I could put the bike in the shed until April…
I rode up to Natural Bridge State Park today, which has a nice mix of gentle trails and steep, paved hills. It’s a winter cyclist’s playground, especially after a fresh snow; while the rest of the country gets slammed, Massachusetts got only a few inches of fresh powder. I love Natural Bridge because it’s all blocked off to road traffic, giving me about a mile of ground to practice controlling skids and dial in my clothing.
Riding in the winter is totally possible and not nearly as tough as it seems. With a little preparation, there is no off-season.
Preparing Your Bike
First and foremost, you’ll want to prepare your bike for winter conditions. Doing so will make riding throughout the season significantly easier on you and your bike, since the collective menace of salt, ice, and road sand can destroy your ride.
Stainless Steel cables and a stainless bicycle chain are great first steps. These parts are significantly more resistant to corrosion, so the constant soaking from tossed-up slush and snow won’t cripple your drivetrain and brakes as quickly. An upgrade to stainless cables is cheap, costing only about $1.50 more than traditional steel. I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t use stainless.
You may not necessarily need to shell out $120 for studded tires. A pair of cyclocross tires for road bikes may be enough to successfully navigate plowed roads and slush. Tires with lugs on them will dig into packed snow like teeth, which can be essential right after a major snowfall. Your road slicks will definitely have trouble, but the big guns are often overkill. I’ve done four consecutive winters without studs.
Max, there’s no fenders on your bike…
I don’t use fenders because of the amount of underbrush and mud I deal with. They end up needing a lot of adjustment and pose a minor risk to my spokes. I don’t in any way mean to dictate my choice to you; fenders have a non-negligible effect on how muddy and wet you get when riding in the winter, so I encourage you to use them, especially if your rides are on the slower and shorter side.
Dressing For Success
Here’s how I dress for winter rides:
- Wind Jacket
- Wool Hoodie
- Wool Glove Liners
- Polartec Gloves
- Wool Bandanna
- 3M Safety Goggles
- Wool Cycling Shorts
- Windproof Tights
- Wool Liner Socks
- Gore-Tex Socks
- Regular cycling shoes w/ Neoprene toe caps
The secret to winter cycling isn’t insulation, it’s wind blocking. Convective heat loss can sap all the hard-earned warmth from you faster than you can replace it. A really good pair of windproof tights and a wind jacket should be 90% of the battle for staying warm on winter rides.
A lot of people pay out top dollar for winter-specific cycling shoes, but I can’t afford that. Gore-Tex socks cut the wind and road spray, turning my summer cycling cleats into winter boots. The toe caps are a $10 booster, since they cover the mesh on the toe. If you can’t afford the socks, bread bags or ziploc bags do just as well. They act as a “vapor barrier,” preventing your sweat from evaporating, which prevents heat loss.
Other than that, I just use Merino Wool. Wool fibers have outer scales that repel water and an inner core that absorbs it, and the water that gets pulled in heats up from your body heat and works as an insulating layer, without the clammy feeling you get with cotton.
For extreme cold, I’ll boost my system with the following:
- Synthetic Insulated Mittens
- Fleece Jacket
- Wool Tights
- Neoprene Knee Warmers
- Windproof Hat
These aren’t necessary until the temperature gets to zero if you’re moving. When the temperature really sinks, though, your toes and fingers suffer the worst. Thick mittens keep your fingers warm, and extra layers on your thighs and calves will keep warm blood moving to your toes. If you have full neoprene overshoes, those work too.
Your lungs get used to cold air over time, but your eyes don’t. Make sure you’ve got glasses or goggles to keep cold air off them. If you wear a buff or bandanna over your mouth and nose, you could fog your glasses, so keep the bandanna below your nostrils. 3M safety glasses from the hardware store are great because you’ve got low-light conditions that makes sunglasses unsafe. Clear lenses with free eye protection? Yes please! These cost 6 bucks and should last your whole season.
When I tour in winter conditions, I use a raincoat and rain pants and move slower to prevent sweat buildup. That way, only two pieces of clothing get caked in mud and I keep the majority of my clothing dry.
Navigating The Winter Wonderland
When things really ice over, like sheets-of-ice, I don’t ride. I probably could navigate without trouble because I’ve ridden in ice several times before, but I’ve learned that it gets a lot less safe when you’re in traffic. People slide out further than they want when going around turns, and if you’re between them and the snowbank, you’ll be sandwiched. If you wouldn’t drive, don’t bike.
There are three major winter conditions to contend with:
- Dry and Icy
This kind of riding is some of the best. The roads are dry and bleached white from salt, and there’s generally no problem with traction. However, the air can be bitterly cold, to the point that if you aren’t wrapped up, you risk getting a wind burn. Skiers use a type of sunblock/lip balm that protects the skin, and I do too when the temperature is near zero or below. Rub it on your cheeks, under your eyes, and on your nose to prevent getting burned. Watch out for black ice or frozen potholes, since the cold will keep any moisture on the dry road firmly frozen.
- Wet and Slushy
Wet and slushy, unfortunately, is the most common. You’ll have the same conditions on the road that you would when it’s raining, but the shoulder will be a soup of dirty slush. Make sure the roads you’re choosing for training rides or commutes have a decent shoulder, so that the snow plows have somewhere to put the really disgusting slurry. Snowbanks will collect throughout the year in most northern areas, so choose your roads carefully and give yourself enough space.
- Fresh Snow
This is my personal favorite, and really epitomizes the fun of winter riding. When the snow really starts to come down, and the plows are failing to keep up, your bike is a better tool for getting around than your car. The lugs on your bike tires give you a bit of a bite, so the ~1-2 inches of compressed snow that usually sits on top of the road becomes a nice riding platform. You can hit local trails when there’s a few inches down, and generally go wherever you please; traffic will be at a minimum and most public riding spaces will be empty. The delight of falling snow can really put a cherry on top of the experience.
There’s a fourth condition that I suggest you avoid entirely: Sleet. If it’s sleeting, it’s too icy to ride safely (in my opinion).
If you do find yourself skidding in ice, though, try and plant your feet. You’ll want to steer into a skid, just like in a car, since pointing your front wheel in the direction of travel will help you right the bike and keep your wheels from simply sliding out from under you.
You cannot stay clean. Sorry. If you’re anywhere near traffic, you’re getting sprayed.
Winter cycling is a messy business. You’ll coat the bike with sand and slush, coat your legs with grit, coat your rim brakes in black slime, and ruin anything that isn’t cleaned regularly.
If you have the luxury of a sink on the first floor of your house, you can rig a hose up to your faucet and clean your bike with hot water through an open window. I do this in our basement, since it lets you get everything off in just a few minutes. I clean my bike every single time I ride, no exceptions. The winters that I didn’t, I lost entire drivetrains and tires from salt corrosion and sand.
Barring a hose, you can take a cycling bottle and a bucket and fill both with hot water in your sink. Then, just squirt the cycling bottle to get off all the grime, and refill it with the bucket so you don’t have to keep running in the house. It usually takes me about 8 bottles to fully clean a bike.
The slush and ice actually consolidates most of the dirt, so it’ll just fall off with hot water. If you want, you can cut your water with a bit of citrus degreaser and give your bike a rub-down afterwards. Just make sure it’s clean before you rub your frame down, or the dirt will dull your paint.
There’s other options. You can also wash a bike in your shower, though I’d plug the drain to keep the sand from going into your plumbing. You can scoop the gunk out of your tub afterwards.
Some bonus pics from today’s ride; I used my iPhone and threw the pics in Lightroom afterwards to increase the clarity:
Keep rolling, everyone!