Gear and cold-weather tips to keep you on track

I recently began riding my bicycle again after a long, six-year hiatus. When I came to Sonoma County in 1998, I was blissfully disencumbered of a car and commuted from Santa Rosa for five years to my job at a now-defunct bike shop in Sebastopol. In the meantime, I grew to love Sonoma County and the excellent cycling opportunities here, from the windswept coast, to the semiarid, vine-and-oak-covered hills to the east where Sonoma County meets up with Napa.

I spent the first several years of my time here riding the roads of throughout the county, from Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay to Jenner, over Sweetwater Springs Road, north up Westside Road to Healdsburg and beyond. With a little bit of effort, in a single day of recreational cycling, one can have coffee at the Flying Goat — Santa Rosa or Healdsburg — in the morning, gaze out over the Pacific Ocean in the afternoon and have dinner at a good restaurant in Healdsburg in the evening.

Job opportunities and a stint at Sonoma State University conspired to take my bicycle out from under me, and eventually, the 6,000-odd miles I rode each year dwindled to nothing. Literally. But a new job that does not require travel throughout the county has allowed me to remount my bicycle, and as summer turned to fall—and eventually fall to winter—I had to revisit the needs of a year-round cyclist.

On that note, I took a tour of local bike shops from Sebastopol to Healdsburg to reacquaint myself with the needs and accoutrement of the winter cyclist. The challenges of riding and commuting when the sun no longer shines every day—and the weather turns colder and we face the possibility of rain (hopefully)—requires some pre-planning and thought. Riding a bicycle is not just a summertime activity and inclement or cold weather should not be viewed as impediments to cycling. When viewed in the proper context, winter cycling can be as enjoyable as riding the rest of the year.

Lights and Clothing
“Lights are important,” said Rick Reeder, an employee at Spoke Folk Cyclery in Healdsburg. “We have a light that hooks to the helmet and the battery pack is the taillight. It’s USB-rechargeable and is good for a secondary light. People seem to see your primary lights, but it doesn’t always register. With the helmet light, you can look to see the whites of their eyes.”

While it might seem like an expensive proposition to outfit a bicycle with lights, in reality, the cost of even the most expensive lighting systems can be about the same as a few tanks of gasoline.
There are a few different types of generator lights still available, but there are so many efficient battery-powered systems to chose from, that it is almost a no-brainer to go that route. Inexpensive taillights run from about $10-$25, with higher quality USB rechargeable taillights around $50. As to battery-powered headlights, the less expensive start at about $25 and the USB-type run from $60-$100. For the serious cyclist who is willing to invest more, there are even lights that cost up to $170 and are equipped with a camera.

And then there is clothing.

“It used to be you’d take all your clothes to work at the beginning of the week and pick them up at the end of the week,” Reeder said. “Clothing companies are making garments that are more appropriate for work—‘lifestyle clothing’; the fabric is breathable and it doesn’t tend to take on odors. Wool is durable and it doesn’t tend to wrinkle. It’s coming out in different styles and getting better than traditional wear used to be.”

Reeder himself knows a thing or two about year-round commuting, as he spent about five years commuting 22 miles each direction. “You learn how to do everything on a bike, even brushing your teeth,” he said. “But when you do it every day, you can get tired. You learn to use the car to your advantage. You can take your clothes to work and get recovery time.”

Tights, leg warmers, arm warmers and wool socks are good choices too, Reeder said, adding that it is important to “layer” since it can get upwards of 70 degrees on some days, even in the coldest years.
As to decking out the bicycle, he recommends fenders, weatherproof bike bags to carry everything you’ll need, and a bike computer “to keep those markers in your head about where you’re supposed to be.”

Bike computers, generally mounted on the handlebars of the bicycle, have come a long way in the past 30 years or so and can now measure more than simply mileage. There are now models that can map your route, measure outside temperature, cadence and heart rate, and can be downloaded straight to your home computer.

Joyce Chang, a Healdsburg orthodontist with an office in Windsor, recently made a visit to the shop. Chang is an avid cyclist who averages 8,000 miles a year with a mix of commuting and nearly obsessive recreational cycling.

“I’ve ridden 200k (124 miles) in the dead of winter, so lights are very important,” she said. Chang owns a variety of lights with various features, such as one with a gauge to show remaining battery life from a company called Glowworm.

“The cost of lights has gotten so reasonable,” she said. “Last year I rode a lot at night and found how important it is to have a helmet light and a handlebar light. The helmet light gives you directionality and I even have lights mounted on my forks. I’m totally into visibility.”

Chang even enhances the visibility of the reflective clothing she purchases by sewing reflective tape to it. “I bought reflective tape and covered my clothes,” she said. “And I have lots and lots of lights, including ‘monkey lights’ on my spokes. My bike looks like a stinkin’ UFO,” Chang quipped.

Monkey lights attach to the spokes and can be programmed to create different patterns and add to side visibility, which is important, as traditional lighting is often not very visible from the side.

Chang has commuted the 11.5 miles to her office for that past 15 years. She is cognizant of her clothing as well, since she “can’t look like a wet dog” when she shows up at work. “I think people afford you a little more respect because it looks like you’re more than a recreational cyclist,” she said. “People need to realize a bike is not just for recreational purposes. You can ride directly to the front of the building. And you’re getting exercise…. There was never a problem I couldn’t solve with a bike ride.”

Spoke Folk also offers rentals and a wide range of services. Their website has a downloadable map of bike routes in the area and plenty of information, including a how-to page devoted to bicycle commuting.

Winter cycling — particularly in wet weather — also takes a little extra effort on the maintenance front.
Nick Sanders, owner of West County Cycle Service in Sebastopol, stressed the importance of keeping the bicycle’s drive train cleaned and lubricated, with frequent inspection and cleaning of the chain, wheel rims and tires. “It’s a good idea to get a full bearing overhaul at the beginning of the season, and I can’t stress enough the importance of good rubber,” he said. “You don’t want a flat when it’s raining because that really sucks.”

Sanders added that a tire’s tread pattern is not as important as the condition of the tire. “Tread pattern is way more complicated than it should be,” he said. “It’s really not as critical as having sidewalls that are in good shape.”

Sanders suggested lowering the tire’s air pressure in the winter to improve grip on the road and maybe even having summer and winter tires and other vital components, such as gears, chains and other drive components.

Having professional help can be important for safety and West County Cycle Service offers free inspections as well as a full line of parts and services. “It’s about building trust with your local bike shop,” he said.

Sanders also stressed the importance of proper clothing, such as windproof gloves, shoe liners and a good rain suit. “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” Sanders said. “Just a bad choice of clothing.”

Tune-ups and Purchases 
John Pizzi of the Windsor Bicycle Center echoed the importance of a relationship with the people at your local bike shop. “We’re a neighborhood bike shop,” he said. “There are a handful of bigger shops, such as Performance, which is a national chain—then there are the community bike shops and that’s what we are in Windsor.”

Pizzi considers the Windsor Bicycle Center to be a community-oriented “bike center” that offers consistency and trust. “Our customers come in for tune-ups and to buy bikes,” Pizzi said. “A lot of people buy their kids’ first bike as Christmas gifts.”

While there are tour companies that crisscross the county throughout the year and most shops have at least a limited number of rentals, Pizzi estimates that only about 5 percent of his business comes from rentals, due in large part to the amount of work it takes to maintain a fleet of bicycles and the low return on the investment of time and equipment.

“It’s an entirely different business model: We mainly sell road and mountain bikes and provide service,” he said. “We also lead regular rides out of the shop each Saturday.”

Pizzi added that there are several groups that lead rides year-round throughout the county, such as the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, which has a full calendar of recreational rides for cyclists of all levels, including longer “brevets,” self-contained rides that are usually more than 200k.

But the main draw of Sonoma County for the winter cyclist, aside from the beauty of the region, is the mild weather we enjoy year-round. “The winters are mild, so we have a long riding season, and it’s never going to snow,” he said. “We didn’t get a lot of rain (last) February, so people have been able to ride through November without the hassle.”

With a lag through the holidays, cyclists then “suffer through January,” and unless the drought goes away and Sonoma County experiences its usual wet weather, the long cycling season begins again.
“When it’s raining, people might not want to ride mountain bikes on wet trails, so they can get on the road and spend time cycling through wine country on winding country roads,” Pizzi said. “It’s a very supportive community and equipment has come a long way. There are disc brakes and plenty of accessories to keep road bikers going all year.”

An additional benefit in the winter is a fast turnaround for bike maintenance.
“Winter is a great time to get your bike tuned up, because people are riding less,” Pizzi said. “You can get your bike back faster because it’s slower.” SD


Spoke Folk Cyclery
See their downloadable map of bike routes in the area and more, including a how-to page devoted to bicycle commuting.

West County Cycle Service in Sebastopol

Windsor Bicycle Center

Santa Rosa Cycling Club, for information about local cycling and ride calendars

Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, for bicycle advocacy and other information

Bike rentals in the West County