Shorter days. Colder temperatures. And possibly even snow or ice. If you think winter is a time to put your bike away in storage, think again.
In fact, with enough planning and preparation, winter riding can be a great cabin fever buster. Being outside with snowflakes falling gently on your face and the landscape around you blanketed in white can be both magical and exhilarating, chasing away those winter doldrums. As far as your fitness regime goes, winter conditions will make you ride harder as your body naturally strives to generate more heat.
How you dress is probably the single most important factor in making cold weather riding enjoyable. If your body is warm and dry, you are happy. But keep in mind that when you first go outside to ride, it’s actually good to feel a little chilled. Your body’s furnace will fire up soon after you start pedaling. As with most outdoor activities, dressing in layers is best so you can easily add or take off garments. To talk about specifics, let’s break it down into body parts, shall we?
Torso: Start with a form-fitting, moisture-wicking shirt for your base layer. Avoid cotton, as it holds moisture next to your body. After that, put on insulating layer(s) such as a long-sleeved fleece or jersey. The outer layer should be a jacket or shell that can break the wind and, depending on the forecast, keep out rain and snow. Bonus points if there are zippers on the backs and underarms to vent warm air so you don’t overheat and a two-way zipper in the front. It also helps if the back is long enough to cover your bum.
Legs: Two layers on your lower half usually suffice. Moisture-wicking long johns topped with padded biking tights should do the trick. If it’s really slushy or wet, forget the long johns and don a pair of rain pants.
Hands: Any decent pair of ski or snowboard gloves should get the job done, as long as you can still shift gears and squeeze brake levers adequately. Some people swear by the lobster claw gloves. While I have ski gloves that work well, I actually prefer two layers: a pair of grippy foam nitrile work gloves underneath an old, tattered pair of lined leather dress gloves that my husband was about to toss. The leather has enough grip for me to manage my handlebars well. And the foam nitrile gloves are nimble enough to let me use my cell phone with them on, so I don’t have to strip down to bare skin.
Feet: Some riders might be amply comfortable with a pair of booties over their biking shoes and a pair of thick Merino wool socks underneath, as long as their biking shoes aren’t too tight with the socks. Wearing a plastic bag between your sock and your shoe truly helps protect feet from wind, wetness and cold, and bread bags are especially well suited for the task. It also may trigger Girl Scout déjà vu from childhood. Others, myself included, need footwear that's a bit more nuclear, like an insulated lightweight hiking boot. Since hiking boots can’t be used with clipless pedals, you can either use toe cages (yes, they are very 1980s, but they work) or simply ride with flat pedals. Given that you may need to have a foot free to break a skid or stop quickly, flat pedals are not a bad thing in winter.
Head: Because so much heat transfer happens through your noggin, you definitely want to keep it covered. Depending on how cold and windy it is, opt for an ear band, a skull cap or a balaclava, which, these days, conveniently doubles as a face covering when in public places. WomanTours President Jackie Marchand, an avid knitter, models handmade ear muffs that will make their debut this winter. Whatever you choose make sure it fits under your helmet without compromising the level position that your helmet should have, sitting low on your forehead. You will likely need to adjust the helmet's tightness around your skull and the straps under your chin.
The biking and outdoor apparel industry has plenty of cold-weather garments to sell you. My advice, as suggested in the section on Hands, is to try what you already own first and see if it works, even if the garment isn’t specifically designed for cycling. Ask fellow winter bikers for their recommendations. If you still feel there is room for improvement, start shopping.
Winter Riding Techniques
If the roads are clear and dry, winter riding is not that much different than biking during other seasons, except for the temperature being colder. Ice and snow drastically affect road surfaces and call for extra skill and caution.
Black ice especially is treacherous. If you can, avoid icy patches, which could be lurking on the edge of puddles, underneath a thin layer of snow, in the shade (where things freeze faster because it’s colder) or any place where runoff collects or drains. Follow the driest, straightest line you can, even if it means riding in the middle of the lane.
If you do need to ride through ice, go slow and steady, and try not to brake. If the bike starts to skid, steer into the skid just as you would with a car. And remember that if a stretch of road seems too icy, there is no shame in getting off the bike and walking.
A light layer of new snow may add a bit of slickness to the roads, so watch your speed. Riding through a few inches will definitely call for more pedal power, so shift down to a lower gear. Fresh, undisturbed snow is generally safer to maneuver than snow that has been tamped down by other traffic since you don’t have to contend with ruts and other uneven surfaces. Beware of potholes or glass or other harmful objects that might be hidden by the snow.
Some other general guidelines are to take turns slow and wide, brake early and be extra cautious around traffic, as drivers may have less visibility and control over their vehicles than usual.
Bike Adjustments and Upgrades
Do you need a winter-specific bike? Not necessarily. Thanks to their wider tires with heavier treads, hybrids, mountain bikes and gravel bikes do well in winter. Road bikes, not so much, especially if there is snow or ice—the tires are simply too thin and there is too little contact on the road to enable you to ride safely. Of course, the ultimate is a fat tire bike, which is specifically designed to plow through snow and sand.
Here are some no-brainer or relatively easy upgrades to your current bike that will make it much more winter-friendly.
Tires: The first rule of thumb for winter riding is to let some air out of your tires. This gives you more surface contact on the road, and also gives you a little more shock absorption for bumps. If you’ll be riding consistently on snow or ice, then consider investing in studded tires. While studded tires can be ridden on normal road conditions, they will be noisy and slow. You can cut down on the noise, cost and drag by using only one studded tire on your front wheel. A more convenient option is to go to wider tires if your bike frame allows it. Ask your local bike shop about tire options for winterizing your bike.
Saddle. Lowering the saddle a smidge lowers your center of gravity, making your bike more stable, a blessing if you happen to hit ice.
Fenders/Mudguards: When the roads are wet, grimy or slushy, fenders or mud guards will keep your feet, legs, backside and bike parts much drier. And they will also keep anyone riding behind you happier as they won’t bear the brunt of your back-end spray.
Lights. Visibility takes a hit in winter. Hedge your bets by adding a headlight and taillight to your componentry. Throw in a Day-Glo vest or garments with reflective highlights.
Cleaning and Maintenance: Slush, rain, grime and road salt are tough on bicycle frames and parts, so be vigilant about cleaning your bike throughout the winter. Pay special attention to your chain, which should be wiped down after each ride and lubed frequently with a wet lubricant, which stays on longer and cuts down on salt corrosion.
As with anything else related to winter, a little extra planning around where you are going to ride will go a long way. Who wouldn’t prefer to avoid wind, snow and ice for roads or trails that are clearer, warmer and dryer?
If you are new to winter biking, keep your debut rides close to home. Riding around the block or around the neighborhood two, three or four times will build confidence.
Check the weather forecast and plan to ride during the warmest, clearest part of the day. If there is considerable wind, I recommend riding against the headwind at the earlier part of the ride when you have more energy, saving the tailwind for “dessert.” Of course, weather predictions are not perfect, so don’t invest too much faith in them.
And most importantly, know your limits. Winter riding can make you vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia, so don’t stay out too long. Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration (fill your water bottle with warm water and tuck it inside your jacket to keep the water from freezing). Consider saving the big, sweat-building uphills and chilly downhills for warmer times. When you get home, take a hot shower and get into warm, dry clothes right away. Reward yourself with hot tea or cocoa. You earned it.