Snow, black ice, downpours, darkness… winter cycling can be challenging – and it can be awesome! With some bike prep and the right clothes, even cold days can feel comfortable and totally doable.
General tips for biking in winter:
- Before winter, tune up your bike and switch to wet-weather lube
- Get some fenders
- Make sure your lights are sufficient
- Check your brake pads and think about using winter-specific pads
- Add tires with heavier tread or use studded tires
- Get yourself a bright jacket, rain pants, warm inner layers and some winter cycling gloves
- Two words – shoe covers
Read on for all the nitty-gritty details.
Bike prep and winter maintenance
There’s no way around it – your bike is going to get beat up from winter commuting. If you value the well-being of your performance road bike or mountain bike, don’t winter commute on it. But a daily commuter with a steel frame can easy be adapted to be a winter riding machine.
Get a tune-up before the serious winter weather arrives (check out your local MEC store for tune-up services). It’s a good idea to repack the wheel and headset bearings. Grease your bottom bracket and invest in a wet or wax-based chain lubricant. Consider switching to a full-length housing for your rear brake and derailleurs (unless your bike features internal housing). You can use zip ties to attach the housing to the frame. It won’t look super-sleek, but it will ensure smoother shifting and braking.
During the winter, wipe down your chain after every ride, and apply chain lube at least three times a month to prevent rust, wear and corrosion from road salt. Apply a blast of aerosol lube to your bike’s moving parts once a month or every week if the conditions are particularly rough. It will prevent the parts seizing or starting to rust. Avoid spraying lubricant on rims or brakes.
Fenders are key during winter riding – without them you’ll get covered with wet, grimy spray from your tires, and so will people riding behind you. Close-fitting fenders that follow the curve of your tire and great for rainy climates, but they can get clogged with slush in snowy climates. Clip-on fenders that attach to your downtube or seat post are a better option for use in heavy snow.
Both a front light and a rear light are essential for riding in limited daylight and low-visibility weather. In dimly lit areas, a front light that helps you see what’s ahead (not just be seen) is key. Opt for a light that’s about 150 lumens or more. If you commute only in well-lit areas, a front light that helps others see you, 60 to 150 lumens, is fine. Cold conditions are tough on batteries, so consider running two rear lights or at least carrying a spare. Read more about how to choose bike lights.
If using cantilever or V-brakes, curved winter-specific pads improve wet-weather braking and mud-shedding. If running disc brakes (ideal for winter use), opt for sintered pads over organic ones for better wet-weather performance and durability. Gritty, sandy conditions in winter will wear your brakes faster. Keep an eye on the pads and change to a fresh set when you notice lots of wear.
Outfit your bike with winter tires
Mountain bikes: In moderate conditions, regular knobby tires inflated to a lower PSI provide good traction. If you expect very snowy or icy conditions, studded winter tires and a wide tread pattern substantially increase grip. The majority of grip is achieved via the front tire. If you opt for just one studded tire, put it on the front.
Cyclocross and hybrid: These bikes make great winter commuters. Their tire clearance allows large 700C tires and fenders. Use studded 700C tires in snowy or icy conditions. For milder winters, a large volume treaded 700C tire (700 x 30+) run at lower pressure provides good grip.
Road bikes: Not ideal in snowy or icy climates, as slick tires don’t provide adequate grip. But they are fine in rainy places that see occasional frost. If tire and brake clearance allows it, go for as wide a tire as possible (700 x 30 or more). You probably won’t have enough clearance to run studded tires on a road bike.
Fat bikes: The ultimate for winter commuting and trail riding. With substantial tire clearance, they’re like a mountain bike with snowshoes. Built for 4 to 5-inch tires and 100mm+ rims, fat bikes are built for snowy, icy or mucky conditions. The tire size adds traction and allow you to roll at a very low tire pressure. Like performance mountain bikes, they have hydraulic disc brakes, front suspension and XC geometry. For extremely icy conditions, add studded tires and it’ll just be you and the snowplow out on the roads.
How to dress for winter biking
Dressing for winter bike commuting takes care – layer too much, and you’ll overheat, wear too little and you’ll swear you’ll never be warm again. But with the right gear and some willingness to experiment, the winter road is yours.
- Layers are essential: a close-fitting, breathable base layer under your jersey or shirt keeps your core warm without overheating. Opt for a breathable and moisture-wicking wool or synthetic piece.
- A waterproof-breathable shell is ideal for wet and cold conditions. Ensure that the jacket you’re using is seam sealed with back vents or underarm zips. Ski shells or parkas work well in extreme cold, but be aware that road salt and winter muck may damage them.
- Seam-sealed, waterproof pants are great in wet climates. Look for pants with reflective details, that are cut slim through the lower leg and ankle.
- Thermal and water-resistant cycling tights work well in the cold. Layer them over long johns (wool or a breathable synthetic) on really cold days.
Headbands provide good warmth and ear protection while allowing plenty of airflow. In colder conditions, a slim beanie worn under your helmet provides warmth without too much bulk. In extreme conditions where full-face protection is needed, a balaclava keeps your neck, face, ears and head warm.
Neck warmers are a popular option for commuters. Combined with a beanie or headband, a breathable neck warmer can be pulled up to cover your chin when needed.
Gloves and handwear
For rainy climates, opt for DWR-treated or waterproof-breathable fabrics with internally taped seams. In colder temperatures, choose weather-resistant gloves with moderate to heavy insulation. Cycling gloves often have durable leather or padded palms and a fleecy sniffle patch on the thumb is a nice addition. Extreme temperatures call for split-finger or lobster mitts. They combine the warmth of mitts with glove-like dexterity for shifting and braking.
Socks, shoe covers and footwear
- Cycling-specific wool or synthetic socks won’t bunch up and feature strategic cushioning zones for added comfort.
- In wet climates a set of shoe covers or booties will keep your shoes dry and add warmth.
- For extreme temperatures, opt for insulated booties with a water-resistant shell.
- Hiking boots work well for short commutes. Many offer water-resistance, as well as good protection and warmth.
- Winter specific cycling shoes featuring built-in gaiters, waterproof materials and insulation are a great choice for dedicated commuters or for long winter rides.