“How can it be this damn cold?”
She looked back at me, a bit nervous about witnessing my slight loss of composure.
I rarely lose composure. Almost never. Not when the seven-gallon water tanks froze solid. Not when the ‘check engine’ light came on 900 miles from home and 40 miles from the nearest… anything. Not when the tent blew over the mountain. Not even when the bikes threatened to blow out of the back of the truck, and snow started to fall on us in the high mountains surrounding Death Valley.
But here I was, wearing everything I had, shouting at the icy morning wind as it extracted both moisture, and motivation, from my being.
We were out there to train. A self-supported training camp. Ride all day, campfires and constellations at night. Back to basics, like Rocky Balboa. My brilliant idea.
“Can I wear your purple tights?” I asked.
“The ones I wore at the beginning of the trip?” she answered. “They’re covered in ashes and coffee stains.”
Ashes and stains were of no concern to me. I rolled out that morning wearing the purple tights. I actually thought they matched well with the wool army sweater under my rain jacket, and the orange hunting hat stretched over my POC helmet.
One hundred and seventeen kilometers of road passed by — roads lined with Joshua Trees and ruled, primarily, by coyotes. With the right pair of purple tights, the jaunt through the lunar landscape was a joy.
Even in the hottest place on earth — Death Valley posted a blistering 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 C) back in 1913 — falling mercury can transform a joy ride into a survival mission.
After spending 28 years in the Colorado Rockies, nine of them earning a paycheck as a professional cyclist, I like to believe I’ve acquired a few tricks to stay warm even in the worst winter conditions.
Want to know how I managed a 27-hour week, with a high of 7F (-13C) and a low of -6F (-21C)? Read on.
For starters, ditch the road bike. Wind chill is not make believe, and road bikes are death on wheels when conditions get bad. Got a ‘cross bike? Great! A mountain bike? Even Better! Fat bike? You’re a genius!
Now, go get that bike some bigger tires, drop the pressure, and buy some damn fenders. Why people think fenders are so uncool, I will never understand. I think it looks uncool getting a bucket of road slushy shot up your ass. Repeated: Buy some damn fenders.
Next, head for your closet. Double up on the base layers. Put a mesh one on first, and a regular one on second. It will change your life, I promise you. If it is really cold, find some sort of insulation. This could be a fleece-lined long sleeve jersey, or it could be a double-thick wool sweater. You are going to have to use your brain for this one.
Over this all, wear something to block the wind. Make it colorful so you look pretty and do not get run over by snow plows. If you will be pushing your ride close to sunset, add some lights to your bike as well. The sun sets early, and quickly, in the winter, and snow plows will kill you dead. Be sure the collar is wide enough around to accommodate some sort of neck buff. A buff will safe your face from falling off anytime you head down hill.
Next up: Tights. Get some tights. Leg warmers are worthless when it gets really cold. Why? Go try it, and tell me how your crotch feels. Brain freeze in your pants, right? I don’t care if they are purple; get tights. If it’s wet and slushy, ditch the dignity and slap on some water proof pants.
For your feet, wool socks are a must, but take care that they they do not restrict circulation inside your speedy little cycling shoes.
Next, tape up all vents on your shoes. Just like the base layer trick, this too will change your life forever.
Over your wool socks and fancy taped shoes, start with a cotton shoe cover before putting on the neoprene shoe cover.
If you’re smart enough to ride Shimano SPD-R pedals, you are in luck. (Yes, I use them on my ’cross and mountain bikes; feel free to mock me in the comments section below.) Tape over that gaping hole in the middle and slap some little chemical hand warmers in there. Tell your friends it is more aero, and enjoy five hours of nirvana.
As for gloves, the best advice I can offer is to have no shame. The bigger the better. Just make sure they have a nice soft thumb for wiping boogers off your face before they freeze.
If you think you might actually die out there, or if you wear contact lenses, you might consider wearing goggles, although I would advise against it. They don’t exactly integrate well with cycling caps, they fog up, and they look dumb. At this point you don’t have any dignity to spare, what with the water proof pants and monster gloves, so wear the coolest looking sunglasses you own.
If the liquid in your eyes actually does start to freeze, use it as your canary in the coal mine, and head home.
Now that that you’re all geared up, it’s time to fill up a bottle or two. Add your favorite hydration mix, and a splash of bourbon — only if you are of legal drinking age, of course, and not too much, even if you are. If you do decide to go heavy on the bourbon, ride with a spotter. It will help keep your fluids nice and… fluid. Bourbon doesn’t freeze.
Next, do a little core work, or a quick gym session, to get the blood moving. Grab some snacks, to ward off that horrible bonk chill.
And finally, get the hell out the door before you think about it too much.
Out on the ride, enjoy yourself. Relish in the pleasure of bonus miles. Dream of your all-but-guaranteed summer victories.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that my first race of 2016 is the Tour de San Luis, where the daily high temperature will be right around 100 Fahrenheit (38C). Maybe next time, I’ll have some suggestions on how to cope with the heat.
About the author
Alex Howes is a senior member of the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team. Born and raised at the base of the Colorado Rockies, he has acquired a nearly insatiable thirst for adventure and all things wild. He’s completed every grand tour he’s started, including the Tour de France, twice. He took his first career win at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, in Denver, Colorado, and finished as the top American at the world road championships in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015. He’s eyeing a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic road squad. Follow his adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Pro Cycling Stats.