Frost-Bike 2013 and winter road cycling tips

When I first moved to St Louis, I was fortunate to work in the lab with a graduate student who also loved cycling and was always up for doing stuff outside. I was excited to see what a big(ger) city had to offer for training, but also really pumped  to get to meet a new group of people and learn from them. I tagged along for a meeting at Cafe Ventana where a bunch of outgoing women in spandex and wool seemed to literally buzz around the room, high fiving and hugging and basking in the general camaraderie that ensued. This was Team Revolution, a group of women of all ages who get together to ride their bikes and share, learn, and advance to sport of women in cycling. We rolled out for a 2hr ride in below-freezing weather and meandered around St Louis City in a beautiful double-breasted line for all to see (no pun intended).

Yesterday, we met up again at Cafe Ventana to kick off the first official Frost-Bike ride of 2013. This year, the ride is split up into three groups, with the “A” group (e.g. racers) rolling out at 10am for a 2hr ride, the “B” group rolling out at 11am (e.g. mid-pack) for a 1 hr ride, and the “C” leaving at the same time as B but going a little easier (e.g. cruisers). Some of us caffeinated beforehand, others just socialized and caught up with friends they haven’t seen since cyclocross season or before… and a little before 11am, we got bundled up, took a photo, and then rolled out.

Team Rev gathering pre-ride at Cafe Ventana Frost Bike does a great job of teaching “road ride etiquette” using the full submersion technique. As an experienced road cyclist, I am sometimes caught off-guard when riding with others who either don’t know the rules of the road or don’t care to follow them. Team Rev strives to educate women riders in being responsible self-motorists, and when I ride with women from Team Rev, I feel safe and comfortable on my bike. It doesn’t hurt to have 30 women riding two-abreast on a road to draw attention, either, and makes riding safer (especially if everyone, cyclists and motorists included, are following the law).

The other thing I find extraordinary about Team Rev is their encouragement of women in the sport. I never feel like I am not welcome, and I never feel like others are competing with me to be better and faster cyclists. On Frost Bike rides, the goal is to have fun, socialize, and get out when the weather would otherwise keep you inside on a trainer. Want to ride hard? Don’t come to the Frost Bike rides (at least, don’t ride with the B and C groups). These groups are no drop rides (I am not sure about the A group since I didn’t ride with them, but plan to next week), and if the group gets strung out, the ride leader slows us down to regroup. There are occasionally Team Rev-ers riding up and down the string of riders to update the leader about the status of the rear pack. There is never any racing to cross intersections if the light is about to turn yellow; the ride leader will stop and wait for the rest of the group and just wait out the light. This is important when planning a ride for Frost Bike; you have to dress the part.

Headed into Forest Park with the lead of the B group

Headed into Forest Park with the lead of the B group

The entire group gathering post-ride for some beignets and coffee

The entire group gathering post-ride for some warmth, beignets and coffee

So how do you prepare for winter riding? Here is a list of general rules to follow when prepping to brave the conditions:

  • Dress in layers: Generally, you can never be too warm, but you want to make sure that your layers are not bulky and that you’ll be able to move without restrictions. If you wear six layers of Icebreaker wool and find yourself overheating 15min into the ride, you can always take some clothes off. However, if you don’t come prepared, you can never add more unless you are friends with someone who is overdressed. It’s always a good idea to dress warmer than you think you will need to, because on a bike, rolling at 20miles per hour, appendages can get a bit colder than if you are just standing at a stoplight. Under all your layers, wear your standard cycling gear (whether its cycling bibs, shorts, or capris). Then, put your layers on over top of this. Don’t forget a nice wool or synthetic hat under your helmet. There are wind blocking liners for helmets, too, that work great! Pro tip: You want to make sure your core and head stay warm and don’t leak all your heat!
  • Protect yourself from the wind (and sun): A general wind-breaker jacket usually works wonders, but there are a lot of other things that can help protect you from the wind, too. Your face can often be forgotten when prepping to head outside for a winter ride, so bring with you a balaclava or neck wraps (Buffs are fantastic for winter riding because they are adaptable to your needs!). You basically want to make sure that any skin that is exposed can be covered. Another great (and necessary) winter riding item are shoe covers; These block the wind from peaking into your shoes and freezing your toes, which are usually the first things to get cold and the most difficult things to warm back up. If you normally have cold toes in general, you can stash a toe warmer packet in between your shoes and cover to add that extra warmth (its like having a miniature space heater for your feet). Avoid putting these warmer packets right next to your skin because they can get pretty darn hot. If you have any exposed skin, make sure to put some sunscreen on so you don’t get a sunburn; plus add a little moisturizer to help keep your skin from drying out and cracking from the wind.
  • Invest in wool: Wool makes for amazing layering. It’s thin but keeps you warm, and it generally lasts a lot longer (and doesn’t end up smelling nearly as bad) as synthetic material. My favorite brand is Icebreaker, and they make a lot of cycling-specific items. Don’t forget the wool socks, too. If its snowy or sleety, wool is even that much better because it helps to keep you warm even when it gets wet.
  • Invest in great gloves: Having cold hands on a group ride sucks. You want to make sure you have dexterity (i.e., mobility of your fingers), but also maintain warmth and comfort. Having some sort of wind-blocking function is fantastic, too. Finding gloves that do all of these things is difficult, though. Sometimes, it’s worth doubling up on gloves; getting a nice pair of wind-blocking gloves that are not-so-warm (in a slightly big size) but have grippy palms and fingers… and coupling them with a warm, snuggly (and thin) pair of liner gloves to wear underneath. Look for Windstopper materials, too. Unfortunately, women will probably have better luck finding a great winter glove by looking in the men’s gloves section as opposed to women-specific gloves because there are more options; you’ll just have to account for men’s gloves being sized larger. I like lobster mitts (Toko, Swix, and Pearl Izumi make great ones!), and have heard great things about Gore Bike Wear make a great pair of windproof winter cycling gloves. If you have an exceptionally terrible time keeping your hands warm, there are things like bar mitts that can be fitted to your bike and provide neoprene-weather-resistance (although they take getting used to).
  • Protect your eyes: When its cold, my eyes tend to water a lot, so I always make sure I take extra-coverage sunglasses on winter rides to keep the cold wind from hitting my eyes. I’ve seen some riders rocking ski goggles too, which would be great if you’re heading out on a snowy or sleaty day. Also, its not just exposure to the elements to be concerned about; sometimes we don’t think we need sunglasses to block UV rays because its cloudy and overcast. But reflection from snow can also impair our vision, and its always a good idea to have some UV protection for our eyes when riding in the winter.
  • Wear something with big pockets to stash your extras: Whether you are over-dressing and need to stash some layers or you aren’t sure if you’ll need those extra pair of arm warmers, its always convenient to have a cycling jersey on to stash the extra stuff.  Stash some of these things on all your winter rides: hand/toe warmers (in case of emergency), packets of nut butter (in case of a bonk), extra liner gloves.
  • Bring fluids: You will feel like you don’t need to drink, that you are not sweating and that you are doing just fine, but the truth is, if you are going out for more than an hour, you’re probably going to want something to drink. If its exceptionally cold, fill your bottle with warm water, get an insulated bottle, or mix in electrolytes (Nuun or sports drink) to prevent your  water from freezing solid.
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