Winter Cycling 101
When the first snow starts to fall, you might be thinking of making a snowman and cuddling around a fire. Cycling in the winter is probably the last thing on your mind. But give it a chance! You might find a fun new sport.
Why Ride in Winter?
At first, it might seem ridiculous to bundle up for a ride through the ice and snow. But I commuted to work in all seasons when I lived in Colorado, and I never regretted those chilly winter rides.
Here are the benefits – you’ll never get stuck in traffic, you’ll never wait for the snow plow, get your car stuck in the snow or even pay for gas! And it can be beautiful. Imagine the peace and quiet of riding through a light snowfall on a January morning as a herd of elk pads through the snow just 50 feet away.
Regardless of the weather, you’ll be healthier for riding in the winter! The exercise alone is an almost unimaginable reward. Instead of sedentary transport by car, going from place to place by bike gets your heart pumping, blood flowing and the calories burning. Plus, you won’t need to go to the gym before or after work do get your exercise in! You’ll be ready for any springtime bike tours you might have signed up for (think beautiful sunny Florida, Cuba or the Chesapeake Bay). Win-win!
How to Start Winter Cycling
You don’t have the give up the car, cold-turkey. Here are a few ways you can prepare yourself to become a winter cyclist!
- If your town’s buses can accommodate bikes, take the bus to work and then ride your bike around town.
- Drive halfway to work, park and then ride your bike the rest of the way.
- Bike every other day or every third day.
- You need clothing and fuel to keep you warm.
- Your bicycle should be properly outfitted and maintained.
- You need to be aware of the skills and obstacles involved.
Winter Cycling Clothing
Clothing is the most important part of riding in the cold. I remember my first-ever bike commute to work in 20-degree weather. I overdressed in ski pants, a heavy fleece and a down jacket and arrived at work covered in sweat. So don’t overdress!
Here in Pennsylvania, I often wear a medium-weight polyester bottom (with rain/wind pants over them if it’s snowing or raining out) and a short sleeve wool shirt with a light fleece pullover on top. If it’s really windy, I’ll wear an insulated vest over top of the fleece. Anything more than this is overkill.
- 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 like our native Pennsylvania 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.
Your head (along with your hands and feet) is prone to getting cold and losing large amounts of body heat. It’s also really hard to warm up your head and ears once they’re chilly. A wool cap under your helmet is fine for most days. Just make sure the cap you wear is thin enough to fit under your helmet.
Tip: I always wear bar mitts while I ride, because my fingers get super cold! Bar mitts keep your fingers together and insulated from wind, rain and cold. They’ve saved me from numb hands for hundreds of miles!
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). Wool hiking socks are the best choice for riding in the cold.
Bike Gear for Winter Cycling
Winter is tough on a bike’s exposed drivetrain. There is just too much sand, salt and debris on the road to keep your chain and derailleur free and working. Your gears can get mucked up and quit working. 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.
- If your commute is flattish, you can ride a single-speed bike, which doesn’t have a derailleur. This kind of bike is much easier to maintain, because there aren’t as many moving parts. Riding a single-speed will also make you stronger for riding when the weather is good!
- A more exciting, more technical alternative is an internally-geared hub. These offer the ease of a geared bike but have their moving and shifting parts contained inside the hub, protecting them from the elements. The only downside is that these are significantly more expensive than a normal drivetrain, but they’ll save you a lot of hassle.
Avoid riding suspension bikes in really cold temperatures. When it’s really cold out, the oils in the suspension tend to get gluey. Both front and rear suspensions can start to feel heavy and slow, plus they can get gunked up with sand and debris. Again, simpler tends to be better, so I avoid suspension systems altogether.
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.
Check out this high-visibility bike gear that will help you be seen on the road.
Tires will throw slush, snow or rain up at you. Even if all your clothes are waterproof, 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
Hydration and Nutrition
Winter Riding Skills
You’ve got the clothes, the bike and the lights. Now what? Let’s discuss how to actually start riding in the cold.
Where to ride?
- 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 some space. Safety is more important than convenience. If you can’t take the lane for any reason, ride slowly and carefully where the snow is most packed down.
- 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.