“Off the Beaten Path” is sponsored by the City of Altoona.
Have you ever looked out the window on a frigid January morning, watched a group of cyclists roll down the street, and thought to yourself:
Am I missing something, or are those people insane?
While we can’t speak to the sanity of our local cyclists, we can confirm that you are, in fact, missing something. In a season when most of us are stuck inside, winter cycling is a great way to get out and explore the community. It may be chilly, but it’s worth it. The local trails and nature preserves are beautiful in the winter, and a ride through the woods on a brisk morning—when many of the trails are vacant—is seriously Zen.
With that said, winter cycling has a bit of a learning curve, and you’ll want to make sure you have the right bike and gear before you head out the door.
To help you get started, we sat down with Altoona resident Doug McCloskey—a member of the Altoona Road Riders bike club, who has been riding for 25 years—to learn his top tips for winter cycling.
Here’s what you should know before you go:
Preparing Your Bike
- Buy studded tires. It makes a huge difference because of the freeze-thaw issue in Iowa. (Snowmelt tends to cover trails and pavement, then freezes overnight.) You can get these pretty much anywhere you get a bike.
- Brake levers can get especially cold. Try covering them in hockey tape or surgical tubing.
- Get carbon handlebars—carbon doesn’t get as cold as aluminum or steel.
- During the winter, most riders use flat pedals to get their feet off the ice. I like using clip-less pedals. But, when it dips below zero, I’m riding with flat pedals and boots.
- Most people use fat-tire or mountain bikes in the winter. I don’t know many people who ride with road bikes this time of year. Plus, fat-tire bikes are a lot of fun!
- During the winter, it’s especially important to keep your bike chain clean and lubed because of all the salt and water. People who drive with their bike on the back of their car should look out for this. Moisture and salt can cause your bike to rust pretty fast.
Getting the Ride Gear
- I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve learned that you really shouldn’t go cheap with winter gear. Brands like Craft, Pearl Izumi and 45 North are expensive, but they’re high-quality.
- Get a set of good Pogies (large covers that wrap around your hands and the bike handles). You just need something to protect your hands from the wind, and most gloves aren’t enough.
- During the winter, I wear a Balaclava beneath a regular bike helmet. When it’s really cold, below zero, I switch to a snowboard helmet.
- For most people, the biggest challenge is keeping your feet and hands warm. For hands, I recommend lobster-style gloves (with three slots total: two slots for two fingers each, one slot for the thumb). In really cold weather, I switch to mittens to keep my fingers together.
- As for feet, I use my clipped-in shoes and two pairs of socks (one thin layer of Merino wool beneath one thicker layer). My winter cycling shoes are 1.5 sizes bigger than my normal size, so I can fit multiple pairs of socks. In sub-zero temps, I use toe-warmers. You can put the first layer of socks on with the warmer on top, then add the second layer, followed by boots.
- To keep your body warm, try layering. I recommend wearing something breathable, along with two layers of Merino wool, a good cycling jacket that will break the wind and running tights. If it’s below freezing, try outdoor winter cycling pants—but make sure you purchase the kind that’s designed for below-freezing temps.
- You want something to protect your eyes from tree branches and debris. I recommend safety glasses. They offer the same type of protection as goggles, but they don’t fog.
- A lot of people wear boots when riding during the winter. I recommend something lighter that keeps you dry and warm.
A Few More Tips…
- Start cold. This may sound strange, but you don’t want to be warm when you start riding. If you’re warm at the beginning, you’ll be sweating like crazy later.
- Some of the best winter riding is at night. Just make sure you have a good light.
- When you’re in Altoona, try biking on the trails down to Pleasant Hill; just watch out for ice on the trail. I also like riding on trails behind the Des Moines Art Center, as well as the trails up towards Johnston (North of I-80, off Beaver Road).