Monday, June 24, 2013

Cycling Through Melbourne Winter

A lot of cyclists complain about the Melbourne winter, but is this really justified? Obviously there are much colder places on Earth than Melbourne, and presumably there are cyclists happily getting their riding done in at least some of those places. New Zealand and even Antarctica spring to mind.

Even the coldest Melbourne winter mornings rarely fall below zero degrees Celsius – I was going to convert this to Fahrenheit for the reader(s) from the United States, Cayman Islands, Palau, Bahamas and Belize but decided against it after discovering that a complex mathematical equation is required involving 3 out of the 4 cornerstones of arithmetic:

     [°F] = [°C] x 9/5 + 32

And even on the rare occasions when the temperature does drop below 0°C it’s important to remember that this is still about 270°C warmer than absolute zero – so things could be a lot worse. Absolute zero is, theoretically, the coldest possible temperature, but like many things in science, its definition is complicated by the fact that it can never actually be reached. The true definition is the temperature at which entropy reaches its minimum value.

Entropy itself can also be a difficult concept – it is the measure of disorder in a thermodynamic system. The laws of entropy explain why systems in nature only flow or evolve in one direction (although they are still yet to explain the popularity of the band One Direction).

These laws state that systems naturally tend towards a state of increasing entropy (or increasing disorder). A simple example of this is a wine glass that smashes on a hard floor and is scattered in to hundreds or thousands of tiny particles – the amount of disorder in the system naturally increases. But starting out with a random collection of tiny glass shards, it would be extremely unlikely (almost impossible) for them to naturally form back in to a solid wine glass (without a lot of outside assistance and energy) because this would require the entropy of the system to decrease, which is impossible.

So what, exactly, does this have to do with the Melbourne winter? Not much, unfortunately, except that it helps to define just how cold absolute zero is – at this theoretical temperature all particles would cease vibrating (because they would be in a state of minimum entropy or maximum order). And following on from this, it illustrates how comparatively warm regular old Melbourne winter zero is - so stop complaining!

While a decent pair of gloves and a wind-proof vest would probably be enough to facilitate cycling at regular zero, cycling at absolute zero would be a very difficult task, to say the least. In fact, pretty much everything would be a difficult task at this temperature. Scientists have found that by cooling certain atoms down to just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, they can even freeze a beam of light dead in its tracks. And if it’s too cold for a beam of light to keep moving then you can imagine how a cyclist is going to struggle.

But while these concepts might be interesting to think about (not for all of you I realise), they don’t really help alleviate the discomfort of a cold morning ride. So here are a few handy hints to help you deal with cycling through the Melbourne winter. Hopefully they will lead to a reduction in whingeing and an increase in cycling because both of those things can only make the world a better place.

Tip #1 – Keep it in your pants
Frostbite is a condition that results from the natural reaction to a cold environment whereby the body reduces blood flow to the extremities in order to help preserve core temperature. It should not be confused with frostbike, which is a condition that affects bicycles left overnight in a cold outdoor environment.

Melbourne rider Jesse Carlsson developed a nasty case of frostbike during the Tour Divide in North America – he currently sits in 2nd place!

Over prolonged periods the reduced blood flow can cause freezing and eventually death of the skin tissue in the affected areas. Most cyclists are familiar with cold extremities and have learned to combat this with gloves, shoe covers and beanies but there’s one particular extremity that the male population needs to be particularly mindful of during wintry conditions. It’s no secret that male cyclists enjoy urinating during long rides. It can be achieved either on the bike or during a group ‘nature-break’ – a gentlemanly agreement in the peloton to stop and wait while everybody gets their ‘natural’ business done. For me, this has always been one of the most entertaining aspects of Tour de France viewing – certainly during those boring early periods of long stages anyway.

Taking a break from nature

The key thing to remember is that when you go out for a ride the following morning after watching the overnight TV coverage of the Tour de France peloton answering the call of nature in summery France, you need to be extremely mindful of freezing your most important appendage. I could think of few things worse than accidentally snapping your frozen little friend in two as you fumble around in your thick, winter gloves struggling to extricate him from your cycling knicks in order to take a wee-wee. Although, as one friend recently pointed out during a rather frigid early morning mountain bike ride – it’s hard to break a jellybean in half.

Tip #2 – Things could be a lot worse
When you feel like you are really suffering, it can be good to think of those less fortunate than yourself. No matter how cold or uncomfortable you feel, there’s always a cyclist doing it tougher than you…unless you are this guy.

Be thankful that our roads and trails don’t become inundated with snow during winter because those conditions are seriously prohibitive for cycling unless you’ve got some very special tyres.

Tip #3 – Accessorise appropriately
It might seem obvious, but there are a lot of things you can add to your cycling wardrobe to help cope with the cold. The common ones include arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, woolly socks, wind vest and beanie. But if you are particularly sensitive to the cold you might want to consider a balaclava, heated shoe inserts or even heated mountain bike grips.

Why not add these to the growing list of things that require charging before a ride?

Tip #4 – Use what you have at home
While some of the warming options described above can be quite expensive, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of things lying around your home that can be used to improve your cold weather riding experience. For example, why not use thick plastic garbage bags as an all-in-one rain and wind poncho? These became standard issue at the cold and wet 2011 Crocodile Trophy and worked marvellously well.

If you’re a little more technically capable and don’t mind a bit of tinkering, another good option for those very frosty mornings is to wrap yourself inside an electric blanket powered by a front wheel dynamo. Obviously there are some minor impracticalities associated with this option, chiefly the extra weight that a front wheel dynamo will add to your expensive bike, but I’m sure you won’t regret that sacrifice as your shivering friends look on enviously during early morning bunch rides.

Dynamo + Electric Blanket = Warm Ride, all year round

If you can think of any other handy hints that might be worth sharing, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below this article. Try and keep in mind that while your Melbourne winter morning ride is unlikely to ever match the pleasant conditions presented overnight on the Tour de France TV coverage, with a bit of sensible preparation and a minor tweaking of your attitude, I am confident that the experience can be managed so as to not be entirely unpleasant. Good luck...I look forward to seeing you (and your breath) out on the road or trail this Melbourne winter.

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