As Washington, D.C. continues its major dig out from the weekend Snowzilla/MakeWinterGreatAgain storm (yeah, I know it’s not like this other places, believe me I know), I’m kicking off a new interview series about winter riding and the D.C.-area’s Freezing Saddles competition. I’m participating for the first time, and I wrote about that here.
My first interview is with Carol, who is also my Freezing Saddles teammate (Team 4: The Fourth Awakens!). Carol is a long-time transportation cyclist who rides year round and is participating in the Freezing Saddles competition for the third time. Thank you so much, Carol, for sharing your knowledge with us, and for starting us off.
I’ve ridden a bicycle ever since I was a kid. When my son was born, I got a bicycle seat for him to ride on. My riding went way down when I had my daughter, because there was no way to fit both of them onto one bicycle. This was before bike trailers existed, and I’m not sure there were cargo bikes.
However, I taught each of the children to ride without training wheels at the age of 6. My technique was to take them to Rock Creek Park, to a place where there was a hill. I’d start them down the hill, and they’d keep going until they fell over. Then we’d try again. They pretty quickly stopped falling over.
Once the kids were old enough to ride bicycles themselves, I began biking with them, at least casually. The longest ride was up to Harper’s Ferry and back over one July 4 weekend (Editor’s note: This is about a 65-mile ride, one way, from D.C.). My daughter was only 7 at the time.
Since then, I’ve been gradually increasing my riding, both as a means of transportation and to increase my fitness. I started with a weekly breakfast ride with a friend. Initially, I’d skip that if there was bad weather, but I’ve really stopped skipping it at all now.
I then added weekly rides into DC during the summer, then weekly rides into DC year round. But it was only when I started Freezing Saddles that I started biking on a daily basis—a habit that has continued even during the times of year when I’m not in Freezing Saddles.
I’ve now started biking with my three-year-old granddaughter. I got a bike trailer for her. It’s a two-person one, so I can soon start taking her baby brother with us as well. And I have a bike with training wheels for her, as soon as she’s ready for it. She tells me with great confidence she’ll be able to do that when she’s four. 😉
What kind of riding do you generally do during the winter months?
My riding is pretty much the same year round. At a minimum, one day a week, I’ll bike to breakfast with a friend. One day, I’ll bike into DC and back. The rest of the days, I’ll bike to the Giant grocery store to take my blood pressure and weight, and to the Y to work out. However, if I have somewhere specific to go during the week, I’ll often add that to my riding.
What inspired you to join Freezing Saddles the first time?
I saw a notice in the Women & Bicycles Facebook group about it. It seemed like something fun that might help me to get to know people and motivate me to ride more. And unlike racing or even group rides, which require some degree of speed, this was a competition I could participate in even at my slow pace.
How many times have you done the Freezing Saddles challenge, and why have you continued to do it?
This is my third year. The first year, I figured out that I really could ride every day, although typically, five of the days would just be sleaze rides to the Y and back. I also participated in some of the challenges, like trying to find signs with the names of the Presidents on them. Our team actually won that year.
The second year, I went from the “sleaze rides” (Editor’s note: a Freezing Saddles term for rides that are essentially the minimum daily mileage to qualify for the challenge) to the Y to longer (about 4 miles) rides to the Giant and the Y on the days I wasn’t going on a long ride.
While the team didn’t win the overall prize, we decided on the last day that we were close enough to the Billy Goat prize (for most elevation gain) that we could make it with a concerted effort. I spent most of that day going up and down the steepest hill I could find—and we won!
The reasons I continue Freezing Saddles are to ride a bit more than I otherwise would, and to get to know other cyclists. This year, I’ve sort of leveled off on my cycling; I don’t see the need to keep increasing the miles every year. I’m more focused on the second goal.
I ended up in charge of registration, which introduced me to a lot of people in the course of coordinating with other volunteers. When the person who had been in charge of prior years’ happy hours resigned from that job this year, I found other volunteers, put them in touch with each other, and found a venue for this year’s happy hours. And I’ve worked at building up team rapport with a Facebook group, setting up a meet-up, etc.
What is your approach to Freezing Saddles?
Honestly, I know that my contribution to the team isn’t going to be that great in terms of overall miles. In the first couple of years, I was routinely seventh on my team. This year, with larger teams, I will probably end up being eighth.
On the other hand, I’m very aware that this is a team effort. If you look at the standings right now, the first place individual rider is on the fifth place team. The top rider on the first place team is in fourth place in the individual standings.
One of my teammates this year says that he was first in number of miles last year, but his team was still last. Freezing Saddles really is a team effort, not just a question of having someone who rides a lot of miles at the top. Feeling like I don’t want to let down my teammates provides a bit of extra motivation.
Also, there are a lot of contests other than the overall one. The first year, our team won first place in the competition to cross as many bridges as possible within a given time—an effort that I organized. I also discovered on the last day that I was very close to first in miles after dark, and managed to do several hours that night to take first prize in that competition.
Last year, I received an individual prize for the snowiest ride, and of course, my team got the Billy Goat prize mentioned above. Having so many contests means that I don’t just give up on competing even if it’s clear early on that my team won’t win the overall prize.
What do you enjoy most about Freezing Saddles?
The camaraderie. We chat on the forum or on Facebook, meet for socials and group rides, and just generally cheer each other on. I’ve never once heard someone complain that someone else isn’t riding enough. Instead, there is a focus on encouraging people, rather than on cut-throat competition.
As part of Freezing Saddles, you must also be a Strava user. How do you like using Strava? Any good or bad aspects about it you’d like to share?
I mostly ignore Strava. I was uploading rides to Garmin before I ever knew about Strava or Freezing Saddles. I have things set up so that Garmin automatically syncs to Strava. That way, I don’t have to worry about uploading more than once, and I don’t have to worry about running down my phone battery by using the Strava app.
I’ll occasionally give kudos or comment on another person’s ride. And I’ll use Strava to contact a teammate who isn’t responding to forum messages or e-mails. But it’s not something I really use regularly.
Strava really doesn’t work well for discussions, beyond just commenting on someone’s ride. The discussion tab has to be opened separately, even once you’re on the team page, and most people just don’t see it. Also, all team discussions are visible to the public. That makes it wholly ineffective for strategy discussions. And I feel like I really have to be careful what I say, because anyone can see it, not just members of my team.
The best part of Strava, for me, is that it’s kind of the standard for biking contests, so it enables me to participate in Freezing Saddles during the winter, and the National Bike Challenge in the summer.
Let’s talk winter riding! Tell me about your essential winter gear and cycling setup.
For the bicycle, I use a hybrid (Trek 7300), which is the only bicycle I own. It has wide tires with good treads, so I can navigate most snowy conditions. My bike almost never gets a flat, and requires little maintenance even with hard riding in bad weather.
During the winter, I use Bar Mitts on my bike. They enable me to use fingerless gloves for greater sensitivity when the temperature is about 30 degrees or above. When it is colder, the Bar Mitts add to the warmth of my gloves.
I also have panniers on the bike. In addition to allowing me to make spontaneous trips to things like the grocery store while I’m out, they enable me to keep basic rain gear, tools, etc. with me at all times. And they make the bike heavy enough (64 pounds!) that it grips better in snowy conditions.
As for clothing, I really treat cold weather biking like any other cold weather activity. I don’t have special cold weather cycling gear. Instead, I use regular, but warm, clothes. For the coldest days, this the complete list:
- Wool Buff;
- Turtle Fur neck warmer;
- Wool cap;
- Warm sweater;
- Bicycle tights with warm pants on over them;
- Thin socks, with thick wool socks over them;
- L.L. Bean down jacket with a hood;
- Ski gloves under the Bar Mitts; and
- Orthopedic shoes (which have several layers of inserts on the bottom, providing additional insulation).
Wearing all of that, I’ve never been cold even when the temperature has gone below 10 degrees. Of course, I’m not exactly fast while wearing all these layers. I’ve managed to get the tortoise prize for slowest rider in all of Freezing Saddles, two years in a row. But speed is not really the objective.
What kind of lights and reflective-wear do you use for shorter days?
I’m a maniac about being visible! Here’s my list:
- Cygolite Trion 1300 headlight. I will set it to high on the streets, so it’s visible even among car headlights, and to a lower setting on the trail so I don’t blind oncoming cyclists;
- Blinking headlight;
- Steady tail light;
- Serfas seat stay tail light, which I attach to the top of my rack and set on blinking;
- Rimfire wheel lights;
- ANSI class 2 reflective vest;
- Reflective stripes on my panniers; and
- Reflective pedals.
The vest is the most visible from the rear—even more than the lights. It’s not a normal bike vest, but one that is rated to be used by people directing traffic at night and the like. There is no way a driver can miss it!
The wheel lights are red, blue, and green, and make a distinctive pattern as the wheel goes around. They are very visible from the side. I constantly get people yelling out “Nice lights!”.
The Trion headlight is quite powerful, and lets me see the ground ahead of me, even at a low setting and on dark trails. The blinking light provides an extra clue to drivers that this is a bicycle, not a car.
Because I have two lights on each of the front and rear, I’ve got some backup if one of them goes out on a long trip.
What’s so great about riding through the winter?
Biking is just great year round! As I’ve gotten older, I battle weight issues, cholesterol issues, and blood pressure issues. Biking helps keep these under control.
I don’t want to lose these advantages just because it’s winter. Plus, I don’t want to lose the strength I’ve built up, and have to regain it when nicer weather comes along.
Biking is also a big cost savings. My whole bike cost $250, and I might put a similar amount into maintenance annually. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the initial cost of a car, insurance, maintenance, gas, parking, and other car-related expenses.
Riding a bicycle is less frustrating than driving or taking public transit. If I drive, I get caught in traffic, and have to spend time looking for parking. If I take public transit, I’m at the mercy of buses that don’t show up, trains that are single tracking, etc. The bike may take a little longer on average, but I don’t have to allow for—or get frustrated by—unpredictable delays.
Biking actually gives me more mobility in winter. There are days that I can’t get out by car due to snow. Even if the plows have gotten to within a block from my house, that doesn’t help me if I can’t get my car that one block. But with a bike, I can walk it to the nearest plowed street, and get out that way.
Is there a threshold below which you will not ride?
I don’t like biking on glare ice. I don’t have studded tires, and I don’t feel safe when the streets are icy. Fortunately, ice usually doesn’t last a whole day. It will accumulate at night, but melt during the day, or accumulate during the day and then get crushed by traffic before night. So far, ice has never caused me to lose a whole day of riding.
What would you say to somebody interested in riding through the winter, but doesn’t know where to start?
Start by figuring out what is stopping you. Is it the cold? Think about how you can layer your existing clothing, or get new items, to keep warm. Those need not be expensive—a thrift shop can be a source of warm clothing.
Is it darkness? If so, your first priority is to get reflective gear, which will make you visible from behind, and some blinky lights so turning cars can see you. Once you’ve got that, the next priority is good headlights, so you can see on poorly lit streets and trails.
Is it snow and ice? If you’re riding a high-end bike, you may want to consider a hybrid, maybe with studded tires. Not only is that better for maintaining balance in the snow, but you won’t be damaging your expensive bike with exposure to snow, ice, and road salt.
Start where you are, rather than judging yourself for not being perfect. For example, maybe you can’t commute all the way to work when the weather is really bad. But you might be able to take Metro most of the way, then ride Capital Bikeshare the rest.
Maybe you can commute by bike some days, but not all of them. Maybe you can just do short rides on cold or snowy days. Any bicycling is better than none, and you’ll gradually learn as you go along.