When snow begins to blanket the roads many people relinquish their bikes in exchange for more mundane forms of transportation. Only a small group of dedicated “enthusiasts” (aka nut jobs) will continue to roam the streets on two wheels. Those that partake in winter cycling are privy to a secret: with some advance planning and forward thinking, winter cycling isn’t the extreme sport it’s made out to be.
I have on-again, off-again biked through numerous winters but this is the second year I face a long daily commute and as a result have gotten more serious about preparing for the ride. My inspiration came from other cyclists I’ve seen and spoken with, so at least I know I’m not the only one out there.
When you dissect the activity of winter cycling it is essentially an uncomfortable version of regular cycling. It’s cold and wet – these are inconveniences. The snow and ice make roads slippery and the darkness lowers visibility – these are safety concerns. However, none of the points I mention are insurmountable. It does, however, require some proper planning and preparation.
First thing’s first, we gotta get you prepped for riding in sub-zero temperatures. This means acquiring the right gear. From a budget perspective you may be able to reuse some things you have lying around reserved for skiing or other winter sports – and that’s what I did for a while – but eventually it makes sense to get dedicated items for biking.
Everyone is affected by the cold differently. I do not feel its effects too quickly and my torso usually remains quite warm, however my extremities are prone to going numb. Aside from that I’ve found that I don’t need too much clothing to keep from freezing. After all, I’m being physically active and generating heat; over-dressing can be as bad, if not worse, than not having enough layers.
Speaking of layers – they are the key to winter cycling with a grin on your face. A heavy duty jacket won’t work as well as a long sleeve jersey and a light outer shell. Layers will also allow you to mix-and-match what you wear based on the weather. If it’s a mild day you might simply wear a t-shirt beneath your windbreaker. When temperatures drop you can put on a base layer to keep warm.
For a long time I thought my cotton tee was a perfectly suitable item to wear on top of my birthday suit. However I began to suspect the existence of a better alternative after my shirts wound up drenched in sweat. The promise of a soft and light natural material wasn’t exactly panning out. Once I began doing research on the topic I found that many were waging a war on the material, and I quickly enlisted.
Synthetic materials can be very good at wicking moisture away from your body and onto another fabric. Typically polyester is used and sometimes blended with spandex for compression clothing. When lined with fleece you’ll get a pretty warm shirt or pair of pants. The downside to this wonder material is that after wearing a piece several times it develops a specific odour which tends not to come off, even after a laundry cycle.
What if you want something that comes from Mother Earth? There is another option, but it doesn’t really come cheap. Wool is usually associated with thick sweaters or warm blankets but merino wool comes from a breed of New Zealand sheep by the same name and is very lightweight and breathable, yet warm. Merino wool is versatile enough to accompany you on your ride and be warn around the workplace. I’ll don a merino wool shirt and pair of leggings only when temperatures dip 10 degrees below freezing.
The layer of clothing closest to the elements should be responsible for protecting you against them. As previously mentioned you want to have a light jacket that will block the wind and repel rain. Now, getting something water resistant is a double-edged sword because it can just as easily prevent air from circulating within which results in a personal sauna-on-the-go. Trust me – it’s gross. For this reason avoid jackets with extra insulation because your base layers will take care of keeping in enough body heat. The happy middle consists of a top with vents (zippers or perforations) that permit some airflow. Usually they’ll be located at the armpits or along the side.
Cycling-specific jackets do exist but they are expensive, and I’m not exactly sure why. Some do have pockets for water bottles and food but I have my backpack for my 40-minute ride. My windbreaker does the job just fine, and in significantly colder temperatures I opt for a very light ski jacket with a hood that can completely cover my helmet.
Pants are a bit different because you don’t sweat as much from your lower body but many of the points listed above are still valid. You definitely want something that will defend against the wind and it can make sense to get something lined with a bit of material to keep you warm. I use a pair with a fleece interior down to about -10°C at which point I add leggings. One last thing to consider when choosing pants is how they come into contact with dirt and grime on the road. Cars and your bike itself will kick up lots of crap especially during wet conditions. I strongly recommend having a water resistant outer skin or, at the very least, something easy to wash.
It’s incredible just how much your hands get battered by the wind when on the bike. I feel a significant difference when I ride at a slower pace, and some days I try to purposely catch red lights in order to give my hands a minute to thaw. For winter cycling I first put on a pair of liner gloves which are thin and don’t do much on their own. Then, depending on the temperature, I add a regular or insulated pair on top. Rarely do my hands ever get too warm as they just rest on the handlebars, seldom moving, yet imperative to the entire biking equation.
Ah, toes. I think I almost lost mine because I was reluctant to invest in proper boots for winter cycling. In my defence this is an expensive bit of gear at over $250, and I figured that if I lost one toe I still had 9 more…
Shoes come into close contact with the road and are easy targets for spray. My summer pair with their low cut and perforations meant wet socks were a daily misery. Even on dry days the wind managed to cut through to my feet in a bone-chilling fashion. After just a single commute the Specialized shoes are covered with dirt and practically unrecognizable.
When I finally ponied up and bought my Shimano MW5 boots I was so impressed I kicked myself with them for not picking up a pair earlier. The change from my summer cycling shoes was drastic to say the least. I was finally able to make it to work without losing feeling in my feet or drudging around in wet socks. Although pricey, these shoes make it a lot easier for me to jump on my bike in the coldest of days. They’re not perfect, nor do they stay magically clean, but they do the job for my commute.
More than once I’ve heard someone purport that we lose most of our body heat from our head. Technically speaking that is wrong but in practice our heads remain fairly exposed even when the rest of our body parts are covered, so it only makes sense that this appears to be true. My vented helmet isn’t the least bit brumal and a balaclava is a wonderfully inexpensive solution to shield my face. Its effects are instantly noticeable. If you think you dress warmly enough but are still cold when you ride, pick one up.
An alternate method I’ve used even though it’s not my preference is a hood. My red jacket has an extra big hood meant to cover helmets. This is effective at blocking wind but does reduce my sense of the traffic around me.
Preparing Your Bike
The bike is a machine but it’s naive to think that it doesn’t get cold, hate being wet, or want to tell you about its day. Well, maybe not the last one… but it doesn’t hurt to listen once in a while! The truth is there are several things you should do to make sure your bike is in good working order for when the conditions deteriorate.
Winter cycling presents hazards that make it more difficult to keep the rubber side down. A good set of tires is essential to keeping things rolling smoothly and there are a few parameters to look at when considering tire choice.
I remember the first real dump of snow we got – how excited I was to finally bike in true winter conditions. The surface roads were slushy but passable on my Specialized hardtail. The park trail I would take was a different story, but surprisingly traction wasn’t the issue.
Consider this: when biking through snow your tires act as miniature snowplows because they have to push snow out of their way. During the ride, which took me 1.5 hours instead of my regular 30 minutes, I met a cyclist going in the other direction on a fat bike. When I asked him about his experience he said the exact opposite of what I expected. The super wide tires meant more snow to ‘plow’ which equated to more effort spent on pedalling. On fresh, slightly wet snow the fat bike couldn’t float over the terrain the way it’s intended to in fluffy powder or groomed runs. The LBS corroborated my story, explaining that thin tires have an easier time cutting through the snow.
Tread and Compound
At the end of autumn I always swap the tires on my car for a set of winter ones. I know the summer compound doesn’t perform as well in the conditions and trust the manufacturer to provide me with something that’ll work. Why should this be different for the tires on my bike?
The stock Kenda tires that came with my Miele road bike are good for their intended purpose. With virtually no tread pattern on their skinny surface there is minimal rolling resistance. In the winter, however, I’ll gladly trade some top-end speed for better grip, and the Continentals I bought provide just that. I won’t repeat the marketing jargon you can find on the box but know that they’re a clear improvement over the other tires.
However, it’s all relative.
I still can’t shake the feeling that my Specialized mountain bike offers similar levels of traction even with the cheaper tires I have on it. At this point we’re no longer comparing apples to even oranges because other factors such as riding position have a noticeable effect on handling. Either way, the Contis perform well in wet weather and a dusting of fresh snow.
Lights: To See Or Not To See (And Instead Just Be Seen)
There are two types of bicycle lights: those that make you visible, and those that help you see where you’re actually going. The ones that are bright enough to illuminate your path will also alert drivers and pedestrians to your presence, giving you the best of both worlds. The Old El Paso girl surely thinks this is the better option. However, like most fine things in life they can cost quite a bit of money. Not everyone needs a high output light – as always, buy for your use case.
Your typical ‘frog’ or clip-on LED lights are pretty good at making you seen. They’re small, easy to mount, and the battery will last for a long time. Even though the light output isn’t strong (25 or so lumens) they manage to pierce the darkness and attract drivers’ attention. So far so good, but there is a downside: they have next to no effect on making the road in front of you any brighter. The emitted light scatters and doesn’t bounce back from any surfaces it strikes. It’s a one-way street with these lights so I can only classify them as ‘acceptable’ for commuters who spend their time in the city on roads with plenty of lighting.
Other lights that you can pick up in the $20 – 30 range may look like they’re capable of more but they really aren’t. Consider these to be just marginally better than the previous ones.
If you’re riding on trails at night definitely you need something better. This is where costs can quickly climb past $100 and onward to $500. These kinds of lights will have max outputs of over 1000 lumens. They will use rechargeable – sometimes external – battery packs. Don’t be fooled by cheaper products with grandiose claims that make it seem they be used to guide ships into harbour. Ebay and Amazon are filled with these imitators aplenty. Curiosity got the better of me and for my commute I actually picked up one of these lights that promise you the world. I knew going into the transaction that the description was not accurate and the product images were fake. 1200 lumens for $45? Unlikely, but the torch I got is just powerful enough to highlight unexpected obstacles on my trail at night.
I will argue that a good tail light is more important for an urban cyclist than a headlight. Since you can’t know what’s going on behind you it’s next to impossible to tell if cars can see you (hint: without a light, they can’t). A powerful light will act as a beacon and hopefully protect you from behind. Tail lights are usually simpler than headlights so you don’t need to spend all that much to get something quite good.
The clip-on style lights should be your bare minimum. Even then, don’t trust them to do a great job on a rainy night. It’s worth it to spend a bit more because there are some very bright lights in the $30 – 50 price range. In the following image I display two lights side-by-side. The one on the right cost me only $25 yet I consider it to be one of my best purchases. When it’s flashing it can attract a lot of attention.
Although the lights both appear to be very bright do keep in mind these pictures were taken in a dark room. Things are very different in the real world when you have to compete with all different kinds of illumination, not to mention the tail lights of cars. I’m a firm believer that a blinking or strobe setting should always be used to help get yourself noticed.
Strictly speaking fenders are not requirements for winter cycling but they will help keep you and your bike clean. You can spot the cyclist without this piece of equipment by the mud stain running up and down their back as if they had an unfortunate accident while upside-down. Fenders come in many variants and some bikes will have mounts for a more permanent solution. In a move that confused even me, I went with vanity over function and chose clip-on fenders that don’t provide full coverage but also aren’t as dorky. Sorry, but I had to say it. I just can’t bring myself to alter the sleek look of the bike too much!
Performing quick maintenance tasks is always imperative to keeping a bike running in top shape. This is doubly true during the winter. Dirt can accumulate in the drivetrain causing poor performance, snow and spray can settle on components causing rust, and salt can stick to just about anything causing corrosion. Frigid temperatures can wreak havoc on cables and sketchy stop-and-go conditions can chew through brake pads in record speed. Winter cycling requires enough upkeep that it deserves its own article. Here is a checklist of the most important items:
- Check tire pressures regularly
- Remove snow and mud stuck to the frame after each ride
- Wipe down drivetrain and other steel components after a wet ride
- Clean, inspect, and lube the chain periodically
- Rinse and clean the bike occasionally
- Check brake pad wear
- Inspect cables and apply grease or oil to keep moisture out
Selecting Your Route
I mention above how, during the first winter I consistently rode to work, I eagerly awaited a real dump of snow in order to test my mettle by commuting along my usual trail. What a mistake that was! I nearly tripled my time and was drenched in sweat by the time I arrived. On another occasion I failed to see the black ice covering a steep gravel descent I always took as fast as possible and instantly went down when my tires hit the slippery surface, sliding a good 15 feet in the process. To this day I can’t get the stain left by the dirty ice out of my pants.
You can be wearing the most proper clothes and your bike can be in ideal condition – this doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you’re better off avoiding certain areas. Whether it’s an impassable trail or a road with a high volume of traffic, be cognizant that you’re vulnerable on a bike. Especially when the conditions are generally crappy for everyone else around you. Winter cycling has just as much to do with overcoming the elements as it does with being safe. If you need to change your route to get away from hazardous conditions or cars, do so.
And know when to just say ‘no’. I still struggle with this because I prefer biking over driving so much so that sometimes I wake up to appalling conditions outside but decide I must be on two wheels that day. I’m trying to improve, but there’s a ways to go.
I know this post is a bit long but there are a lot of easy suggestions in the text. None of them should be too surprising. Essentially it all boils down to dressing appropriately, maintaining your bike, and using your brain. Winter cycling is more than doable! Don’t let a little cold weather hold you back.