Winter Cycling Tips
Why Should I Ride in Winter?
1. It's often faster, especially when you factor in the time required to shovel out your car and driveway.
2. It's great exercise.
3. You love winter! That's why you live in Minneapolis, right?
4. And all of the summer reasons still apply:
Being outside is awesome (being in a car is not being outside), lower carbon footprint, no gas, free parking!
How To Ride
1. Wear a helmet!
2. Allow extra braking distance in snowy or wet conditions. Brakes that are wet or icy will not stop as well. Remember, cars need extra braking distance too!
3. Depend on the rear brake as much as possible: if the rear wheel locks up, you have a good chance of putting your foot down to stabilize your ride. If the front wheel locks up you are much more likely to end up on the ground.
4. Use bike trails where possible. In most cases they are plowed within twenty-four hours of a snowfall (often before the roads).
5. Ride defensively in traffic (same as the summer). Less daylight, fewer cyclists on the roads, and foggy windshields combine to make other traffic less visible to cars. Give cars ample space when changing lanes or turning (especially turning left across traffic).
6. Be Visible! Use lights and reflective clothing even in daylight, and consider adding reflective tape to your helmet, panniers, and other accessories.
7. Gear down. Use too high a gear and you risk spinning the wheel and losing traction.
For less than $15 you can get a pair (white for the front and red for the rear) of Beam Bugs. These aren't bright enough to light your path, but they make you a little more visible to cars especially through precipitation. And remember to use flashing modes even in daylight to help drivers see you on a dreary Minnesota day. Reflective ankle straps ($15) and reflective tape ($10) will ensure that headlights illuminate you from any direction.
A Good Idea
A reflective vest ($25) is also a good idea. Consider spending a bit more ($25) on a good front light to help illuminate the road as well as help drivers see you. Look for reflective fabrics (or use reflective tape) when purchasing a bag, jacket, and helmet.
The Extra Mile
A $50 ultra-bright light puts your visibility on par with a car headlight for visibility even without streetlights.
What to Wear
1. Helmet! The risk of a fall increases in winter. A $30 helmet can mean the difference between a good story about your wet clothes and a great story about your trip to the hospital. Most road helmets are designed to maximize ventilation, in order to stay cool in summer. You can use a winter-specific helmet, or simply wear a balaclava under your helmet. Avoid hoods: these funnel air into your helmet and down into your jacket!
2. Layers, layers, layers. Once you get the hang of it you might find that you're shedding one layer before you even leave home. In this case your first mile tends to be a little cold, but your body eventually heats up and keeps you comfortable for the rest of the ride without having to stop to shed a layer. I still tend to over dress and overheat, but I'd rather be too hot and have to shed a layer than be too cold. Keep in mind that riding is like creating wind just for your body and dress for the wind chill. (A backpack or pannier is good for stuffing extra layers mid ride if you find you're sporting one too many layers.)
3. Cotton (including denim) absorbs moisture very quickly and loses its insulating properties when wet. Wool and synthetics will wick perspiration away from your body, stay warm even if they get damp, and dry quickly.
4. Light gloves go a long way when you're working out. In colder conditions mittens work well with single-speed flat bar setups, but are impractical with drop bars. Gloves with fingers are the most flexible option, but can be cold; three-fingered "lobster claw" gloves can help maintain access to your shifters and brake levers while still holding your fingers together for warmth.
5. Combine wool socks with light boots to keep your feet warm. You'll lose some power if you're used to clipless pedals and shoes, but you'll be much more comfortable.
For short trips when the temperature is 20F or above, your ordinary winter gear will work fine for your bike.
Core: winter coat, wool sweater
Hands: winter gloves with fingers
Face: scarf or balaclava
Feet: boots, wool socks
Legs: Jeans, long underwear
(I often throw on a baggy pair of pants over my jeans because they're easier to remove than long underwear once I get to my destination.)
A Good Idea
For longer or colder rides, cycling-designed clothing becomes more valuable.
Hands: For $25 you can get lobster claw hybrid style gloves that feature separated fingers for dexterity with a convertible outer shell for extra warmth.
Face: A $25 balaclava keeps ears, face, and neck protected from wind.
Core: Add a cycling jacket ($100+) to your wool sweater. Cycling cut is longer in the back to protect you from road spray.
Legs: Combine jeans, long underwear, and a pair of cycling gaiters for about $50 more to protect feet and legs from wind and road spray. Gaiters slip on over your shoes like flimsy boots or intense stockings.
Feet: Wool socks, boots.
The Extra Mile
When it's getting really cold and you sold the car to pay for cycling gear, spring for really nice cycling gloves. These can run over $100 but are well worth it. Pearl Izumi sells a 3-in-1 glove for $130. It's waterproof and has a breathable liner. Deluxe.
Face: You're basically just getting the most hardcore versions of the same stuff. High-end cycling balaclavas start around $50.
Core: Stick with the wool sweater, but head over to the $150 rack for a winter specific cycling jacket.
Legs: Ski pants ($100+) are waterproof, windproof, and insulated. What's not to love?
Feet: With a few seasons of experience with winter riding, you may want the extra power of clipless pedals. Your summer shoes will work with an insulated cover such as the gaiters. Just make sure you're also spending the money on good socks. There are some good cycling specific socks for about $35.
Bike Setup and Maintenance
1. Did we mention the helmet?
2. Wipe the bike down and lube it up as often as every ride. This doesn't have to be a complete overhaul, but sand, salt, and slush can damage your bike frame and components; clean and lubricate your bike much more often than you would in the summer (especially the drivetrain). The earnest rider will wipe down their bike after every ride. The lazy rider will lock up his/her bike outside without a cleanup. It's the freezing and thawing that allows the water and salt to do the most damage, so if you just keep your bike frozen all winter it won't suffer as much...so the theory goes. Ironically, wet lubes (less than $10) will repel moisture and protect components from corrosion much better than dry lube, which is designed to shed dust in dry conditions (a useless effort in a Minnesota winter). And for Pete's sake, get a tune-up in the spring! Your bike will continue to deteriorate all summer if you just put it into storage and walk away for the summer.
3. Fenders will help protect your bike, chain, and feet from snow and slush sprayed up by your tires. In particularly messy conditions, fenders keep the spray out of your face too. Highly recommended.
4. Many riders choose single-speed and fixed-gear setups to avoid the extra maintenance and potential failure of derailleur components. Optional.
5. Studded tires help maintain traction on icy surfaces--even black ice. But beware, the studs wear out fast on bare pavement.
6. Don't be afraid to rework your current bicycle. We offer free Open Shops all year to help you work on your own bike with our tools. Having said that, many riders have a second bike that's set up specifically for winter riding. Our shops build inexpensive single speeds for winter. These generally feature mountain bike frames, upright handlebars, and wide knobby tires with an optional coaster brake and start around $225 even for a custom build. A simple bike reduces the collateral damage on your components and can even be rebuilt from the ground up if necessary without a huge repair bill.
The best favor you can do for yourself is a $35 set of fenders (if you don't have them already). Otherwise your existing bike will be perfectly serviceable for winter riding. Give your bike a wipe down with a rag after every ride to clean the salt and sand off the frame. Clean and lubricate the drivetrain at least once a week and consider replacing the chain and cassette/freewheel in the spring.
A Good Idea
In our opinion, the perfect winter build is a rigid (no suspension) steel mountain bike frame with straight or upright handlebars and a single-speed drivetrain with freewheel (or even a coaster brake) ($225). Knobby mountain bike tires work well in wet and slushy conditions, but any tire can lose traction on ice; adding metal-studded tires ($120/pair) is recommended if the roads quit giving up that sheen of ice and snow.
The Extra Mile
If you've always wanted a Tauntaun, consider getting a fatbike in the meantime. If you're ready to leave your car in the garage from November to April, a model such as the Surley Pugsley or Krampus can handle even blizzard conditions with aplomb. Starting at around $2000, the fatbike's four-inch tires are designed to "float" over deep, soft snow, and their wide footprint helps maintain traction on ice (like snowshoes for bikes!).
The Next Level
If you love winter riding, consider entering a snow race, like the Arrowhead Ultra (www.arrowheadultra.com), Cold Bear Challenge, or the Frozen Forty (www.icebike.org for resources and links, and to connect with other riders.