January 29, 2016

Bruce Wilbur on Winter Commuting

We recently interviewed young Chris Shelly who is riding year-round – including winter – in the City of Munising on the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Today we’re veering to the other end of the age spectrum with Bruce Wilbur from Rochester, New York. We’ve been acquainted on Bikeforums.net for a long time, and Bruce is the first person who springs to mind whenever I think about winter-riding expertise.

Bruce, tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 59, happily single, and a hometown boy here on the cloudy shores of Lake Ontario. I work in da ‘hood at a neighborhood branch of the public library. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I like what I do, I like the people I work with, I like our patrons, and they need what I have to give. Plus, at my age, the government pension is a nice benny. Off hours, I’m heavily into J-Rock and I’m learning Japanese.

Is it true you’ve been car-free since 1999? How did that come about? What drove you to that decision?

It was unplanned. In April 1999 my 13-year-old car was a trashbox, and I had it towed away to the crusher. I was living in a high-rise where parking was extra, and working at the University medical center where parking for contractors was $10 a day, a half-mile away from the hospital. The bus went from the end of my block right to the front door of the hospital for $1.25. And the grocery store, bank, post office, hardware store, and whatnot were right along the way. I had planned to get another car in the fall, but I never got around to it.

What sort of traffic and road conditions does your typical commute entail?

Variety is the spice, so I use several different routes and variations of them on my commute, depending on conditions, mood, whether I need to stop for things, and so on. In winter these include

  • The winter loop at 10.5 miles is mainly on two-lanes with decent shoulders looping around the south side of the city through a bordering suburb. There’s bit of four-lane with no shoulder crossing the river. I use this loop on nice days after everything’s been plowed.
  • The hills, parks, and cemetery route is about seven miles through residential streets along the hills south of the city, two parks, a 200 acre Victorian cemetery, and the University’s River Campus. When I need some hills in my legs or a quiet commute, this is the one.
Commuting through the cemetery

Commuting through the cemetery

  • My preferred 4.5 mile foul weather route is mainly residential, but not plowed very well.
  • The last ditch is a 4.3 mile route straight through downtown, mainly on four and six-lanes with occasional short, bike lanes. Not pleasant, but frequently and thoroughly plowed.

As for traffic, I go to work around lunchtime and come home after dinnertime, so I don’t get much of traffic. OTOH, that schedule means headlight season is eight months of the year, so I have damned good lights.

You were car-free for many years before you gave up on the bus and went year-round on the bicycle. How did that transition come about? And what challenges did you face that first winter?

I seldom do anything without several reasons. I’d had a friend only five years older die of a heart attack. I wanted more flexibility in my schedule and routing. And the transit company had just raised fares by eliminating transfers.

I never planned on cycling through the whole winter. The very idea seemed ludicrous—even after I learned about studded tires.

It started as a game, seeing how far I could take it. Every day I built on what worked (or didn’t) the day before. I gave myself permission to use the bus if things got “too bad”. Took nine years for that to happen. Who knew?

And the bikes. Tell us about the bikes. How many and what styles? Drop bars or flat?

When you’re pushing 50 and walk into a bike shop telling them you haven’t been on a bike in 35 years, they sell you a hybrid. It wasn’t a bad bike—got the job done and took a lot of beginner abuse—but it was only three months before I realized it wasn’t the bike for me. Roadies were calling.

The following January, through a snowstorm, I towed home a $100 Craigslist fixer-upper roadie.


Yeah. I took the front wheel off, hooked the dropouts over my rear rack, and bungeed the whole thing in place. Then I rode home through the snow towing it.

I fixed it up over the winter. Come March, it was love at first pedal stroke. I seem to remember a lot of whooping and laughing.

Wow. That’s a great story Bruce. What about today?

These days I own three bikes, all variations on the theme of roadie.

My 2006 Trek Portland is my four-season, all-conditions commuter. Part cyclocross bike, part touring bike, it fits my studded snow tires under full fenders. It runs full 105 with Avid BB7 disc brakes, and a dynamo hub lighting system.

The Trek Portland

The Trek Portland

I built up my 2013 Ribble Winter/Audax all from parts. It’s similarly equipped as the Portland, but fits only 28s under full fenders and has rim brakes.

The Ribble

The Ribble

For club rides and unladen fair-weather commutes I have a 1996 Litespeed Classic. I bought the frameset from a member of my club, and built it up with full Dura-Ace. Fits me like a prosthetic, handles telepathically.

The 1996 Lightspeed Classic

The 1996 Lightspeed Classic

What about temperatures? And snow? Rochester is far enough north to be cold, right? Do you also deal with snow and ice on the streets?

We’re famous for lake-effect snow, so of course there’s plenty in the street.

The studded snow tires help a lot. It’s not like for a car where you need them so you don’t get stuck. If I get stuck (happens about once a year), I can hop off and carry the bike. No biggie. The studs keep the bike from sliding out from under you. I’ve fallen only twice in ten years, and each time it was stupid mistakes.

Do you commute to work by bike in winter? Has commuting to work presented any specific challenges or difficulties?

All winter, both ways, every day. My record is 1,596 consecutive workdays bike commuting. I’m now at 439 consecutive days and climbing.

The only difficulty is that I get my car-driving co-workers into trouble. Just this week lake-effect snow squalls all night and all day left a few inches of fresh snow in the street. I arrived at work 10 minutes early even after stopping at the bank. All my co-workers were 5-10 minutes late, all complaining of “the conditions”. My boss said, “Bruce rode his bike in the same conditions and got to work on time…”

Maybe your colleagues should leave a few minutes earlier.

Right! I know that the studs add a minute per mile to my commuting time, and conditions can add a couple more. So a four-mile commute with road tires in good weather at 15 minutes becomes 20 to 25 or 30 depending on conditions. If I leave 5, 10, or 15 minutes early, there’s really no problem.

Getting the clothing right has always been difficult for me. In fact, I’d say clothing is the #1 obstacle to winter riding.

No. The number one obstacle to winter cycling is psychology. Your own mind gets in your way. Winter cycling becomes easy once you stop thinking about it.

You have to be willing to experiment and get it wrong before you get it right. Few adults still have the sense of adventure it takes for just that simple task—getting it wrong first. If you want something to work perfectly the first time, stay home in your reclining chair. That’s what most adults do.

Bruce, that’s a fair point, about the mindset. Most of my winter rides are just a few blocks to the store or Post Office, and maybe two miles on a good day when I’m out for fun with friends. Those are short rides, but I still end up having to think carefully about clothing.

What makes clothing choices difficult is that everyone’s physiology is different and we all ride differently. So you can’t use a paint-by-numbers approach to advice—either giving it or taking it. What works for me may not work for you, sometimes simply because we cycle differently and make different amounts of heat as we ride.

It’s like dogs. You know how when you take some dogs to the park, all they do is run simply because they can? You can’t make them stop? I’m like that. I ride athletically year round, simply because that’s what’s fun for me.

In the winter, I wear remarkably little since I make so much heat as I ride. A jacket, wicking long-sleeve t-shirt, bib tights, and boots get me to the middle teens. A smell-the-roses rider needs to wear much more because they make that much less heat as they ride. And that’s before we get to differing physiologies.

So what tips and advice can you provide to riders who want to begin venturing out in winter?

A good rule of thumb is to dress a little on the light side. You’ll be cold for the first ten minutes. The five-minute mark is the worst. That’s when you question your sanity. Happens to me daily. It’s part of the process, not a genuine problem.

At ten minutes, suddenly you realize you’re warming up. At 15 or 20 you’re unzipping things and wondering why you thought you were cold a few minutes ago.

When things happen that way in that order, you’ve got it nailed. If not, make adjustments the next time, and try again. That’s really the only universal advice.

Any thoughts on cycling-specific clothing?

I froze my first year because I was strongly against cycling-specific clothes. Riding the bus, I’d amassed all sorts of arctic-grade wear that kept me warm standing in a snowdrift waiting for a bus. I thought I knew the cold and what was needed.

All that gear was far too hot and sweaty for the bike on which I was exercising instead of just standing around, although it may have been okay for a smell-the-roses cyclist. My other choices weren’t really winter wear.

My second season was transitional. I used mainly cheap, winter cycling wear and it was better. There was room for improvement, and that showed me I was heading in the right direction.

Bruce, during that transitional second winter

Bruce, during that transitional second winter

But you did eventually make the plunge, right? You did eventually buy into some gear made specifically for cycling?

That’s right. The exception in my second season was a $280 pair of Lake-brand winter cycling boots. I’d fallen in love with SPDs and wanted to stay clipless, but with warm feet all winter. I’m a klutz, and have a hard time keeping my feet on the pedals even in dry weather. Clipless keeps me from barking my shins on every ride.

My boot purchase showed me that the good stuff works, and works well. Those boots are too warm to wear above freezing, and it’s not until below zero that I even need a second pair of socks.

What about your third winter?

The third winter I nailed it, using nothing but the good stuff. I haven’t been cold—or worse, sweaty—ever since. Plus, the good stuff lasts. All I’ve had to replace is gloves.

Next year I may need to replace my Endura Gridlock jacket. Eight years for $120—nine next year—is a pretty good deal, IMHO. An ankle zipper let go last year on my Pearl Izumi AmFib bib tights. A rubber band works now.

What about specialty items? What special clothing items are worthy of money, and in what cases can we make do with what we already have or can get at whatever normal clothing store is nearby?

Winter cycling boots rock, whether you use them clipless or not. Cold feet will kill your ride, and ordinary winter boots are too heavy, too big, and too clunky. Buy a size or two too large to accommodate extra socks, and don’t tighten them too much or you’ll cut off your circulation and heat source.

Winter bib tights rock. They’re windproof, water-resistant, insulated, designed to bend at the knee without binding across the front or bunching in the back, and there’s no elastic squeezing your waist or slipping down to give you plumber’s crack in the cold. Buy the ones without a pad, and wear cycling shorts underneath to save on laundering and re-waterproofing the tights.

Winter cycling skullcaps are made thin enough to fit under a helmet, as are winter cycling balaclavas. Big woolly hats won’t fit under helmets, and the wind blows through them anyway.

Where I make do is in shirts. I wear plain old wicking long-sleeve t-shirts.

And some will find this odd, but I’ve found nirvana in snowboarding mittens. They’re warm, wind- and waterproof, and have grippy stuff over the entire palms. And don’t think you can’t shift in mittens! I do it every ride, and have been for years. I simply grip the hoods differently so that I can use my index finger on either lever.

Pants. Let’s talk practical problems. I can throw on a coat and hat and gloves pretty quickly to make run to the store by bike. But changing into warmer pants and/or a base layer is a pain in the neck. Off go the shoes. Switch the pants around. Put shoes back on. Meh. I’d rather take the car. Bruce, how do you deal with that?

Simple. I don’t have a car. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: when you remove all other excuses, what remains, however much you don’t want to do it, is still the easy thing to do.

In the grand scheme of things, how much work is it really to change your clothes? So it’s not changing clothes that gets in your way, but psychology. The excuse machine turns on, and instantly you have dozens of “perfectly good reasons” to not ride your bike.

Once you realize that the excuse machine works to keep you lazy, that’s the first step. Realizing that by listening to it you’re depriving yourself of the fun is the second step.

And fogging. Not my brain Bruce, but my glasses! They always fog. I have a “head thing” with vent holes in front of mouth and nose, and still my breath goes up to fog my glasses. Is there a solution?

Yes. Keep moving. <laughs> I’ve worn glasses for over 50 years. They fog. I’ve never gotten why this is such a huge problem for other people. Stuff happens, you deal.

Hah! Bruce. Maybe I’m one of those smell-the-roses cyclists you speak of. I have to be honest and say that keeping speed up during winter conditions is a challenge. I’ll fly down the hills where I live at crazy speeds, but I’m not so very fast on the flats and the climbs. Sounds like you’re a faster rider.

Probably I am Jonathan. The only time eyeglasses fog for me is at stoplights. When the light changes, as I start up I turn my head a little to let more air blow behind them, and in 10 or 20 yards they’re clear. Where’s the problem?

As for your “head thing”, I use a balaclava with one big hole in front for my whole face, not the kind with individual eye, nose and mouth holes. It lets my breath blow away instead of becoming trapped. And it’s easier to slip down off the back of my head when I walk into the bank. Prevents a lot of misunderstanding.

Is maintaining your bikes difficult? Does winter gum up the works? Do you store the bikes inside or outside? And does it matter?

Yes. It matters simply for ease of maintenance. Nobody wants to go outside in the snow to clean and lube their chain, so it goes uncleaned and unlubed until it’s either stiff as a board or it snaps. Same with brake pads and cables, and even airing up the tires. Storing bikes inside helps.

I don’t really have a lot of choice at either end of my commute. If I want my bikes to stay mine, I have to park them inside. If I don’t want slush dripping all over the oak parquet floor in my apartment, I have to hose the bikes down in the shower before hanging them on their hooks in the living room. As long as a bike is right there in the shower anyway, maintenance is easy.

Bicycle hanging in the shower

Shower maintenance. Notice the bike hook on the back wall.

Understand too, that winter is murder on wear parts. It’s just a given. I know that with my spring “desalination” I’ll have to replace chains, cables, housing, brake pads, and maybe a cassette. I do that automatically every spring and don’t worry it. I spend about one car payment a year on wear parts for three bikes. That’s pretty cheap in my book.

What about lube? What are you liking for winter riding?

A good, persistent chain lube is key to keeping the chain running right in the wet, snow, slush, and salt. Such a lube stays on the chain instead of washing off, reducing the need for maintenance. I use Chain-L and NFS.

Do you have any disaster stories? Have you ever gone on a winter commute by bike only to have it go far south?

Nope. Well one time two winters ago my right STI lever spit the bit. I had to ride home in the 12 in back, with the only shifting choices being the triple in front, which realistically meant only the 30 ring. That’s hardly a disaster.

I had a spare lever and cables at home, but no bar tape. THAT was the disaster.

Bruce, any parting words? If you could say one thing to encourage readers to give winter biking a go, what would that one thing be?

You don’t know what you can do until you do it. In fact, until you try, you’ll assume that you can’t do it.

Until the last 100 years or so, all our ancestors traveled all winter long without remote-starting, climate-controlled boxes and heated leather seats. There’s no physical reason why you can’t do the same. You were bred that way.

I have Reynaud’s Disease, a spasmodic clamping closed of the blood vessels on exposure to cold—the cold hands, warm heart syndrome. I get cold and my hands and feet turn blue on the couch reading a book at 70 degrees. With Reynaud’s you develop a knee-jerk reaction to the cold. I won’t open my freezer without gloves on.

And yet, I’ve missed only three days of bike commuting in the past ten years. One of them due to that broken STI lever. And on the other two, the snow was over my bottom bracket, so I dug out my arctic gear and took the bus.

If a genuine, medically-diagnosed physical issue isn’t enough to keep me off the bike in the winter… What was your excuse again?

Bruce, thank you.

You’re welcome.