Being caught off guard by the weather foils many a winter bike ride. With Anchorage’s extreme temperature variations, it can be above freezing at Glen Alps in the Chugach Mountains, and below zero at the Campbell Creek Science Center in Far North Bicentennial Park, only a few miles away.
The key to dressing for winter biking is layering – and having places to store those extra layers on your bike.
I often see bikers riding with a jacket tied around their waist. Loose clothing can become snagged in the rear wheel, which can bring you to an abrupt stop, cause you to fall, break expensive equipment, and worse, embarrass you among your friends.
There are devices designed to conveniently carry gear on a fat bike. One of my favorites is the frame bag by Revelate Designs, which fits neatly in the center triangle. The zippered main compartment allows easy access while I’m standing astride my bike.
Seat bags are also popular. But you can use an ordinary pack to stow extra items such as spare gloves, a headband or hat, and chemical toe warmers, for example. Just make sure that the bag or pack has empty room to store any items that you shed.
I constantly check the National Weather Service Mesonet, which lists local weather observations from a network of stations throughout Anchorage, Eagle River and the Matanuska Valley. Pull up 24-hour data by double clicking on a given location. By noting trends in temperature, wind and precipitation I can better prepare for the day’s adventure. To find the Mesonet go to http://pafc.arh.noaa.gov/mesonet.php.
I make a mental note of whether I will be climbing or descending out of the trailhead. If my ride starts with a climb, I pack extra layers in my frame bag for the cold trip back down. I like to start climbing on the chilly side because I’ll soon warm up and reach stasis, a balance between generating body heat as I exert myself, and shedding body heat in the cold.
I prefer a base layer of either Smartwool or a wicking synthetic fabric such as the Craft Active Extreme. I also wear a hooded, wind resistant Mammut soft shell jacket with a generously sized hood to fit over my helmet and the ever-important pit zips for ventilation. If you quickly overheat from wearing too many layers, stop immediately and store one of them in your frame bag, seat bag or pack. Try to avoid sweating heavily as the extra moisture in your clothing will suck body heat away from you as you descend. Arguably, the most common mistake when dressing for winter riding is allowing yourself to sweat too heavily.
Once I’m at the top, I’ll put on an extra shell or down sweater as well as a pair of dry, warm gloves. If it’s really cold, I might don a midweight layer as well.
Pogies, warm puffy mittens that fit over the handlebars, are essential for winter riding. There are the occasional hot-blooded furnaces that seem to never get cold hands, but the majority of us appreciate these puffy incubators.
Wind chill creates havoc for winter bikers. A balaclava or face mask keeps cold air from freezing exposed skin. Zip up those pit zips and pull on your hood to save body heat.
Eye protection in the form of wraparound sunglasses or well-ventilated goggles is a must for any winter ride. Cold, dry air, especially if it’s windy, can damage tender corneas. I have had a few occasions when cloudy vision has compromised my bike handling and made route finding difficult.
The weakest link for any winter biker is the feet. Make sure that your footwear allows plenty of room for a thin pair of wicking socks and a medium to heavy sock over that.
My favorite boots are the 45NRTH Wolvhammer clipless winter riding boots. I prefer them to be two sizes too big to allow my toes wiggle room and to insert a toe warmer if needed.
These boots are paycheck busters, so if you’re looking for something easier on the wallet, the Lake MXZ303 is less expensive but may not offer the same warmth as the 45NRTH. Budget-conscious riders may do well with cross-country ski boot covers that fit over a pair of oversized mountain bike shoes to add a layer of warmth. If you use platform pedals, you have many more options to keep your toes toasty.
Experiment with your layers and methods of stowing your gear. Everyone has a different furnace and comfort level with the cold. Once you dial it in, you can look forward to maximum fun on your fat biking adventures.
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