Heavy snow, slick ice, and bitter cold can drive bike commuters to use public transit or into their cars. But there's hope! Here are some tips to keep you riding through the winter.
Winterize Your Bike
Biking in the snow and ice is hard on your bike. If you have a nice bike, you may want to store it and pick up a cheaper bike for winter commuting. You may also want to use cheap old-school components.
Prepare Frame and Components
Snow, slush, salt, and sand can make short work out of a steel bicycle frame (another good reason to store your good bike for the winter and pick up a used one).
- Touch-up and repaint all scratches and dings to retard the onset of rust. This is not necessary if you have an aluminum frame.
- Repack your bearings.
- The truly dedicated can wax the underside of the frame with basic car wax. This will resist snow and slush build-up.
- Once a week give all drainage holes and the seatpost hole a blast with a rust-resistant aerosol lube. This can prevent water from freezing inside your frame.
- Give most of your bike's moving parts a blast of aerosol lube. Products like WD-40 are great for loosening rusted, stuck, or stiff metal parts but are not ideal as a lubricant for bike chains and derailleurs.
- Clean the chainset regularly and use a bike-specific wet lube to keep it running smoothly. Expect your chain to take a beating over the winter and be prepared to retire it after a season.
- Carry a lighter and a small bottle of lock de-icer in case your brakes or moving components freeze-up. But be careful with the lighter so you don't melt any plastic or rubber parts.
- During warm spells, wash your bike with hot water and let it dry before you take it out in the cold.
Install Knobby or Studded Tires
- In mild conditions you can use low-pressure knobby tires on both the front and rear wheels.
- In severe conditions, winter tires with hardened steel spikes and a wide tread pattern will clear snow and increase traction on packed snow and ice.
- The key to control and traction is the front tire. So place a studded tire on the front wheel first before investing in a studded rear tire.
- Basic studded tires have around 100 studs. More expensive models have up to 300 studs for better traction.
Choose the Right Parts
Brake pads with curves in them scrub away mud, and work better than other brake pads in wet weather.
Most bikes have aluminum rims, although some have steel. Steel rims tend to ice-up and don't brake as well as aluminum.
Close-fitting fenders can clog up with slush, ice, and snow and impede your progress. Fenders that clip on the down tube and seatpost provide good protection and plenty of clearance.
Lights and Reflectors
Short days and falling snow or rain can drastically limit a driver's visibility. Use a powerful, highly visible front light or flashing white LED and at least two bright red flashing LED rear lights.
Most winter riders use two bright red flashing rear lights because batteries can fail in cold conditions.
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Once you've got your ride in order, take stock of your own gear for protection from cold, snow, and wind.
- Watch the weather forecast, and factor in the natural wind chill and the chill that's generated by your riding speed.
- Set a personal comfort zone or cut-off temperature. For example, if the weather drops below –15 degrees Celsius when it's windy or snowing, you may choose not to ride. If it's sunny and –25, you might opt to ride out.
Dress for maximum visibility. Bright coloured garments accented with highly reflective tape are ideal. There are also a variety of personal flashing red LED lights that mount quickly and easily to the back of your helmet to add extra security.
For truly foul weather, well-layered clothing is the easiest way to regulate body temperature and stay dry. Even though it may be very cold outside you will perspire if you are riding hard, so try not to overdress.
- A thin moisture-wicking layer against the skin moves perspiration away from your skin and keeps you dry.
- Above your wicking layer, an insulating breathable layer like a midweight or heavyweight fleece is ideal.
- As an outer layer we recommend a wind-deterrent jacket or shell. Some people even use old ski jackets! You'll probably also want shell pants. Warning: Your outer layers, attacked by road salt and slush, may get wrecked.
Protect Your Extremities
Cold extremities can turn a pleasant winter ride into an endurance-fest. Frostbitten toes and fingers can cause problems for years. So, to protect yourself, take care of your head, face, neck, eyes, hands, and feet.
Not only does your head need to be safe, it needs to be warm. You'll need a helmet with adjustable pads that can accommodate headwear. Remember that cycling helmets must be replaced after a single impact. Toques, headbands, and cold water paddling caps work well under a helmet. Ear covers that attach to your helmet also chic and cozy. To keep your face and neck protected, use a balaclava, neck warmer, or scarf. Make sure you can breathe well through the material!
Blade-style glasses or goggles will stop your eyes from watering (and eyelashes from freezing) and keep flying road grit out of your eyes.
Any warm, windproof gloves will do. Lobster-claw-style cycling mitts offer maximum warmth without sacrificing dexterity. The ultimate in cold and wet weather hand protection are cycling pogies. Pogies fit over your gloves, your bike's shifters, brake levers, and handlebars to completely seal out the elements.
Wet feet equal cold feet, and cold feet can lead to a cold body. Wet shoes also dry slowly, so at the end of a long workday, putting on your cold, wet shoes can dampen your enthusiasm for winter commuting. Here are some solutions:
- Winter or Hiking Boots: You can dust off winter boots or grab your hikers, slap them on, and ride to work – a great solution if you have a fairly short, low-intensity commute. For long distances or in busy traffic, bulky winter boots may not offer the performance and response you need to ride safely.
- Plastic Bags: An inexpensive and simple solution is to put a small plastic bag over your feet or inside your shoes. A great short-term fix if you get caught at work and the weather turns nasty.
- Gore-Tex® socks: A more sophisticated option, that is warm, breathable, and waterproof, but still doesn't solve the problem of perpetually wet shoes.
- Booties: Neoprene cycling booties are made to keep your feet as warm and dry as possible under bad conditions. Waterproof overbooties made of moisture-repellent packcloth keep your shoes and your feet dry and comfy. Remember, even with booties on, you'll need warm socks.
Winter conditions offer a unique set of challenges to the bicycle commuter. You must be a defensive cyclist and anticipate possible problems. Keep these tips in mind next time you head out in less than idyllic weather.
- Choose your route to work based on the winter road conditions. If you are confident riding in traffic, busy streets tend to have the least amount of snow and ice. However, be aware of huge, tire-swallowing potholes, slush puddles, and snow banks. Also remember that snow-covered roads mean narrower thoroughfares. So be vigilant in busy traffic and never assume that drivers can see you.
- Less travelled roads and bike paths are generally safer but can be covered with hard pack snow and ice. Riding on rutted ice and hardpack snow is extremely challenging. If you choose a route less travelled, plan to add more time to your commute so you can slow down and ride carefully.
- Ride slow, steady, and smooth. Try not to make sudden emergency manoeuvres. Keep your head up and anticipate the next turn when you will need to brake. Remember wet, slushy, roads mean reduced stopping power and extended braking distances. This also applies to cars in front and behind you.
- You may want to pedal in the same low gear all winter. In slushy and/or snowy conditions your cogs may get gummed up – your gears can skip or freeze in place. If your frozen in low you can still pedal in most terrain.
- If you start to loose control, aim for a snow bank. It will still hurt when you run into it, but it beats sliding helplessly into an intersection or a parked car.
Have fun, ride hard, and have a great winter bicycling commute!