Winter cycling may be considered the espresso of biking. Much like espresso, it takes a little getting used but is more rewarding. It is more bitter, more demanding, and requires some special equipment. Winter biking will wake you up, increase your focus and make you more productive during the day. Unlike espresso, it is only served cold. For those who think they can take on the winter, there are a few crucial (and usually easy) steps that make all the difference.
(Please note that this article is the expression of the author’s views only.)
The ideal situation for anyone who experiences a tough winter is to have a secondary, winter specific beater bike. That old CCM that never worked, or a $50 craigslist buy. With a little effort, an old junker can be your sweet winter cruiser. When building a winter bike, simplicity is key. If a second bike isn’t an option, then a little extra effort to preserve your iron stead will save you many headaches.
The first essential add-on to enjoy winter cycling is fenders. They can be homemade, store-bought, or some weird combination. Fenders are essential for staying dry, especially down low as well as protecting your bike. If you buy fenders, don’t cheap out; get the set with maximum coverage. Avoid metal on the fenders, you will get fewer rattles later on. While installing them, tighten all bolts and add some blue Loctite to keep your fenders rattle-free for years. You can find tutorials, like the one below:
For a proper winter-retrofit, tires are crucial to staying safe. Ideally, winter cyclists would invest in a pair of winter specific, steel studded winter tires. Studded winter tires however, are expensive and typically cost around $100 per tire. You can compromise by installing a steel-studded winter tire for the front only. Traction for the front tire is much more important than for the rear. If studs aren’t within you budget, skinny nobby tires are the next best thing. For bikes with 700c wheels (standard road wheels), cyclo-cross tires is a good alternative to studded winter tires. For mountain bikes, skinny nobby tires are still preferred over fatter nobby tires. Narrow tires cut through light snow better to reach packed snow or the normal surface, while fatter tires have a greater tendency to float on top of light snow decreasing control.
Lights and Reflectors
Lights are generally important in city riding, but even more so during the winter, when motorists don’t expect to see cyclists. Motorists should be more concentrated during the winter because of the varied driving conditions, but that may make them less likely to concentrate on their peripherals. Lights are one of the simplest ways to improve safety while riding in the city.
Winter cycling is tough on your bike for a number of reasons. The first is that constant exposure to snow and salt corrodes metal parts on your bike. Aluminum fares better than steel but both corrode eventually. Lastly, the cold actually makes steel (but not aluminium) more brittle and more likely to crack. For these reasons, a secondary stead is always preferred for the winter.
To keep your winter bike up and running, it is important to clean and lube your chain frequently. Wet lubes or wax lubricants do a good job preventing the elements from eating away the chain too quickly. A quick tutorial on drivetrain maintenance can be found below:
Fenders work overtime, protecting both you and your bike from the elements. In addition to fenders, there are various metal sealants that protect your frame on the inside. Most modern steel and aluminium frames are pretreated, but it’s rarer for older steel bikes. You can also tape your bike for the winter months with rubber electrical tape. This will save your frame from the regular abuse of salt and snow.
Lastly, at the end of the winter, replacing all bearings and cables on your bike will make it run like new for the spring. This is especially important for bearings which will continue to grind all dirt, salt, and rust into the bearing cup surface if left unattended.
Clothing for winter cycling
For a winter cyclist, the clothing you wear will make all the difference. We’ll start with the obvious, wear a face mask that you can breathe through. Wear a helmet because you always should. Wear gloves (not mittens) that are windproof and if possible have rubber palms. A pair of bar mitts and glove liners is probably the best possible combo, but can be pricey. Ski goggles are the last important addition for winter cycling, for much the same reason they are important for skiing.
The best-prepared winter cyclist should have around 3 layers on. On the outside, a windproof, waterproof shell will keep warm air in and the cold out. Pants and jacket are equally important and they will also keep dirt and salt off. Pants that include shoe covers are preferred to prevent wet socks. Under the shell should be a lightweight winter jacket that can be unzipped. It may be cold but you will warm up once you start riding. Unzipping should be done to prevent sweat which can make you even colder later on. Under the jacket, a base layer for both top and bottom is essential for staying at the right temperature.
To make winter cycling enjoyable, avoid cotton clothes at all costs. When wet, cotton will quickly make any cold unbearable and will lead to frostbite. Alternative clothing materials would be polyester (fleece), wool, down (feathers), nylon, and my favourite, merino wool. All materials listed here still keep you warm when wet. The goal for winter riding is to stay dry and to keep your extremities warm.
If you’ve never been riding in the winter, there can be a lot to get used to. Beyond the cold, learning how to ride on snow, snowpack, ice, and any other combination can be tricky at first. It will never be easy but that is part of the fun. As you slip and slide your bike around, there are a few tips to make it safer and more enjoyable
First, before you try to ride on variable surfaces, get comfortable riding standing up. Standing up allows you to adjust your weight and puts you in a more capable position. Knees should always be bent and for more advanced riders dipping your ankles will give you better control over the bike. To make standing up even better, try lowering your seat a couple inches. This will give you room to shift your weight around.
Lastly, when winter cycling, don’t get too attached to your bike (literally). There may be times where you need to eject from the bike to stay safe. Being attached to the bike (via SPD pedals) or other means can make ejecting the bike hard and dangerous. If you see a minor catastrophe headed your way, don’t be afraid to jump from the bike to avoid danger.
Learning how to ride during the winter can be tough especially if you start in the city. I would recommend going to a park or parking lot and goofing around there. It can also be fun to do it with a couple friends. Be stupid where it’s tough to get hurt so you can be smart when you can get hurt.
Cheers, and good luck out there!