Dashing through the snow: Winter bike commuting basics

January 07, 2014

by Matt DeBlass

When I talk to people about using bicycles for errands or commuting, someone invariably says something along the lines of “that's great when the weather's nice, but you can't do that in the winter.” Non-cyclists and even some commuters have come to believe that four-season cycling is something only suitable for warm southern climates, where riders don't have to contend with snow and ice.

Believe it or not, some of the most bike-friendly cities in North America are in places known for serious winters. Minneapolis, MN, Madison, WI and Vancouver, BC all boast healthy populations of year-round cyclists. How is it that those midwestern winters don't send the local bicycling population scrambling for their car keys?

Part of the answer lies in the infrastructure. Plowed and salted bicycle trails as well as wide, accomodating streetscapes give riders in those places a safe, easy path to where they're going in any weather. However, even outside of those bicycle utopias, a healthy percentage of bicycle commuters keep rolling through the winter.

If you'd like to give it a shot yourself, here are a few tips for winter riding:

The Bike

Just about any bike will work for winter riding, although you may find a road racing or time-trial bike less than ideal. Mountain bikes, hybrids, touring bikes and old ten speeds work great. Fenders are highly recommended, as winter streets are often wet, and nothing can, ahem, dampen your enthusiasm for winter riding like having gritty, salty road-water soaking through your trousers. Remember that salt and moisture is going to be all of your bicycle as well, so this probably not the best time to take out your shiny new ride with the custom paint job. Rigid mountain bikes and old ten speeds converted to single speed or fixed gear (a fixed-gear bike with low gearing can be a blast on sloppy roads) are my favorites, although I've ridden just about every type of bike through the snow.

You can get away with most kinds of tires on all but the most icy of conditions. Regular mountain bike tires work well as do hybrid and touring tires in the 32-42mm thickness. Road racing tires in 700x23c will even work well on dry, plowed roads, but they wouldn't be my first choice if there's still any snow or ice. There are winter tires available with metal studs built into them, which provide a better grip on icy surfaces. They are expensive but work well, so if your local roads tend to be especially slick, they're worth looking into. I have also known cyclists who made their own studded tires through various means, such as fixing short sheet metal screws through the tread, and if you're handy and have an old set of tires, you might give that a try (the screw heads should be on the inside and you need to cover them with duct tape or a tire liner). Whatever tires you use, running them at the low end of their recommended air pressure range will give you better traction.

I like BMX-style pedals for winter riding, as they usually have a very grippy surface. I'd stay away from clipless pedals or any sort of toe strap, as you may need to put your feet down in a hurry. Lights are important, as it gets darker sooner in the winter and it's much easier to get caught out after dark at this time of year.

Finally, it's best to keep your winter commuter outdoors or in an unheated space. Repeatedly warming and refreezing the bike will encourage condensation to form on the frame and in the cable housings, which makes you more vulnerable to both rust and to frozen cables.

The Gear

You really don't need much for special clothing for transporation cycling in the winter. Generally, most things you'd be comfortable walking around in are fine. However, the wind chill on exposed skin increases quite a bit while riding at even moderate speeds, so you do want to make sure you have a good pair of gloves, and may want to add a scarf to cover your face. Sunglasses are nice, as white snow means more sun glare, and they protect your eyes from the wind. There are a number of caps and headbands that will fit underneath a helmet to keep your ears warm while riding in the cold, or if you don't have one, a plain old bandana can make an improvised ear warmer.

The Technique

If the roads or bike paths are clear and dry, you can ride the same as you do any other time of year. Otherwise, the biggest bit of advice is to take your time and pay attention. Take turns wider on sloppy road conditions, and watch out for places where the weight of cars has packed snow down into irregular ice lumps—those can be tricky. Ride on clear pavement when you can and don't be afraid to take the lane if the street is too narrow due to snow banks for safe passing.

If you an encounter a spot that looks too slippery for you to ride over, don't hesitate to dismount. Keep one hand on the brake lever and you can lean on your bike for extra stability as you walk through the tricky sections. As you ride, periodically lightly squeeze your brakes to clear off any snow or ice that may have been accummulating as your ride, and if you have to stop, do so as gradually as conditions allow.

Winter riding can be enjoyable, convenient and safe, but don't be afraid to cut non-essential trips shorter if the weather is chilly, or look into multi-mode commuting to shorten your ride. Most of all though, have fun playing in the snow! 

(Thumbnail image: Banff Lake Louise via Flickr)

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