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Staying Warm, Safe, and Upright on Winter Rides

Safety Corner logoby Bob Zogg


The arrival of colder weather doesn’t have to end your cycling season. While winter can present some special safety challenges, with a little preparation you can ride safely and comfortably throughout the chilly months.

Before heading out on a winter ride, take a few extra precautions. If not on an organized ride, leave your planned route with someone, or ride with a friend. Be flexible-wait for good weather conditions. Select shorter routes and leave yourself bail-out options in case weather conditions worsen. As always, carry ID, emergency contact information, and your insurance card (or photocopies of these items).

Dress in multiple, thin layers so you can adjust your clothing as you ride. Stick with synthetics, wool, or silk materials. Leave all cotton at home, from your base to your outermost layer. While no material is particularly warm when wet, damp or wet cotton will suck heat from your body, which at best will make you miserable and at worst will put you at risk of hypothermia. Your outer layer should block wind and be a bright color for greater visibility. Choose a helmet that can be easily adjusted to accommodate a hat or balaclava. Use wind-protective eye-wear. Switch to goggles when it gets really cold.

Keeping hands and feet warm in winter can be particularly challenging. “Lobster gloves” (that keep two fingers together) often work well, and provide adequate dexterity. Before heading out, be sure your hand wear allows you to operate brakes and shifters. You can extend the season for your summer bike shoes by duct taping the vent holes, adding booties, or using chemical warmers. Extra socks can help, but only if your shoes are large enough to avoid a tight fit. Winter riding shoes are best. They have no vents, cover the ankle, and provide ample insulation. Whatever your footwear, be sure you can walk comfortably and safely under winter conditions.
Don’t overdress-you’ll warm quickly with exercise. Adjust clothing as you ride to minimize sweating. Add clothing if you don’t warm up quickly after starting out. Stop only briefly at the top of hills (to add a layer, if needed, for the descent). Take breaks at the bottom of hills so you’ll warm up more quickly as you climb.

Eat and drink plenty-riding in winter burns more calories, and cold air sucks moisture from your lungs. Pick foods that you can chew in the cold. Freeze-protect liquids by warming them at home and using insulated bottles (even a sock over your bottle will help). A hydration pack (such as Camelbak™) worn under your outer layers works well.

If you start to get cold, act quickly. Add layers, eat, and drink. If that doesn’t do it, seek a warm shelter, even if you have to knock on a door, call a friend, or call a taxi.

Even if the roads are generally clear, you may encounter slippery conditions, such as black ice (melted snow that re-freezes on the road surface) or snow or ice in shaded areas. If you don’t have time to steer around slippery spots, simply coast over them, traveling in a straight line, your body relaxed but with most of your weight on your feet, and avoid braking.

It’s good to keep a “beater” bike for sloppy winter days-perhaps one with an older steel frame, moderately priced wheels, and an internally geared hub or single-speed drive. Sanded, salted roads and dirty melt-water demand that your bike have full fenders, with a front mud flap reaching almost to the road surface to keep crud off your feet and your chain. (You can bolt on a mud flap cut from a plastic orange-juice bottle.) Studded snow tires are available, in case you plan to ride when roads are snowy or icy. They’re slow on clean pavement, so it’s best to mount them on a second bike or on a spare pair of wheels. Sealed bearings, or bearings packed full of grease, will help avoid premature wear. Lubricate brake and derailleur pivots, quick releases, cables, chainwheel bolts, etc. so they won’t seize up. After riding on a sloppy day, rinse your bike well with clean water. Combining rim brakes, aluminum rims, and winter grime results in faster rim wear, so check rims occasionally. Hub brakes (drum, disc, roller, or coaster) don’t pose this problem.

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

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