Guest post by Andrew Stephen.
Spring may have blossomed, but in the northern latitudes the air is still chill, the light still short, and cycling remains challenging even for enthusiasts. Despite the conditions, we desperately want to get into the saddle again. It’s going to require the right gear for brutal conditions, and no one knows the misery of inadequate gear in frozen conditions than the bike messenger crew of Germany’s Berlin. We consult Berlin native and messenger Franco on his gear and strategies for staying warm on days that can reach -10 degrees Celsius, and what regular riders can glean from his experience.
Tell us briefly about being a bike messenger in Berlin.
I love it. I’ve been a messenger since 2006, which is longer than most last. In those years I have ridden through snow storms, hail the size of golf balls, -10 degree temperatures, sleet, and many, many days of rain. It’s a difficult job and not many are cut out for it. But what surprises me is that I will almost always see regular cyclists out riding their bikes, even in the worst conditions. It will be frozen raining outside and I will be passing professionals on their way to work. It makes me feel less crazy. I work 6 days a week and rarely get sick from all the exercise. Messenging makes me feel like my own boss – I make my own hours and know the city like the back of my hand. Cyling in Berlin is an incredible experience.
We’re especially interested in the kind of gear that you use that regular riders could also use to continue riding in very cold conditions.
First, it is very difficult to balance the hot exercise of cycling with cold external conditions. I use a variety of layers depending on the conditions. If it’s dry out I will use smart wool long-sleeve shirts that breathe and dry quickly from the inside. It is terribly uncomfortable to be frozen on the outside and sweating inside. I find that rain jackets make me sweat from the lack of breathability very quickly. I avoid using them if it is dry enough. In very wet conditions I have adapted a waterproof jacket and sewn an additional Velcro strap around the collar to seal it beneath my chin. I sewed a similar strap the wraps around my waist to seal it from the bottom. I’ve experimented with various bottoms, but in wet conditions you really need waterproof pants that seal securely at the ankle. Make sure your rain pants secure themselves in combination with a set of rain booties. I have Sugoi rain booties, but there’s many different brands that work well. These are crucial to keeping your feet dry. Do not go out in cold, wet weather without appropriate waterproof pants and booties. I have a friend who lost a toe to frostbite on a cycling job a few winter’s back. No matter how you dress, it’s possible that you will need to quit your ride, go home, shower, change into clean layers and head back out. This happens to me frequently. Know your limits and do not push them beyond the point of healthfulness. Sometimes the snow is so thick here that I pack it in underground on the U-Bahn train, and travel to another side of the city that is less likely to be having such terrible weather. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Brilliant. How do you handle hydration in the cold months?
Hydration is very important. It may be cold and you may be chilled to the bone, but you must continue drinking water if you’re riding all over the place. I have a special system developed. I have installed a Camelback 1.5 litre hydration pack that hangs directly on my back underneath my clothing. It’s immediately touching my skin and stays quite warm. The line has an insulated tube that runs around my side and I keep the mouthpiece tucked inside my shirt so it doesn’t freeze. Before I developed this system my line and mouthpiece would freeze and I would be stuck riding around with the weight of the water without being able to drink it!
What about your hands?
Taking care of your hands is vital as well. I have 3 sets of gloves I carry with my in winter months: Very thick, warm, wool mittens for dry but cold conditions; Thin, waterproof and windproof gloves; and warm gloves that fit underneath the waterproof/windproof pair. The combination of the latter two is the warmest available to me and only used under the worst conditions. Usually I use the thin gloves and have little problems. It is vitally important, though, to make sure in rainy conditions to have gloves that secure perfectly under your jacket. Getting your hands wet is asking for an immediate trip home.
Final question: Are you ever too miserable? Does the cold ever get to be too much?
Yes. Absolutely. I sometimes have been delivering packages for 6 hours in freezing sleet, am boiling on the inside and have ice frozen in my beard. That’s a pretty good time to call it a quit for a bit, find a cozy little café and order a heisse schokolade. You want to make sure to live to ride another day. Do your best to stop riding before you’ve been so overwhelmed with the misery of the cold that you won’t want to ride any more for a long time. I have to go out to work the next day, so I’m very careful about reaching this point. Regular riders should be as well. Viel glück!