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.
- How should I prepare my bike?
- What kind of tire should I use?
- What should I wear?
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 dedicated commuter ride can easy be adapted to be a winter riding machine.
Get your bike ready for winter
Get a tune-up. Repack the wheel and headset bearings, grease your bottom bracket and apply wet-weather lubricant to your drive train.
Consider full-length housing for your rear brake and derailleurs (unless your bike features internal housing). You’ll have to use zip ties to attach the housing to the frame, but it will ensure smoother shifting and braking.
Fenders are key during winter riding – without them you’ll get covered with wet, grimy spray from the tires, and so will those riding behind you.
Close-fitting fenders are great for rainy climates, but clog up with slush in snowy climates.
Fenders that clip-on to your downtube and/or seat post are ideal for use in heavy snow, as they won’t clog.
Short days and low-visibility weather make front and rear lights essential during winter.
If you ride 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.
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 durability.
Invest in a wet or wax-based chain lube. Wipe down your chain after every ride, and apply chain lube at least 3 times a month to prevent rust and excessive wear.
Apply a blast of aerosol lube to your bike’s moving parts 1-3 times a month. This prevents seizing or rusting. Avoid spraying lubricant on rims or brakes.
What kind of tires should I use?
Tire choice depends on the type of bike you ride:
If you’ll be riding in 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.
In moderate conditions, regular knobby tires inflated to a lower PSI provide good traction.
Cyclocross and hybrid
These bikes make great winter commuters – their added 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.
Not recommended for use 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/brake clearance allows, 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.
The ultimate for winter commuting and trail riding. With substantial tire clearance, they are like a mountain bike with snowshoes. Built to accommodate 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.
Dressing for winter riding
Dressing for winter 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.
Outerwear and layers
Layers are essential for cold-season riding. A close fitting, breathable base layer under your jersey or shirt keeps your core warm without overheating.
A waterproof-breathable shell is ideal for wet and cold conditions. Ensure that the jacket you’re using is fully seam sealed with back vents or underarm zips. Ski shells or parkas work well, but be aware that road salt and winter muck may damage them.
Waterproof pants that are seam-sealed provide outstanding protection in wet climates. Look for pants with reflective areas and that are cut slim through the lower leg and ankle.
An insulating layer underneath your shell keeps your core warm in cold conditions. Opt for a breathable and moisture-wicking wool or synthetic piece.
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.
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. In wet climates, a lighter waterproof bootie will suffice.
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. They are a great choice for dedicated commuters or for long winter rides.