How To Master Bike Commuting In Winter Conditions

Do you love to ride your bike to work, but feel unsure how to transition from a shorts-wearing summer commuter or flannel-swathed fall cyclist to into the hardened, furrowed-brow creature we know as a winter bike commuter?  I can help.

I had a very abrupt introduction to winter bike commuting when I moved from Los Angeles to Denver in 2006. I was determined to orient my life around biking, and to drive as little as possible, but I had little preparation for real winter. Thankfully I had many hardened winter riders to observe on the Cherry Creek bike path and around downtown. By emulating their sartorial choices and using what I thought would work for me, I soon found myself thriving in winter, and giving advice to others. Going into my 12th winter of riding for most of my transport—now in Washington, D.C., I've learned enough to pass along.

Attitude

Winter bike commuting is first and foremost about a mindset: taking adverse conditions that would thwart most people from even being outside, and choosing to endure through whatever—or, at least most of—what Mother Nature throws at us. I typically look at the forecast a day or two out, and mentally decide that when I go out, I will experience the full glory/fury of the weather, but will get through it with a good attitude. This way, if I get chilled, wet, or windswept, I already expect it, and have made accommodations to remedy the matter following the ride with some self care. Like coffee, an under-desk heater and dry shoes.

The Necessities

You’ll want to pay special attention to a few bits of your body as you prepare for winter bike commuting. Think about that spring skier you see in board shorts and—maybe—a t-shirt. What do they actually have covered? Usually goggles or glasses over the eyes, a hat covering their ears, gloves covering their hands, and maybe a scarf or bandana over their neck and maybe nose. This is the same list you definitely want to protect first and foremost as a winter commuter. You likely already own a few or all of these items, and with limited exception, the same gear you use for winter mountain sports will serve you well in cycling: goggles, ski/boarding helmet, beanie, gloves, scarf or balaclava.

I’m the last person to be a helmet scold, but with winter commuting, it becomes a pretty practical piece for your entire regalia. The ski/board helmet has earflaps and insulation, serving as a very effective hat and ear cover, usually with an integrated clip or channel for holding goggles in place. The goggles, secured on the helmet, are a great way to secure something like an Ubertube covering your nose and mouth on the colder days. Icy conditions leave you more susceptible to landing on the ground, too, so a helmet in winter is a good choice for all these reasons.

For your hands, mittens are a big no-no since you’ll need to operate your brakes and shifters occasionally. A standard five-finger glove, or a split-finger glove is ideal. If it’s below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll want to ensure your gloves are up to the conditions.

Your normal shoes paired with ski socks should be enough to get you through most winter conditions. Any shoe that leaves exposed skin is not your friend for winter biking, and you’ll either want to wear commute shoes, snow boots, or find shoe covers. If you find yourself lacking the proper gear at some point, simply throw on some polyethylene bags—plastic grocery bag or similar—over your socks, then put your shoes on over them.  This wind/moisture barrier is a remarkable trick for shunning wind chill in a pinch.

On the bike

In much of North America and Europe, winter is characterized by various forms of frozen water, which has a different friction coefficient than liquid water.  You’ll want to be very cautious, especially if frozen water is adhered to a surface your bike tire is traveling over. I can say from experience, your bike can go over pretty much any frozen surface with the right adaptations, but you need to tailor your accessories to your prevailing local conditions.

For tires, you can add or remove pressure from them, and the cyclocross rule of “when in doubt, let air out” will serve you well in winter conditions. Lowering your tire pressure toward the minimum amount (printed on the sidewall of your tire) will expand the traction patch of your tire to be larger. Consider that the contact patch on a road bike tire is about the size of your thumb, and grows only marginally larger as tire size increases. If it’s icy or there’s a morning/evening freeze/thaw cycle, you could go the next step and get studded ice tires, such as the Schwalbe Ice Spiker, which would allow you to cross a frozen lake on your commute. So if your summer commute involved going around a body of water, you can now get the added benefit of taking mileage off your total distance by going across, rather than around.

Braking distance and effect is another biggie when it’s slick. You’ll want to be judicious in using your brakes, and control your speed through sections you know will be icy, like the areas under bridges or that stay in shadow much of the day. Locking up the brakes and wheels is a bad idea—remember that your hand is the anti-lock brake, and try to slow the wheel down without losing the friction connection to the ground when braking on slick surfaces. It’s also non-scientifically proven that holding your breath and coasting over icy patches will certainly protect you from spills.

You’ll also need some lights, since the sun spends less time in the sky in winter. So make sure you aren’t just relying on streetlights. Don’t be afraid of headlamps, bike lights and lots of reflective patches on your clothes and bike. Make yourself a beacon of visibility.

Bike Maintenance

Bike maintenance is a necessary fact of life for winter commuting. You’ll pick up more road grit, more ambient precipitation, and a wider range of temperature change in this season, all of which affect the condition and longevity of your components. The good news is there are a lot of easy preventative things you can do up front, and the parts that wear out are designed to be replaced, like tires, drivetrain, cables, brake pads. Lubricating your chain and drivetrain will prevent rust and resist picking up road grit. A $6 bottle of the stuff will last you a year or more. You should change your chain every 3,000 to 15,000 miles, depending on your riding variables, but winter riding will bend you toward the lower end of that range. More good news is that very good chains can be had for $20 to $30. Brake pads range from cheap to sort-of cheap, and if you have rim brakes, an occasional wipe-down of your rims will prolong rim and brake pad life. Tires, too, can get 3,000 to 15,000 miles, but you’ll want to make sure you have the tread and thickness that the tire is supposed to have throughout your winter riding season. Plus, there are so many great tires out there, you may as well plan to try out some new ones at some point. With all the extra road grit, your odds of catching a flat are a little higher, so spring for a spare tube or two, and be prepared to either replace or patch, then inflate a tire in the cold. A good backup plan for a flat in the coldest weather is to lock your bike up and take a cab, then return with a car so you can work on your flat in a temperate environment.

Drivers

The most dangerous thing about winter bike commuting isn’t snow, ice, or hypothermia—it’s drivers. The same things that make your bike handle a little worse in the winter make cars handle a lot worse. Think of your typical car owner, distracted by their phone or talk radio, deferring that set of replacement tires until absolutely necessary, still driving with a cracked windshield from last winter. These are the folks you’ll be sharing the road with. So if possible, avoid them. Take the slightly longer trail route, find the bike lanes, or find a circuitous, but lower speed neighborhood route to work as opposed to the arterials. If you can’t avoid them, imagine you are the gazelle having to share the watering hole with a lion—if that lion moves just a little from taking a drink, get the hell out of its way, and assume there is one sneaking up behind you at all times. 

Feel Free to Not Bike Commute

As wonderful as winter bike commuting can be, you probably have some other options for the truly awful weather days. Feel free to use them. Share a ride with a friend, learn how to use the bike racks on your city buses, discover the rules for bringing bikes on your local trains, or—should you be fortunate to work for an enlightened company doing mostly computer work—go ahead and telecommute. Winter bike commuting works best when you want to do it, and it doesn’t feel like punishment or stoicism.

If you’re still up for it after reading this far, I hope to see you out there this winter!

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Shop gloves, balaclavas, neck gaiters and beanies.