Tips for Winter Bicycling
When winter arrives, you might think that bicycling season is over. But with a little knowledge and practice, winter riding can be highly rewarding.
I started to bike my drive years ago and today wouldn't give it up for the world. Here are my tips to help you share the experience.
Why Ride in Winter?
At first, it might seem to be a daunting activity—bundling yourself up to ride through winter snow, ice, rain or even just cooler temperatures. But give it a chance. I've been a successful 4-season rider for many years now, and I live in Minneapolis. I have never regretted trading my commute by car for a commute by bicycle.
The rewards are many. I never get stuck in traffic. I never have to wait for a tow truck to get a jump-start or change my oil or pay for gas. The peace and solitude of an early morning ride through a light January snow is something that I would never give up.
Regardless of the weather, you benefit greatly by riding a bike more. The exercise alone is an almost unimaginable reward. Instead of sedentary transport by car, the very act of going from place to place by bike gets your heart pumping, blood flowing and the calories burning.
Winter cycling is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can start slowly and build confidence along the way. Some tips:
- Use public transportation in your town and combine it with a bike ride.
- Drive halfway to work, park and then ride your bike the rest of the way.
- Bike every other day or every third day.
There are 3 main areas to consider when you ride year-round. These are fundamental regardless of where you live, although some become more important in colder, snowier climates.
- You, the rider, need clothing and fuel to keep you warm and give you energy.
- Your bicycle should be properly outfitted and maintained.
- You need to be aware of the skills and obstacles involved. Winter riding calls for slightly different skills than do the warmer months.
Winter Cycling Clothing
The most important aspect of cold-weather riding is your clothing. It's also the area where most first-timers make mistakes. The key rule is to not overdress. Since it is cold outside and there is no engine block kicking out heat, you tend to assume you need a ton of clothes. Wrong. Your body produces plenty of heat and sweat when riding, so you can actually become too hot and sweaty. This can lead to hypothermia and dehydration. When stopped for things such as traffic lights, all that extra heat gets dissipated by cold breezes and can leave you wet and shivering.
Tip: Wear just enough clothes to be slightly cold when you start pedaling. The first few minutes may be chilly, but your body produces a vast amount of heat when riding a bike so you'll warm up quickly.
The goal of a base layer is to keep you dry. Merino wool or any synthetic wicking fiber (such as polyester or nylon/spandex) works well. Cotton soaks up sweat and holds it next to your skin, so avoid that.
Here in Minnesota, I often wear a medium-weight Capilene polyester bottom (with rain/wind pants over them) and a long-sleeve wool jersey top. In my bag, I always carry a lightweight fleece pullover as a just-in-case layer for those days when the wind blows strong from the north. Anything more than this is overkill.
Cycling outerwear generally features a longer cut in the back and the sleeves as well as enhanced venting ability.
- For cold, dry conditions: I have found that a soft-shell jacket makes the best outer layer. A soft shell keeps you warm and dry while allowing a little wind to penetrate—this helps to counter the heat your body produces. In milder conditions, you can get away with just a vest as an outer layer.
- For cool, wet conditions: Riders in rainy areas such as the Pacific Northwest require a good waterproof or water-resistant shell. Look for ample breathability and a longer cut in the back and arms so it won't ride up on you while cycling. Generous vents in the front and along the chest work best, but underarm zips work well, too. Most cycling rain shells come with 2-way zippers, which is a godsend on a bike. They allow you to zip open the jacket from the bottom while covering your arms and upper torso. This is a tremendous way to shed heat.
Your head (along with your hands and feet) is prone to getting chilled and losing large amounts of body heat. It is also near impossible to warm up again just with physical activity.
A wool stocking cap (or helmet liner) worn under your helmet is sufficient for most days, with a balaclava or a scarf carried just in case. Just make sure the cap you wear is thin enough to fit under your helmet.
In rainy conditions, a cap with a visor helps to keep your forehead warm and water off your glasses.
For milder areas where rain is a factor, wear waterproof gloves. Best are cycling gloves with grippy palms and fingers, since handlebars can get slippery when wet.
Many companies make gloves suitable for cold-weather riding—don't get too hung up on the intended activity of the product. For instance, snowboarding gloves will keep you warm even if you are not snowboarding, but you must make sure you can still safely operate the shift and brake levers.
Tip: I've always had success with cross-country ski gloves that have the lobster claw design. Not quite a glove, not quite a mitten, they have 2 fingers and a thumb so that you have 2 fingers inside of each finger of the glove. You gain the warming properties of mittens by having your fingers together but still have some dexterity since they are not true mittens.
The key to warm feet is to get some extra insulation into your footwear. Clipless bike shoes tend to fit small so all of your power can be transferred to the pedal stroke, but that limits the thickness of socks you can wear. I wear an oversized pair of shoes that I can use with a thick, warm sock. I then slide on a pair of waterproof/windproof booties over those. A good rule of thumb is to go a half size bigger with your shoes.
If you don't use clipless shoes and pedals, you can wear lightweight, waterproof hiking boots that accommodate thick socks.
Again, avoid cotton. Cotton socks just can't keep you warm when it gets wet, and you will get wet when riding in cold months (think road slush, rain, freezing rain or just the sweat produced from riding).
Winter Cycling Gear
Winter riding presents a few extra gear challenges that summer rides do not, particularly if you live in snowier climates such as Minnesota.
They can also accumulate slush as you ride, and when the temps drop to well below freezing that slush can start to freeze up when you are stopped at a light. Once that happens there is little to do but find a warm spot to let them defrost.
Even in areas where the temperatures don't get below freezing, the winter months tend to bring on rain. Rain washes dirt and grime onto the road where your wheels will throw it into your bike's drivetrain.
Fortunately, you have a couple of good bike options to keep riding.
- For me, I believe that simpler is better (and in winter, this school of thought almost becomes a law). My choice has been to ride a single-speed track bike for years through the dark and snowy months. While it works well for me, I do sometimes wish I had more gears.
- An exciting, more recent alternative are bikes with internal geared hubs, which are made by a number of companies. These offer the ease of a geared bike but have their moving and shifting parts contained inside the hub, protecting them from the elements. This is a great choice for winter and can save you lots of money that would otherwise get spent on new parts every spring.
If you do choose to ride your multi-speed bike throughout the winter, you should plan to frequently wash and lubricate your drivetrain. Generally, a few minutes each weekend should take care of it.
Avoid riding suspension bikes in really cold temperatures. As the mercury drops, the oils inside the suspension become less fluid-like and more like, well, glue. Front suspensions can start to feel heavy and slow. Rear suspensions won't snap back as fast and, since they tend to be exposed, they also start to accumulate sand and debris. Again, simpler tends to be better, so I avoid suspension systems altogether.
See my post-ride maintenance tips below.
Winter means slush or rain in many areas of the country, so be sure your tires offer a good grip on wet surfaces—that's the most important thing. It's also a good idea to run them at a lower pressure than you would in the summer. Just like with a car tire, reduced pressure makes a bike tire squish out a little bit and gain better traction. In the summer, I run my road tires at around 120 psi, but in the winter I drop it down to between 90 and 100 psi.
For snowy roads, some people like mountain bike tires—big, fat, knobby ones—to gain more traction and float over the slush, snow, sand and grit below. This is an option, but it actually can make riding harder because you gain more friction from the increased surface area of a wider tire.
I've found that skinny tires, such as those in the 700x28 range, sink through the loose top layers of snow and slush to provide a better grip on the pavement below. This concentrates your weight over a smaller area and pushes the tire down to the pavement.
For really nasty conditions, you can find a few companies out there who make studded tires for both road and mountain bikes. These offer little metal projections protruding from the tire every inch or so. They are basically a built-in traction device for riding through snow and over ice. They work well—much like studded tires do on a car.
Daylight is fleeting in the winter. Assume that you will always be riding in darkness and have bright lights for both the front and back of the bike. I use 3 LED lights—a white one in the front and 2 in the back—plus I put one on the tail of my bike and another on the bag I carry. While I don't use them all the time—even Minnesota isn't dark and cloudy every day in the winter—I do use them much more than I do during the summer.
Look for the brightest bike lights you can find, preferably those that cast a wide viewing angle. Rechargeable lighting systems work the best but are pricey. The less-expensive clip-on variety work well, too. Just keep the batteries fresh so they are at their brightest, and get the lights with the widest viewing angles and beams you can find.
Tip: Visibility is important for safety. It sounds like a basic idea but, on a snowy January afternoon, you might not realize how much you can fade into the whitewashed landscape. In general, I find that cars are much more respectful of keeping their distance in the winter months, but do all you can to help them see you even if it's not dark yet.
Tires are guaranteed to throw slush, snow or rain up at you. Even if you're covered in Gore-Tex garments, the cold liquid will get heavy and start to pull heat away from your body. Fenders don't have to be extravagant, just basic enough to keep spray from hitting you. Front fenders should reach a couple of inches in front of and behind your fork. Rear fenders should either be full length or, if a clip-on variety is used, have the ability to angle up to compensate for less length.
Bags and Panniers
If your bike commute is farther than a couple of miles, you're probably going to need to carry work clothes. There are 3 options for this: backpacks, messenger bags or panniers.
For winter riding, I like to use a waterproof backpack. It offers a slim profile and a stable 2-strap configuration. A messenger bag has a single strap and, if not loaded carefully, can shift around and throw off your balance. This can be a nightmare when the ground is wet or snowy. Panniers are good but they do make your bike a little wider. This can be a concern when riding in winter because it's best to stay farther out from the curb then you would in the summer—which means that you are closer to cars than normal (more on this in the Winter Riding Skills section).
Hydration and Food
It's easy to forget to hydrate yourself in the winter months. While the cooler temps may not make you feel like you're dehydrating, the reality is that biking is an aerobic activity and the outside temperature has little effect on the amount of water your body loses. Keep in mind that your winter clothing traps more heat, thereby increasing your body temperature and causing you to sweat more. Also, the atmosphere tends to be drier in winter, pulling more moisture out of your body with every breath. In summer, if you start to feel thirsty you haven't drank enough water. In winter, you can reach dehydration long before you start to feel thirsty. Drink up.
Food is another key to your winter cycling comfort. Without sufficient food intake, your body doesn't have the right kind of fuel to produce heat or energy. In warmer climates, lack of food causes you to tire easily and lose power, but in cold conditions it can make staying warm next to impossible. Eat a meal or have an energy snack before you head out.
Winter Riding Skills
Now that you're properly outfitted, fueled up and have your bike lights happily blinking away, what's next? Let's talk about winter biking skills and obstacles.
In winter, one of the most dangerous places to ride is right up next to the curb. Here's why and how to avoid it.
- In snowy climates, the immediate curb area is where snow accumulates, gets plowed over, melts, freezes and generally becomes an uneven mess of ridges, road debris and ice. Seek out the pavement or just far enough away from the curb to stay off of this dangerous mix.
- Cars tend to give you a wider berth in winter, so don't fear taking up a lane. Safety is more important than convenience. If you can't take the lane for any reason, then find the most untracked snow you can and take it a little slower.
- In wet or cool conditions, the immediate curb area is where broken glass, bits of rusted metal from cars and general road debris build up as the rain washes it to the shoulder.
As with your spring-through-fall rides, you should always ride predictably. Limit any sudden or erratic movements and use hand signals when turning or changing lanes.
Stay relaxed. With locked knees and elbows, you might find that a little ice ball or parts of a busted muffler can be enough to send you toppling to the ground. Instead, stay loose and use your legs to absorb any motion created by running over ice ridges, road debris or similar dangerous areas. Be alert and ready to swerve around broken glass or other tire-destroying monsters.
Snow and Ice Considerations
Watch out for areas with melted snow. Snow often melts in the sunlight but refreezes in lower temps or as the sun sets. These are likely places to find black ice, which, as with auto driving, is probably the single most dangerous aspect of riding a bike in below-freezing conditions. Don't freak out. Just ride slowly and steadily through it; if your tires slip, go with it. The good news is that your bike is likely going slowly and you have a few extra clothes to help pad a fall. I have fallen several times due to black ice but by being aware of these areas and riding slowly, I have never done more than bruise my ego.
Cool and Dry Conditions
In milder areas, you have less to worry about in the way of ice or road debris. But the same riding techniques apply: ride loosely and proactively, watching out for anything dangerous to your wheels and body. Ride as close to the curb as is safe, which due to road debris is not necessarily as close as is possible. Always pay attention and know what is around you at all times. Make yourself visible with lights and reflectors.
Post-ride Maintenance Tips
With all the muck on the road, any bike will soon start to squeak, click and clatter. The more moving or exposed parts, the more places that sand, salt and dirt can gather and affect performance. By minimizing rust and dirt accumulation, you'll keep everything much happier and smoother. To do so, get in the habit of cleaning your chain and drivetrain after almost every ride. A chain cleaner, rag and an old toothbrush are all you need. Just clean it up and regrease it with a chain lube designed for wet/dirty climates. Wipe down your brakes after snowy or dirty rides and make sure the contact surfaces with the wheels are clean.