Winter biking is no breeze--but it can be done We gathered in the back room to confront our deepest fears: Cold. Darkness. Ice. Other people. We couldn't quite wrap our heads around the idea of riding a bicycle to work in the dead of winter. Bike vs. snowplow? The physics of that seemed all wrong. And that kind of thinking is our biggest hurdle, said John Higgins, a year-round bike commuter who...recently gave a seminar on cold-winter commuting..."Think of commuting on your bike as a fun winter sport."
One by one, Higgins struck down potential issues for people who want to extend the bike season, whether because they like the exercise, want to pollute less by leaving the car at home, or need to save on gas money. Here's his advice on every objection we raised.
Fear of commitment: Simply making the decision to ride in the colder months is Job One. "Until you've got that 'Yes, I'm going to' mind-set, the rest is irrelevant," Higgins said. Once you commit, the other problems can be solved. And don't think you have to go all hardcore. Higgins still uses a car in nasty weather, or gets a ride, or uses the busor TRAX. Maybe initially, you'll decide to ride when streets are dry and the temperature is above freezing. A small step is still a step.
Cold: Layering is the key to temperature regulation and wind protection. Many people will already own much of the gear they need - a base layer of wool or synthetic; an insulating layer of fleece; and a lightweight top layer that blocks wind and moisture while allowing heat to escape. Higgins likes zippers on all of the above to allow quicker heat release. You'll have to experiment with different weights to discover what works best for you. Wear a wicking skull cap under your helmet, sunglasses with clear lenses or ski goggles, and five- or split-fingered gloves that allow you to work gears and brakes. Toe covers and shoe covers are helpful if you wear biking shoes; if you don't, any footwear that keeps you warm and dry will do.
Winterizing the bike: If you plan to ride when it's sloppy, fenders are a good idea. Higgins showed clip-on fenders that work on any mountain bike. A more beefy tire might help, too. And you should wipe down the bike every time you ride in the wet, doing a more thorough cleaning every month. Lights are critical - anything you can do to help other people see you is good. I just added a second light on my handlebar, a headlamp on my helmet, and blinking lights on my saddlebags to complement the blinkie on the back. "The more lights the better," Higgins advised.
Choosing a route: In the winter, snow and snowplowing can make some roads impassable. Ice is another issue on spots that don't get sun. So, you'll have to experiment and pay attention to which streets are cleared first. Unfortunately, that's usually the busier ones. Safety is paramount, so there's no shame in ditching the bike when it gets too hairy.
Riding skills: First, slow down. If streets are slippery, brake sooner and more gently. Go easy on the front brake while riding downhill. Snow is similar to sand, which means keeping weight off the front of the bike. ( Read more.)
Northern California's first significant rain storm came this weekend, soaking Halloween festivities and causing bike commuters to dig out their rain wear and fenders. It's also the end of Daylight Savings Time, meaning more riding in the dark. This welcome article provides a great overview of how to prepare for bicycle commuting in the cold weather months. Many bicycle commuters in colder climates--from Minneapolis to Madison to Montreal to Copenhagen --happily commute year round. With enough preparation, you can too.
Clothing is really the key. Many bicycle commuting veterans suggest: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. As I write on my commuting tips site, the clothing you'll need depends on your climate and traveling distance. For shorter commutes in light precipitation, I manage with a waterproof poncho/cape purchased from REI. For longer rides in rainy conditions, I have a Bellwether Aqua-No jacket and pants, which are waterproof and breathable (allowing perspiration to evaporate.) I also have waterproof gloves and booties. Fenders and rain covers for your panniers (if you don't already have waterproof panniers) are also absolutely essential.
Once your body is protected from the elements, the other major factor for a happy cold weather bike commute is your riding skills. Stopping and turning are more hazardous during wet conditions; be attentive to your speed. As mentioned, prepare for darkness with good lights. For most short commuting I manage with an efficient LED from Planet Bike; for darkest conditions I have a Light & Motion Solo Logic.
What suggestions would you offer a new bicycle commuter for happy cycling in cold weather?