Winter Biking: It’s 27 Degrees, But it “feels like” 15 … or is that 53?

Myron Willson winter biking gear

Sustainability Resource Center Director Myron Willson is ready to ride, rain, snow, or shine.

By Myron Willson, Sustainability Resource Center

At a recent community forum I attended, the facilitator asked the crowd if anyone actually enjoyed their commuting experience and to her surprise, many of the people raised their hands. Upon further questioning, it was revealed that all of the people who liked commuting either took public transportation or were cyclists. The more telling finding was that not one person who commuted by car raised their hand.

uscanThe problem is, temperatures dropped precipitously last week (yesterday morning the temperature was 18 degrees), and figuring out how to be comfortable at any temperature is one of the main challenges of the wintertime cyclist.

Are you a cyclist who would like to keep biking, but can’t stand the cold? Consider attending the Winter Biking Workshop sponsored by University of Utah Student Clean Air Network (USCAN) and University of Utah Bike Collective this Thursday, Nov. 20 from 4-5 pm at the Union Den.

It is possible to bike year-round. Before becoming a full-time cyclist last February, I would only bike two or three days per week and drive the other days. The part-time cycling routine enabled me to avoid harsh weather riding (and days when I was not particularly motivated). When I gave up my parking pass nine months ago, I committed to riding full-time, whether 73 degrees and sunny or 14 and smoggy and/or snowy.


Coal trucks pass each other on a highway. Photo by Aaron Vowels/Flickr

My first introduction to serious cycling came as a Mormon missionary in 1974. Nothing inspires confidence on a bike like sharing roads with coal trucks in the “hollers” of West Virginia. In addition to growing confidence, I learned to appreciate the relaxed pace of cycling and the sense of connection with the outdoors not found in an enclosed vehicle.

After my mission was over, I declared my intention to continue cycling but my fellow RMs (returned missionaries) all predicted I would quickly lose enthusiasm and return to a car. Counter to their forecasts, I have continued to cycle for basic transportation and recreation for almost 40 years. While I have had cars, I have avoided using them for work a good portion of the time, including the six years I commuted 15 miles (one way) from Isla Vista to downtown Santa Barbara.

Throughout the years, I have had many motivations for cycling. Mostly I have done it because it was a way to keep fit and use commuting time productively. I have even incorporated my geeky side for motivation by calculating the net savings in leaving the car at home versus extra time spent on the bike[1]. I calculated I earn about $15-20/hour for the extra time needed to bicycle (depending on how fast I pedal – your earnings will vary). Not only that, but I have lost a few extra pounds along the way and am able to enjoy an occasional dessert or caloric beverage without guilt.

In spite of my long-term relationship with cycling, I have never been particularly good about maintaining my commitment throughout harsh winter months. The shock of leaving a relatively warm house and venturing out into the cold was enough to puncture my initiative.


Warm gloves back a huge difference when biking in cold weather, especially when riding down hill.

Over the last year I have made a deliberate effort to cycle, regardless of the weather. What I discovered was that I needed a few more “accessories” than when biking above 40 degrees. With the savings I’ve earned by not needing a parking permit and reduced gasoline use, I purchased: rain gear (including shoe booties), enormous and amazingly warm gloves, and better traction tires for rain and light snow.

Most importantly, adequate lighting for the darker days of winter is important to remain visible to motorists (and to see potholes and other road hazards). I found a local entrepreneur who makes a great, high-visibility product, but there are many great products available to help keep you safely visible.

Better traction is a must in rain or snow.

Better traction is a must in rain or snow.

So, “How is the experiment going?” you ask. I will not lie … it still feels really cold when I walk out the door in the morning. The first five minutes of slight wind chill makes it seem even colder than the actual temperature. The nice part is that there is evidence that cold temperature shock has a variety of beneficial impacts. After the initial blast of cold air, within 5 minutes I’ve generated enough heat to feel comfortable (I actually overdressed for last Friday’s 25 degrees and was overheated within a mile).

All this brings me to say that I have loved my time on the bike. There is a certain feeling of accomplishment and mental toughness that is even more meaningful than training for a half-marathon, long hike, or other similar accomplishment. You’ll notice that I have not mentioned climate change or air-quality as a reason for biking. For me, the benefits need to be more personal and immediate; and they have been!

If you are considering winter bike commuting, check out Thursday’s forum. Then get back on your bike and enjoy the ride!

Myron Willson is the director of the University of Utah Sustainability Resource Center.


[1] Biking Assumptions

  • 23 minutes door to door – bike (including extra clothing preparation) vs. 12 minutes door to parking car + 3-5 minute walk from remote lot
  • 7 minute delta (0.1167 hours) = 28 hours for 48 weeks (2.33 hrs/month or 0.58 hrs/week)
    • Car gets 35 mpg avg (40 summer, 30 winter), 1,440 miles / 35 = 41 gallons of gas, 41 gallons x$ 3.25/ gallon = $133 annual
    • 1 oil change at $75
  • Commute = 3 x 2 x 48 weeks x 5 days/week miles 1-way = 1,440 miles annually
  • Parking pass = $348 annually
  • Total savings = 348 + 133 + 75 = $556
  • Rate paid for exercise = $556 direct savings/28 hours of extra time = $19.86/hour

One response to “Winter Biking: It’s 27 Degrees, But it “feels like” 15 … or is that 53?

  1. Pingback: Green Tips: Yesterday’s Shirt | sustainableUTAH·

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