How to Cycle Safely in the Winter
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 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), picking 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!
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 on a bus route, so you have an option to bail if it gets too tiring or dangerous. 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 are 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
Lights: 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 – but also get lights that can be seen from the side, such as MonkeyLectric Lights (reviewed here). Cars are going to be on ALL sides of you, not just conveniently in front or behind.
Maintain your lights like treasured pets: make sure they always have charged batteries, and are not falling off your bike or pointing in the wrong direction. 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 biking 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 blazingly visible, while at the same time not blinding other road users – a fine balance, but well worth achieving.
Have backup lights: have two lights in the front and two in the back to ensure you are never without lights. Another way to ensure you are not caught without lights is to install dynamo lights that come on as soon as you start pedaling, such as Reelights (see my review of Reelights here).
Have the Right Gear for Safe Winter Cycling
Be Reflective: 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.
Layered Clothing: 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. On the top, 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). Finish off with a waterproof and windproof jacket or shell, such as the Gore Countdown jacket, which I reviewed here.
Bottom Half: 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.
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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). A cheaper 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: Your hands are tough to keep 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 one 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 (reviewed here). More likely, you will need a strong pair of leather boots of your choice. My personal favorites are my Blundstone boots, which 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 too often.
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.
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).
Socks: 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 water on your foot … not ideal.
Tips for safe winter cycling
Wear a high-visibility vest: It doesn’t MATTER what it looks like – it just matters that you get to where you are going in one piece.
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. 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 passing cars.
Taking the road also makes you visible: of course, you have to do this wisely, so as not to infuriate unhappy drivers into attacking you. In general, sensible drivers will give you a wider berth in the winter – but don’t count on it.
Ride safely: it will take you longer to stop in icy or wet conditions, so ride accordingly – slower, and with care, and keeping an eye out for upcoming obstacles. When pulling off, make sure you have caught the eye of any nearby motorists. Ride slowly, steadily, and smoothly.
Watch out for slippery bits: 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 iron cover and almost falling over sideways onto the sidewalk as my foot slid out.
When riding in snow: follow the plow trail, if at all possible!
Watch out for heaps of leaves and puddles: Both can be slippery, and you don’t know what is underneath them. Could be potholes, nails, or worse.
Brakes: Be gentle with your brakes, and use your front brakes sparingly, if at all, to avoid sliding.
Feet: Be ready to take your feet off the pedals if the bike starts to fishtail, slide or tilt.
Be careful! 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 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.
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 feelings! If you take a warm bike into fresh snow, it is likely that ice will form on the brakes and gears.
Brake often: When cycling on settled snow, brake often to clear your rims of accumulating snow. This also has the advantage of slowing you down!
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.
If your gears freeze: stop, find a warm place, and let them defrost. If there is no warm place – it’s time for a bus or a cab!
If you hit ice: steer straight, do not pedal, and try not to brake.
If all else fails: if you find yourself losing control, aim for a snow bank – it will be a softer landing than hitting a car.
Ride safely and have fun!
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