Winter Cycling Tips

Bicycle Whiteout
Bicycle Whiteout by Zane Selvans, on Flickr

There’s a definite chill in the air over the past week. My thoughts are turning to those dark and slippery commutes of winter.

I’ve only gone through one winter cycling every day (well, most days). I was super anxious about it though. I wasn’t sure what special measures to take when the weather turned cold and snow started to fall. I thought maybe we could gather some tips here from readership about the differences between winter and summer cycling.

So let’s collaborate a bit. Can we make a list of tips for locals who are following along and thinking about starting a winter bike commute?

Sound like fun? I’ll start with one of mine:

If you bike in your work wear under a jacket or cycling pants, it might be a good idea to have a change of clothes squirreled away at work. I’ve had more than one slush puddle completely emptied onto me by passing motorists! Not fun.

  1. What kind of bike do you use for winter? I used a beater last season that I was able to garbage at the end of the season.
  2. What will you do different this year?
  3. Other tips?

29 thoughts on “Winter Cycling Tips

  1. Way to ride through it, man. I’ve been doing it for a few years now. I really like that I don’t have to “recondition” in the Spring, because I never stopped riding. I’ve got several pages on winter cycling on my blog, but these two links probably best sum up any tips I’ve got:

    Last bit of advice to people starting out: You don’t have to commit to a whole winter of riding… just push it a little longer than you normally would this year. You’ll riding right through the whole winter in no time.

    1. Nice, I forgot about winter eyewear. I threw away an old set of MEC sunglasses that I had replacement clear lenses.

      The clear lenses are wicked useful in the dark of winter.

    2. Great tip about goggles. I’ll have to try some out. I’ve always used straight cycling glasses with clear lenses and that has done the trick for wind and cold.

  2. I just stuck with the cycle chic attitude. Rode my normal Batavus Flying D, and wore a black coat, leather gloves, scarf, and earmuffs. If it went below -10 (with the windchill), I took to the streetcar, or if there was more than trace amounts of snow.

    1. I think I’ll try the regular clothes cycling this winter. I would stop short of calling my regular clothes chic though.

      Sometimes around here the snow stays on the road for days before the plows clear it. Not so much in town, but out in the burbs where I live anyway.

  3. I already had a pair but the best things for winter riding IME are big sorel-type boots. Grab a cheap pair of aluminum bmx pedals and you’ve got grippy shoes that are completely waterproof and warm.

    Fenders are a must for me but I see folks riding on normal mountain bikes too… the brackish slush will quickly rust up any chain though. I want to try and use 1″ rubber hose to fashion some sort of rudimentary chaincase but doubt I’ll get far on that project.

    A scarf worn inside your coat and around the back of the neck makes riding enjoyable almost… the scarf can be easily adjusted to let excess heat out if you unzip your coat a bit. I wore a headband-type thing rather than a toque because I overheat but everyone is different… I’d say layer all your clothing as much as possible because the weather can change over the day.

    Speaking of coats I use a heavy construction style coat, while bright it wasn’t completely waterproof but I was never soaked from the outside in two year’s of riding yet. I’d really recommend high-vis gear if you’re buying new stuff for commuting, otherwise a 5.99$ reflective vest will work too. I’d run a light or two, even dollarstore LED bike lights are good enough for city riding.

  4. A few years ago, I bought a pair of lightweight rainpants from MEC for $20. Simple but strong and effective. I’m still using them.

    Unfortunately, they don’t seem to sell them anymore. The closest option are $50 heavyweight rainpaints, which seems excessively expensive to me. I was looking for some cheaper ones for my girlfriend, but couldn’t find anything. Any suggestions?

    Also, to combine Rob’s suggestion with Charles’ suggestion, I’d recommend big waterproof winterboots plus a pair of regular comfortable shoes left at work, unless you want to have hot feet all day long.

    But really, it shouldn’t have to cost you much to ride in the winter, and it’s really not that hard. I think there was an good article here last year pressing that point – it’s easier to bike to work all winter than to walk (which takes longer) through the cold along un-shovelled sidewalks. And waiting for the bus in the snow and wind sucks too. I’d rather bike and get it over with fast – you get warm as you go.

    1. Oh yah gotta have work shoes, and I changed undershirts usually.

      I use cheap splash pants from Zellers or Zehrs, who knows, they were cheaper than 30$ I think and could likely be had from a thrift store too.

  5. Other then adjusting my speed, I don’t change much. I use my regular bike and just make sure I stay on top of maintenance and then come Spring give it a good clean-up.

    Clothing wise I stick with whatever I would normally wear and it does me well. Cold days I’ll throw track pants on under my jeans and wear an extra sweater.
    Depending on the day I’ll wear either my regular shoes or winter/work boots.

    I usually recommend wearing whatever you’d be walking in as to not over complicate things. At least with cycling you’d warm up quicker compared to walking or even waiting for a bus.

  6. Pretty awesome so far….

    What about tires? Who’s riding mountain bikes with snow tires and who’s riding their old ten speed with 27×1-1/4 slicks?

    I’d love to go with my commuter, but I’ve never ridden with such narrow tires in the winter.

    I’m not sold on the steel spikes though. They’re only really useful on a handful of days. Mostly they’re just being worn down on the asphalt.

    1. I’ve used studded tires for the last couple of years. I agree that they aren’t useful some of the time, but boy is the difference on ice remarkable. I use a mountain bike and often run the tires quite soft. I am seriously considering a skinny tired bike when the current bike is toast, but I would get studded tires for it. I think they’re worth it.

      1. If you end up looking for a more road-styled frame, be aware that “narrow” when it comes to studded 700c tires is on the order of 35c.

    2. I rode with my 5speed commuter all last winter and it was fine. I don’t see how mountain bike tires would have been an improvement at all.

  7. Last winter I was trying to get studded tires, and never ended up doing it. I just rode through on my Dutch bike with its regular Schwalbe Marathons, and didn’t have any issues. (Well, I did fall over once, with a combination of snow and turning at the tracks crossing Erb/Caroline.)

    If you’re thinking of getting a Dutch-style upright bike with big tires and enclosed everything, now is the time. The only maintenance I did on mine over the winter was cleaning some snow from under the fender a couple of times. Today is the first time I’ve taken it into any shop, and I’ve ridden it for a year and a half.

    Warm clothes, scarves, boots, and maybe even goggles are all good ideas.

    If you /are/ looking for studded tires, Dutch Bike Bits has the Schwalbe Marathon Winter ones:

    1. Also, I don’t know whether this is universal, but the dynamo powered “stand light” on the back of my bike doesn’t work as well when it’s cold. It goes out pretty quickly, unlike warmer weather when it stays bright for several minutes after I stop pedalling.

  8. A reflective vest (very inexpensive) is a must. There is a higher chance of being thrown on the ground and separated from your bike in icy conditions. Moreover, 7:30 am and 5:00 pm are dark times in winter. There are lights on my bike but should I get separated from my bike, I’d like the motorists to see more than just my bike. I’d like them to see me.

  9. I rode 700x28mm all of last winter and the only time I spilled was when I was slowing to a stop to answer my phone so it was harmless. The only time I got bogged down was in the days of deep snows, and that’ll bog most any bicycle down anyway. Some folks claim the skinny tires slice through a bit easier than pushing wider ones. 2 winters ago I rode on 35mm ‘cross tires and they were great but a bit tight under my fenders.

    I think it depends on the routes one takes – I was riding off-peak hours most of last winter (worked nights and evenings) so I could ride on the streets that get plowed quickly, for the most part. The laurel trail seemed to get cleared pretty quickly too, esp. around the university.

  10. My experience differs somewhat from that of other posters. Just wearing what I would to walk doesn’t work for me. I find when I’m riding, most of me is a lot warmer than if I were walking, but my hands and feet get quite a bit colder. I think this is due to the increased relative windspeed. I think I also get cold extremities more easily than others.

    I haven’t entirely worked out how to keep my toes warm enough for longer winter rides. Under 45 minutes I seem to be fine with hiking boots and thick wool socks.

    For my hands, I wear lobster gloves down to -15 or so, then throw on some cheap snowmobile style mittens over top of the lobster gloves.

    In general, the key thing seems to be layering and wind blocking. I find I don’t need as heavy a coat as long as I have a good windbreaker, as I’m producing more heat than when I’m walking. In fact, other than my extremities, my problem seems to be more with keeping from sweating than not being warm enough.

    Speaking of wind and extremities, a friend had a suggestion for really cold windy days. I haven’t been able to try it out yet, but apparently courier envelopes are a good addition to the front of one’s pants to windproof sensitive areas.

  11. Yikes, winter already? I’m going to soak up all the warm riding days from here on out :)

    This winter I’ll keep riding my ‘beltless’ trek soho although I need to take the internal hub into the shop for a tune-up as it’s a bit messed (I’m hoping it’ll be covered by ziggy’s as my year’s not up yet).

    I was happy with my 700cc spiked schwalbe marathon tires last season, although I may put them on the bike later in the season say mid-December.

    The only thing I’d like to do differently is source a chainglider.

    I too am all over high vis clothing for the winter. Last year I tended to do use my bike strictly for commuting to work, this year I’d like to branch out and include shorter errands as well where I’d be less likely to wear my cycling garb. It’s these shorter trips where I’ve noticed I’ve begun leave the helmet at home.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. I think King Street can order chaingliders, I’ve seen a few around town… if not urbane in toronto sells them, dunno if they ship or not.

    2. Never seen one of these chain gliders before. I would be curious to hear how they work. I have had good success with a weekly liberal squirting of motor oil on my drive train. After a few weeks it forms a protective layer of pasty goop that seems to slow down the rust. Not good for pant legs though.

      On cold, wet days I go rain coat over plastic pants over rubber boots so I am waterproof from head to toe. Too hot to do in the summer and definitely not stylish but its warm and dry.

  12. I didn’t commute last winter but I did the one before so its been a long time since I’ve cycled in the snow…I’m looking forward to it! Tips off the top of my head:

    -A thin balaclava under the helmet is a huge help in keeping your ears, neck, chin and cheeks warm. This in turn keeps your whole body warmer.

    -Just bundle up with a few extra layers your first time biking in the cold and you’ll quickly learn if you wore too much or too little. When I first started I was surprised at how little you need to stay warm(hands and feet excluded…they can be tricky to keep warm).

    -Also, be prepared for people to think your crazy.

  13. Good tips everyone. I have a specific question about older chrome or steel rims.

    Today, I was biking home in the rain. My real road bike stops like a champ in the rain, but my converted old ten speed won’t slow until after a few wheel rotations.

    What should be done in this case? New aluminum wheels? Can I put 700c’s on a bike that came with 27″ rims?

    1. I don’t know about changing the rims on a bike, but make sure you have the appropriate brake pads for your rims. Those for chrome are different than those for steel.

      As for cycling in snow and ice though, maybe it’s better to not have your wheels come to a complete stop when you bike?

  14. Something I was happy to learn the easy way instead of the hard way is that front wheel braking on ice will have you down before you know it. Try it under controlled conditions sometime.

    I use my rear brake almost exclusively in winter if there is even a chance of ice.

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