On Winter Biking

Good morning! I wrote a piece on winter biking a few years ago – for a zine called “Dames on Frames.” I’ve been commuting by bike year-round since our move to Minnesota in 2001. This is my ninth winter.  I usually opt out of biking approximately 5 commutes per year.  Here is a slightly modified version of that piece. Enjoy and keep the rubber side down!

On Winter Biking:  My top five biking tips.

Item #1 – PRACTICE! Get used to riding on crap so that when you are faced with crap plus dorky driver, you know what will and will not work. Get onto the side streets that still have lots of white pack and slush etc… Once you’ve done it a few times, it just doesn’t seem as big of a deal.

Item #2 – You can’t steer / turn on ice, so just forget about trying. Keep forward momentum going.

Item #3 – don’t stare at your front tire when you hit a patch of heavy slush or some other kind of crap. Power through the slush/crap and look forward at least 10-20 feet. Use your butt to steer – not your hands. LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO cuz that is where you’ll end up.

Item #4 – biking in fresh powder of up to six inches is a BLAST!!!! For me, if my pedals can clear the snow, it’s bikeable powder. Once the pedals don’t clear the snow, it’s just plain hard work although crashing is easy and pain-free (mostly) in such conditions. Getting up hills can become a problem simply because it’s really hard work!

Item #5 – the only way to dress is to use layers. Always wear a good base layer – never ever use cotton next to your skin. Right – so, my commute is 5 miles. This means that I’m on my bike for approx 15-40 min in the morning, depending on conditions. Within approx 6-10 minutes of departure, my body is warm. I wear two jackets – outer is wind resistant and inner is not – when it’s below approx 15 deg F. Avoid rain gear unless it’s wet. Avoid gortex unless it’s wet. If it’s dry, do not wear anything that compromises breathability, or you will have a swamp inside your gear. Yuck. If the roads are wet but nothing wet is coming out the sky, I go with gear for dry conditions. I’d rather have a bit of a damp butt than a swamp inside my gear.
-Favorite hand gear = lobster gloves. Only good if it’s below 25deg. Otherwise, downgrade to gloves. Swamp inside gloves sucks.
-Favorite foot gear = winter cycling shoes (for clipless) or winter boots (for toe clips or flat pedals) plus wool sox. Add booties for below 20 deg F ride. DO NOT wear tight foot gear. That limits blood flow and speeds toeberg formation (i.e., really cold toes).
-Least favorite head gear = goggles (required below 5 deg F) and face mask (required below 10 deg F). Totally hate them both, but I hate cars and driving a lot more.
-Favorite head gear = BALACLAVA plus ear warmer plus eye protection plus helmet. My balaclava and ear warmer are both made by IP. Both are very thin material, so they do not compromise the effectiveness of my helmet. For really cold weather, I actually add a helmet cover, to which I’ve added reflective striping.
-Favorite lower body gear = wind front tights for below 20 deg F. Add wind pants for below 5 deg F.

My first hard-core winter, I had trouble striking the gear/warmth/not-hot balance. But, it’s become rather second nature at this point. It’s totally doable. Also, a 15 deg F ride after a week of sub-zero starts to feel rather balmy! I typically drop my temp limits a bit over the course of the winter. For example, at the start of the winter, I’ll use goggles at 5 or even 10 deg F. At the end, I often find myself happy at zero without them. I always, however, wear eye protection of some kind….

Wait wait – now which bike should I ride you ask? Well, there are many answers to that question. The best bike for winter riding is a rugged rig on which you are comfortable. I rode an old mountain bike (rigid fork, hardtail) for years. Now, I mostly ride my single speed road bike (frame from the 70’s) equipped with knobby tires (cyclocross tires). Since my wheels are 27inch wheels, the tires are very inexpensive ($12 each).

Both bikes are great choices. I much prefer the single speed with cyclocross tires, though. The narrower tire cuts through the snow more easily. The single speed means fewer parts to wash / maintain during the winter.

To stud or not to stud??? Studded tires are expensive, but many swear by them. Last winter was the iciest I’ve ever ridden, and I really like having studded tires. It is easier to control the bike and make turns and manage sudden patches of ice. Downsides? They are heavy, expensive, and may give you a false sense of security. For 90+ percent of the time, I find myself quite happy with the cyclocross tires.

Okay – just one more item. Item #6: DOUBLE YOUR LIGHTS at night. I use a red blinky on the back of my helmet or backpack and another on my bike. I add another blinky to the trailer, when attached. I use a rechargeable bright white light in the front. I usually have a backup battery light in my bag. The back-up has proved useful when I find myself riding with a lightless friend or when my rechargeable runs low. In the end, more is more. In addition, I use a lightweight, homemade backpack that has foot-long reflective stripes. I figure that anything I can do to make it easier to see me is a good good thing.

Happy riding!

PS – if you’re from the twin cities area:  Go to metrocommuterservices.org for access to a commuter program called Guaranteed Ride Home. You get two coupons for bus/cab fare per 6 month period. I’ve taken a cab home two times since joining.


About rleepenn

I'm a mom and a chemistry professor, and I love to ride bikes! On July 29th, 2011, I received the news that I have breast cancer. This is my blog....
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2 Responses to On Winter Biking

  1. Lowrah says:

    Hey, Lee! Your post will be up tomorrow morning! Thanks so much for sharing your skills and experience. The write up is really good, I hope that people will read and use it!

  2. Pingback: Winter Skill-Share Recap- Safety and Handling with Lee | Grease Rag Ride & Wrench

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