The colder it gets means fewer people are out on the paths and it can be incredibly peaceful. Imagine riding an empty bike trail on a cold morning as the sun rises right behind you. How can you have a bad day, when your days starts out like that?
Freezing Saddles rider and fellow year-round commuter, Ian, captures one of my favorite aspects of winter riding – the personal space gained, if only for a brief window of time.
Thanks for talking Freezing Saddles and winter cycling with us today, Ian, and thanks to everybody who is reading along with the series!
Okay Ian! Let’s start with your own cycling journey.
I feel like I came to the cycling thing a bit later than most. It was only about 3 years ago that I started riding my bike on a pretty regular basis – even though I seemed to always have had a bike in my home.
When I first moved here from Indiana in 2009, I was very reluctant to try to ride a bike around town. It was intimidating. There was so much traffic and the roads were so busy. I was honestly pretty scared.
A neighbor in my apartment building had a bike rack on his car and took me to the Capital Crescent Trailhead in Bethesda, Maryland. After a few rides to Georgetown and around D.C., I got pretty hooked and started taking weekend rides. I would take the metro from Rockville to Bethesda to ride the Capital Crescent Trail.
I rode with that same friend for most of a summer and started taking longer and longer rides. The bike paths offered me the safety I was looking for and in time made me feel a bit more confident about being out there and led to me getting more onto the roads.
I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, in 2013 and that’s when my time on the bike really increased. My apartment building was right across the street from the Mount Vernon Trail, so I could hop on it whenever I wanted.
After riding every weekend, and going on longer and longer rides, I wanted to try to start commuting to work. I work into Bethesda so each way was about 18 miles. Fortunately almost the entire commute can be via bike paths.It took some time, but I worked up to it.
I would ride my bike to work one day, and take Metro home. The next day I would Metro to work and ride home. Within a couple of weeks I was doing the round trip in a single day, but only two or three days a week.
That winter I bought my first road bike; I had been doing all of my riding on a hybrid to that point. This is when I started really getting the itch to ride.
The following year once it warmed up I went back to commuting, and eventually got myself back up to three or four days a week. I still would go on long weekend rides too if I could find time. I loved being out on my bike.
As it grew colder, I wanted to push my riding later and later into the year since it had become such a habit at this point. If I missed a few days on the bike I would get pretty grumpy.
Around this time, I also joined the Bike Arlington Forum and started participating on it. I was hoping to interact with more people with similar habits and love of riding.
Discovering the local cycling community was such a blessing, and since then I’ve made many friends and found a warm welcoming group of like-minded people.
What kind of winter riding do you generally do?
This is really only the second winter I’ve been commuting through the entire season. I have reached the point where I can ride my commute five days a week, and if the trails are clear of snow and I have no conflicting plans I’ll ride every day.
Occasionally I’ll take a rest day. Sometimes my legs just have had enough. However, my wife and I had our first child just this spring, so my weekend riding has dropped off significantly. My commute is how I get my rides in.
What inspired you to join Freezing Saddles?
Last winter was my first time participating in Freezing Saddles. I was inspired to meet more cyclists in the local community, and I hoped to motivate myself to keep riding through the winter.
I signed up not knowing anyone, and forced myself out there. I went to the opening Happy Hour by myself and sought out my teammates. By the end of the night it felt like we already had the makings of solid friendship.
I met more and more participants during the course of Freezing Saddles by going on a few group rides and team rides. There was good-natured ribbing and lots of fun banter in the forums during the competition. It was a great opportunity to meet people. I’m so glad I took a chance and made it out there.
How many times have you done the challenge, and why have you continued with it?
This is my second year participating. I continue to do it mainly for the same reasons I joined the first time – to meet people, go out and ride, and have fun!
Freezing Saddles has not disappointed. As this winter approached, many friends that I made the previous year asked if I was going to participate. How could I not?
My approach to Freezing Saddles is pretty simple. Get up, check the temperature outside, shudder, hope I dress appropriately, and go ride.
I’m really competing with myself. I’m hoping to exceed last year’s mileage. I’ve already commuted this year on days that I considered to be too cold last year.
I will also reluctantly admit, though, that I do have a touch of competitive streak. There are some people I know that I want to crush in terms of miles and rides. For example, there are three Ian’s participating this year in Freezing Saddles. I hope to be the highest scoring Ian.
What do you enjoy most about Freezing Saddles?
The riding itself is fantastic. The colder it gets means fewer people are out on the paths and it can be incredibly peaceful. Imagine riding an empty bike trail on a cold morning as the sun rises right behind you. How can you have a bad day, when your days starts out like that?
Also, not to sound like a broken record, but the camaraderie. As I’ve become more involved with the Bike Arlington Forum and Freezing Saddles, I see people I know when I ride on the bike paths. There’s nothing like giving a good friend a “low-five” when your paths cross on a bike!
As part of Freezing Saddles, you must also be a Strava user. What are your thoughts about Strava?
I have mixed feelings about Strava. I’m really mostly concerned with my mileage. That’s what I like to track. It’s easy for me to get caught up in other stats, though.
I used to push myself hard on lots of commutes, looking for those little PR’s and trophies in Strava. I wondered why I was so shot after commuting for two or three days. A friend told me to stop worrying about them and just ride my ride.
So I did, and now I enjoy my rides a bit more because I’m not so focused on speeding along as fast as possible. If I’m tired I just ride slower. It doesn’t really matter, I’m still getting my miles and getting my time on the bike.
What clothing and cycling gear do you consider essential for riding through the winter?
This is a tricky question for me, since my essential winter gear and setups are always changing. I jumped into my first winter rides without really doing much research. My thought process was “Oh, I’m cold today, my feet and my hands, it’s 40 degrees. I’ll go buy gloves and toe covers.”
A week later I might be thinking, “I could use a warmer jacket.” So then I would go buy a warmer jacket. I acquired my gear as the winter progressed. As I got colder, I added things like thermal base layers and a balaclava.
This still happens now during my second winter. I just bought a pair of winter boots and windproof over-pants to wear over my tights because recently I rode and froze my toes and legs off.
Dressing for winter riding is a learning experience; I say just go out and see how you feel.
Windproof outerwear is the one essential I need. I love my Gore Windstopper jacket, and would recommend one. I also recommend a pair of windproof heavyweight tights.
I have two bikes. The first is a Bianchi Impulso road bike, which I ride as much as possible.
For real foul weather days I have my older hybrid which is a 2009 Trek 7.5 FX. It is fitted with knobby wide tires and this is my slush bike.
When there is snow on the paths, I keep my riding to neighborhood streets.
Lights and reflective-wear for shorter days?
My lights are simple, I have a Light & Motion 350 lumen headlight, and a Planet Bike blinky taillight.
I make sure the clothing I buy has reflective accents or piping and is high-vis (neon green).
I’m concerned with being seen, and I don’t ride through many places that require additional light to illuminate the paths after dark. I guess I keep it pretty simple.
What’s so great about riding through the winter?
As I mentioned before the best part about the winter riding is how peaceful it can be. It’s meditative and it can be beautiful. My favorite is riding the Capital Crescent Trail since once you’re on it you feel far removed from the city and it’s just a beautiful bike path through the woods.
Is there a threshold below which you will not ride?
The first year I participated in Freezing Saddles, I wouldn’t ride if the temperature was below 20 degrees with strong wind. This year I’ve braved temperatures about that low. It motivated me to buy warmer clothes.
I still don’t have rain gear so sometimes I won’t ride if it’s going to be pouring all day. Also, I don’t ride in the snow, unless the trails I need to ride are clear.
What would you say to somebody who is interested in riding through the winter, but doesn’t know where to start?
Challenge yourself. Winter doesn’t really sneak up on you. It gets colder through the fall.
Try going out on a day just a little colder than you did the day or week before. If you feel too cold, consider buying some warmer clothes or just add a layer to what you have, such as a short-sleeve jersey over a long-sleeve jersey.
It’s a matter of experimenting. If you want to be out there badly enough, you’ll make it work.
What question did I forget to ask you?
What is Friday Coffee Club and should I go?
It’s the happiest thing. Meet other cyclists Friday morning for coffee at Swings in D.C. It’s been one of the best ways to meet people. If you’re on the fence, just go.