Sweltering v. Freezing: Better for Bicycling?

The whole country seems to be pretty hot this week. Chicago has been at a high of 90 degrees, including during my ride home yesterday. As I sat at a stoplight in the sweltering heat of the direct sun, car exhaust swirling around my head, I fondly recalled the winter. But is one really better than the other?

Summer Bike

In the sweltering summer:

  • I wear a tank top and skorts, carry my work clothes with me and change in the bathroom at work after freshening up with an Action Wipe or washcloth.
  • My hair gets sweaty, especially my bangs.
  • I ride more slowly to stay cooler.
  • I slather on sun block to keep my sensitive skin from burning.
  • Lots of other cyclists are on the road with me.

Winter Bike

In the freezing winter:

  • I can wear my work clothes on my bike.
  • I have to wear extra clothing layers – tights, leggings, scarf, gloves, wool socks, snow boots, ear muffs.
  • Oma is the bike of choice, equipped with studded tires.
  • I ride slowly to watch out for slush and patches of ice.
  • Lights are essential, as my commute is usually in the dark.
  • Only a few other cyclists are out there with me.

Both extremes have their challenges and benefits.  Of course, the best weather for cycling is between the extremes, which is most of the time.

How do you deal with the different seasons?  Would you choose sweltering or freezing, if you had to pick one?  And why oh why do most people choose to ride their bikes on the hottest days and abandon them after Labor Day?

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64 thoughts on “Sweltering v. Freezing: Better for Bicycling?

  1. Fiona says:

    I can’t bike when its sweltering and I have never rode in the winter….I for sure love biking in the Spring in mild but sunny weather though.

    My body can’t handle temps over 80F unfortunately

  2. Ipstenu says:

    I like Spring and Fall the best. I have a poncho and use that to protect me from the rain, but other than that … March through May and September through November are my favorite months.

    I only have the one bike (my wee Dahon) so biking in the ice is out of the question right now. But. When it’s cold and dry? I’m out there. Same as today with it’s 91% humidity.

  3. I’m a *HOT* weather honey!!

  4. Jennifer says:

    People in Scotland tend to moan about the bad weather but I’ve started to appreciate lower temperatures since starting to commute by bike. Even on our hottest Summer days the temperature is rarely above about 15 degrees celsius at 8am, about 58 degrees fahrenheit. I have to deal with rain now and again, but I don’t mind that too much. We tend to get reasonably mild (but wet) winters too. I’m envious when I see your pictures of intense sunshine though!

  5. dukiebiddle says:

    I prefer freezing to sweltering. Anything above zero F I can dress for. When my city’s official midday temp hit 105 F yesterday I just had to jump on my bike to see how that felt.

    Conclusion: not good, but is was only moderately humid. It was more of a sizzley heat, as opposed to a chokey heat. Still, I was peddling like a grandma on a boardwalk… slooooow.

    Like you said, extremes are not pleasant, and if temperatures are below 0 or above 100 I’d just prefer to not ride, but given a choice between 10 degrees and 95 degrees I’d choose 10 degrees every time. 10 degrees is fun, actually.

  6. neighbourtease says:

    Bring on the heat. New York’s winter lasts from October-May as far as I’m concerned.

  7. Maria says:

    I guess I’d choose summer only because I do occassionally skip my bike commute in the winter because of street conditions. That’s never an issue in the summer. Heat in Colorado isn’t really an issue because its so beautifully dry!

  8. spacemodular says:

    When it gets too hot, I often find myself pouring water over my head from a waterbottle…

    If I had to choose – I will take the cold over the heat. I can always wear more layers. The heat won’t let me be cool after a certain point.

    My wife is opposite, she won’t bike much below freezing – it gets too cold for her, even with extra layers and foot/hand warmers.

  9. Kerri says:

    I prefer winter, even with navigating snow banks and ice patches. Of course, if this question were posed to me during a cold snap, I might answer differently than when we’re experiencing a heat wave.

  10. Steve A says:

    If I have to take the heat to get the long days, it’s a good bargain. I hate riding over an hour before dawn in the winter.

  11. Evie says:

    I’ll take freezing over sweltering any day. If it’s above, say, 85F and humid, not only do I have no desire to ride my bike, I have no desire to walk, talk, or function in general.

    The cold, on the other hand, is invigorating.

  12. jason says:

    i don’t really like either extreme, the days which are most hot/humid and cold/icy i ride to the el. i would say i stay on the bike at least 90% of the year in chicago.

  13. philippe says:

    I can fight cold. I can’t fight the heat.

  14. Catherine says:

    I’m refusing to ride to work this week (and two weeks ago when the weather was much the same). I *do* have an e-bike which in theory makes the whole thing a lot easier but I wouldn’t voluntarily sit outside sipping lemonade in a hammock in the shade in this heat for 45 minutes, so 45 minutes in the partly-to-fully sunny trail on my e-bike just isn’t appealing to me. (Also, the e-bike needs some serious maintenance, so that also goes into it).

    We’ve been above 95 more days than I care to remember (yesterday: 103, today probably 105) with the dew point at or above 70 (officially “extremely uncomfortable to oppressive”). Dew point, by the way is the measure of humidity that actually makes sense. Relative humidity is relative to the temperature so when the temperature is stupidly high, the RH looks artificially low. (Here’s a good explanation: http://www.shorstmeyer.com/wxfaqs/humidity/humidity.html). Also, Weather Underground does dew point forecasts, which I’ve found really very useful in planning/preparing for my ride. Just an FYI.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I absolutely cannot stand heat and humidity. If they actually plowed the trails after our blizzards this winter, I’d have been out there in 10 degrees and sleet. I might not have been joyful about the conditions, but I’d have still been there. These days? It’s all I can do to get myself to ride the 10 blocks to the Metro station.

    And even then, I take Metro to the House side even though I work on the Senate side. Why? The House’s Metro stop is across the street from their buildings, the Senate’s is a 10-ish minute walk from our buildings. It is a 25 minute walk from the House side to the Senate side—all in underground tunnels, which are air conditioned. Yep, almost 3 times the walking time to avoid 10 minutes outside. I really, really, really cannot stand heat and humidity!

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Semi-related to your last paragraph, my father was a LOC librarian for 40 years, but also did a brief stint as a draftee in military intelligence about a year after he started working for the Library. During their cloak and dagger drills, where they would practice tailing and tail shaking in D.C., he would always shake his tails by taking them into the tunnels. That was before the I.D. card days. Sorry to go off topic, but if you ever find yourself being followed by a spy or something, you know what to do. ;)

      • Catherine says:

        That’s so funny, and I can totally picture it. I got my first internship on Capitol Hill almost (gasp) 10 years ago (I was a child prodigy and I’m sticking with that story….). Over these many years I’ve worked up here 4 “bursts” (2 internships, a temp job and my current year and half long spurt) for a grand total of 3 cumulative years running around these buildings.

        I still get turned around in the tunnels sometimes.

        I also “discover” new (to me) nooks and crannies fairly frequently. Just yesterday, I had to meet with some people in the Capitol itself and found myself in an elevator that is (no joke) smaller than my desk–a converted dumbwaiter shaft, it turns out. Apparently that’s the only way to get up to this particular section of the building. Crazy.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          My only personal experience with the tunnels was when my father brought me into work when I was 4 because Mickey and Minny Mouse where there to meet employees’ children or something, but was in some other building than the one he worked in, so he took me into the catacombs. When we go to the room with Mickey and Minny Mouse, Mickey was busy with other children, so I had to meet Minny who terrified me because she was a girl. Nothing changes. :(

  15. Zweiradler says:

    Both extremes have their disadvantages. I prefer freezing, because you can always put on an additional layer of clothes – but you just can’t take off another layer in the summer when you already have taken off everything. :) My body isn’t very good in handling high temperatures either, so I’m always happy when it’s less than 80 °F outside.
    The problem in winter is that many roads and paths don’t get cleared of snow properly, so riding a bike is often impossible although I’d like to.


  16. Nicola says:

    I’ll take freezing please! I’m not a fan of the rain though. If I’m riding home I don’t mind, but I hate turning up to work looking like a drowned rat.

  17. Amy says:

    Six of one, half dozen of another for me I guess. Since I work outside year round, I’m stuck in whatever the seasons have to offer. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Summer I can strip down as much as possible (and in the extreme heat, I’m not shy and will throw modesty right out the window, to the legal limits anyway), dump water on me and carry on. Sometimes I stop and jump in the creek too. :) Winter I can pile on the wool, and pedaling keeps the blood moving which helps keep me warmer until I get to work and can get the heater going. Really, either time of year, the commute is the most comfortable part of my work day.

  18. Dave says:

    I definitely prefer cold to hot. It’s easier to regulate your temperature when it’s cold out than when it’s hot – you can only take off so many articles of clothing before it’s indecent/impossible :)

    I’ve never really ridden a bike much in snow (though it has happened a couple of times in Portland), and it’s worked out alright, but we’ve had temps down to 10-15 F and I’ve been able to ride quite comfortably with the right clothes.

    On the other hand, on a day that is above 80-85 F, there is just simply no way I’m going to be comfortable. I ride every day of the year regardless (including a number of days over 100 F last year), but I definitely enjoy the cold weather more.

  19. so funny because i was thinking this yesterday too, stopped at a big intersection. i tried to summon back my freezing fingers and dripping winter nose.
    still, i think i’d take summer over winter.

  20. Rob says:

    I’m currently preferring sweltering to freezing, but that’s only because my preferred way to work closes in the winter (unless I were to make my ride to work a cross-country skiing / bicycling biathalon).

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Transportation advocates really do have to expand the scope of future multimodal infrastructure. ;) I call for swimming lanes in our rivers, lakes and harbors!

  21. maureen says:

    Fall is my FAVORITE season and time to ride of course, invigorating weather, and amazing autumn leaves. But if I had to chose summer of winter, I guess winter…because as a few posters already noted, you can always bundle up more. Ride on!

  22. Anne Hawley says:

    Freezing over sweltering. Any day. I’m perfectly happy riding in the rain, the wind, the sub-freezing temperatures. I’m miserable riding in the heat.

  23. MinNY says:

    Sweltering or Freezing? When it’s over 100º or below 10º, I’ll take the subway. The QB Bridge bike lane bakes in the morning sun on the Manhattan-bound up-ramp, and way up high over the river, that cold winter wind is just to much for me coming home late at night. But it’s really only horrible 4-6 days a year, and every day on the train reminds me of how much I’d rather be on my bicycle.

    • cycler says:

      I was in NYC recently and although it wasn’t terrible hot outside, the subway platforms were STEAMY!
      I think it was all the waste heat from the car AC’s, but I was just dripping standing on the platform. It all the lines were like that, I think I’d just as soon ride and at least be sweaty by myself instead of pushed up against strangers.

      • Vee says:

        I hated being on the platform in full summer. I didn’t know any better alternative but man I hated it. I used to bring a fan. I ned to bring a fan to fan myself after a bike ride too.

  24. Vee says:

    I was at the farmers market yesterday and I drove. I saw a church friend who inquired about my bike. I said ” I just don’t bike over 90 degrees.” at least not the cargo bike… It is simply not fun.

    I would much prefer biking in 15-20 degree weather than 90 and overly sunny. My arms are scorched from so much sun. My nose is as well. the helmet feels too hot. I’m all sad. I would gladly wear my tweed helmet and scarf and fur lined hooded coat and boots with gloves anyday.

  25. I just take whatever comes in stride. If I think too much about how miserable this cold/heat is, it takes away from my enjoyment of riding and I might have the thought of forsaking the bike for the car out of misery.

    But it took me years to get to that point. At first I was always evaluating whether if was to cold, too hot, too wet, too humid or too what ever. Now it is a non issue, I just go.

  26. Anne says:

    I prefer the winter or in between winter and summer (not that we see much of that in Chicago). I like being able to wear my work clothes when I ride in. Skorts sound like a good idea, I may have to find some of those!

  27. Stuart says:

    I prefer summer heat to winter cold. I usually make four or more bike trips per day so the task of constantly bundling up that often becomes really, really annoying by March. I like being able to grab my bike and go without putting on a bunch of junk, even if it is 104 like it was today.

  28. Doug says:

    I’d pick winter if I had to pick one or the other. I can’t dress light enough for 90 degrees (although 90 only happens a couple times a year here). However, I can dress for anything winter throws at me. Ninety degrees and I’m miserable. Minus 20, bring it on. I love winter.

  29. Herzog says:

    Definitely prefer 90. I just put on my fur hat, gloves, mittens, and wrap a scarf around my face and I’m off!!

    When it’s really hot, I have to wear shorts and flip flops, which really cramp my style. Plus, I get really sweaty “down there.”

    • Herzog says:

      Just noticed my comment got mangled somehow. I meant to say “Definitely prefer under 30 to over 90.”

  30. Miss Sarah says:

    Summer: No jackets, warm nights and empty streets on the way home after drinks, Dougal in the basket, Sandals, can ride variety of bikes, hot helmet-head.

    Winter: Goggles, lined helmet, parka, same boots daily, mountain bike with studded tires, crisp air, quiet streets after snowfall.

  31. Karen says:

    Here in Flag is never gets really sweltering and very little humidity so I like biking in the summer the bests and through the fall. I like the feel of the sun and the breeze through my hair. In the winter, I need a hat and I struggle to keep my hands and feet warm, even with boots and gloves.

  32. amy says:

    I’ve biked through 9 of the last 11 winters I lived in here in Alaska and I have to say I much prefer summer. Winter here is, well winter in Alaska. Very cold, I have to wear many layers, my hands go in pogies, the panniers are stuffed full and the heavy bike with studded tires comes out. On the other hand there are less bikers on the road so generally drivers are more polite.

    In the summer I get to wear my work clothes to work on my bike and the light cross bike comes out to play. Hot days for us here are generally in the 80’s and with low humidity that is definitely tolerable.

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