Find Your Zen Below Freezing

If I stop moving, I might not be able to start again…

Ever heard of the Wim Hof method?

The Wim Hof method consists of a meditation practice and some specific breathing exercises that let your body withstand extreme cold. People who practice the Wim Hof method go hiking in the middle of winter in bathing suits, and regularly meditate out in the open when temperatures drop to well below freezing.

Lots of people do this without a new-agey practice. Marines and coast guard rescuers subject themselves to ridiculously cold temperatures to keep themselves alert and able-bodied in extreme circumstances. And there are plenty of examples of cultures on the very edges of the world’s hemispheres; it stands to reason that living above the arctic circle takes a certain level of physical adjustment.

Far be it from me to claim any clairvoyant connection to my own temperature control, but spending as much time as I do outside in the winter definitely spins my internal thermostat. This week, temperatures finally dipped below exposed skin comfort. The forest is frozen, too; my friend Rob and I noticed all the ferns keel over and die today. It’s officially winter, even if the calendar doesn’t know it yet.

I spent all day today on the bike. Daylight is a precious commodity, so I used as much of it as I could, braving temperatures skirting 20ºF. In the summer, riding a bike can be a relief because you’ve got a constant breeze; in the winter, that same wind sucks the life out of you. In the winter, you have to push against gravity, aerodynamics, and the sapping fatigue of extreme cold, dragging on your ability to climb like a boat anchor.

Here are a few of my tips for cycling when the ferns keel over and die:

  • Start cold and ride to warm up. If you start sweating on your first hill, you’ll regret your layers for the rest of the ride because that cold, clammy feeling is the worst and it never leaves you.
  • Block the wind. A simple wind shell and windproof tights go further than three layers of insulation. If you have a good wind shell, you don’t need much under it.
  • Don’t restrict yourself. Let me break this into two categories:
    • Don’t wear too many gloves or too many socks. If you restrict your blood flow, you won’t warm up. Your winter shoes often need to be a full size larger to accommodate, and I always buy XL mittens even though I’m a large.
    • Don’t pack too tightly. Needing to stuff a backpack or a bikepacking bag until it forms a singularity is a no-go in the winter. Keep everything loose so packing up with gloves on isn’t a chore.
  • Get used to it. Keep riding, every day. Even when you’re not riding, make it a point to go out with a light jacket so your body feels cold. The more time you spend cold, the easier it’ll be to be cold. 

Today’s ride was absolutely bitter  cold, and absolutely beautiful. I had on a wool balaclava and a wool base layer, plus my wool vest. My outerwear consisted of windproof tights and jacket, and double-layered wool gloves with wool socks and MTB shoes. My toes and fingers got cold because I wasn’t blocking the wind, but I kept my heat up with a quick pace for about 30 miles. Next ride, I’ll wear better-equipped shoes and I’ll break out my rain shell mitts for a little boost in warmth. But, overall, I was comfortable and just absolutely stoked to spend the day riding.

I’m also really pleased with how the new Nature Boy is breaking in. With the Nitto R10 rear rack and Swift Industries Zeitgiest seat bag, I’ve got my “portage” back and I can pack an insulated jacket without carrying a backpack. My new framebag from Rogue Panda Designs really reflects how Nick has evolved his work over time. This bag is reinforced on the drive-side to prevent pedal strikes and uses one-piece metal roll-top buckles; it’s definitely a big step up from off-the-shelf picks from big manufacturers. I’ll come back with a full review after I’ve put some miles down with it, but my Pugsley framebag has survived a straight year of abuse without a hint of wear.

The Nature Boy is awesome. I’m definitely using this “race” bike in an unconventional way, but the soft bags, Klamper brakes, sturdy wheels and wide tires make this the perfect vessel for exploring these snowmobile trails and quiet mountain roads. It’s an adventure bike, and definitely shows where a good steel frame can take you.

We’re braving sub-20º’s tonight and going camping, so expect some more content this weekend!

Keep Shivering!


10 thoughts on “Find Your Zen Below Freezing

  1. Hey Max! Bag lineup looks on point, I’m in line for a Zeitgeist myself and have been looking around for saddle bag support. What’s the one you’re running?

  2. Awesome. Growing up, I would visit Toledo Iowa, my dad was living on the outskirts of town in an old farm house on a gravel road. There was this huge native American that would walk down the road 2 miles into town without a shirt on in subzero temperatures. I don’t know how warm a hot tub or a sweat lodge will get you, but my understanding was that some kind of spiritual or psychological techniques were at work because you would literally see tons of steam rolling off his bare skin. I’ll never forget that.

    I agree with your pointers on riding. I know them, I’ve practiced them, but every year I screw around and inevitably end up with too many layers on one ride or another. Then I dial it back and I find my happy place. You aren’t kidding about the cold sucking the ambition out of you though. Between my lack of power and 3lbs of extra weight between the fenders, steel bead studded tires, and my cheap wheelset, the winter rides and commute is a chore. But it’s gotta be good training right? Cheers Max!

  3. There are lots of videos of old Finlanders (60+) in bathing suits going from their sauna (admittedly warm, ok, HOT), walking across a wooden deck and then climbing down a wooden ladder into water in which a hole had been cut into the ice, then swimming around for a bit.

    Like you, I too have difficulty keeping my toes and fingers (particularly my thumbs) warm while riding in cold, -5C/23F and colder, weather. However, my winter bike has been a mountain bike on which I have bar mitts/pogeys and they are phenomenal at keeping my hands warm. It can be -30C/-22F outside the pogeys and wearing only light knitted gloves, my hands will be perfectly fine (although, if my bike has been left outside, there will be an initial cold shock as my lightly-gloved hands touch the rubber bar grips and aluminum brake levers but those warm up soon enough).

  4. It’s great to see you posting again Max! The Nature Boy looks rad; I’m digging the set up and build kit. You’re a freaking hammerhead. What are you now – about 180 pounds of quad muscle?

    On one hand living in Santa Cruz is incredible since I can basically ride 365 days a year on myriad trails. The coldest it ever gets here is about 35-40 degrees F, though overnight temps in the Santa Cruz Mts can get colder. Some call it a ‘wet’ cold. I guess. On the other hand, you become a real weather wuss. I commend anybody riding/commuting in sub 20 temps.

    Adam from Wraith Fabrication finally contacted me and my Wraith Paycheck is almost ready to ship. It’s been a longer wait than I initially expected, but will hopefully be worth it. It will be significantly lighter (between 5 and 7 pounds) and whippier than the cross bike I ended up building in the meantime. Cheers!

    1. Hey dude! Actually, I did gain about five pounds of muscle this year, but i’m still a total string bean.

      Cannot wait to see the Wraith. It’ll be a lot lighter than my build, I can tell you that!

      1. I’d be surprised if the completed Paycheck will be much lighter than your Nature Boy. You’ve got an 853 frame, carbon fork, and single speed set up. I’ll probably end up with a Brooks Saddle as they’re so damn comfortable. I’m not too stoked on the C17 I’ve experimented with thus far, so we’ll see. We’re running basically the same wheelset, Hope hubs, Stan’s wheels, etc. I’m going to initially start with a 2x Sram Rival as I love steep hills and long climbs. Might switch to a 1x, but I’m not sold on no FD for a bike that sees pavement, as the Paycheck surely will. And hey, I run flat pedals; I ride cross with either Vans or Converse shoes. I dislike clipless pedals almost as much as I dislike spandies. I’ll gladly suffer a pound or two on a build to dress like a human. (Just my personal taste). I know you love the lycra:)

    2. No way dude, I’ve transcended Lycra. I wear wool shorts, like nature intended.

      Most of my rides (75%) are commutes, and I wear bike tights 50% of the time and regular clothes 50% of the time. The bike shorts are slightly more comfortable, but also less restrictive and better at managing my temperature and sweat. And since I have no shame, I’m more than happy to wear bike tights all day long, year-round, to class and at the coffeeshop and in the supermarket, whatever. I don’t teach in them or work in them, but if I’m on my time, I’m usually wearing them.

      Your Wraith sounds like a sweet rig but I am willing to bet! That it’s still lighter. The Nature Boy frameset is just a bit on the heavy side, and that’s okay, because durability is a good thing for riders like me. But if I had a master craftsman hand-selecting my tubing, I bet my frame would lose a pound.

      I might be wrong, though! It’s hard to contextualize. There was a thread over in the CX forums on where there was only a ~1-2 pound difference between the stock, cheaper NB and the 853 NB. So, FWIW, I don’t consider it super light and I don’t care at all that it isn’t, and I also hope yours is lighter 🙂

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