Is 'it's too cold to ride!' a good excuse? Tragically, it seems not

I’ve been icier than a penguin’s undercarriage on recent rides, says Steven Williams

I abandoned the bike in the doorway, left a trail of kit across the floor and collapsed. The room span like a 13-year-old trying whisky and I couldn’t get my breathing back to normal. The fingers of my right hand, numb from 10 minutes into the the 2.5-hour ride, stung like they’d been slammed in a freezer door. Surely road riding when it’s below zero degrees Celsius does more harm than good?

Having warmed up enough to only need three jumpers, I did a little research and discovered than not only is exercising in very low temperatures perfectly okay, it may actually be advantageous. Also, at least one commonly-accepted ‘fact’ is complete sh… shumthing… something you’d find frozen to the bottom of a penguin.

That nonsense ‘fact’ is that you lose 50 percent of your body heat through your head. You don’t. This means that adding a hat beneath my helmet isn’t going to solve my issues in one fell swoop, which is a shame.

The whole myth stems from a misrepresentation of an unscientific study the US Army did in the 1950s, which, if nothing else, is a good example of why ‘military intelligence’ is inherently funny.

What no reputable advice says is that it’s ever ‘too cold’ to exercise

The study concluded that 40–45 percent of body heat is lost through the head because the only bit of the test subjects left uninsulated were their heads. Otherwise they were bundled up in Arctic survival suits, vastly lowering the amount of heat their arms, legs and torsos lost relative to their unprotected noggins.

You’ll find this ’50 percent’ statistic all over the internet, while even the National Health Service insists that ‘A lot of heat escapes through your head’ rather than the more accurate ‘a proportional amount of heat escapes through your head, so maybe a hat, yeah? Or not?’ [US readers’ note: the NHS is a terrifying socialist conspiracy to provide free healthcare for all].

As this 2008 article points out, had the the US Army’s guinea pigs been wearing only swimming trunks, no more than 10 percent of heat lost would have been from their heads.

It’s a shame this man didn’t read that very article before climbing Mount Snowdon in just his pants and a hat, only to be ‘taken by surprise by how cold’ he got at 1,085m in September. On the way down, he started going deaf and blind. A paramedic had to wrap him in tinfoil because he was hypothermic; a paramedic who at no point said, ‘This is baffling to medical experts such as I, because you are clearly wearing a hat.’

What no reputable advice says is that it’s ever ‘too cold’ to exercise, unless you have a medical condition involving breathing (cold air can lead to throat tightening, known as bronchoconstriction) or heart problems. The latter is because low temperatures cause blood vessels near the skin to narrow, diverting warm blood deeper inside to minimise heat loss, which in turn increases blood pressure and makes your heart work harder.

Discovering all this put a new slant on the ride I’d just finished: the climb where breathing felt slightly harder than normal wasn’t my imagination, for instance, while the windchill of descents obviously had effects long after my speed had dropped. It all points to one thing, and it’s not that it’s officially ‘too cold’ to ride and I should stay in bed (dammit).

What it points to is my clothing. Seems I’m underdressing for road riding — my ‘what to wear’ judgement comes from years of trail biking, but that’s a) slower for less windchill and b) involves body movement that generates way more heat in your core and extremities. 

I don’t want to be cold and lonely

Despite everything, and rather like pants man on Snowdon, I hadn’t quite realised I should be warmer. D’oh. It seems rambler Alfred Wainwright’s legendary advice that there’s ‘No such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’ is bang on.

Mind you, Wainwright was born in 1907, when all clothing was unsuitable. Even by 1953, Edmund Hillary was topping Everest in a woolly shirt and jumper over a string vest… and now I feel cold all over again. And I’ve got no excuse! Ugh. 

As a final kick in the snowballs, it seems there are actually benefits to riding when it’s freezing. First, as you’re working harder you burn more calories, which really helps with those leftover mince pies. Meanwhile the extra stresses build endurance levels, while even winter sun generates vitamin D, which is vital for healthy bones and bodies. So get out there and suffer with me, okay? I don’t want to be cold and lonely. 

Don’t believe a bit of weak, cold sun makes a difference to your health? Then note that rickets, a somewhat Dickensian bone condition caused by a lack of vitamin D, is making a comeback in both Britain and America. In the UK it’s been variously blamed on video games, cloudy British summers and excessive use of suntan lotion.

Being British, however, I can neither warm myself that way nor even truly admit there’s a problem, so let’s dismiss all this as simple banter. A chap should just get on with it! Frozen stiff upper lip and all that. I’ll probably just get out there in my pants and jolly well suffer. Toodle pip!

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