Winter Bike Commuting: 10 Tips to Ride Safe

5. Cold and clean
Unless you plan to clean it off, keep your bike cold and store it in the garage. A room-temperature bike in new snow can cause ice to form on brakes and gears more easily. Also, keep your chain and gear cassette lubricated for best operation.

6. Go Studs
Carbide-studded tires can increase grip on snow and ice, and riders like David Mainguy, a 42-year-old psychotherapist in Minneapolis, swear by them. “Ever since I wiped out on black ice, I don’t ride without them,” Mainguy said of his $50 Nokian brand tires.

7. Protect your core
Any outdoorsy person knows that layering is the key to staying warm and managing sweat in the cold. According to Klauck, the best configuration for biking includes a wicking base layer on top followed by an insulating fleece or similar mid-layer, then topped with a waterproof and windproof shell jacket. “That’s good to 15 or 20 degrees for most people,” he said. For the legs, Klauck skips the insulating layer on most days, going with long underwear topped off with a shell pant. “Some people wear bike shorts over long underwear, too,” he said.

8. Heads up
Jacket hoods are a no-no, as air funnels in as you move, inflating a hood like a sail. Instead, riders like Mainguy and Olson wear balaclavas and sunglasses or ski goggles. “My eyes freeze without protection below 20 degrees,” Mainguy said. Tight-fitting (but warm) fleece skull caps are popular. Top it off with a helmet, perhaps sized larger in winter to fit over all the insulation. “The key is to cover up all exposed skin while keeping your goggles from fogging,” Mainguy said.

9. Warm hands and feet
Switch out gloves for mittens or bifurcated “lobster”-style handwear, which keep fingers close together and warmer. Winter boots, not bike shoes, are best for the coldest days, but use platform pedals with aggressive tread for good grip as you crank. Above 20 degrees, many riders get away with bike shoes, employing neoprene covers to add insulation and buffer warm air. Some companies, notably Lake Cycling, sell winterized (read: insulated) bike shoes compatible with clipless pedals.

10. Use public transit
Many metropolitan trains and public busses allow bikes, letting riders surrender on the worst days and hop a ride home. Bike near a bus route and you have bail-out points should the commute prove too long or laborious in the snow.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; see www.gearjunkie.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

Related Articles:
Winter Biking Tops
Single Speed Bike Conversion
Critical Mass: The Inside View
Critical Mass Bike Ride
Bike-Jor, or “How to wear down your hyper dog”
Professional Bike Fitting
Ice Bike Racing

Posted by Tricia Fabry - 01/04/2008 10:16 AM

Every day for five years I cycled downtown to work and school, only hitching a ride when it got to under 10-below. Your article missed the part of wearing bright yellow outerwear. My death threats were cut by 98 percent when I bought a yellow parka. Red is not as visible as yellow, because many males having some degree of color blindness and red appears greenish.

Posted by Martin Wessendorf - 01/04/2008 10:53 AM

Very interesting. I’ve ridden year-round in Saint Paul and Minneapolis since 1982 and just have a few other thoughts about the winter half of the year.

1) Winter riding is NOT for everyone and I would encourage anyone who wanted to try it to do so with a friend who’s more experienced. The safety issues are real, ever-present, and can be very, very serious. If at all possible NEVER RIDE ON ICE. That being said, there are different kinds of ice: black ice at intersections; wet, rutted ice after a spring snow dump and skimpy plowing; glare ice after a snowfall and insufficient salting. Glare ice is the most common ice that I see but even it has its varieties. Clean glare ice is (not surprisingly) slippery, but it sometimes isn’t as bad with a bit of snow on top of it.—The most serious accident I had on a bike was a day like today when it was clear and about 0 degrees F out. I approached the intersection of Prior and University in Saint Paul, saw some black ice, and instinctively hit my brakes. DUMB. Instantaneously, I was flat on my back, in front of an on-coming truck. I got out of the way and the truck avoided my bike but I had broken my helmet in the impact.

2) Which brings up the second point: for winter biking a good helmet is essential. I use a Bell Faction, with its hard shell and less wind-penetration. But I wish I knew how well it cushions at, say, minus 20 F, with the increased stiffness of the plastic at cold temperatures. (I know of no helmet company that evaluates their helmets for suitability at different temperatures.) I also regard a mirror as essential for safety.

3) I can’t imagine riding with toe clips—it seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Re: lights—I don’t know if you need to spend hundreds of dollars, but you definitely want them, and more is generally better. As a sometimes motorist, I find bicyclists using a headlamp very easy to recognize at night. Flashing headlights come in a close second. Be cautious using more than one tail-light: sometimes it can make you difficult to recognize for motorists.

4) I’m a gear junkie who’s also a cheap junkie. I paid $10 for my present winter bike at a yard sale. It’s an old Raleigh 3-speed, and as such has all the advantages of a single-speed bike (i.e. no dérailleur to get trashed in the salt-spray) with the addition of a transmission. —Internal hub transmissions are a great way to for bulletproof winter riding. One squirt of oil per month and you’re good to go.

5) You’ve probably noticed that drivers are crazier than normal when the first snowstorm hits. This manifests itself, among other ways, as a greater tendency toward aggressive behavior toward bicyclists. That makes the first snowstorm a good day to take the bus…except that your bike will probably beat the bus by a country mile.

6) Different conditions demand different tires. I commute along University Avenue, which is kept well-plowed. For that, the 26×1-3/8 tires of my Raleigh are fine most days. Studs sound super if you end up on ice a lot. Fat, lugged tires are the choice if you end up riding a lot on the hardpack near the edge of the road that’s been shoved over by the plows. The tire that works well in one condition may be a poor choice in another.

7) Winter commuting takes me double to triple the time of summer commuting. Part of it is that I’m riding a slower bike (—I use a dérailleur bike in summer) but part is also that the road conditions require slower riding. You also have to factor in all the additional time required to outfit yourself with your protective clothing and lights.

8) Clothing yourself is a challenge. I tend to ride in the same clothes I work in. However, When I arrive at work, I’m always sweaty, no matter how cold out it is. That means I get chilled at work and need a couple VERY warm sweaters to warm up. —Dressing for riding, for me, is done in layers. Down to 32, I use a wind-breaker. (—Note: Tricia is absolutely right about using a yellow or yellow-green wind-breaker—they’re by far the most visible. Wish I had one!) Below 32, I add a polarfleece jacket and a balaclava. Below 20, I switch from gloves to mittens. Below 0, I add wind pants. In strong wind below 0, I add a bandana below the balaclava, to add warmth and cover the last bits of exposed flesh around my eyes. I never use ski googles but (as of today) have a patch of fur on my mitten to wipe tearing from my eyes. Seems to work.

9) Road conditions can be hard to judge at night. Riding home last night, I noticed patches of what appeared to be dry pavement that were actually snow-covered, and patches of snow-covered ice that appeared to be dry pavement. Be aware that judging road surface from 50 feet can be a challenge.

Bottom line: winter riding isn’t “safe”. I wouldn’t even call it fun! But if you want to do it, the dangers can be manageable if you’re thoughtful and careful. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Posted by TC worley - 01/10/2008 04:27 PM

I consider it fun, primarily because I love biking and miss riding a lot when winter rolls around. So, I bundle up, turn on my 3 lights and go down the road smiling. I ride for the same reasons I do lots of other things. It brings me joy, even though – or perhaps because – there is risk involved. TV watching and bowling are not my idea of winter fun.

Posted by T. Fast - 02/28/2008 10:35 PM

I don’t know bout ya’ll in the city, but wind out here in Mankato can create a real trial of epic size-a-ma-tude. If that there forecast says the wind is picken up, you can bet the extra cold feelin and the possiblitay of the wind smakin against your ugly mug will make wish you’d taken the 3:10 to work.

Oh, and pedalin up dem hills is fine so’s long as you keep your weight over the back tire or sit you butt down when you ride over icy spots. Although, testing your god given torque over the ice can be a rootin tookin sock in the weasel nuts…

Posted by Rose - 10/19/2008 02:49 PM

Is it OK to use my downhill ski helmet. It works so well with the goggles—but is it safe for a fall on to pavement?

Posted by Stephen Regenold - 10/20/2008 08:35 AM

Rose,
Not sure. I’d contact a helmet manufacturer. But to me it would seem viable. Ski helmets are made to take impact from hard snow, rocks, tree trunks, etc.

Posted by John Dyer - 11/09/2008 03:40 PM

I agree with Martin’s comments—“safety issues are real.” Wear bright yellow, a light, and…the most important clothing article for me is my North Face Windstopper neck gaiter. You lose so much heat through the neck area. After heating up, you can adjust it to vent if needed.

Posted by Dave - 01/08/2009 12:56 PM

I’m a biker in Milwaukee, and this is the first winter I’m riding through. Martin’s comments sound spot on and are much appreciated. You need to be extremely careful out there. Before I found my “snow legs” I took a couple of good spills on fresh snow early in the winter. Luckily they were all on side streets with little traffic.

With the addition of studded snow tires, I have found that winter riding has ceased to become a harrowing chore and turned into something much more fun. On major streets I still feel more exposed than in the summer due to the reduced operating room on the streets. But about 3/4 of my 5.5 mile commute can be on side streets. Riding side streets with little auto traffic, and a fresh layer of snow, can be a very enjoyable experience. I see other riders a lot with the same road tires they use in the summer months, but I find the studded snow tires give me peace of mind, thus making it easier to stay loose and have a more enjoyable ride.

Posted by Beach Cruisers - 06/14/2009 08:17 AM

What else? Noticeable outfit would be an advantage to wear especially when the weather is nasty. The more vivid you are, the less risk is exposed to your life. Abbey.

Posted by Colin - 06/16/2009 11:05 AM

I’ve been winter cycling in Winnipeg (the locals call it winterpeg) for three years now. It really is a great experience to break the winter blues. I find a key note dressing the proper amount, at -30 C it’s just as easy to overdress and arrive at work sweaty making the day and possibly the ride home uncomfortable.
Anouther key point is to get eyewear that is not too dark or what I did is get gogles with changable lenses. It gets dark early in the winter and cycling in the dark with dark gogles is dangerous, but then going without them is harrowing as well.

Posted by beach cruisers - 08/23/2009 03:32 PM

Good tip about keeping your bike cold. I never thought of that, but it makes sense.

Posted by Frank - 10/14/2009 10:41 PM

Here in PA, I usually don’t ride if there’s snow and ice … that’s just too much of a chance to take … my luck is that I’d lose it right in front of an oncoming pickup truck and that would be the end of me. So all I worry about is the cold, and layering up is the main thing. I usually just need my batting gloves when it’s in the 30s, and my leather winter gloves do pretty well down to about 10, which is usually as cold as it gets here. The wifey won’t let me bike if it gets colder than that, anyhow. My old leather jacket serves pretty well toward breaking the wind. When it’s in the teens I have to break out the longjohns but jeans alone seem to do fine above that.

It’s a good point that it’s best to keep the bike below freezing or at least dry. When I first started riding in the cold a few years back I got a nasty splash of road salt laced liquid on my bike, I decided to hose it off before locking the bike in the rack at work. When I came back, there was ice all over the derailleurs! I got the front one freed up but I had to bike home … mostly uphill … with the back in fifth the whole way. Had to keep the bike indoors that night to thaw it!

Nice story, I learned some stuff.

Posted by John Ybarra - 10/28/2009 10:37 AM

I have been riding year round in Elk Grove Village Illinois and the Chicago area for since 1982 and coldest is -36. I love doing it but now looking at studded tires that I know work. Key is keep head, hands, and feet warm.

Posted by Scott Paulus - 10/31/2009 06:48 PM

Try to find a NRS kayak helmet liner for winter cycling. It is the only helmet liner that give complete ear coverage that I know of. Comfy to 0 degrees.

Posted by j scott - 11/04/2009 03:40 PM

Well I have commuted on a FS expensive bike for five years now through the cold dark canadian winter….

Good components well maintained can easily withstand winter riding.

Posted by Chris - 12/02/2009 01:20 PM

Wow! What’s with all the doom and gllom. “Winter riding is unsafe and not fun!??”
Winter commuting is awesome. I stay in shape and avoided the winter blues. I loved the “is that guy crazy?” looks from people.
Have none of you ridden with studded tires. I have two sets – 26 × 2.2 inch Nokkian Extremes for my mountain bike and 700C x 38 Hakkopolitta’s for my commuter. All your problems with ice go away with these. I can ride through 5 or 6 inches of fresh snow with either.
I ride clipless pedals in dry or rainy weather. Neoprene booties and chemical toe warmers are added as needed.
For snow clipless pedals won’t work. Then I change to a platform/power grip set up with snowshoe boots.
In winter you may have to take the lane more often. If this isn’t for you probably won’t like bike commuting in any conditions.
Chris

Posted by Jack M - 12/06/2009 10:13 PM

I commute 12 months/yr on a fixie. Because of an aversion to ice, my comments relate only to staying comfortable and safe on dry roads. (I live in DC where I can pedal more winter days than not, despite my ice aversion.)

DC doesn’t get Fargo cold, but temperatures occasionally drop to the single (Fahrenheit) digits – which is cold enough. In my Vermont wintering youth, I learned that, like cyclists, X-country skiers have serious cold-weather sweat-dissipation issues. With a few modifications, dressing appropriately for X-country skiing (basically temperature- and wind-appropriate layers) has kept me comfortable on DC’s coldest days. DC winters might not get Fargo cold, but X-country ski clothing does. And there’s plenty of good, frugal, and highly relevant X-country experience to tap into. And good suppliers. So if you seriously want to know what works for your conditions, look at what the Nordic skiers use.

My key cycling modifications are:

1. Neoprene booties over cycling shoes;
2. highly visible outer layers; and
3. (when it’s especially cold or windy) downhill ski gloves/mittens – below 20F – and face protection – below 10F. (This isn’t really a modification from Nordic recommendations. They also use them, but at lower temperatures due to typically less wind.)

I followed this approach comfortably in the 1970s and ‘80s and have restarted since returning to DC (from the tropics) a few years ago. The neoprene booties are a major deviation from Nordic recommendations. They do not breathe. But they keep my feet warm in good cycling shoes. I’d love something breathable that insulates, wears and rides as well. But I’ve not found it, so I dry my wet socks at work and home.

And since restarting my bicycle commutes, I now swear by two “modern” innovations:

1. A ski helmet; and
2. Really bright LED head- and tail-lights.

While I share Rose and Stephen’s earlier concerns about the ski helmet’s pavement-appropriateness, it is far safer than the ski caps I wore in my youth (when leather hairnets were the norm in bike racing). I also wonder how cold-appropriate cycling helmet plastics are with temperatures in the single digits. But in terms of comfort, the ski helmet works great. Skiers use liners with their helmets when it gets really cold. I’ve used mine on the bike comfortably without a liner down to 10F.

As for the LED lights, sadly, the really bright ones are still hundreds of dollars. I spent most of my bike-commute-generated savings last year on a kilo-lux in front and rear LEDs. I doubt I could have spent this much as a student. But I refuse to be far less visible than a car during the evening rush hour, now there is an alternative. And the glimmer of hope ahead is that LED lighting costs will continue to plummet, until only the battery is the major expense. So if you’re not ready for them yet, keep watching. You may soon be.

Posted by Sarah R - 12/08/2009 11:53 AM

One really bright LED light that NOT hundreds of dollars and is worth considering is the Magicshine (available here: http://www.geomangear.com/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=22&zenid=i8icvhd4m02ldo3fndnulmsmm4). I originally purchased mine for nighttime mountain bike riding, but they have been put into service now as commuter lights as well, and they’re working out really well.

Posted by Andy - 12/16/2009 08:56 PM

Now in my second winter commuting to school in Duluth, I’ve found a few things that were missed (or just not covered). In a winter bike I’ve found the heavier the frame, the easier it is to handle through snow. For single speeds and fixed gears, gear them low (around 60”). If your not into riding fixed gears, old 3 speed sturmey archer hubs with a coaster brake are awesome. Having brakes is awesome until the cables freeze (believe me they do).

Oh and I ride a ski helmet with yellow-amber ski goggles. Since I’m a broke student, I just use hockey tape and cheap LED maglites. Also a cheaper alternative to powergrips is using bmx pedals and making DIY fixed gear straps out of old seat belts.

Posted by Mattias Gothberg - 12/30/2009 04:32 PM

When it get realy cold -15 Celcius I strongly rekomend this http://www.lungplus.se/ in addition to the tips above and covering of all skinn. Think Ninja-style. I commute 10km down to -20 Celcius with with out problems.

Posted by Mikko Järvinen - 01/02/2010 02:39 PM

Have to disagree with Martin Wessendorf. Most types of ice are very pleasant and safe surfaces to ride on.

As long as you have decent studs on your tires.

Posted by michael heit - 01/06/2010 11:57 AM

As to LED lights. I have a head lamp that I use almost every day. but if you really want the best light TO BE SEEN, use a neon strobe light, LED’s emit a beam that is TOO narrow, A strobe emits a 360 degree blast that no one will miss seeing (use amber (red, blue and green lenses may present legal issues in your area).
Also they wont break the bank. you can buy a 12 volt battery one for under 30 dollars and if thats too expensive you can buy one from electronics surplus sites for $9.99 and build your own.
BTW keep a red rear and white front LED and reflectors to keep legal

Posted by commuterguy - 05/02/2010 04:28 PM

For LED lights, I like tactical flashlights. There are some out there that will output 900 lumens! Another great resource is commutergear.net

Posted by Dennis Roscetti - 08/27/2010 10:04 AM

Good suggestions all. One point I didn’t see mentioned is the use of a Gore-Tex or Windstopper helmet cover. For few ounces these things cut the airflow through the helmet dramatically. With that and the inherent insulation of a foam helmet I find I can go with lighter hats under the helmet.

Posted by spiderleggreen - 10/12/2010 08:04 AM

A few things I haven’t heard mentioned.

Wool. Stinks much less than the fancy fibers. Wool everything. Hang it up and wear it tomorrow stink-free.

Don’t put too much on your head. You’ll just sweat more and then get real cold. You should be like a stove pipe, letting the excess heat escape.

I’m not into the shell game. Too much armor plating and I sweat like a pig, becoming a frozen one in no time. Riding, even in winter generates a lot of heat. I make sure what I have on breathes to let that extra heat go.

Where’s the rack on the bike pictured? Back packs suck and they make your back all wet from sweat.

Don’t wear yellow. They’ll think you’re a street sign, and we know that winter is open season on those. Dress like a human not a cartoon charactor.

Posted by Nikki Li - 12/06/2010 04:48 AM

Just a few comments: I bike-commuted (early-evening to- and late-night fro-) on a 15-speed for three complete years in the mid-1980’s, when Minnesota was consistently cold and snowy. Technology has obviously improved: (clothing, transmissions, lighting, prevalent studded tires, etc.). I would caution that toeclips are a no-no, helmets are good, ice is OK with great care, derailleurs can freeze up, layering in wool and synthetics (NO COTTON!!) is the answer, and lights/bright shells are no substitute for vigilance on the part of the rider!

Taken a-pace and with care, good travel time can be had with moderate effort. Aside from the tires “squeaking” the snow, it is very quiet and peaceful out there! Watch the neck, head, fingers and toes (also the groin if there is a strong and cold head wind!); the rest of the body will stay very warm with the activity. Goggles would be useful; I was too cheap and “male” back then to try them…

HAVE FUN!! Most cager-drivers haven’t the guts! MAKE SURE that you have PLAN B should motor vehicles get too close to your bike & body: RIDE DEFENSIVELY and be ready to ditch if need-be!

Posted by NEPA - 10/04/2011 03:16 PM

I live in North East PA and this will be my first year to ride my bike in the winter. I just wanted to thank everyone for all the great comments. Very helpful.

Posted by Rokdad - 11/28/2011 09:10 PM

After years of Nebraska winter commuting I have concluded that a fixed gear mountain bike provides the most stable and controllable ride. LinkText Nice article. Helpful comments.

Posted by JVA - 12/05/2011 09:04 PM

The advice here is very useful. One problem I’ve never solved—and I wonder if others have solved—is what to do about protecting one’s eyes when one alread wears eyeglasses making ski goggles impractical.

I’d be grateful if anyone has any advice.

Posted by dcm - 01/30/2012 03:59 PM

Have you tried OTG ski goggles? They work well with my glasses and ski helmet.

Posted by Dave - 08/10/2012 10:55 AM

JVA: Rudy Project (see rudyproject.com) makes “ski goggles” (in quotes because they can be used for activities other than skiiing) which have the option to have prescription glass attachment inside of the goggle area.

The only concern I am not sure about with their goggles is the light transmission—I couldn’t wear their “transparent” lenses which I had for cycling (lost them unfortunately) because they didn’t transmit enough light in dark condition, after twilight—the highest light transmission they have for their goggles are 92%, which are I believe the “transparent”. You could contact them to verify the part about the light transmission, but that is to the best of my knowledge.

Good luck and perhaps there are other options outside of Rudy Project re: goggles + prescription lenses.

Posted by Jamie - 11/23/2012 10:17 AM

I’m enjoying reading as many of these tips & tricks postings on winter bicycle commuting as I can find. This is my first year bicycle commuting and I am trying to push as far into the season as I can – the hope would be all year.

One thing I have found is that all the blogs I’ve found on the topic are (understandably!) urban-centric.

My commute is 16km (10 miles) each way with a gain of 120m (~400feet). There is no level ground here. :) All of my riding is highway – I live in the country and work on the edge of town. I need a range of gears.

One thing I’ve started using that I find great is “pogies” – basically over mitts that attach to the bike & allow lighter gloves to be worn in colder weather. So far I’m good to -4*c.

Cheers

Posted by John Mason - 12/10/2012 02:43 PM

Waterproof North Face parka with pit vents
Waterproof Marmot shell pants
Specialized MAX helmet (cap fits under it)
Waterproof Timberland high top hiking boots
Lights front and rear
Backpack or Banjo Brothers saddlebag paniers
No studded tires yet – no snow yet

These are what I ended up with after much trial and error. I ride 4 miles rain shine or snow to work. It’s the best part of my day! You will love it once you are back in shape. I’m 45 and I have a resting heart rate of 52 since riding. 50 mins of guaranteed heart healthy exercise a day in Central PA.

Posted by Jason - 06/10/2013 03:21 PM

Another great site is http://www.bikesxpress.com/29-Beach-Cruisers-Bicycles-Beach-Cruisers-Bikes_c_83.html they have some cool stuff

Posted by Martin Wessendorf - 03/21/2014 09:08 AM

It’s been six years since this article first appeared and I’ve just ridden through my worst winter since 1982: my route to work featured WAY too much thick, cratered solid glare ice. Different days were bad in their own ways, but probably the worst was trying to make way on bad ice with a 35 MPH wind at my back. Talk about confused reflexes! You want to brake but you can’t without falling! …After that experience, I finally relented and bought a set of studded tires. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. They aren’t magic but they’re close to it—most ice simply isn’t an issue any more. (—The exceptions are icy ruts—those can still knock you down.) I can’t imagine riding a winter without them again.

A couple final comments:

1) If you get studs, get tungsten carbide studs, NOT STEEL. The latter will probably wear out in a year; the former can last 4 or 5 years.

2) Keep a close eye on your winter bike. I rode a 1958 Raleigh 3-speed for 20+ winters. One day I propped the bike up against the garage door but then let it fall over. When I picked it up, I found that my front fork had broken—it had rusted through and the small amount of lateral force it took in the fall was enough to break the fork. Expect to replace your frame periodically.

3) More lights are better. I got t-boned at night a couple years ago; the driver hadn’t seen me, even with my rather powerful flashing headlight. That was partly his fault—he was turning and paying more attention to the direction he was heading—but after some experimentation I realized that my lamp illuminated a rather narrow cone (~10 degrees of arc), straight ahead of me—it was not very visible from the side. Since then, I’ve added lights to my helmet: a Planet Bike Superflash on the back and a Black Diamond Storm on the front. The Storm lamp has a very nice feature: it has LEDs that illuminate a 120-degree arc. (And they flash.) The helmet lamp also gets directed toward whatever I’m looking at, making it more likely that a worrisome driver will notice that I’m there. SO FAR, no more accidents.

Safe travels to all!

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