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.
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 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!
Because it’s cold out and you’ll be outside, you tend to assume you need a ton of clothes. Wrong! Your body produces plenty of heat and sweat when riding, so you can get 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.
A base layer should be a thin, breathable material that keeps you dry. Merino wool is my favorite because it doesn’t get stinky after lots of wears. But 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 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.
Cycling outerwear generally has a longer cut in the back and the sleeves as well as enhanced venting ability. But you CAN wear any good outdoor clothing to ride your bike.
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.
For milder areas where rain is a factor, wear waterproof gloves. They’ll save your fingers from the dampness and the wind as well.
Many companies make gloves suitable for cold-weather riding—don’t worry about how the gloves are supposed to be used. Ski gloves will keep your fingers warm, even if you’re not skiing! Just make sure you can still safely operate the shift and brake levers.
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!
The key to warm feet is extra wiggle room and insulation. Clipless bike shoes fit small so all of your power can be transferred to the pedal stroke, but small shoes give your feet less room to move around and make your feet cold. I recommend putting flat pedals on your bike for the winter, so you can wear waterproof hiking and thick socks to ride.
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 riding presents a few extra gear challenges that summer rides do not, particularly if you live somewhere snowy. Here are a few things that can help.
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.
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.
Here are a couple things you can do:
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.
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. 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.
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 road tires can be around 120 psi, but in the winter you can drop them down to 90 or 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.
Skinny tires, like the ones 700×28 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.
Or you could ride a fat bike, which has 4- to 5-inch tires at a really low pressure. These cool bikes aren’t the fastest, but they basically float over snow! The Surly Ice Cream Truck is a budget-friendly winter wonder. Plus it makes a great conversation piece when you roll up to the office on this fun machine.
Daylight is short in the winter. Assume that you will always be riding in darkness and have bright lights for both the front and the back of the bike. I use two LED lights—a white one in the front and a red one in the back. 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 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
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 think panniers are best. Backpacks are okay, but they can hurt your shoulders and back if you’ve got a lot of stuff to carry. This waterproof pannier is light, cheap and element-resistant.
Hydration and Nutrition
It’s easy to forget to hydrate yourself in the winter months. While the cooler temps make you feel like you’re not getting hot, biking is still an aerobic activity, and your body is still losing moisture all the time. Plus your winter clothing traps more heat, raising your body temperature and causing you to sweat more. The dry air will pull more moisture out of your body than you realize. 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.
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. Check out these homemade energy food alternatives that will save you money on bike snacks.
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 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 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.
No matter the season, you should always ride predictably. Limit any sudden or erratic movements and use hand signals when turning or changing lanes.The best option? Ride on a pedestrian-only path. Many cities are making rail trails and protected lanes for bicycle commuters. If your town hasn’t started anything like this yet, maybe you should advocate! Check out the Rails to Trails Conservancy for more info on trails in your area.
Ride relaxed. With locked knees and elbows, you might find that a little ice ball or parts of a busted muffler will send you sliding across the ice. 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.
Dealing with Snow and Ice
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.
Post-ride Maintenance Tips
With all the crud on the road, any bike will start making nasty noises. 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. 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. 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.