Winter by Bike

Some people put away their bike each winter, but I really love commuting by bike year round. The biggest perks of riding through the winter?

Bicyclist on snow with dog running beside

A little known fact: bicycles love playing in the snow almost as much as dogs and small children. photo: baggis/flickr.

  • there’s no windshield to scrape.
  • there’s no parking crunch at the bike racks
  • I always have extra room for holiday pie/potlucks/treats
  • I can pedal fast without breaking a sweat
  • it’s always faster than walking home in the cold/wind/snow
  • biking in light snow beats biking in drizzly rain any day
  • the varied reactions of others always entertain me (with those ranging from encouragement to astonishment).

That said, being prepared for winter weather is key to being happy while travelling by bike December through March. Luckily for us, the roads here are plowed, and we very rarely experience more than a couple inches of snow on any given day. You don’t really need special equipment in the winter (unless you just really want some new stuff), and sometimes you might need to take a different (plowed) route or go a little slower (black ice has the same effect on bikes as it does for cars), but it’s not much more complicated than riding the rest of the year.

The biggest hurdle to overcome: attitude. It’s hard to motivate myself to leave my warm, heated apartment each morning, by foot, car, or private jet (maybe not so much); the bike is just another mode to wrench me away from the comforts of inside spaces when its cold, dark, and unfriendly outside of my window. Luckily peer pressure is always a good motivator, and the people of Vermont, students of University of Alaska Fairbanks and the winter cyclists of Chicagoland to remind me that we have it a lot easier here in Southwest VA.

The basics to remember:

Salt and water are mortal enemies of bikes. If you ride on recently plowed roads or in any kind of wet conditions, wipe down your bike at the end of the day with a rag, ugly t-shirt, or old towel. Clean and lube it more often than you would the rest of the year – in particular, sand and salt in your chain will eat your drivetrain — a simple wipe down and re-lube after particularly messy weather will help prevent trouble.

Lights are a necessity even if you don’t typically ride at night. A light snow is enough to darken the sky and obscure cyclists, pedestrians, and even cars – everyone needs some kind of illumination to be seen (e.g.: helpful illustration from Bikeyface). Make sure your batteries are fresh or freshly charged, and carry spares if possible.

Check your brakes. They’re probably fine, but if they are at all spongy/loose or the brake pads are practically flat (less than a 1/4 of pad for most rim brakes), fix/replace as neccessary. It takes a lot longer to stop when the streets are wet, and even longer when you have lousy brakes. If you are really concerned you can pick up some brake pads designed for wet conditions. They cost a few dollars more and wear a little faster than regular brake pads, but are more effective than traditional pads when wet.

Consider fenders. They don’t have to be fancy, but they’ll keep slush from hitting you in the face or creating an awkward muddy stripe down your back when riding on recently plowed roads.

Consider replacing thin racing tires with wider (or even knobbier) tires. Wider tires will be more comfortable on gravelly, potholed roads. Knobby tires are helpful, but only when the roads are really slushy or debris filled. If you do decide to go wider and are thinking about fenders: make sure your new tires aren’t so wide that they preclude your fender use. Any bike shop or a targeted internet-fact finding mission can help you figure out how to solve this puzzle.

Keep your tires properly inflated to prevent flats. There are tires out there that are better suited for wet weather than others (and are typically advertised as such). Remember: the roads (in town) are plowed; the precipitation is (typically) light. If we get enough snow to make serious studded tires sound like a good idea, most of town will shut down and you’ll have nowhere to go.  If you really want some and don’t have the big bucks required, you can make DIY bike snow tires with some zip ties.

In general: Feel free to stock up on any clothing or bike items that will make your commute more comfortable or make you feel more secure when the weather is bad, but know you don’t need to totally re-outfit your bike. You can get bike-specific winter clothing, or just repurpose your existing stuff. Remember: long scarves need to be tucked away so they won’t be eaten by your drivetrain; wind hurts, so protect your face; and, many sheddable layers will keep you happier in the long run.

If you need some additional support and encouragement, you can join the Winter B-Icicle Challenge, a northern hemisphere-wide challenge to ride all winter long. Also, the Pledge2Pedal community, spearheaded by VT grad student Lauren Prociv, is a way to connect with others who are commuting in the winter.

Lots of internet inspiration and info:

Cycling into the Dark
Would you want to ride toward the Arctic Circle in the winter? Brrrr.

Huffington Post “Bicycling through Chicago’s Winter”
Renee Patton on winter cycling with lots of links to advice

Active Transportation Alliance – Winter Layering Guide
The people of Chicago know how to layer. They give good advice.

Sustainablog: Winterizing your bicycle
Winterize your bicycle

Wired Wiki: Winterize Your Bicycle
An in depth wiki with winterizing advice

MSU Bikes – Winter Biking Tips 
Michigan winter cyclists can provide all kinds of advice

Momentum Magazine – Coast through the Cold – winter riding prep guide
Clothing, upkeep, mechanical thoughts for multiple regions

Commute By Bike - 4 things I forgot about winter cycling in 8 short months
the pitfalls of forgetting about the cold and dark, with links to other resources

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