Embrace the Cold: Tips for Winter Cycling

By Megan Flottorp

In the wake of what is sure to be an unusual winter, the notion of putting the bike away for several months fills many of us with dread. Yet, for anyone who has never embraced the possibilities of winter riding – the changing of seasons also offers an opportunity. While some have biked throughout the four seasons their whole lives, there are others for whom the process is a lot more daunting. Nevertheless, if armed with the right knowledge and enough layers, there’s no reason why we can’t all get through the winter with the help our trusty steeds! Read on to get acquainted with some helpful tips that will allow you to extend your cycling season and ride even if you live in the land of ice and snow!

Reasons and benefits of riding your bike in the winter

Before we get into how to do it safely, it is worth reminding yourself of the virtue of winter riding (beyond the fact that it means more time with your beloved bike!). If you’re someone who is concerned at all about minimizing your environmental impact, cycling throughout the winter can definitely be an important step in your mission to live lighter and ultimately do a little better by our planet. It will also keep you fit throughout the colder months so there won’t be much of a hurdle preventing you from getting back into top form come spring. Finally, for some people, cycling in the winter is actually more convenient as you can avoid dusting snow off your car or having to shovel your driveway, you can simply hop on your bike and go!

Cycling in Amsterdam
Winter cycling in Amsterdam. © Profimedia

How to choose the right bike for winter riding

Especially if you live somewhere with regular snowfalls, your bike’s worst enemy come winter is not necessarily the weather — it’s the salt they put on the roads. By all accounts, if you’re going to ride in a city all year, you want a bike for winter that falls squarely into the “beater” category. There’s just no getting around the fact that salt is going to eat away at the bike so keep that in mind when deciding what you’d like to expose to the elements. Get something used that is comfortable and functional but that you aren’t going to be too sad to part with when the day comes.

Some other helpful considerations:

Aluminium wheels – although it is not worth buying new wheels, if you have the option — go with aluminium. They won’t rust and will end up lasting you a lot longer.

Flat pedals – you need to be able to get your feet on the ground fast when riding in winter conditions, this is not the time to go clipless.

Fenders – just trust us here. The elements are unpredictable so unless you want to end up with a wet and soggy butt, put fenders on your bike for winter riding.

Lower your seat – for the same reason why you don’t want to go clipless, it is critical to be able to get your feet on the ground fast in unpredictable conditions. Lowering the seat will provide you with a more stable centre of gravity and ensure that you can get your feet planted firmly on the ground in a moment’s notice.

Winter Cycling
You should lower your seat. © Profimedia

Lights, lights, and more lights!

If you’re going to do any riding at all as the days start to get shorter, it is absolutely necessary to have reliable bike lights to help you get around safely. As we’ve highlighted in our recent guide, you want to use lights no matter what time of the day you’re riding. They help others see you and therefore keep you safe. There aren’t as many cyclists on the road as the temperature dips, and that means drivers are generally less aware of their two-wheeled companions. Another thing to keep in mind is that the battery in those lights is working harder when it’s cold outside, and therefore doesn’t last as long. Make sure to charge up! USB lights are a good way to ensure that you can easily charge your lights throughout the day.

Dress warm but don’t overdo it

It is easy to get spooked by the forecast and feel the need to dress up like you’re heading out for an arctic expedition before tackling your morning ride. Remind yourself that you’re still going to be riding and exerting a lot of energy, though. The first minute or two will be chilly but your body will soon warm up and you don’t want to be trapped in a sweaty bundle. Layers, as always, are a friend of the cyclist. Temperatures can fluctuate a lot over the course of the day, so give yourself options.

Take care of your hands and feet

One place not to skimp on warmth though is your hands and feet. Make sure you have shoes and gloves or mittens that are both cosy and water/windproof. If you already have good gloves or mittens for outdoor activities like skiing, you can probably use them while cycling in the winter too. Just ensure that you can safely operate your brakes and have a reasonable amount of dexterity.

Road Cycling in Winter
Are your hands and feet warm enough? © Profimedia

Carry any cargo wisely

When it comes to carrying cargo in the winter, remember the rule about a lower centre of gravity. For winter cycling in particular, you want to use racks, panniers, and crates that you can attach to the lower part of your bike and help weigh it down. Baskets should only be used for very light loads and if you absolutely have to wear a backpack, make sure it is strapped close to your body.

Understanding snow and ice

If you’ve never ridden in snowy or icy conditions before, it can be pretty nerve-wracking to get started. To do it safely, you just have to understand a few things about how snow and ice work. If there’s no ice underneath, fluffy snow is totally fine, and can even be fun! You should always avoid ice when possible, though. If that’s not an option, it is important not to brake while passing over an icy section. Put your bike in a higher gear and just keep pedalling. Remember that it is also OK to use your feet to slow yourself down and that you can always get off and walk. If there’s a section of your ride that makes you really nervous, just plan in advance to walk it. That way you don’t have to miss out on the whole activity just because of one section of the road.

You should always avoid ice. © Profimedia

What to do about tyres

Studded tyres are also a good idea if you’re going to be facing ice and snowy conditions regularly. Note that they are expensive so if you can only afford one, put it in the front. It is what guides you. Another good tip for tyres if to lower your air pressure to the lower end of the recommended psi level. A slightly softer tyre will provide more traction and make you less likely to slip.

Winter bike maintenance

Finally, it is important to know that your bike is going to need a little more TLC in the winter to keep performing at its best. It is OK to leave a bike outside all winter, and some even find this preferable. It allows you to avoid the cycle of melting and drying, which produces water and thus activates the problematic effects of salt. Regardless of whether you leave it outside or in, always shake excess snow off when you get home and check your brakes before heading out (they can freeze). Clean and lube your chain with wet lubrication a few times over the season to avoid rust and build up. This should keep you cycling along happily until those sweet days of spring arrive.