Winter Cycling: What it takes
You don’t have to be insane, suicidal, or Alaskan to ride your bike through the winter––you just need the right gear. “There are two parts to biking in any conditions: determination and gear,” says GO Bike Buffalo volunteer and cycling advocate James Childress. “At one end of the spectrum, people with enough determination will bike regardless of the weather. At the other end, there are some people who will never have exactly the right gear.” He says he’s found “a compromise, with just enough gear so that someone lazy like me can still bike comfortably in harsh weather.” Invest in the key bike equipment and clothing and you’ll enjoy the health and financial benefits of safe and pleasant cold-weather riding.
Get your bike ready
“Mountain bikes generally provide more stability; a lot of that has to do with wider, knobbier tires,” says Henry Raess, community outreach director at GO Bike Buffalo. “Some people use studded tires, but generally that’s not necessary. You can also consider lowering the pressure in your tires; for example, if it says eighty, maybe lower it to sixty. That will flatten out the tire and give you more traction.” Give some thought to your fenders, too. “If you don’t want your clothing to be covered in mud, sleet, and salt, then you need fenders that cover the tire and have mudflaps,” says Childress. Raess points out, “There’s a lot of types available, so make sure your fenders give you protection from snow and slush but aren’t so close to the wheel as to cause more harm than good. If they’re too close to the wheel, snow and slush can build up.” Clip-on fenders, he adds, offer protection while leaving adequate space.
Dress warmly—but don’t overdo it
“A lot of people overdress,” says Raess. “If you are really warm at the beginning of a ride, you’re probably over-dressed.” To more accurately gauge what to wear, Raess suggests, “Warm up before a ride. Exercise and stretch a little, just to get the blood flowing a bit.” Bring a handlebar bag or panniers so you can stash your jacket and accessories once you get moving.
Raess also encourages riders to remember the mantra “cotton is rotten”—he explains that cotton tends to trap moisture, which can chill you down fast if you’re sweating. “You want something on your innermost layer that is synthetic or wool that will wick moisture away from your body,” he says. (And speaking of sweat, keep in mind that you may not get thirsty as quickly in winter as you do on a hot summer day. Be sure to drink plenty of water anyway.)
On your feet, as with hiking, good socks are key. “Rather than wearing cumbersome snow boots while riding, I wear wool socks and then Seal Skinz socks over them to keep the rain and snow out,” says Childress. “That works so well that I don’t recommend it above freezing temperatures.” For a top layer, Childress recommends “a rain shell that repels the wind, rain, and snow; ideally you want one that is a high-visibility color and has reflective fabric.” Raess notes that some jackets offer ventilation, which makes temperature regulation easier: just unzip to cool down.
Finally, Childress suggests bar mitts, which are oversized mittens that fit onto handlebars, as well as a balaclava or other headgear—“anything to keep the freezing wind out of your ears and face.” Sunglasses, says Raess, are surprisingly important since “the sun reflects off the snow and the road and can make for really bright days.”
As always, be seen
All bikes should have adequate lighting—that means blinking front and rear lights at the very least and, ideally, reflectors too. Because of the shorter days you’re likely to find yourself commuting in the dark, so don’t skimp on visibility. Again, a reflective jacket or vest is a great idea. Ride in the bike lane, if there is one, or in the road; be predictable and assertive to drivers. “A lot of times traffic is going slower anyway, so the snow can be an advantage,” says Raess. “There are tougher conditions, so it’s slightly more dangerous, but a number of drivers are aware of that, and sometimes they’ll give you more space on the road to get by.”
Just as with driving, practice snow maneuvers
“Be careful breaking and turning. It seems obvious, but you have to remind yourself to slow down,” says Raess. “When riding, a lot of people are really tense, and that can cause them to overreact in ice or snow. Keep your upper body relaxed and ride loose, pedal really smoothly. If you pedal super hard, you could lose a lot of energy. If you’re really stiff you can overreact and cause yourself to swerve more than you normally would. You don’t want to overcorrect and spin out. I’ve slid right through piles of slush and snow and stayed on my bike cause I wasn’t trying to fight it.” Practice riding on snow several times in a safe area such as a bike path or empty parking lot before you attempt a commute or longer road ride. Getting the feel of steering and making corrections can take a few tries. Furthermore, take time to plan your route, keeping road safety and traffic in mind. “If you want to try commuting, think about what roads will be best plowed, which ones might have traffic jams or ice buildup,” says Raess. Overall, he concludes, “It’s not so bad. I’ve found ever since I started riding full time, the past several years, it’s a little more work and there are a few days a year where I’m not able to ride my bike. But those are few and far between.” GO Bike Buffalo’s Community Workshop is open all winter to address any questions or winterizing/repair needs. Once in a while, they also host a special winter cycling workshop; check their website (gobikebuffalo.org) or give them a call to stay in the loop.
Julia Burke is an assistant editor at Buffalo Spree.