Winter Bike Commuting: 10 Tips to Ride Safe

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Update: I posted some updates to this topic in 2012 in a new article I wrote for Outside Magazine.

Bike tires hum on snow, and they buzz on ice. But they rarely slip when you’re going straight. Gears click and shift the same in almost any weather. Just remember the lube. And the cold wind? With the right clothing it’s not an issue, according to regular wintertime riders.

Untold thousands of people in the U.S. pedal year-round to work or school, commuting on city streets and plowed trails. New cycling equipment, better apparel and a growing awareness of the feasibility of wintertime riding has caused a jump in participation.

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“I used to count bikes as I rode in the winter, as they were so rare,” said Dave Olson, a 57-year-old electrical repairman from Minneapolis who has commuted year ‘round through blizzards and below-zero temps for 20 years. “Now if there’s new snow, I can see the tracks of at least 50 riders.”

In Minneapolis — the nation’s No. 2 cycling city after Portland, Ore., according to the U.S. Census Bureau — Olson is among as many as 3,000 people who commute through the cold months, according to the City of Minneapolis Bicycle Program, a division of the Public Works Department.

“In the spring, summer and fall there are close to 15,000 bicyclists traveling throughout the city,” said Don Pflaum, the city’s bicycle coordinator. “Approximately 25 percent of all bike commuters ride year-round.”

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The attraction? Parking is free. High gas prices do not apply. In a storm, two wheels and pedals can be faster for getting around the city than a car struck in a traffic jam.

Winter riding is not without hardship. Evening comes early, forcing workers to pedal home in the dark. Snowdrifts squeeze side streets, eliminating a comfortable side lane for bikes. Frozen fingers and feet are common issues for the unprepared.

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But dress right, use fenders and lights on the bike, maybe add studded tires, and commuting in the bleak months can be comfortable and efficient.

“A bike is a lot more stable in the winter than people think,” Olson said.

Not convinced? Here are 10 tips to help you ease into the wintertime cycling scene:

1. Follow the plow
Unbeknownst to many summertime riders, bike trails are regularly plowed in many major metro areas. For example, in Minneapolis more than 50 miles of trail is plowed after a snow.

2. Ride straight
Believe it or not, the medium during most winter commutes is often the same dry pavement as in the summer. Sand, salt, sun and snowplows eliminate ice and snow from roads in the days after a storm. But for slippery stretches riders should slow down and stay loose. Brake only on the rear wheel to avoid spinouts on slick surfaces. And be prepared to take your feet off the pedals if the bike starts to tilt.

3. Watch out
Cars are less aware of bikers in the winter months. Ride defensively. “Make eye contact with drivers,” said veteran commuter Dave Olson. “Make sure you know they see you.”

4. Choose the right ride
Don’t use your $3,000 LeMond or full-suspension mountain bike in the snow. Sand, salt and grit can destroy suspension and gears. Instead, go with an older bike you designate for cold-weather use, adding fenders, bright lights and winter wheels. Cyclists like Josh Klauck, a sales manager at Freewheel Bike in Minneapolis, employ some of the best single speed bikes in the winter, as they have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance.

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