Thursday, February 20, 2014

Taking the Lane: Winter commuting tips for snowy weather,

Winter Commuting in the Snow 
Since winter riding season is almost behind us I'm covering both riding in snow and dressing for it.

Many, maybe even most otherwise avid bicycle commuters and riders in general hang up their bikes or retreat to their basement trainers when winter sets in. Winter commuting and riding in general can be comfortable, fun, and relatively safe if you are well prepared and know the basics. When I began winter commuting I felt a little like I was re-inventing the wheel; so much trial and error. Coats that were too heavy or that didn't breathe, gloves that weren't warm enough, overdressing in general and underlayers that didn't wick well. Bit by bit I've gotten it figured out and now am quite comfortable in nearly all conditions.
The Layers
Dress for 10-15 minutes into your ride, unless that's all the longer your commute is, in which case you can throw another layer on. Always wear a wicking underlayer. It can be synthetic, wool or silk, but not cotton as that will keep dampness next to your skin and you can become chilled. You will probably need a light insulating layer, wool or fleece, but don't overdo it. Whether you wear a base layer under your pants is up to you. I prefer a wind shell, which I can get out of quickly upon arrival as I seldom have an opportunity to change clothes when arriving at work. This is useful for keeping road spray off as well. Fenders can't keep all of it off your lower legs and shoes, though they are a big help. Some commuters wouldn't go out without an underlayer on the legs, but I overheat in them. Your jacket should be a wind and moisture barrier, but also breathe. I paid more for mine than I imagined that I would, but it's been worth every penny.
The Hands
I have very cold sensitive hands. For me, this was what would keep me off my bike before anything else, until I figured it out. Bar Mitts have made all the difference for me, but others with less sensitive hands might do well with lobster claws or other serious mittens.I wear wool liners followed by some very insulated back-country gloves, all inside the Bar Mitts. That takes me into subzero temps with little problem.
The Feet
I live in wool socks in winter. Pair them with warm shoes, not too tight, until that's no longer enough, then add shoe covers, or go to insulated boots. Shoe covers run small, so get them larger than you think you should need, especially if you have to get them off or on in a hurry. What ever shoe or boot you use, it's essential that the soles grip the pedals well even in wet situations.
The Neck
The first thing you may notice as you get underway is cold air leakage around your wrists, neck, and ankles. Take a minute to make sure these crucial areas aren't making you lose any heat before you want to. You'll need to check that any scarf or zipper at your neck is easily loosened. I get quite heated up, If I'm snow plowing or have a lot of cargo on my heavy mountain bike with low inflation, I'm soon wanting to regulate my temperature.
The Face
For face comfort, I prefer a half-face mask with ample ventilation and a nose vent. Anything else is hard for me to breathe through freely, or gets so swampy it freezes to my face. At a certain point your eyes begin tearing or just get excessively cold, more so when the windchill gets down there.. I finally went to ski goggles, but you just need something that's not tinted for riding in dim light, and that doesn't fog.
The Head
Finally don't forget your brain bucket. Your helmet is even more crucial in winter conditions. I use a thin, fleecy liner cap that fits under my helmet and covers my ears, speaking of which, if your ears get too cold, save the earrings for after you get to work, as metal is very efficient at conducting cold.
Riding on snow can be a lot of fun, I find it similar to gravel, but it requires extra attention and alertness. You will need to move more slowly as stopping, starting and turning takes more time. I have laid my bike down slamming on the brakes over a thin film of snow. Be especially aware of the loose gray-tan snow on side streets, it's similar to loose gravel and you will fishtail. When conditions are snowy or icy I take out my mountain bike with knobby tires at a low inflation, and so far I've not had too much trouble. I'm tempted by studded tires, but haven't gotten them yet. Do remember to clean that salty, slushy mess off of your bike, your chain will thank you.
If you are setting out or arriving in the dark or in dim light, make sure you have very bright front and tail lights, and that you have reflective additions to your gear and bike. Motorists may not be expecting you, so you have to work to be seen.  If you are one of the many cycling fashionistas, make safety beautiful.
Lincoln is generally good about keeping trails clear, though a weekend snowfall may not get cleared before Monday morning. If you are lucky enough to have a trail commute, enjoy. If you are forced to take streets, be choosy. Residential streets don't get cleared soon enough for some commuters and you may have to take sidewalks. In this case you'll learn who shovels their sidewalk and who doesn't. Almost no one clears curb cuts in a timely manner. (I've been tempted to carry a portable shovel) I have had to take major streets due to a lack of options, but it can be the least safe choice. Sometimes snow is piled on adjoining paths by snow removal equipment, so check alternate routes.

Don't let the idea that you will be too cold keep you from giving winter riding a try. I tell people it 's a little like shoveling snow, in terms of heat generated, and nothing like standing around or even walking. Keep an open mind, pay attention to the basics, and give it a try! You may wonder why you ever put the bike away.


  1. Excellent post, Janine, it is quite obvious that you have considerable experience by what you wrote. I have also seen you out there in some very challenging conditions. My own experience backs up everything you have said. The only thing I would add is " Avoid that front brake on ice."
    Respectfully, Bob Pewthers

    1. Hi Bob! It's true, that's what laid me down that time.