable wind-stopping, waterproof rain pants
I wear REI-brand Novara rain pants made specifically for cycling. Not top-of-the-line, but not free! I tried a cheaper version that didn’t claim to be breathable, and it was a huge mistake. I arrived dry on the outside, but very, very wet on the inside from my own sweat. Breathable, even if not perfect, is definitely superior.
Clear-lens Ski Goggles
I start wearing clear-lens goggles when it drops below 20* F, or when it’s actively snowing or sleeting. In weather, it really helps with visibility, and I love wearing them on the most frigid days, because it keeps a good chunk of face protected from the wind–nice and toasty! You don’t need to break the bank on these. You should be able to find a good pair for $15 – $25. Go for clear, because you never know when you might find yourself riding in very grey weather or in the dark.
The are tons of options for winter biking gloves, and depending on your circulation and the length of your ride, this will vary significantly. For 30-45 minute rides in 32* F or above, I’ve done quite well with a simple glove liner. These are cheap, light-weight, and basic. Once it drops below 30*, I switch to a heavier duty bicycle glove, like the Planet Bike Borealis. Below 20* F, I wear the liners underneath my Borealis gloves. For rides longer than an hour, I usually wear (or at least bring) heavy insulated winter mittens. These can be awkward to bicycle with (less handle-bar control), but if you’ve already got them, and you’re on a budget, they will do the job.
These don’t have to be anything fancy, but they are essential. I wear a super thin liner hat. Anything thicker won’t fit easily under my helmet, and I find I don’t need the extra warmth. I pair this with a light or medium-weight neck warmer that I can pull up to the edge of my goggles when needed, or pull down if I’m too hot. On really cold days, I combine my hat-neck warmer standard with an additional full-coverage balaclava. There are lots of super fancy bike-specific balaclavas out there, but after much hand-wringing last year, I found that the basic hiking balaclava I already had did the trick. This gives me one extra layer and a little extra coverage on the coldest days. The idea is that if necessary, with balaclava, hat, neck warmer and goggles, I can protect all the skin on my face from chilling winds, but still have the option to pull that neck warmer down if I’m over-heating and need some air.
Winter boots and socks
Fancy insulated winter bicycle shoes aren’t warm enough for a Minnesota winter. Instead of spending the money on a pair of cycling shoes that won’t keep my toes from freezing on the coldest days, I just use my general, heavy-duty winter boots for winter cycling. Inside my boots, I wear a heavy hiking sock. It’s clunky and takes some getting used to, but I adjust to it pretty quickly, and it keeps me warm. I also replace my pedals with big platforms for the season. Using platform pedals is an advantage for winter cycling because you can easily remove your feet from the pedals in an instant to avoid a fall or retain balance on an icy patch.
Underneath my jacket shell and rain pants, I layer up or down, depending on the temperature. On the coldest days, I tend to wear three layers: 1) a light or medium-weight base layer, like merino wool long underwear. I like Minus 33 brand base layers for tops and bottoms, but anything comparable will do the job; 2) Because I’m commuting and don’t want to change clothes completely upon arriving at my destination, I tend to wear a regular pair of pants over my base layer and under my rain shell. This provides an extra layer of warmth and reduces the hassle of having to change. On top, I wear a zip-up fleece on the coldest days over my base layer and under my wind-stopping jacket; 3) Finally, I suit-up with my wind-stopping layers (see above).
In addition to my wardrobe transformation, my bicycle has a winter make-over as well:
These have been a life-saver. Trying to bicycle on narrow road or touring tires can be very dangerous in the snow or on ice. As soon as there is ice on the road, switch out your slicks for a pair of studs, and witness the magic! Sure, you go a lot slower, but winter biking isn’t about speed–it’s about getting outside everyday and staying alive to enjoy it. I use Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires, but there are several brands that will serve the same function. They aren’t the cheapest, but it has made a huge difference in my sense of safety and how and where I am able to ride. Make sure that they are sized to fit your wheels!
Lights, Bell, Rack, and Fenders
These are year-round accessories for me, but I think they are especially important for winter riding. A good head and rear light are super important for making sure you can see all the tricky ice patches ahead, and so that other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists can see you! I’ve recently fallen in love with the Serfas True 505 headlight. It’s USB rechargeable, easy to take on and off, and has excellent visibility. It’s pricey, though, so if you’re on a budget, just make sure you’re using a light strong enough to see and be seen. I’ve used Planet Bike’s affordable SuperFlash rear light forever, and have no complaints.
Get a bell. Get a rack. Get fenders. The bell makes me happy and makes me heard. The rack saves my back from lugging all the stuff I need at my job or while I’m out on errands. It also means that I don’t need to factor in how my temperature will change while riding and wearing a backpack. When I do wear a backpack, I tend to get sweaty, but I’m not warmer, so I have a harder time knowing how to layer. On my rack, I use a waterproof pannier. There are lots of great options, including the very popular Ortlieb brand. They are quite expensive, but excellent quality. I still use my Outdoor Pacific Equipment panniers, now called Hyalite Equipment panniers, which work great. They are a little more affordable, but have a very similar design and, most importantly, they are totally waterproof. The fenders will save you and your bicycle from all kinds of grit and slush. Not only will you arrive cleaner and drier, but your bicycle will be better protected from all the nasty salt, grit, and chemicals that cover roads in the winter.
The Fat Bike Question
I had never heard of a “Fat Bike” until I moved to Minnesota. Here, I see them on mountain bike trails in good weather, and zooming along bike paths on the snowiest winter days. I biked on my touring commuter bike all winter last year with the studded tires, and it got the job done very well. But this year, I got to try a fat bike for the first time, and fell in love. It is by no means necessary for safe and fun winter biking, but if you have the extra cash, the extra space, or you come across one on sale, it can be a really fun way to experience winter cycling. We’ve only had one really snowy day so far this season, but when I took my fat bike out early in the morning before the plows had cleared away the several inches of snow from the bike paths, it felt so powerful to be able to bike through and over anything without fear of falling. And I’m pretty sure I had the easiest, fastest, and most fun commute of anyone I know that day! I hope to use both my fat bike and my every-day commuter this winter, depending on the conditions.
What factors do you take into account when you figure out what to wear in the morning?
I think about temperature, chance of precipitation, and whether I’ll be riding in daylight or in the dark. If the temperature is in the 50s or 40s and clear, I’ll just wear one pair of pants, and a base layer on top with either a fleece or the wind-stopping jacket, but not both. I might wear a hat, and have the neck warmer just in case, but I’ll definitely wear some thin glove liners. In the 30s, I’ll definitely wear a hat, neck warmer, glove liners or Borealis gloves, but not both. I’ll usually wear long underwear under my pants, but I won’t always wear the rain pants over that. I will wear a base layer up top and my wind-stopping jacket. Sometimes I’ll bring an extra fleece, but that’s usually too much warmth. In the 20s, I suit up completely: three layers on top, three layers on bottom, hat, neck warmer (plus balaclava on the coldest days), glove liners with Borealis gloves over them, clear goggles, and heavy winter boots. When it’s raining or snowing heavily, I’ll replace my wind-stopping jacket with a raincoat.
Any lessons learned the hard way?
I’ve fallen twice–once last winter, and once this winter. Both times, I lost control of my bike while riding through a patch of very rutted ice. This kind of ice usually occurs after there has been a partial thaw, which turns the ice and snow into slush, and then freezes again after lots of bicycles, cars, or feet have made lots of impressions and ruts in the now frozen-again ice. In both cases, my bike lost traction when it got steered by a rut in another direction, causing me to lose balance and perform a rather impressive full-frontal asphalt-flop. In both cases, I didn’t yet have my studded tires on, and I was going too fast. I’m pretty sure that if my studs had been on, I first of all would have been biking more slowly out of necessity, and secondly, I think I would have retained traction and control more easily due to the grip of the studs. Luckily, both falls occurred while cycling on an off-street bike path, so cars were not an added danger. When I share the road with cars while winter biking, I am always careful to bicycle more slowly, and take up more of the lane. The on-street bike paths are often icier or snowier than the main road, and can build up a gritty, icy snow-ledge between parked and moving cars. I avoid the death-ledge at all costs–this is exactly the kind of thing that will result in a nasty fall, and falling on the street is something I’d really like to avoid.
Anything else that comes to mind.
Do it!! Biking in all weather year-round is great for so many reasons: it gets me outside and celebrating the day even in the dreariest weather; it keeps me active during the hibernation season; it saves me money on other forms of transportation; it allows me to be independent and control my commute time more easily; it makes me feel like I’m doing my small part in making environmentally conscious, sustainable decisions; and also, I just love biking.