Winter Riding

Safety Corner logoIs your bike stowed for the winter? Are you cursing the cold, snowy, dark winter days while fantasizing about spring? Well, life is just too short for that! With a little knowledge and preparation, you can keep those wheels turning 12 months of the year without undue suffering. To learn how, we sought advice from two winter cycling experts and CRW members, Pamela Blalock (http://www.blayleys.com/articles/WinterTips/wintertips.htm) and Dave McElwaine (http://www.trailwatch.net/dressing.html) and their websites. We also checked out IceBike (www.icebike.com). Here’s what we learned.

Your Bike
Winter is the season to de-emphasize efficiency and speed, and instead focus on comfort and survival. Choose a touring, hybrid, or mountain bike, rather than a racing bike. Who wants to wreck their nice racing bike with road salt and winter grime anyway?

For tires, go puncture resistant. Even experienced winter riders find fixing flats to be somewhere between miserable and impossible when it’s really cold and windy. Dave suggests Kevlar-belted tires and checking tire pressure before every ride (to avoid pinch flats). Pamela suggests studded tires (yes, they make studded bicycle tires!) whenever roads may be icy (basically, November to March!). If using just one studded tire, mount it up front for steering control.

If your bike doesn’t have fenders, add them. “Fenders are worth their weight in gold in New England”, says Pamela. She adds, “I just can’t emphasize enough that fenders are one of the most valuable components for staying dry, warm and comfortable.” Use full fenders and mount each to fit closest to the tire at the rear so snow won’t jam between the tire and fender as the wheel rotates forward. For better protection, many winter cyclists add fender extensions or mudflaps—both in the front (to protect your feet, bottom bracket, and chain) and in the rear (to protect your riding companions). Buy extensions or make your own (see, for example, http://www.ccbracing.com/feature/fenders.html).

Winter days are short. Planned or unplanned, you will have occasion to ride in the dark. Mount lights both front and rear. Pamela’s web site has a nice write up about the ins and outs of various lighting options.
Add a rack, panniers, or a large saddlebag to carry a good tool kit, extra clothing, an emergency space blanket, and a cell phone.
IceBike suggests using toe clips and straps for winter riding, especially when it’s really cold. Clipless pedals suck the heat out of your feet, and can jam with snow and ice.

Pamela and Dave remind us to maintain our bikes particularly carefully in winter, and to always check our bikes before each ride. Use petroleum-based lubricants in winter because wax-based lubricants solidify too much.

Your Clothing
Dave says it best. One of his basic rules is to “avoid cotton like the plague”. He further adds, “You may as well sit naked on an icy steel I-beam as wear cotton when you are sweating in cold weather.” Stick with synthetics, or wool and silk if you prefer natural fabrics. Avoid the common mistake of wearing synthetics for outer layers, but then forgetting about under layers such as briefs, bras, and socks. Your under layers are the most critical layers to be non-cotton.

Pamela and Dave warn against overdressing. If you’re warm before you start, you’ll probably soon be overheating and sweating. While “sweat happens” regardless of how careful you are, try to minimize it. “Warm when wet” is a gross exaggeration used by many clothing manufacturers to promote their miracle fabrics. It’s OK to start out feeling a little cool—you’ll warm up quickly. If you don’t, stop and add more layers (that, of course, you are carrying for that purpose).

Dress in multiple thin layers, rather than one heavy layer. Outer layers need to effectively block the wind. Jackets that can be unzipped (including pit zips) help a lot with regulating your body temperature. As always, choose highly visible colors. Pack a reflective vest for night riding (in addition to lights) and reflective ankle bands (if your pedals don’t have reflectors). Motorists don’t expect to see cyclists in the winter, so you’ll want to be especially conspicuous.

You’ll need a thin headband, watch cap, or balaclava, depending on the temperature, and a helmet cover (to block all those cooling vents). Dave suggests choosing a helmet that can be easily adjusted to allow extra space for your hat. Don’t compromise helmet fit. If your current helmet doesn’t fit well with added layers, get a new one. Pamela likes neck gaiters, which double as face masks. Wind-protective eyewear is especially important in winter. Switch to goggles when it gets really cold.

Pamela cautions that “glove choice is often a compromise between warmth and maneuverability.” Dave finds lobster gloves (two fingers together) to be a good compromise for colder days. Pamela and Dave also suggest chemical warmers when it’s really cold. Whatever hand wear you choose, be sure you can operate your brakes and shifters before heading out.

Most summer cycling shoes are vented to stay cool, and clipless pedals anchor your feet to cold, metal blocks (i.e., your pedals). Add to this some wind chill and the relative inactivity of your feet while riding—well, you get the point. Dave extends the season for his summer shoes by duct taping the ventilation holes. Heavy socks and insoles are great, but if they make your shoes tight, they will be worse than useless. Pamela and Dave suggest chemical toe warmers for colder days. Several types of booties are available to extend the temperature range of your shoes. Some cover just the toes, some are 3/4 length, and others cover the whole foot. Better yet, get winter riding shoes, which have no vents, cover the ankle, and have nice insulation.

Pamela’s web site discusses in detail dressing each part of your body, with many helpful brand/model suggestions. Dave’s includes a guide to dressing for winter riding, specifying what works best for him in 5 Deg. F increments! Clothing needs vary from individual to individual—your needs may differ.

You
IceBike’s web site provides tips for riding on all types of snow and ice—check it out. Dave warns against riding alone in winter if possible, and suggests leaving your itinerary with someone and (as always) carrying ID, emergency contact information, and your insurance card. Pamela recommends selecting shorter, flatter routes in winter, and having bailout options.

Fuel and hydrate yourself well—you’ll burn more Calories and lose more moisture through your lungs while riding in cold weather. Pick foods that you can chew in the cold. Freeze protect your liquids by starting with warm or hot liquids (even if it’s plain water) and using insulated bottles (a sock over your bottle will help). Pamela uses a Camelbak(tm) (worn under her outer layers) and avoids freeze ups by using a hose insulator, blowing air in the tube after drinking, or tucking the hose in her jacket.

Pamela warns against stopping at the tops of big hills for longer than it takes to add a layer—otherwise, you may have a very chilly descent. Always stop well away from the traffic flow, which can be especially tricky when snow banks are present.

With proper preparation, getting cold shouldn’t be an issue. More likely, you’ll take great pleasure in defying the snow and cold with body heat and proper clothing. However, if you start having trouble, take action quickly—don’t gut it out. Find a warm place, even if you have to knock on a door, or call a friend, a taxi, or AAA (some of Pamela’s tried and proven methods).

Remember—safety is about choices. What choices will you make?


Please send corrections, additions, comments and praise to

© 1997- CRW, Inc. All rights reserved. Revised: