Toe Cover Riding

This kind of view can make the chilly slog even more worthwhile.

This kind of view can make the chilly slog even more worthwhile.

It’s toe cover season.

Bike shoes are highly ventilated, which is great when the temps are over 15 degrees.  From there down the thermometer, not so much.

Toe covers are a lycra or neoprene fabric cover that goes over the front half of the bike shoe (or in the case of booties, the complete shoe) to keep a cyclist’s toes and feet warmer — and more dry — in inclement conditions.

Mine are a simple lycra affair, but they pretty much do the trick. As soon as “feels like” temperatures drop below 10 degrees Celsius, my shoe covers go on, and they stay there until I stop riding for the winter. Combined with some warm wool socks, this simple cover extends riding season by a good two months.

I’ve enjoyed cycling this fall, though I missed the warm sunshine filled weeks in late September while coming down off the summer of duathlon — while taking it easy, I was also doing such awesome things as stepping off a roadside curb and popping something in my leg. So the break was voluntary to a point, but also enforced by a tired body.

Though most cyclists appear to have decided to pack it in by early October, I was truly looking forward to getting out for some long rides that were strictly that — rides, instead of training sessions.

It’s been a long while since my bike and I were alone for anything approaching two hours or more. In the lead up to duathlon season, my spring rides were limited by an SI joint and IT band combo injury that restricted me to 25km of riding at a time, most of it in serious pain. As I got into the season, I was focused on race distances — I’ll generally ride race distances plus 10 to 15% while I’m training. There’s simply too much training to do, and too little time in the week to do it in, to be able to head out for more than 45km at a time. The time for building endurance is over the winter and early spring.

I think I treated myself to a 50km ride at some point in the late summer, for a break from my usual duathlon training mix, but that was it.

So the autumn rides, however bone-chilling, windy, and lonely, have been great, if only for the fact that I’m riding just to ride. My pace matters, but the fall winds have a way of making you forget maintaining high speeds to instead just focus on covering the distance.

It’s not glamorous in the least. Riding in temps between 2 and 10 degrees requires careful clothing choices — gloves, liner gloves, shirt and socks merit as careful selection as the myriad options of outer layers. Riding will generate heat from the workout, but unlike running, it also generates serious wind chill that negates the warmth. The difference between the warmth from climbing a hill and the chill from descending it is hard to manage with just a front zipper.

Winds seem even more harsh and unforgiving in the fall — harsh for the cold, unforgiving for the exhaustion that results from a 25km headwind or crosswind gusts of 40km or more. In the cold air, any wind makes my eyes tear up so badly that I have to stop and empty out my sunglasses a couple of times — usually after big downhills. And even if I empty them out, by the time I get home I can hardly see, because my lenses are actually crusted with dried salt from those tears.

Since the sun sets so early now, realistically, one can only ride on weekends. Even so, there are few other cyclists on the road, so it can feel pretty lonely out there — on a 2+ hour ride last weekend, I did not see a single other cyclist of any kind. I had not quite realized before how much one’s morale benefits from seeing kindred spirits on the road.

But on the plus side, and obviously there is one, fall in Southwestern Ontario brings some of the most spectacular views — gorgeous fall colours, and sharp contrasts between blue skies, dark gray storm clouds, or a field of verdant green amidst the dull browns of those that were recently harvested. The sun is at a different angle as we approach the winter solstice, meaning each weekend brings new light, new shadows. Whereas my fuelling on a training ride happens on the go, for these shoulder-season rides, I’ll often pull off to the side of the road and nosh while admiring the view — because a few minutes appreciating that makes one appreciate the riding even more.

Roadwork is mostly done for the season, leaving me dodging fewer potholes and enjoying some new pavement — although as the leaves pile up roadside, with no bylaw enforcement from the city, bike lanes and curb lanes do get perilous.

With the right clothing, we can manage the conditions. I’m a big believer in merino wool base layers, but lately, have fallen in love with Under Armour’s Infrared technology. Having had some success in other UA clothing featuring Infrared technology, I invested in a pair of liner gloves and a base layer shirt specifically to wear when cycling — and I am thoroughly impressed at how well it works. It’s as warm, if not warmer, but costs less than a comparable merino wool item. Whereas my hands used to be in excruciating pain in cold conditions to the point that I couldn’t effectively shift or brake, I can now keep my grip, hardly feeling any cold in my fingers. Frankly, little matter whether it’s classic wool or technical blends — thin, warm and breathable fabric is an absolute asset to cycling.

For reasons I don’t understand, motorists are being kinder in the shoulder season, much more patient and accommodating. Motorists with a clear right of way have been insisting that I go ahead of them. I’ve been waved through more turns and stop signs by drivers in the past five weeks than I was for the previous 5 months. It’s kind of nice to be given the space and the respect, even just for this short time.

Also on the plus side, a long session in the cold and wind is a true test of physical fitness and form. I may not be trying for race pace, but I’m not exactly cruising, either.  On a cold day, by the time I’m cranking out the last 7 to 10 km of my ride, I’ll be working exceptionally hard to stay focused and to maintain good form. Being cold doesn’t mean it’s okay to be sloppy.

And cycling in the fall presents a different kind of challenging workout from the run-bike-run of the last five months. While I’m still running, it’s a lot less than over the summer (and will pick up again over the winter). Long slogs on the bike in less than ideal conditions are a really good workout that challenges my body as much as a brick workout at peak fitness. It’s just straight-up endurance, not multi-sport endurance. I’m not saving my legs for the next round — just all out on the road in front. I welcome the change for the offseason.

This time of the year is always a bit gloomy as we cycling types get ready for a long, dark winter of training indoors. So each time I can hop on my bike and go out for that road-based session, I value that it’s time I won’t be inside, with another bracing shot of fresh air. You never know when the snow and ice will start, and bring toe cover riding to its end — so each ride is ridden like it will be the last for the season.

For that, I’ll deal with the layers, the tears and the wind — with a smile on my face. Okay, maybe it’s a grimace. But there’s also a smile under there, really there is.

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