Winter Bike Commuting Tips for Preparing Yourself and Your Ride

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You may have tried it once, taking the old bike out for a spin, or even a full commute, in the thick of winter. You’re reluctant to call it quits for the season. You want the wind in your hair, the frost nipping at your chin, or perhaps other places—depending on how brave you are.

Many cyclists have a couple of bad experiences riding in inclement weather and give up on winter bike commuting.

“It’s not for me,” they say, retiring to the indoors, wrapping themselves in soft cashmere and sipping a hot double-frappe chocolatini with their shiny black car parked out front. Maybe they’re reading Cycling Weekly magazine and they look out the window to notice you checking out their Tesla. “Heated seats,” they tell you.

Meanwhile, your road bike with studded tires is locked up outside in the rain. This is where you learn to cover your bike seat with a plastic bag so you don’t have to dry it out later.

Winterize your bike

Summer to bicycles is a wonderful time. Carry a pump, a tube replacement or patch, and you’re usually good. It’s the optimal time to ride. Winter, on the other hand, will relentlessly attack your bicycle components. The key parts to keep an eye on are:

Lighting

Cyclist holding a lamppost with a bike light on
Maintaining your bike lights is crucial during winter.

Have you inspected your lights lately? Over the year they can get bonked, dropped, and weathered. It’s no fun when your light cuts out on you during a ride home because the case was cracked and water seeped in.

Gears

Ice, sand and grit can get absolutely caked on your chain and other components during even the shortest rides. Keep a brush handy for when you arrive home to take off the worst of it before bringing it indoors. Wipe down and lubricate your bicycle after each ride for continued smooth operation.

Brakes

Keeping your brakes in top shape goes far in keeping you safe during winter riding. Quick stops aren’t as important as smooth stops. Sudden motions during snowy conditions are a great way to end up a road pancake.

Tires

Studded bike tires in the snow
If there’s any chance of snow, you’re going to want studded tires like these.

For those on a budget, here is one area you simply do not want to skimp on. Your life is worth it. Do not even attempt to ride your bicycle in traffic without a set of tires designed for the conditions. Studded tires are highly recommended for getting a good grip on snow. If you get rain but not snow, you still need grooves on those treads.

Shifter

Depending on your shifter type, the levers and twist-action methods have numerous little nooks and crannies where grit, snow, slush, ice and grime can gather. Learn how your shifter articulates the gears for you, and make sure the shifter is cleaned of debris after each ride.

Pedals

If you use flat pedals instead of clip-ins, it is highly recommended that they have spikes or studs on the surface for winter riding. Also, don’t forget to brush your pedals before bringing your bicycle into your kitchen. You’ll be surprised at the size of the puddle!

Fenders

Cyclist crossing a road with fenders on his bike
Fenders make a huge difference in keeping yourself dry when roads are wet.

A set of fenders works great to keep you dry. They’re a must-have for any wet-weather cyclist.

Winterize yourself for riding

Imagine it’s 9 p.m. You’ve had a late shift at work. It snowed and you’re unprepared.

You’ve got maybe six miles to ride. The road aren’t too bad, but you’re wearing a hoodie and jeans.

Good luck. You’ll need it!

If you’re riding without good lighting, a reflective coat and decent gloves, you’re not only asking for trouble, you’re going to be cold and uncomfortable. You’ll remember how tough the ride was. It could push you to get back into your car for the next day’s commute.

Planning ahead is always a winning strategy, but before you head over to the online cycling store and have a field day with your credit card, consider the following as a good start to keep you warm and safe.

Lighting

You can never be too bright! A flashing red light on the back and a flashing or solid light on the front should be the bare minimum. Consider a light on your back and a helmet-mounted flasher as well.

Gloves

Kind of cold but not too bad? You can get away with a pair of gloves—the kind with fingers.

Craft Hybrid Weather 2-in-1 Bike Cycling Mitten Glove, Flumino, Medium

Some brands offer 2-in-1 gloves and mittens in combination.

Brrr! Get-me-out-of-here kind of cold? Mittens are your jam. With the fingers paired together, you still have enough dexterity for shifts and braking, and much greater heat-retention.

Shoes and foot coverings

CXWXC Cycling Shoe Covers Neoprene Waterproof,Winter Thermal Warm Full Bicycle Overshoes for Men Women,Road Mountain Bike Booties

Urban warriors will be out there in dirty sneakers with a fresh pair of shoes in a backpack or messenger bag, but the rest of us will want to invest in some shoe covers, or even a dedicated pair of riding shoes/boots. Nobody ever complained about their feet being too warm and dry.

Ski goggles and eyewear

Blinking your eyes might work for a ride to the store a couple blocks away at night, but for riding in any real traffic, you’re going to want some sort of eye protection. Ski goggles and a balaclava will keep the head toasty and the face dry.

Coat and leggings

This is personal preference, but the bare minimum here is some sort of non-cotton outerwear. If you’re riding in a hoodie and jeans, you’re going to get soaked, be cold, and in general have a bad time. You’ll also be harder to see. Invest in a reflective, weather-resistant coat, and some flexible, weather-resistant light pants.

Layering

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule about how to stay comfortable while riding. You may end up being too hot rather than too cold. Layer your clothing to your personal preference. It’s great to have a wicking base layer that moves moisture to the outside as you sweat.

Avalanche Men's Moisture Wicking Crewneck Grid Fleece Long Sleeve Base Layer Top Black M

Start your layering with a moisture-wicking base layer.

As for what goes over your base layer shirt, wool is the go-to fabric in case temperatures really dip. It stays warm even when it gets a bit wet.

Winterize your relationship to drivers

The months from November to February can be a time of stress, of screaming kids in the soccer mom’s SUV, of early darkness and road salt that can really grime up drivers’ windshields. During years when the snow is light, few people switch to winter tires. When the real snow hits, the first day is chaos. To make your relationship with drivers as safe as possible, consider the following during your winter bike commute.

Wait an extra moment for cars to come to a complete stop

This may seem like a simple one, but during optimal summer conditions many riders will “California roll” at a stop sign. Try that in January and it’s a great way to end up a hood ornament.

With mirrors or backup cameras covered, most drivers are blind to you

Snow covered car mirror
Snow-covered car mirrors are a common sight in winter. Be aware of it.

Many people fail to clean their roof, mirrors, and backup camera of excess snow. You must assume, if a vehicle has snow cover on it, that the driver doesn’t care and can’t see you. Always be careful if you’re following a vehicle with snow and ice on the roof. I’ve seen many videos of flying ice taking people out!

Careful when proceeding uphill or downhill

Give cars plenty of room when following up a hill. If they lose traction, they’ll be rolling right back into you. When you’re riding downhill, studded tires can give you a sense of confidence when braking, but remember that the driver with all-season tires behind you might be a bit over-confident in his grip.

Pedestrians often walk in dark clothing

Any urban cyclist will tell you that people walk out in front of cyclists all the time. More people are distracted by their phones than ever. Most of them wear dark-colored clothing.

Pedestrian in black on a rainy night
Pedestrians seldom take the same care with reflective clothing as cyclists do.

When rounding corners where there may be pedestrians, give a wide berth. If you notice that the sidewalk hasn’t been plowed or salted, but the bicycle lane is, you can bet there will be pedestrians walking in the bike path. Beware of sharp turns!

Health benefits of winter bike commuting

The pandemic year has taught many of us the value of our mental health. Research has shown that your physical health and fitness can impact your well-being.

There is a certain sense of accomplishment from conquering the elements—an internal reward for having the will to put some sweat into your commute. If you have ever felt intimidated by busy roads or packed bike lanes in the summer, these slower cycling months are also a great time to build up your confidence on the road, since most people aren’t as brave as you.

Winter cyclists are a friendly bunch. Expect to see some waves and friendly folk out there when you’re pedaling through the slush. It will help relieve any sense of social isolation you might be feeling.

YouTube has a growing community of avid cyclists who share their own winter riding experiences, which is a great way of building new social ties around an activity you mostly do alone.

Winter cycling pro tips

Like you, I’m someone who has to get out and move—my bicycle being my metal steed of freedom. Other than maintenance, it costs nothing to ride, puts a smile on your face, and keeps the body trim and taut. On the other hand, I’m also a fan of luxury and feeling comfortable, so I’d like to share a few tips on how to really enjoy those long, cold, invigorating rides:

  • Warm socks are the best, so don’t skimp on the footwear.
  • Balaclava and ski goggles keep the face dry and your eyes unobstructed.
  • Carry Ziploc bags and consider putting your phone in them.
  • Always have some hot cocoa ready at your destination.

Ride safe and stay warm!

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