Don’t Let The Cold Keep You From Your Bike
When winter arrives, you might think that bicycling season is over. But with a little knowledge and practice, winter riding can be highly rewarding.
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. The rewards are many. You’ll never get stuck in traffic. You’ll never have to wait for a tow truck to pull your stranded vehicle out from a crash or ditch. You’ll never have to change your oil or pay for gas.
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.
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.
Cycling outerwear generally features a longer cut in the back and the sleeves as well as enhanced venting ability.
- For cold, dry conditions: 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.
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.
- Many believe that simpler is better (and in winter, this school of thought almost becomes a law).
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.