with the weather turning cold and snowy many of us stow our bikes away for the winter. but a few don’t, and i’m hoping more will join us. for those that already ride many of these tips will be old hat, but for newer riders i’m hoping these tips encourage you to start riding!
start with the skin!
i certainly can’t claim to have a great skin care regime, but with dry cold weather i do find myself needing to pay more attention to it. not too much skin is exposed, but what is gets whipped by wind, and hit with snow flakes. apply some lip balm, and keep it in your pocket. apply again when you get to your destination. put some lotion on the rest of your face. i recommend something a bit thicker and heavier for winter use than what you might use the rest of the year. i’m particulary fond of weleda’s products.
get some wool!
those sheep got it right, for wet, cold weather not much can beat wool. most days under 40 degrees i ride with a long sleeve wool button down shirt. you can usually pick one up at the thrift store for a few bucks. every time i go to the thrift store i scour the shirt section and pick up ones that are my size. be aware that a common reason folks donate great wool shirts is cause they shrunk them. that extra large might actually be really small. i always wear a long sleeve shirt under since these shirts are rather scratchy. during warmer weather i just use a long sleeve cotton shirt, but when it gets under about 30 degrees, it’s time for a second layer of wool.
perhaps the one thing that has changed the comfort of my winter riding is wool long underwear. the ones you want to get are merino wool so they aren’t all itchy and stuff. there are several brands available, and they are not cheap, but if you shop around you should be able to find a top and a bottom for under 80 bucks. I’d get two pair. one good source for affordable clothing is sierra trading post. it’s hit or miss of what they have in stock – but it’s often very good deals.
wool long underwear not only keep you warm, they don’t stink, and they don’t end up making you over heated nearly as much as traditional cotton. even as you sweat in them they still keep you pretty darn warm. i love them.
dress in layers
over that base layer of wool, add a t-shirt, a wool button down, a hoodie and then a windbreaker and you should be set for all but the coldest of conditions. the wind breaker is especially important, you can handle a lot more cold when the wind isn’t cutting though to your skin. if you can get layers that have zippers, buttons, and vents, that’s especially helpful as it helps you regulate your heat as you ride. it’s a good idea to start your ride a little on the cold side, otherwise you end up overheating. layers give you much more freedom to regulate your body temperature.
protect the extremities
your feet, hands, and head all need some extra attention. for my head i like a wool knit hat of some sort, or a wool cycling hat. then i always wear one these tube things. it keeps my neck warm, and can easily be pulled up over my mouth and nose if i need it. in really cold weather i’m know to wear a balaclava. a pair of clear glasses, or even ski googles can help keep the eyes from tearing up, and snow from getting into them, though they can also be prone to fogging up, especially if you have a scarf, or balaclava up over your nose.
on my feet i use a pair of light weight wool socks, when it gets really cold i throw a pair of rag wool socks over top. i also usually wear waterproof boots when it’s snowing as feet are especially prone to geting covered in the wet slush of the road.
the hands are some of my most vulnerable spots, and i give them plenty of love. when it’s cooler i provide them with some merino wool glove liners, then as it gets colder, a pair of waterproof mittens with fleece liners. while the mittens might not allow you as much control, they are much warmer than gloves. there is not much usage of hands you really need to do anyway.
wear a helmet
i know all the arguments agains helmets, and i don’t refute them, but most of these arguments are based on nice weather conditions where you are not sliding all over the road, nor are motorists. i recommend wearing one in icy conditions even if you don’t when it’s nice. you have none of the advantages of warm weather anyway, you don’t get the feeling of freedom from the wind whipping though you hair. yr already covered from head to toe in wool, you don’t even notice the helmet. put it on. in really cold weather i throw a safety orange knit hat over my helmet. it makes me look like i have a pumpkin on my head. i figure it makes me more visible.
if you can stay dry you can stay warm
if your outer layer is not waterproof, pack rain gear including rain pants. if your shoes are not waterproof you can always keep some plastic bags in your bag to slip over top along with some rubber bands to keep them in place – 0r better yet some cheap waterproof over shoes you can add on. those rain storms just above freezing can be some of the most miserable rides of yr life, if you don’t have rain gear.
i have a specific wet weather/snow bike that i ride set up for the special needs of winter biking. it might seem expensive to purchase a bike just for winter, but there are plenty of used bikes that will work just fine for winter that are very cheap, and you won’t have to worry about all the salt messing up the frame. plus its still much cheaper than driving a car. an old mountain bike frame works great.
the debate between types of tires rages long and hard. some say a good knobby tire digs into snow more. others say a slick cuts though snow. in my expreience a knobby tire ends up getting caked full of snow and then just slips around even more. i go for slicks, most of the time they cut though things pretty well, though they don’t work well on ice, but then nothing works well on ice other that spiked tires.
if you only bike when it’s nice out and never in the rain then you likely don’t notice any difference in the braking power of steel vs. aluminum rims. those that ride often in the rain are likely to already be riding on aluminum rims, they offer much better braking power – I highly recommend a switch.
before the weather sets in good time to replace the break pads (some folks swear by the kool stop salmon’s, i’ve not tired them) and tighten up the breaks. i think cantilever brakes and v-brakes work better but on older “beater” bikes you are often are left with side or center pulls.
while winter winds can make you wish for plenty of gears, winter salt, grime, and water make me want to keep things simple. i ride a single speed fixed gear. riding a fixed gear seems like a crazy idea to some folks, and even more so in icy weather, but it does give you more control – allows you to stop and slow down without using the breaks and actually gives you better traction. i was pretty skeptical myself, but it works. even if you don’t want to go for the fixed gear i would switch over to a single speed or an internal hub. you might want to think carefully about yr gear ratios and remember that you are going to have to ride this bike though snow and wind.
since most of the time i’m wearing big water proof shoes, i want some big pedals, and it’s nice to have something that has a good amount of grip on it – you could go for cheap “rat-trap” pedals – or the more expensive and much better mks touring pedals – my personal choice.
in the winter i prefer to sit more upright, it makes it easier for me to see and be seen, and with all the clothes on a more bent over position can be uncomfortable. i use “cafe” style bars, i think they handle better in snowy conditions. i also feel this puts more weight over my rear wheel increasing traction.
fenders and flaps
get fenders, you won’t regret it. you will wonder why you didn’t have them before. you will wonder why some bikes don’t have room for fenders. make sure you have full fenders for full coverage, and consider adding a mug flap to the front fender. these can be simple and made out of a piece of inner tube, a piece of plastic, or you can pay good money for one. if you ride with other people a lot, you might want to put a flap on the back fender too, it will make them happy to not have all the water thrown in their face. a major deciding factor in picking a winter bike should be if it has enough clearance and the braze-ons for fenders.
see and be seen
it gets dark earlier in winter making the need for a light that much more important even for those who don’t usually go out riding at night. even 5 pm can be pretty dark. you have two major options for light, a bike mounted light or a helmet mounted light. most helmet mounted lights are not quite as bright as bike mounted lights – though led’s are making them better and better all the time. they do have the advantage of shining where ever yr head moves, not where your bike moves. also if you switch bikes often you don’t have to change the light because it is on yr helmet. you can also use a head lamp. bike mounted lights are a bit brighter, and there are many more options available. i’m particualry happy with this years investment in the cygolite metro 300 which is plenty bright, and usb rechargable! you really should invest in a light that is bright enough to see not just be seen, especially if you live in a place like detroit where the street lights often don’t work, and potholes abound. a back light doesn’t need to be as bright, a simple cheap back red light is enough. i never turn my lights on strob settings as it makes me feel like i’m going to have a seizure and i’ve heard that the blinking lights actually attract drivers to you – making you more likely to get hit.
in addition to lights, reflectors are always good. i don’t really like the look of reflectors, but they certainly raise visablity. if you have a front and rear light, rear reflectors would be overkill, but i do have a reflector on my fender. i have the reflectors on my pedals, and on my wheels. the panniers i use have a big reflector on front and back, and my winter jacket has plenty of iron-on reflectors.
you are already bundled up like a mummy, and then you have to add a bag to carry all yr stuff? i ditched riding with a bag strapped to me years ago. at the very least put a basket on the bag and throw yr bag in there. if trying to pick – i prefer a rear basket, as in snowy weather steering can get thrown off with a poorly balanced front load. alternatively you can opt for a rack and panniers – which i prefer. panniers keep the weight over the rear tire, increasing traction. i usually carry both my panniers even if only one is full, as i often remove a layer or two during the day as it warms up. i have a super waterproof set of panniers which i can stuff full of all kinds of crap.
speaking of carrying crap – don’t forget that patch kit, pump, tire levers, and a small bike multi-tool. i like to stuff some bus fair into my patch kit, cause if it’s really snowy and crappy outside, i’d just assume throw my bike on the bus and patch at home.
riding in snow and cold weather
snow is not really the thing i fear when riding in snow – its the cars around me. i fear that they will not give me enough space, that they will slip into me, or i will slip into them. all of these fears are warrented and very real.
pick your streets and route carefully. if roads have been clear then i usually go for those routes. the disadavantage is that cars have often picked theses as well, but i figure both of us are safer on cleared roads, and i don’t have to ride so slow. if there are no cleared routes, i often go on trails or paths that cars can’t ride on. here in detroit, the riverwalk really helps my winter commute. alternatively i ride on side streets where very little traffic is and snow has not been packed down. packed icy snow is what you end up sliding around on, powder you just cut though.
try not to brake too hard, as you will just end up skidding though the snow, ride a little slower, and anticipate stops and turns far ahead of time.
the scariest thing to watch out for is ice – sheets often form on the roads here in detroit from broken water mains that aren’t up to the winter weather conditions. ice you have almost no control on, i try to avoid any turns, try not to go too fast, but not too slow, just maintain inertia, grit yr teeth and hope i make it. bridges are espeically prone to icing as are metal plates. also watch out for the road paint which is very slippry when snowy.
the reality is you are going to slip around some while riding in snow, just like driving a car. the best thing is to turn into the skid and ride it out, then recover. the worst thing you can do is panic, i’ve slid all over the place and not fallen, it’s just a matter of maintaining your balance, and enjoying the challenge. you would be surprised at how much slipping you can do and still stay upright.
keep your chain lubed as it dries out more with wet salty conditions, but make sure you wipe it free of excess lube so it doesn’t collect more grit.
check your tire pressure often, under inflated tires are a common cause of flats and no body wants to be stuck fixing flats on the side of a cold snowy road.
check the brakes often as they don’t function as well in wet weather.
get out and ride
by far the most difficult part of winter riding is getting out the door and getting on the bike. once that is done the main challenge is over. i hope you find these tips helpful and get out and ride. i think you will find your mental health much better as you spend more time outdoors, and getting exercise.
if you you have other tips, please do feel free to share.