The polar vortex is a large pocket of very cold air, typically the coldest air in the Northern Hemisphere, which sits over the polar region. Nov 8, 2014 Via AccuWeather.com
I was cycling home from work on a friday and the mailman was shaking his head at me as I made my way down Old Georgetown Rd. I overhead him say “It’s too cold out to not have a jacket on.”
I was wearing my company issued sweatshirt and Under Armour long sleeved shirt. I was quite warm, at the time.
I had heard some murmurs at work about a polar vortex. I don’t own a T.V. so I wasn’t current on the local news.
I made it to the Brannon Crossing intersection before the cold air began to really come down on top of me. It was then that I understood why the mailman back in Lexington was so shocked at my sparse attire.
My torso was fine for the time being. The problem was my hands. My fingers were freezing. I could feel the start of frostbite nipping at my fingertips.
I pulled over to the shoulder and tried to use a hot pocket to warm my hands. The wind was so strong. I couldn’t get the hot pocket to work. I stood there, slightly hunched over, and tried to wave down passing motorists. I watched as people looked at me and then kept on going. No one pulling over to help a fellow road traveler.
I put my hands inside my sweatshirt and tried to warm them in my arm pits.
Standing there, with the wind blowing down on me, I was getting cold. Really cold. I could feel despair seeping down into my heart. The full crushing force of just how petty and mean the people are where I lived hit me as hard as that cold northerly wind.
I almost started to cry.
Then I got mad. I mean really angry that these twats, driving by in their warm cars, couldn’t be bothered to help someone clearly in need.
I had made up my mind to cycle as fast as I could further up and pull into the Starbucks. Get a hot coffee, warm up, and then finish my commute home.
Just as I was getting ready to climb back on my bike a man in a big truck pulled up next to me. He got out and asked if I needed help. I told him I was going to bike up to Starbucks and he said that he would give me a lift into town if I wanted.
We put my bike in the bed of his pickup and he cranked up the heater in the cab. I told him how upset I was that no one tried to help me before him. He asked me how long I’d been out there. I told him I’d cycled from North Lexington to that point. He couldn’t believe that no one offered to help before him. “These people only care about themselves,” he said. I nodded in agreement.
We made it to main street and he asked me if I’d like to get some shopping done. I told him that I could use some warm gloves. He took me to the Tractor Supply and I found a pair of camo gloves that looked like they would do the job.
I was worried about price, so I didn’t buy anything more but I sure was looking longingly at the wool socks.
He dropped me off at my house and gave me his business card. He said if I ever needed any help to let him know. I thanked him and took the proffered card. I never did call him but I kept the card.
I arrived home to find my 17 yr old son complaining that he was hungry.
This hurt my heart and made me mad. I told him that I almost froze to death and that I was very lucky to be alive. Could he give me a goddamned minute to settle in before hitting me up for dinner. That or he could cook his own food himself. My son gave me a dirty look and went to his room. It was then that I sat down and cried.
After warming up and resting, I made dinner and set to thinking about how I was going to stay warm for Monday morning’s commute.
I went to the store the next day. I was bundled up better than before and wearing my new gloves. I bought food that I hoped my son would be able to cook for himself. I’d taught the kid how to cook but he always expected me to do it for him. As I was checking out, I saw the headlines on the newspaper. It was then that I realized this cold was a serious cold.
This was my first winter biking and I was pretty concerned.
I went home and after putting away the groceries; I sat down and looked up the local news channels online.
I read in growing horror the forecasted record lows.
I quickly took stock of everything I owned. I made a short list and went to the big box store where I bought wool socks, a wool hat with ear flaps, ear mitts, leggings, and other various items.
I rode around on Sunday testing out my clothing and trying to figure out the best way to stay warm on my 18 mile bike ride to work.
The most important part of my plan to stay warm was to plan for warm up stops. I calculated the distance between myself and the convenience stores that would be open on my way to work.
I also spent a great deal of time researching on YouTube and Google searching how to stay warm in winter. A lot of the advice was awful. Clearly geared towards the weekend road warrior going out for short sprints. I needed to know how to stay warm for an extended amount of time.
After some careful research I decided on what I would wear.
This is what I wore.
I started with layers. Not tight layers as these did not allow pockets of air to be trapped. This is the secret to staying warm while wearing light layers.
1. Tights for flexibility
2. Under Armour leggings.
Between the tights and leggings I had a pocket of air. As I cycled the heat generated by my body heated up the pocket of air.
3. Loose jeans. The heavy denim provided protection from the wind shear.
1. Winter boots two sizes too large. (This was my only mistake on that first cold ride. I bought the winter boots on my way to work after almost losing my feet to frostbite.)
2. A tight pair of wool socks.
3. A fluffy thermal pair of socks.
4. A hot pocket in the toe of each boot. (Never directly next to the skin or you’ll get a chemical burn)
1. One pair of thermal skin tight gloves.
2. One pair of insulated (one or two sizes larger than the other gloves)
3. One hot pocket between the gloves. Placed on the back of the hand but not in direct contact with skin.
1. Under armor shirt.
2. A wool/fleece lined sweater.
3. A mid weight jacket which also doubles as a wind breaker. ( I wore a $20 motorcycle windbreaker that I bought off of Amazon.com)
1. A wool scarf wrapped tight but not too tight. The length tucked into the jacket.
2. A second larger scarf. This one loosely wrapped around neck and chin.
3. A neck gaiter. This goes over neck, chin, and nose.
4. One more light scarf loosely wrapped around the mouth hole. (This caught my steamy breath and kept the cold air from freezing my lungs.)
1. A wool hat with ear flaps.
2. Ear mitts. The wool hat goes over the ear mitts.
3. A bike helmet to hold the whole contraption down.
I wore a backpack in which I stored my work clothes and lunch. This helped keep the wind off my back. Not that that was ever an issue. My fortune was such that I had a head wind on the way to work and as the day wore on the wind would change and come up from the south. So it was a head wind both freaking ways. Ugh!
January 5th 2014
I went to bed Sunday night with my stomach tied up in knots. I tossed and turned all night. I finally got up and stayed up at 2 a.m.
January 6th 2014
I checked the temperature forecast and when they said -40 degrees with windchill, I said no way! I called in that Monday. I just couldn’t do it.
I stayed home and worried some more. I planned and replanned my route. Took stock of my clothing and sat down and worried some more. I called a few people and sent out a few messages on social media asking for a ride to work. No response.
So I sat myself down and gave myself a pep talk. I could do this. I was ready.
January 7th 2014
Tuesday morning dawned dark and early. I again spent the better part of the night tossing and turning. Again I got up at 2 a.m.
I woke to find that the temperatures had significantly warmed up.
Wind chill readings from -20 to -25 to begin the day and will head closer to 0 degrees later in the afternoon. That’s when high temperatures warm into the upper single digits to low teens. Kentucky Weather Center
I left the house at 2:30 a.m. I was nervous inside but still I insisted on wearing my “can do” attitude. I dressed carefully in my layers and my only complaint was that my boots were too tight. I stepped outside and immediately had concerns for my feet.
Not to be deterred, I headed off. As I was cycling to my first pit stop, the BP on Catnip Hill, I made my way through the intersection where U.S. 27 meets up with Business U.S. 27. Two Nicholasville Police patrol cars were preparing to turn left onto Business U.S. 27 and when they saw me they honked their horns at me. It startled me and since they didn’t bother to follow me I kept on going into that dark and frigid morning.
Once I made it to the BP, I realized just how cold it was outside. I sat down and warmed up for about 20 minutes before mentally girding my loins and pushing on to my next pit stop.
When I made it to the intersection of Man O’ War and U.S. 27 I knew I was in trouble. My feet had become numb and I couldn’t move my toes.
I decided to take a chance and pull into the big box store. I needed better boots. This is where I bought the last pair of winter boots which also happened to be two sizes too big. Desperate times call for desperate measures and I bought the boots figuring that I would exchange them for a smaller pair at a later date. I never did.
I sat down in the aisle and peeled off my rubber boots. I inspected my toes. They were blue and I had to move them up and down with my fingers. The pain I felt as the warm air hit them was excruciating. I stood up and painfully realized that the heel of my foot was frozen too. I sat back down and rubbed my feet. I put on my warm socks and took the boots up to the register to pay for them. Everyone was astonished that I was cycling in the cold weather.
The boots being two sizes too large were perfect. My bulky socks fit with plenty of air pockets to trap the warm air and I could put a hot pocket hand warmer into the toe of each boot. My feet were so warm they were sweating.
I made it to my next pit stop and bought some hot coffee. I stood in the store and drank it down. I made idle chit chat with some of the shoppers and then headed off to the next pit stop. I made it to work thirty minutes early. I had left at 2:30 a.m. and arrived at 5:30 a.m.
Three hours commuting whereas my normal commute took an hour, sometimes an hour and thirty minutes if I lingered at my pit stops.
When I realized how easy it was to dress warm for cycling, I felt silly for calling in on that Monday. I can look back and laugh at how worried I was at the time. My greatest accomplishment was that I figured it out and made it through that winter with no support from anyone.
That is how I cycled warmly through the polar vortex.
When I’d stop for coffee people would ask me if I was really cold. My response? No! I’m burning up. It wasn’t unusual to arrive sweaty.
The trick is to know that you are going to sweat. That sweat will freeze, which is why those pockets of air are so important. They allow the sweat to evaporate off without chilling you.
*Note: the only part of my body that I was never successfully able to keep toasty warm was the thighs. From the top of my knees to just below my hip would always be chilly but never chilled.