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Embrace the Cold: Tips for Winter Cycling

By Megan Flottorp

The notion of putting the bike away for several winter months fills many of us with dread. Yet, for anyone who has never embraced the possibilities of winter weather 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 winter cycling gear, 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 winter riding tips in low temperatures 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 minimising 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 regarding 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 once the winter weather is behind you. Finally, for some people, winter cycling 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!

People cycling in Amsterdam on winter roads
Winter cycling in Amsterdam. Profimedia

How to choose the right bike for winter riding

Your bike’s worst enemy come winter is not necessarily the weather, especially if you live somewhere with regular snowfalls, it’s the salted roads. By all accounts, if you’re going to ride in a city all year, you want a dedicated winter bike 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. Use an old bike you already own or 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 inclement weather 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 or use an inexpensive Ass Saver for winter riding.

Lower your saddle for the same reason why you don’t want to go clipless, getting your feet on the ground fast in dicey riding conditions is fundamental. Lowering the seat will provide you with a more stable centre of gravity and ensure that you can get your tootsies planted firmly on the ground in a moment’s notice.

A person winter cycling on a fat bike on a snowy forest trail
You should lower your seat. Profimedia

Lights, lights, and more lights!

If you’re going to do any winter rides as the days start to get shorter, it is absolutely vital to have reliable bicycle lights to help you get around safely. As we’ve highlighted in our recent guide, you want to use lights, especially a rear light, 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 bad weather approaches and the temperature dips. That means drivers are generally less aware of their two-wheeled road companions. Another thing to keep in mind is that the battery in those lights is working harder when it’s freezing outside, so they don’t last as long. Make sure to charge up! Bright rechargeable LED lights are a good way to ensure that you can easily charge your bicycle lights throughout the day.

Dress warm but don’t overdo it

It is easy to get spooked by the predicted weather 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. The few minutes or two will be chilly, but your body will soon warm up and you don’t want to be trapped in a sweaty bundle.

To keep your core warm, you need layers, a cyclist’s valuable winter clothing friend. And if one one them is wind resistant, all the better. A lot of body heat escapes through your noggin, so pay particular attention to covering your head with a skull cap under your helmet, or at least an ear band to stay warm and fight the wind chill.

Temperatures can fluctuate a lot over the course of the day, so give yourself options. It is crucial keep extremities warm, so if you haven’t yet invested in proper winter tights, get yourself a pair of leg warmers. They turn any pair of regular cycling shorts into leggings.

Take care of your hands and feet

One place not to skimp on warmth is your hands and feet. Make sure you have as much windproof and waterproof gear as possible. That goes for shoes, gloves or mittens designed to keep you warm, dry and cosy, even in wet weather. If you already have good waterproof long fingered gloves for outdoor activities like skiing, you can probably use them while cycling in the winter too. Just ensure you can safely operate your brakes and have a reasonable amount of dexterity.

Wool socks are another essential item for winter riding. Don’t wear two pairs or that extra bulky pair you may have around the house. Blood needs to circulate around your puppies to keep them warm and over stuffing your shoes would not help with that. Instead, look for ones dedicated to winter cycling as they would not take up any extra space in your shoes. A set of thermal shoe covers over the top is key when wearing summer kicks in winter, and don’t forget to seal the air vents on the soles with some type of tape. If you don’t have proper shoe covers, an oversized set of thermal socks adapted for your cleat can do the job, but they aren’t waterproof in wet weather.

A group of road cyclist riding in winter
Are your hands and feet warm enough? © Profimedia

Carry any cargo wisely

When it comes to carrying cargo on winter roads, remember the rule about a lower centre of gravity. For winter cycling in particular, you want to use racks, panniers, and crates that 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 experienced a winter ride in snowy or icy conditions, it can be pretty nerve-wracking to get started. To do it safely, you just have to understand a few things about how they work. If there’s no ice underneath, fluffy snow is totally fine, and can even be fun! However, you should take extra care to avoid ice when possible. If that’s not an option, it is important to maintain a slower winter pace and not brake while passing over an icy section. Put your bike in a higher gear and just keep pedalling; momentum is your ally.

Remember that it is also OK to use your feet to slow yourself down and 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.

A cyclists pedals along a bike path in a winter scene
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 is to reduce tyre pressure to the lower end of the recommended psi or bar level. A slightly softer tyre will provide more traction on slippery surfaces.

Winter bike maintenance

Finally, it is important to know that your bike and gears are going to need a little more TLC in the winter to keep it 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). Keep your chain oiled regularly with wet lubrication during the winter weather to avoid rust. Wet lube also attracts road crud, so avoid build up by cleaning it as needed. These tips should give your bike a break and keep you cycling along happily until those sweet days of spring arrive.