The Chainlink

Top 10 Tips for Winter Biking and Commuting

Photo by Zach Schneider

Last winter, The Chainlink's own Yasmeen Schuller and Shawn Conley, chairman of the Major Taylor Cycling Club appeared on Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ.

The duo was interviewed by "Morning Shift" host Tony Sarabia about commuting by bike in the winter. The segment also featured comments from listeners who called in, including Bike Winter co-founder Gin Kilgore, and a local cyclist named Joe.

The segment yielded so much solid advice, that we thought it fitting to compile a list of the top 10 tips.

Please know that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to bike in winter weather. Whatever keeps you warm, dry, comfortable and safe is the way to go. But the interviewees and callers offered decades of collective riding experience worth sharing...and I've thrown in a few for good measure. Enjoy!

1. Give Yourself Extra Time
With potentially icy roads, poor visibility and unpredictable weather conditions, it helps to slow down a bit and ride more methodically. Leaving the house a few minutes early can allow you the luxury to ease up on the pace and not have to rush.

2. Be Mindful of Potential Slick Spots
Things like black ice, manhole covers, overpasses, railroad tracks, and those huge metal plates utility workers use to cover sections of dug-up pavement can be super slippery. Approach with caution and avoid if possible.

3. Scope Out Your Route Ahead of Time
If you're new to winter commuting, it may help to do a "practice run" during the day on a weekend. This way, you're not pressed for time, it will be brighter outside, and traffic will likely be less heavy. It can also give you the chance to work out alternate routes if you find streets that aren't plowed, there's construction, etc.

In addition, if you want to hone your winter cycling skills, 30 minutes of practice in a park, parking lot, or on a bike path is great for that.

4. Layer Up
As with any other winter sport, layering is key. Seasoned winter cyclists typically go for a base layer that wicks away sweat, an insulating layer over that, and a windproof/waterproof/breathable outer shell. In my opinion, long underwear is also key. And it goes without saying you're gonna want quality insulated gloves and footwear.

NOTE: There are two schools of thought when it comes to dressing for winter riding:

  • One approach is dressing light so you're a bit chilly when you start, but comfortable once you get going. That way you can ride as fast as you like without overheating and getting sweaty.
  • A different approach is bundling up the same as you would for a winter walk or for downhill skiing, and riding at a relaxed pace so you don't overheat.

Both work, but I personally prefer the second method when commuting and running errands around town. The reason why is in the event I get a flat tire, mechanical problem or otherwise am forced off my bike, I won't get cold standing or walking around.

5. Protect Your Face
A lot of savvy winter cyclists choose ski goggles for extremely cold days as well as for snowstorms (snow really stings against bare skin, and makes it hard to see). Balaclava masks are excellent for protecting your mouth and nose, and they help mitigate the amount of frigid air going into your lungs.

Personally, I love my Belgian cycling cap under my standard bike helmet for most of the winter. It keeps me warm and the tiny brim blocks my eyes from wind and snow. On extremely cold days, I've had great luck pairing ski goggles with a ski/snowboard helmet. Since that helmet is designed specifically for winter sports, it's proven quite warm and comfortable for winter cycling.

6. Leverage Your Resources
You can get a lot of great advice on winter cycling if you know where to look. A great place to start is your local bike shop. Chances are, everyone who works there is a seasoned winter bike rider who can offer great advice on gear, tires, tire pressure, fenders, lights, etc. Resources like bike communities and forums (such as The Chainlink) are great for discussions where you can learn and share ideas, as well a get updates on road conditions.

7. Light it Up
Using quality front and rear lighting is especially important between November and March. The sun goes down sooner, and there's often conditions that cause poor visibility. Reflective clothing is also helpful for staying visible to motorists.

8. Keep Your Bike Clean and Well-Maintained
Winter can be pretty hard on your bike. Pay extra attention to keeping your bike lubed, free of salt, and in good working order. If it's a steel frame, have your local bike shop apply frame saver. Full-length fenders are a big help during the winter. Routine inspections and maintenance at your local bike shop will help keep it safe.

9. Share the Road
One pitfall of winter cycling is that the plows sometimes pile up snow right in the bike lane. This, unfortunately, will force you to occasionally ride in the lane with the cars. In my experience, drivers are generally understanding of my predicament and surprisingly patient. Therefore, I return the favor by trying to be conscientious that I'm slowing them down, and doing whatever I can to move over and let them by whenever possible. In turn, I usually receive a friendly "thank you" wave, and I can feel secure that I've done my teeny, tiny part to help with bike/car relationships on the road.

10. Relax! Winter Riding is Really Not a Big Deal
Based on the conversations I've had, I believe that the thing that holds people back from riding in the winter is fear. This is supported by the phrase "you must be brave" which I always hear whenever I roll up on a bike in mid January.

I'm not gonna lie and say winter riding and commuting is as easy or pleasant as pedaling on a 70 degree, sunny Saturday in June. But once you've ridden in the snow a few times, you'll find it's not that bad, and WAY better than being stuck in car traffic. I also feel that the time spent outdoors helps acclimate you to the cold weather, making winter as a whole more bearable...and dare I say enjoyable. 

Visit https://soundcloud.com/morningshiftwbez/morning-shift-thursday-january-6-2016 to hear the WBEZ radio interview.

Visit http://www.thechainlink.org/page/winter-riding-resources for additional tips and insight on pedaling through the winter.

About the Author:

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he also occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by bradford powell on December 26, 2016 at 3:44pm

Comment by bradford powell just nowDelete Comment

For over 40 years I've been an all-season all-weather cyclist who never bothered to get studded tires but now that I've tried them the last two years I wonder why anyone up north would chance hitting black ice on ones evening commute without studded tires.  I won a race on a frozen lake on my first pair of Nokian studded tires that had only 68 studds/tire but this year I am riding a schwalbe tire with 118 studds and I feel more secure on the ice with the schwalbe,(but putting the tire bead up and over the edge of the rim was tuff).      Anybody try any of the other manufactured studded tires? A friend told me a boot manufacture has a new rubber sole material that sticks to ice but what happens when light dusting of snow covers the ice?

Comment by DanGer 8.2mi on December 23, 2016 at 9:04pm

Columbia Omni heat is the best. They make a hat, under garments, coats gloves and boots. I am good to -10. I haven't had the chance to ride colder weather. My face is the hardest area to keep both warm and dry.

Comment by Marcia on December 22, 2016 at 2:41pm
I got a couple pair of thick Primaloft filled gloves on sale at Land's End five years ago and they work great. Hell of a lot cheaper than lobster gloves, and you can layer them over a thin pair of smartwool, if needed. I don't think you need to spend a fortune to suit up for winter. Likewise, I just found some leather Merrill ankle boots on sale and they're my new favorite winter riding shoes--flexible, waterproof (after a few spray applications), have enough tread to stop on ice, and pretty damn warm with two layers of wool socks.
Comment by Howard Sawallisch on December 22, 2016 at 1:28pm

In Minnesota I have a 7.5 mile commute each way. Above 50 degrees is shorts and t-shirt, 30-50 is Novara pants, underarmour long sleeve and long sleeve bike shirt, light gloves, 0-30 is Novara pants and coat, underarmour long sleeve, lobster gloves, and a balaclava....I don't attempt below 0. This just works for me. Like most have said after about 1 1/2 miles in you are warmed up. The Novara wear is awesome as it completely cuts the wind from the front yet is breathable thru the back. I am looking at buying some studded tires as I took a digger earlier this year.

Comment by lucky on January 9, 2016 at 7:20am

This will be my 13th Chicago winter on a bike. In that time, I have tried every glove, at every price point, to try to keep my fingers warm. The best strategy I've found yet is smart wool liners, a pair of cycling gloves big enough to go over them, and a pair of 20 dollar thinsulate mittens big enough to go over them both. The cycling gloves are the key, as the padding keeps you from cutting off the circulation to your fingers while you squeeze the bars extra hard steering through ice and such. Works way better, and is much cheaper, (for me, anyway) than lobster gloves, trigger mittens, or that $140 pair of foul-weather, wind and rain proof, sailing glove I bought and returned the next day because the wind went straight through 'em.

That, and neoprene booties, is the culmination of all my winter riding experience. Hope it helps.

-Lucky

Comment by Randy Neufeld on January 8, 2016 at 4:20pm

For new winter riders: Dress as you would for 10° warmer than it is.  So if it's 30°  dress for 40°.  The key is the first few blocks before your body's heater kicks in.  Get fully dressed about 10 min. before you go outside.  When you're starting to feel a little uncomfortably warm, get going.  The cold air will feel refreshing and before it can chill you, your cycling will be generating heat.

Comment by Dave Fonda on January 8, 2016 at 2:27pm

Try a possum wool billed cap under your helmet.  50% Marino Wool; 40% Possum Fibre; and 10% Nylon.  The possum fibre is hollow, so the cap is light and very warm.  The Marino wool adds material strength.  My cap drys quickly and doesn't smell after several sweaty rides.  I wash it in cold water like any fine wool sweater.  If you put it in the dryer, you'll be giving it to a toddler.

Bought my first cap from Rivendell Bikes years ago.  The dryer shrunk it, and Rivbike was out of stock.  So I bought two directly from Lothlorian Knitting LLC in New Zealand.  Each cap came to roughly $35 including shipping.  I have a lifetime supply now as long as I stick to the cold wash and air dry.

This cap has become an indispensable part of my kit.

Comment by Marc-Paul Lee on January 8, 2016 at 12:57pm

Excellent!  For me, a neck gaiter, ski goggles and lobster mitts have proven indispensable for winter riding.  I also use a ski helmet rather than a bike helmet.  Flannel lined jeans are also an alternative to long underwear.  Now I'm good down to 20F.  

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