This post offers advice on how to be comfortable when cycling in the winter, and also tips on how to cycle safely in difficult conditions. Winter cycling can be challenging, especially if you live in a climate that gets very cold and wet. Days are shorter, forcing you to ride in the dark at least one way if you bike commute. If there is snow, it is often displaced by car tires – right into the bike lane. If you’ve never had filthy snow flung into your face by a passing car, you’ve never really suffered for your cycling!
However, winter cycling does NOT have to be suffering, with careful planning and a little expense. Comfortable, safe winter cycling comes down to preparing your bike, preparing yourself, and having the right equipment. And of course (as with raising toddlers), choosing your battles. There may be days when it is neither safe nor fun to ride your bike. In those cases, there is no shame in catching a bus, or driving a car!
Contents of Post
- Prepare Yourself for Safe Winter Cycling
- Bike Accessories for Safe Winter Cycling
- Have the Right Gear for Safe Winter Cycling
- Tips for Safe Winter cycling
- Wear a high-visibility vest
- Take a strong position in the road and maintain it steadily
- Taking the road also makes you visible
- Ride safely
- Watch out for slippery bits
- When riding in snow
- Watch out for heaps of leaves and puddles
- Brake carefully
- Your feet
- Be careful!
- Keep your bike cold
- Brake often
- Keep records
- If your gears freeze
- If you hit ice
- If all else fails
Prepare Yourself for Safe Winter Cycling
Plan Your Route
Think carefully about the best route for the weather.
- For example, choose a route that follows the snow plow route.
- Try to have a route that is close to a bus route, so you have an option to bail if it gets too tiring or dangerous. I was once forced to hop on a bus after freezing rain began halfway through my route, and my gears froze up. Plus, the road became dangerously slippery.
- Always carry a credit card, in case conditions are becoming life-and-death, and a cab is your only option. Because for example your Significant Other refuses to fetch you because “it is your own stupid fault for cycling in the snow”!
Note that quieter roads are usually safer in the summer, but may be more dangerous in the winter because they are not plowed or even driven on. Cars can be dangerous for cyclists, but they do have their uses – for example, they are very good at melting ice on road surfaces.
Bike Accessories for Safe Winter Cycling
Bike Lights for Winter Cycling
NOTHING is more important for safe winter cycling than being seen by motorists. To this end, invest in good bike lights – they are your life insurance on dark winter rides. Use them day and night – they help you to be seen even when it is not dark. Having both front and back lights goes without saying. If there is a motorist coming up behind you or approaching you head-on, it is imperative that he or she notices you. You also need to be able to see where you are going when it is gloomy or dark.
Bike Lights on the Side of Your Bike
Also, get BRIGHT lights that can be seen from the side, such as these WheelBrightz lights. Motorists are going to be on ALL sides of you, not just conveniently in front or behind. I believe I have had my life saved by these lights in the past, when motorists were coming out of side streets towards me, in the dark.
Maintain Your Bike Lights like Treasured Pets
Make sure your bike lights always have charged batteries, and are not falling off your bike or pointing in the wrong direction.
Make Sure Your Bike Lights are Bright Enough
It’s a great idea to go for a ride with someone else and ask them to check on how well your lights are working. I often see people cycling with miserable little lights that I have to strain my eyes to TRY to see. That is NOT what you need. You want to be very visible, while at the same time not blinding other road users – a fine balance, but well worth achieving.
Related Post: When to Use Flashing Bike Lights
Have Backup Lights
Another great idea is to have two lights in the front and two in the back to ensure you are never without lights. Also, you can ensure you are never caught without any lights by installing dynamo lights that come on as soon as you start pedaling, such as Reelights (see my review of Reelights here).
Related Post: How to Get Your Bike Ready for Safe Winter Cycling
Have the Right Gear for Safe Winter Cycling
Have as many reflective bits on you as possible. You can make your entire bike reflective (and also protect it) with Bike Wrappers (reviewed here). It is also excellent to have reflective bands around your ankles, as their up and down motion makes it really obvious that you are a cyclist.
Keep Warm for Winter Cycling
Core and Head
It is absolutely essential to keep your core and head dry and warm. In my experience, cold hands and feet are almost unavoidable, especially on long commutes – but you can survive that. However, a cold core and head could sent you into hypothermia. Or at the very least, just make you very, very miserable.
Of course, you will need to layer, because cycling warms you up quickly. A good approach is three layers on top, two on the bottom.
Your Upper Body
On your upper body, start with a wicking base layer, such as Under Armor. Over that you can wear a fleece top to keep you warm (make sure it is breathable, otherwise you could be soaking wet from sweat by the time you get to work).
On your bottom half, two layers usually suffices – one underneath to keep your legs warm, and one over that to keep out wind and rain. Don’t forget your chamois pad – last winter I exchanged my chamois pad for long johns, and forgot all about my chamois pad – and very soon had the saddle sores to prove my stupidity. The chamois pad also adds another layer to your groin area – which is another area that is much happier when it is not freezing. And of course, a happy groin leads to a happy you!
Keep Your Head Warm
For your head, I cannot recommend balaclavas more strongly. I kind of love mine – I feel all warm and cozy and protected inside it, like I am encased in my own warm little world. I did a lot of research on the best balaclavas, and wrote an in-depth post about how to choose the best balaclava, and comparing the seven best balaclavas.
The single most important thing is to choose one that goes far enough down the neck to keep your neck warm. Also, I notice from reader feedback and from affiliate sales that of all the balaclavas I recommend, the Chaos CTR Tempest Multi Tasker is by far the most popular.
If you really hate balaclavas, a nice thermal skull cap is a great (and cheap) alternative to keep your head warm for winter cycling.
Protect Your Eyes
For safe winter cycling, it is also essential to protect your eyes from icy winds. Assuming you don’t want to spend the day looking as if you were up all night drinking! I use my Adidas cycling glasses (reviewed here).
Another option, especially if you don’t need prescription lenses and don’t mind the occasional odd glance from other commuters, are Bolle tactical goggles (reviewed here). These will keep out howling winds. Although howling winds are actually the one kind of weather you should try to avoided at all costs. A strong wind can blow you right over – not good.
Keep Your Hands Warm
It is hard to keep your hands completely warm and dry, but if you want to enjoy safe winter cycling, you have to try! For extreme cold, go for lobster-style gloves or mittens – keeping your fingers pressed together will keep them warmer. If you can get away with it, five-fingered gloves are best. After years of trial and error, my Gore-Tex gloves are my favorite (reviewed here).
For the ultimate in hand protection, consider cycling pogies (also called bar mitts). These fit over your gloves, your shifters, brake levers, and part of your handlebars to completely seal out the elements. I have a pair of these that I have never actually used, because it makes me nervous to not be able to see the handlebars. However, if it does not make you nervous, it is ideal.
Keep Your Feet Warm and Dry
Forget about those 2 oz. cycling shoes with designer logos! For safe winter cycling, you need a strong, waterproof pair of boots. You might be able to get away with lightweight leather boots such as Chrome Cycling boots (which we reviewed here). More likely, you will need a strong pair of leather boots of your choice.
My personal favorites are my Blundstone boots. These do remarkably well as cycling boots, keeping out rain and snow. They come in a range of heel options – for cycling, you want something with less clunky heels, so they don’t hit the crank shafts.
If you must wear bike shoes, try adding neoprene shoe covers (cycling booties) to add insulation and keep in warm air. These almost always come with a reflective strip on the back, which is a nice little safety bonus.
Winterized Bike Shoes
There are a few companies, including 45NRTH and Lake Cycling, which sell insulated winterized bike shoes compatible with your clipless pedals. (Personally I would never go clipless in snow and ice, as I want to be able to get my feet down on the ground fast – but that’s just me).
You also need excellent socks. I have recently discovered some excellent socks, called Heat Holders and billed as the ultimate thermal socks, with superior moisture wicking and heat retention. Plus, they have this super soft, fleecy inner lining.
Keeping your Feet Dry
Consider wearing a plastic shopping bag between your socks and your boots. This sounds odd, but it’s FREE, and you won’t even notice they are there – and they will guarantee that your feet stay dry. Check there are no holes in the bags you plan to use, as water will worm its way through any hole it can find. Then you will be wearing a bag of cold water on your foot … not ideal.
Related Post: How to Keep Your Feet Warm and Dry for Winter Cycling
Tips for Safe Winter Cycling
Tip #1: Take a Strong Position in the Road and Maintain it Steadily
Riding too close to the sidewalk could encourage someone to squeeze past you, sending you into sludgy snow in the gutters – and possibly causing you to fall underneath a passing car.
Sudden movements could take a motorist by surprise, and lead to the two of you meeting by accident. Definitely not a good idea. Be steady and predictable.
Note that in the winter, the curb area is where snow accumulates, as well as broken glass, and general road debris. So you really want to avoid it, and stay in the part of the road that is constantly kept clean by cars.
Tip #2: Be Visible to Motorists
Taking the road also makes you more visible to motorists, so that they can avoid you. Of course, you have to do this wisely, so as not to infuriate drivers into menacing you. In general, sensible drivers will give you a wider berth in the winter – but don’t count on it.
Expect motorists to be even more oblivious than usual, and ride carefully and defensively. Remember that some people will have just left home, and could still be driving with iced-up wind screens. A good approach is to ride as if you are completely invisible – while being as visible as humanly possible.
Have lights front and back, and use them night and day. You need to see where you are going, and motorists need to see you.
Wear a high-visibility vest. Yes, I know they are not the coolest things to wear. But it really doesn’t MATTER what it looks like – it just matters that you get to where you are going in one piece.
Tip #3: Ride Safely
It will take you longer to stop in icy or wet conditions, so ride accordingly. You need to be a bit slower, and cycle with care. Obviously, you need to keep an eye out for upcoming obstacles.
When pulling off from a stop, make sure you have caught the eye of any nearby motorists. Ride slowly, steadily, and smoothly.
If your gears freeze, don’t just soldier on with one gear. Instead stop, find a warm place, and let them defrost. If there is no warm place – it’s time for a bus or a cab!
Tip#4: Watch out for Slippery Places on the Roads
Road markings, tram tracks, drain and manhole covers, and any kind of ironwork are likely to be slippery. So either avoid them, or at least, don’t speed up over them or brake violently while on them.
This also applies when you put a leg out to stop. There are sometimes iron covers near intersections. I have had the experience of putting a foot on an icy iron cover and almost falling over sideways onto the sidewalk as my foot slid out.
Watch out for heaps of leaves, and for puddles. Both can be slippery, of course. Also, you don’t know what is underneath them. There could be potholes, nails, or worse.
Tip #5: Take the Smoothest Route Possible
Quiet, unplowed side streets may not be the safest route in snowy conditions. When riding in snow, follow the plow trail, if at all possible!
Tip #6: Brake Carefully
We need to brake differently in icy or snowy conditions. Be gentle with your brakes, and use your front brakes sparingly, if at all, to avoid sliding. Be ready to take your feet off the pedals if the bike starts to fishtail, slide or tilt.
When cycling on settled snow, brake often to clear your rims of accumulating snow. This also has the advantage of slowing you down!
Tip #7: Keep your Bike Cold
Don’t take your bike inside and keep it by the fireplace. Trust me, no matter how much you love your bike, and no matter how beautiful it is – it does not have any feelings!
If you take a warm bike into fresh snow, it is likely that ice will form on the brakes and gears.
Tip #8: Keep Records
Make a note of how many layers keep you feeling warm at specific temperatures. That way, you don’t have to try and figure it out all over again every winter. This is a personal thing – there is no web site that can tell you how many layers you personally will need at specific temperatures.
It may be a bit tedious to make this list, but you will be so happy to have it next winter!
Tip #9: What to Do if you Hit Ice
Steer straight, do not pedal, and try not to brake. Your aim is to come to a controlled stop, without a catastrophic wipe out. I had a friend who was off work for four months after wiping out on black ice.
If all else fails, head for a bank of snow to cushion your fall.
Ride safely and have fun!
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