"Aren't you just freezing?" I think I've been asked this question (or some variation on this question) at least a couple of times a week since October. Last winter was the same -- people seem to think that I must be cold and uncomfortable riding my bike through the rain and (relatively) low autumn and winter temperatures of Oregon. Isn't this how "off-season" bicyclists are often seen in North America -- as gluttons for punishment?
Actually, I am quite comfortable on my bike in the cold weather. Over time, I've figured out what keeps me warm, and I wear it. Simple, right? I'm not seeking out discomfort and chill, I am wrapped in soft wool scarves and mittens, happily avoiding it. I'm always tempted to make people feel how warm my hands are when they make remarks like these.
Just before Christmas, I needed to have some unexpected surgery. During my recovery, I've mostly stayed at home, but I've also been transported to a handful of places in the passenger seat of a car. In the course of these little journeys by car, I've been shocked at how very cold it feels to sit in a car before the engine has warmed enough to get the heater running. (And the weather this year has seemed unseasonably mild, at least from my perspective. I'm sure I would feel colder in a more typical winter.) In a car, I've noticed, I am cold on my walk from the door to the car, cold for the first few minutes inside the car, and then cold again when I step out of the superheated car to walk to my destination.
When I am walking or riding my bike somewhere, in contrast, I stay warm from my door to my destination. I bundle up inside, scramble around getting my keys or my thermos of tea, and then I walk out the door feeling very warm and bundled. Then I get on my bike and pull my scarf up over my nose if needed -- still very warm. In fact, I usually take off a layer if I'm riding for awhile. I notice a bit of chilly wind on my cheeks, perhaps, but I typically have warm fingers, toes, ears, and nose. (Unless someone sneaks my scarf from the basket by the door to make an astronaut costume for the dog. There have been some big sacrifices around here lately in the name of space exploration.) Our climate is milder than some, true, but even in the nastiest of Eugene weather I'm usually quite comfortable.
Most people seem to prefer wearing only light layers when driving in the winter, relying on the heater in their car to keep the cold away. It's awkward to buckle yourself into a car wearing heaps of layers, and since the heat is often turned up quite high in cars during cold weather, it might feel too hot to wear a hat and mittens and a big bulky coat. Plus, with a seatbelt on, it can be difficult to remove layers when the interior warms up. Most of the folks I know who usually get around by car seem to be under-layered a lot of the time. No wonder they see me outside and assume that I'm cold. For those few minutes they spend outside moving from car to door, they're very cold!
Actually, I have to confess that this used to be me. My friend Erin rides her bike long distances (and short ones) in all kinds of weather. Not that long ago, I saw her choice to ride her bike through the winter as some kind of mystifying self-sacrifice. Why was she always turning down my offers to give her and her bike a ride home? Did she really think it was fun to ride her bike on a chilly evening? Or, heaven forbid, in the rain?
Of course, Erin was right. It can be fun to ride your bike in the winter, as long as the astronaut dog doesn't have your scarf on. Take the car? Something in the reptile part of my brain instantly recoils at the thought of chilly air blasting from the defroster and freezing dashes from car to destination. No, thanks. That would be too cold for me.