Winter Cycling on the Montour and Panhandle Trails

My first full winter in Pittsburgh since 1988 (?!!) was no disappointment. I love that the locals hunker down for three months in their Steelers garb and quite literally plow through the brutal season like hardened pros. As my dad used to say “If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.”

Our local cycling club rides year round and routinely sends out emails about the road conditions (“ICE” is often the only subject heading.). However, I’ve had enough reconstructive surgeries to not purposely go looking for danger on local roads with my bike’s skinny rubber tires. My go-to over the winter was the Panhandle Trail and Montour Trail, both with trailheads just a few miles from our home. These former railway lines, now converted to public recreational trails, are an absolute treasure for our region. In the summer they are bustling with families and kids and dogs and others on two wheels, but the winter snow turns them into a natural refuge quieted by the buffer of snow.

Photo Jan 22, 2 46 17 PM-8.jpg

My rides might have only been an hour or two at slow speeds, but the fresh air and delight of playing like a kid make it a special time of the day. After a few Arctic freezes, giant icicles were on display like something from a Nordic theater setting. The snow covered trails revealed paw prints of otherwise secretive local wildlife, also busy keeping themselves active and warm. I got smarter over the winter, replacing my bike shoes and neoprene booties for more practical snowshoe boots, which were both warmer and easier to dab the ground on the inevitable icy spots. I also finally tried an “insulated” water bottle that I filled with hot tea. However, “insulated” did not mean the tea stayed warm, it meant that the double-plastic layer bottle did not freeze solid like my other bottles. Chalked that up as a win!

Our winter season really began on Thanksgiving when we saw 17F degrees on our Frozen Turkey Ride. After two full months of temps and windchills in the teens, by February I was ready for a great thaw. My threshold to ride below 30F degrees became lower, and I came to loathe wearing the same uniform every time I went out:

  • The same two wool base layers

  • The same heavy, insulated, blue cycling jacket

  • The same black fleece neck gaitor that I wore snowboarding in the 90s

  • The same large bike helmet layered over a wool cap

  • The same hot pink, insulated gloves

  • One of two pair, thick winter cycling tights

There’s just not much variation in wardrobe when the only goal is to stay warm! Luckily we know that as the calendar turns over, so does the season and Spring will wrap us in its warm welcoming hug.