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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Cold weather no barrier to bicycle commuting

From the Salt Lake Tribune, 10.31.08:

Winter biking is no breeze--but it can be done
We gathered in the back room to confront our deepest fears: Cold. Darkness. Ice. Other people. We couldn't quite wrap our heads around the idea of riding a bicycle to work in the dead of winter. Bike vs. snowplow? The physics of that seemed all wrong. And that kind of thinking is our biggest hurdle, said John Higgins, a year-round bike commuter who...recently gave a seminar on cold-winter commuting..."Think of commuting on your bike as a fun winter sport."

One by one, Higgins struck down potential issues for people who want to extend the bike season, whether because they like the exercise, want to pollute less by leaving the car at home, or need to save on gas money. Here's his advice on every objection we raised.

Fear of commitment: Simply making the decision to ride in the colder months is Job One. "Until you've got that 'Yes, I'm going to' mind-set, the rest is irrelevant," Higgins said. Once you commit, the other problems can be solved. And don't think you have to go all hardcore. Higgins still uses a car in nasty weather, or gets a ride, or uses the busor TRAX. Maybe initially, you'll decide to ride when streets are dry and the temperature is above freezing. A small step is still a step.

Cold: Layering is the key to temperature regulation and wind protection. Many people will already own much of the gear they need - a base layer of wool or synthetic; an insulating layer of fleece; and a lightweight top layer that blocks wind and moisture while allowing heat to escape. Higgins likes zippers on all of the above to allow quicker heat release. You'll have to experiment with different weights to discover what works best for you. Wear a wicking skull cap under your helmet, sunglasses with clear lenses or ski goggles, and five- or split-fingered gloves that allow you to work gears and brakes. Toe covers and shoe covers are helpful if you wear biking shoes; if you don't, any footwear that keeps you warm and dry will do.

Winterizing the bike: If you plan to ride when it's sloppy, fenders are a good idea. Higgins showed clip-on fenders that work on any mountain bike. A more beefy tire might help, too. And you should wipe down the bike every time you ride in the wet, doing a more thorough cleaning every month. Lights are critical - anything you can do to help other people see you is good. I just added a second light on my handlebar, a headlamp on my helmet, and blinking lights on my saddlebags to complement the blinkie on the back. "The more lights the better," Higgins advised.

Choosing a route: In the winter, snow and snowplowing can make some roads impassable. Ice is another issue on spots that don't get sun. So, you'll have to experiment and pay attention to which streets are cleared first. Unfortunately, that's usually the busier ones. Safety is paramount, so there's no shame in ditching the bike when it gets too hairy.

Riding skills: First, slow down. If streets are slippery, brake sooner and more gently. Go easy on the front brake while riding downhill. Snow is similar to sand, which means keeping weight off the front of the bike. (Read more.)
Northern California's first significant rain storm came this weekend, soaking Halloween festivities and causing bike commuters to dig out their rain wear and fenders. It's also the end of Daylight Savings Time, meaning more riding in the dark. This welcome article provides a great overview of how to prepare for bicycle commuting in the cold weather months. Many bicycle commuters in colder climates--from Minneapolis to Madison to Montreal to Copenhagen--happily commute year round. With enough preparation, you can too.

Clothing is really the key. Many bicycle commuting veterans suggest: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. As I write on my commuting tips site, the clothing you'll need depends on your climate and traveling distance. For shorter commutes in light precipitation, I manage with a waterproof poncho/cape purchased from REI. For longer rides in rainy conditions, I have a Bellwether Aqua-No jacket and pants, which are waterproof and breathable (allowing perspiration to evaporate.) I also have waterproof gloves and booties. Fenders and rain covers for your panniers (if you don't already have waterproof panniers) are also absolutely essential.

Once your body is protected from the elements, the other major factor for a happy cold weather bike commute is your riding skills. Stopping and turning are more hazardous during wet conditions; be attentive to your speed. As mentioned, prepare for darkness with good lights. For most short commuting I manage with an efficient LED from Planet Bike; for darkest conditions I have a Light & Motion Solo Logic.

What suggestions would you offer a new bicycle commuter for happy cycling in cold weather?

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Cold Riders: Winter doesn't mean an end to bike commutes, Boise Weekly
Visit: Think before biking this winter, South Bend Tribune
Visit: Winter biking? Go for it, Chicago Sun-Times
Visit: Taking that bike out in winter requires planning, Grand Junction Sentinel (CO)
Visit: Wet Weather Riding, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
Visit: Brr: Tips for cold-weather cycling, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Stay flexible during winter cycling, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Winter cold no obstacle to bicycle commuting, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Pedaling through winter, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


dr2chase said...

I got started biking in the winter after it became clear that biking solved all the yearly checkup problems that made my doctor go "tsk-tsk". I just decided I would do it, and somewhere in there I found My plan, which worked, was to add gear as necessary, fixing whatever problems appeared. is an excellent resource.

Windblocking tights work great. For a top, all you need is anything that blocks the wind, over whatever wool you already happen to own.

I did buy a stretch polarfleece balaclava and that really, really helps (their tights are good, too).

The two true problem areas were my fingers and my toes. Good gloves are necessary. Ski gloves, or anything insulated and windblocking, will do the job (straight fleece is probably not good enough).

Because I like to ride with cleats, shoes were a big deal. The cost effective solution is oversocks. The other choice, which is very expensive, but works very well, is winter biking shoes.

If you don't wear cleats, you can bike in boots.

I make my own lights, but I am a lapsed electrical engineer, so it was not too hard. For about $70 in parts, you can get 200 lumens in front, and enough in back (3 LEDS, plus lens, plus regulator, plus battery pack -- I use a dynamo, but given my uneven history with an expensive German dynamo, I cannot recommend this route to anyone else -- I am testing a cheaper french dynamo right now, but it only has 50-60 miles of use on it yet).

This is the outfit that worked for me last year.

Anonymous said...

Hey, this is really helpful. Each year I plan to cycle during the winter but chicken out. I think if I'm well prepared I can get into the mindset to do it. Thanks for all the tips, you too dr2chase.

Anonymous said...

I got a flashing vest from LEDTronics. Works great.

Other than that, biking in winter is no different from other outdoor activities like skiing in winter, and plenty of people do that.

People think it's crazy, but as I ride in the dark early in the morning, I pass people going out jogging, running a cirucular route and coming home to shower, change and THEN go to work. THAT seems crazy to me.

Tim said...

Or you could just move to Texas, where it's been in the 70's and 80's for the last week, after a very brief overnight excursion into the low 40's. Shorts and T-shirt are the appropriate clothing for Fall biking in in Austin. LOL!
I did bike year round in Boston for a couple of years, though, and found that layering is truly the key. The first 5 min of my ride I would be cold, especially on nose and hands, but after the ol' metabolism got up to speed, I would be roasting if I couldn't unzip an out windbreaker shell and let some air through a breathable wool layer. I only made the mistake of wearing a ski jacket one time and ended up sweaty, miserable, and later freezing after arriving at my destination. yech!
Bulky wool socks were how I transformed my biking shoes into winter shoes (never cotton in the winter!); no expensive ad-ons for me.

Anonymous said...

I had to have my rear hub redone. At 10 degrees F and below the prawns in the free wheel would freeze close and I would free wheel. It involved having a lighter weight oil than the standard.

Kevin Love said...

Here in Canada it has been known to get a little cold in winter. My only advice is to just keep biking everywhere you go as the autumn turns into winter.

I've never bought any special clothes. My normal clothing works just fine on my bicycle. If it didn't, rest assured that I would change the bicycle, not the clothing.

Some of the young women here in Toronto should, in my opinion, wear more clothing in winter. I keep thinking "how can they go out like that?" But they do, every day. I guess that I'm just an old fuddy-duddy.

Anonymous said...

I ride year-round in the DC area, only taking the bus instead on the snowy and/or icy days (about 5-10/year). I love my "lobster claw" gloves, balaclava, Smartwool knee-high socks and base layers. I wear the same outer layer, a bright yellow cycling jacket, from autumn through spring. I've found that the base layers keep me warm enough so I don't need a heavier jacket. My fingers sometimes get cold but that's about it. Cycling in the winter is great because most cyclists won't do it--you get the trail mostly to yourself!

clark said...

for the coldest days in anchorage [ten or fifteen below] i have a balaclava on my head; on top a wicking biking shirt, then a longsleeve light fleece and an insulated windproof shell zipped all the way up. glove liners and heavy snowboarding mittens. on the bottom, just capilene long underwear [or 'base layer' as its now called] and levis; warm socks and keen shoes. it's really dry here so usually don't have to worry about splash and moisture. so, no fenders but studded tires are a must.
sometimes it seems brutally cold but it's OK after about a mile when you get some kind of equillibrium with the conditions and the constant activity.

dr2chase said...

Oy, speaking of mechanical problems, you want to be sure that your cables are all set up so they drain. One of mine isn't, it got water in it, that froze, and it made the rear brake very sticky. To de-ice: pop lose the outer housing in the offending area, and pull really hard, till it slides loose. The ice seemed to stick to the inner cable. Flex the cable and crack it off. (I subsequently oiled the cable, and also cut a small hole in the casing at the lowest point.)

As far as "never bought anything special" goes, I think it just depends on you. My toes get cold; on a ski trip I got to compare with a bunch of other people, my fingers and ears were "normal" or warmer, but my toes got bleeping cold -- with wool socks, in ski boots. There's just no point being so cold it hurts.

SiouxGeonz said...

I think it's that commitment thing that matters. When the weather comes on, the question should be "what should I wear and do?" not "Should I ride?" (Easier to do after you sell the car and before you've figured out the bus line.)
Then shopping for stuff is just shopping for thigns to wear, not "special" stuff for cycling.

David Hembrow said...

If you want to see how it's done over here, this is a video made last winter showing the city centre as normal at -4 degrees, and this shows children riding their bikes to school at -2 degrees.

Personally I find little is more important than windproof clothing, and that my now balding head must be covered with a nice warm hat.