Digit-saving tips for riding in extreme conditions

Earlier this month in Bend, Ore, I rode my bike in some of the harshest weather conditions I have ever experienced.

We woke up that first morning to find that the outside world had been covered in a fresh, white blanket of puffy snow. It continued to snow all day.

As my teammates and I ventured out of our rental house to pre-ride the cyclocross race course that day, temperatures were plummeting quickly. 5°F…3°F…0°F. Soon we were experiencing sub-zero temperatures with a brutally cold wind chill.

It took all of 10 minutes for my rear V-brakes to freeze up, and I was unable to use my rear brakes for the entirety of the ride.

The course hadn’t quite been laid out yet so we plowed through four inches of fresh snow. My fingers were aching painfully and my toes soon went numb.

Yet, despite the harsh conditions, it was terribly fun to play in the snow. I felt like a kid.

Overnight, more snow fell and the wind chill reached near record lows –somewhere in the -20s—forcing the city of Bend to cancel its annual Christmas parade. Yet, in true cyclocross-spirit, the racing continued.

Riding in those conditions in spandex is probably not something most people would be eager to do, but I did learn some valuable tips on how to make extreme winter riding manageable and fun:

- Lube, de-icer and pam. These three items, applied strategically, kept my bike running all weekend long.
Apply lube to a clean bike as you normally would. Then, carefully spray deicer on your brake springs, your derailleurs and pedals spindles. Finally, to keep snow from sticking to your bike, apply pam to your pedals, derailleurs and the underside of your frame. Pam the bottom of your shoes, too!

- Surgical gloves and plastic bags. In desperation for anything that would keep my fingers alive, I wore multiple layers of gloves. The problem with biking is that you can’t just throw on some mittens and call it good. You need to keep a certain level of dexterity to shift and brake.
On my hands, I would start with wearing surgical gloves. These thin layers of latex provided wind- and water-proof protection. Also, they do not breathe whatsoever, which in this case was a good thing as they trapped in whatever warmth was coming from my hands. I then pulled on a thin liner and finished with the thickest cycling gloves I own. While nothing seemed to keep them from going numb on day one, this method offered much comfort on day two when the temperature were around 10 degrees.

On my feet I wore two layers of socks and then slipped my toes in a plastic sandwich baggie to shield them from the cold wind.

- Buff. Buffs offer versatile protection. One can wear them in many different ways – scarf, headband, balaclave or skullcap – but I mainly used mine to keep my neck warm.

- Headband. This was a key one for me. My discomfort level decreased significantly from not having painfully cold ears.

- Vaseline. Not only does Vaseline prevent your skin from drying out, it also offers a nice layer of protection from the icy cold wind. Apply Vaseline to your exposed lips, chin, nose and cheeks.

- Rain pants. If you're just playing in the snow (versus racing), rain pants add an extra layer of warmth and they keep you dry when, inevitably, you fall over in the snow. 

- Spin. Get out of the big gears and spin, the speedy movement helped my core warm up much more quickly. Once my core was warm, it would take about 20 to 30 minutes for my fingers to thaw out.