Distance and Cold

I did my first long distance ride by accident. It began raining at Moorook, where I was fruit picking; gentle barely-there drizzle, but enough to make fruit go mouldy in the picking bins. Everything stopped for several days to allow the trees to dry out. So I decided to ride back to my Nanna's in Adelaide. (226km) I mean, how hard could it be?

Damp clothes on a bike are dangerous, and in an hour and a half, despite the tepid humid day, this super fit 19 year old who was running 10km a day, was reduced to a shivering mess, wanting to vomit, barely able to stand up, and feeling like he was dying.

Hitting the Wall
Touring in Australia is not about riding up to the bakery at Lobethal or Woodside, where the cafes are 5 or 10 km apart— although I've seen a few sick looking folk on those roads! Touring in Australia can mean 160km or more between towns.

It doesn't snow much in my part of Australia, but even in spring, the weather contrasts are sometimes severe. My last trip (October 2015) had a temperature range from 7 degrees to 46 degrees Celsius. (One single day was 13-46. ) Understand that the forecast weather is a bare guide: bike temperatures are direct sun temperatures, not the shaded protection of a Stevenson Screen. And bikes sit on black bitumen which soaks up heat and radiates it back up.

At the low end of things, there is wind-chill to consider. Even on a completely calm night, the cyclist will be sitting in a 20km breeze— or more.  With only a slight head wind that can become 30kmh. Add damp clothes and the chill factor can become brutal. On all nighters everything can seem peachy until 2 or 3am, and then the last few degrees of temperature drop can become desperately painful if we are not well prepared.

Cycling is gentle low impact exercise. Running will often wear us out in other departments before we run out of blood sugar. Cycling can sneak up on us, and suddenly reduce us to that sugar level where the brain says there is so little blood sugar that the rest of the body can't have any, and must start converting fat. "Hitting the wall" can be as serious as hitting a real brick wall if you are 30 km out of town on a lonely road and don't know how to look after yourself, or are unprepared.

There are two areas to cover here: recovery and prevention.

I always travel (even in Adelaide, where I commute over 30km, and often at night) with a stash of chocolate bars. Recovery means being able to ingest rapidly available sugars, and can be amazingly rapid.  It is counter intuitive— I've had to beg fellow riders to suck on a barley sugar because they feel so ill— the rapid response is startling, even when you know it's coming!

The basics are simple: 1.  Eat well, and hi carb.  2. Keep warm.

When touring, I start with a large breakfast around 6, have first lunch around 9 or 10, main lunch between 1 and 2, and tea around 5 or 6. These are big meals, which I would not eat at home because I would stack on the weight.

Example: my last trip averaged 165 km per day over 12 days (plus one rest day.) I began each day with about 10 spoons of hi energy muesli: rolled oats, various nuts, apricots, chocolate buds, yoghurt buds, and a high volume of powdered milk: just add water and stir. Then a large Pink Lady apple, and maybe a half a pull-apart loaf. (Pink Ladies travel really well; plus, I like them!)

First lunch:  typically a couple of pies and 600 mils of chocolate milk.
Second lunch: repeat that with double the chocolate milk, plus something grossly sugary like a Maxibon, or similar. Where I was way out of town these meals translate to at least one large bread roll, plus a can of beans, plus several pieces of fruit cake.

Tea: steak sandwich with the lot. Chocolate milk, apple, Beans and bread if there were no shop.

The thing is: I lost over 5 kilos during the fortnight, even on this appalling high calorie diet! And I was snacking on scroggin and fruit cake at least once between each meal, sometimes more often! (Four boiled fruit cakes this trip!)

Cycling sucks up the calories. We're good for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, in easy riding conditions, and then we need to put more fuel in to stop running out of juice. 

The worst manifestation of low sugar is to hit the wall. But I've also experimented with eating smaller meals: it doesn't work, especially a smaller breakfast. Small breakfasts mean hard days, especially when it's cold.

Keeping Warm
Cold weather and wind massively increase energy usage.  This is my defence:

Normal riding gear on country roads would be:

Long sleeve high vis top.
Lightweight tights
Custom touring gloves
Light jersey

With a skull cap and windproof high vis vest easily accessible.

The long sleeves and tights do not worry me with added heat load— this is not racing, after all. They do limit heat loss at night. But, most importantly, they are brilliant at stopping sunburn. Add sunburn to the touring mix and discomfort goes up. Discomfort equals energy loss. It also makes the mind game of touring that much harder.

Just to hammer the point here: a three hour morning ride has a vastly different UV load to a full 12 or 15 hours daylight.

Cleats are not only a safety thing, they save energy. They keep the feet in the most energy efficient location with absolutely no effort. I bought toe clips (today's cleats didn't exist 40 years ago) after that first long ride. I knew where to keep my feet, but without the cleats they kept moving around.

Riding home after dark in Adelaide, I find that once the temperature gets down to 9 degrees it begins to hurt after an hour, and those are also the nights when I may break out one of the chocolate bars. I get away with lighter commuting gear because I know I have a warm shower waiting, and the times are short. Longer distances are not sustainable without added clothing. Add wind or rain, and the temperature where cold is a problem can be quite high: my first riding disaster was a t-shirt kind of day!

I find temperature effects are exacerbated if I am tired. It takes more to stay warm.


When it's Cold and or Wet
In rough order:

  1. A base layer is your friend. Long sleeved base layers of merino wool or wicking fabric— mine are from Kathmandu— make an immediate difference. They still breathe, but keep you much warmer.
  2. Add a skull cap, especially if you have short hair or are balding.
  3. Winter weight jersey
  4. Wool, winter weight socks. Full wool Explorers are good. When you go to thicker socks, make sure you loosen your shoes! Lack of circulation means cold feet.
  5. Under gloves.  I use the white cotton gloves from Chemist shops. The cost around 3.00 for two pairs, get filthy, wear out fast, but make a big difference on a cold night, and even when wet!  They are made for women's hands, I reckon: over-estimate your size.

    This gets me through more moderate rides for many hours: 9 or 10 degrees, tail wind, no rain sort of nights (or days.)

Heavy Duty Warm.

  1. Shy shorts!  Ordinary mountain bike shorts add a surprising level of comfort in cold conditions, even when it rains.
  2.  Balaclava. This cuts down on facial heat loss. You can also add a face wrap, so only the eyes are exposed, if it's really cold.
  3. Winter weight leggings
  4. Windproof vest. These have a breathing panel in the back, but the chest inevitably gets damp. Once we put these on, they stay on until after sun up.
  5. Booties. I don't mean the go-fast lycra things the café set wear, but the heavy duty neoprene (wetsuit material) variety. We lose heat through the feet, and much greater amounts when it is raining because then we become water-cooled! A low reaching front mudguard, and even a mudflap, are good investments. Touring without mud guards is asking for discomfort. Once the booties are on, they stay on until after sun-up, or until we arrive at the destination. Waterproof means sweat can't get out. Tighter sounds better— less water runs down into the shoes from the legs, but too-tight booties will affect circulation. Booties are not primarily about keeping your feet dry in distance touring— they are about minimising the heat loss from your inevitable wet feet, except for short rain showers.
  6. Heavy wind proof base layer.  I avoid mine if I can. It's another case of getting wet inside. But on a really bad night I would have long-sleeved base layer, heavy wind-proof base layer over that— this has a much, much tighter weave over the chest, yet breathes out the back, long sleeved top, and then the jersey. I have two wind proofed base layers. One is pure vest without sleeves, and the other has t-shirt style short sleeves. I find this much more effective. But they hold the sweat, and it doesn't take long for them to stink badly because of the thick inner lining if you can't get them dry rapidly.
  7. Outer shell. I've mentioned the windproof vest. My last line of defence is a full windproof/water proof jacket which has zippable vents in the sides— a bit toward the back— and also under the arms. Depending on the wind direction and or the amount of rain, the vents can allow some sweat loss. But once you put this on, it stays on past dawn.

I've "tested" this setup with a five hour rain ride, and plenty of shorter ones. And also done all night dry rides down to four or five degrees with reasonable comfort.  If I were doing spring rides in eastern Victoria, for example, then clearly heavier jackets would be necessary.

One more tip: Dry Bags. Sleeping gear is hygroscopic. The smallest entry point will suck in litres of water! I've got all over covers for my panniers, but have my sleeping gear in at least two plastic bags. Ask at DJ's or Harris Scarfe's to buy their larger shopping bags. Without dry bags, if it can get wet, it will. And Murphy's law says the most important stuff will get wet.

Andrew Prior



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