Boston Biker has put together an excellent series of articles about winter cycling. I thought I’d supplement these by writing about what works for me.
I’ve been riding through Boston area winters for the last five years, regardless of weather conditions. When my old commuter bike’s aluminum frame cracked in a snowstorm several years ago, I took that opportunity to design a bicycle that would withstand the winter abuse. This is the fourth winter that this bicycle will go through and it’s been working extremely well.
I based this bike around a Surly single speed steel frame. As far as corrosion goes, both aluminum and steel will corrode when exposed to road salt and water. It’s the paint that prevents the metal from corrosion. The Surly frame has a tough paint job that hasn’t chipped or worn through despite several years of daily use. Also, the steel frame is slightly flexible, and dampens normal road vibrations and has more organic, gentler ride characteristics. This helps when riding through the pothole that appeared overnight. This frame has track ends, which were necessary because I wanted to use an internally geared hub. Finally, there are mounts for both disc and rim brakes on this frame. I had originally planned on using disc brakes and it’s nice to have that option.
My previous commuter bicycle had derailleaurs. As I’d ride into work, slush would get kicked up and accumulate on the derailleurs. It would then freeze as the bicycle was locked outside while I was at work. I’d ridden home several times with frozen derailleurs, unable to shift, in a really low gear. While gears aren’t strictly necessary, they do help if you’re planning on riding up hills, which do exist where I ride in Somerville, Medford and Belmont. Also, when there is slush, snow and salt, having the ability to drop into a low gear and apply more torque can help. An internally geared hub – in my case, the Shimano Nexus 7 – was the solution to these problems:
I used Sheldon Brown’s Online Gear Calculator to determine what size chainring and cog to use with the internal hub. I plugged in the most common chainring and cog sizes I used on my previous bicycle, found the gain ratios, and tweaked the chainring and cog sizes with the internal hub until I found gain ratios that were just a hair tougher than my previous bike. This worked out perfectly; the new bicycle has similar speeds to my old one.
Although I’d originally planned on using disc brakes, I ended up using rim brakes instead, primarily because I was warned that bicycles with disc brakes are more likely to be stolen. Also, I was minimizing costs and trying to re-use components from my old bicycle. In retrospect, I’ve been satisified with the performance of rim brakes, especially since using salmon compound brake pads — these are noticeably better than standard brake pads when the rim is wet:
I thought about clipless pedals, but was concerned about slush freezing in the pedal mechanism, so I opted for pedals with toe clips.
Fenders are absolutely necessary. Slush shot up your backside and into your face and mouth is very unpleasant.
Lights are also extremely important in the winter. It is always dark on my evening commute; riding without lights would be unnecessarily dangerous. I decided to spring for a ridiculously bright headlight so that I’d be seen even in significant snow storms. I have a standard red blinking rear light, a high intensity discharge headlight, and two blue LED strobe light strips that cover both the back and front of my cycling jacket. I would also consider Hokey Spokes or SpokePOV lights to increase visibility. If I’m lit up like a rave, people will see me.
Incidentally, rechargeable batteries are also the way to go. The long term cost savings of rechargeables make up for the initially larger investment in brighter lighting systems.
I switch chain lubricant in the winter. Normally I use Tri-flow, which is a fairly light lubricant. However, to combat salt, I use Phil’s Tenacious Oil, which is a sticky, highly viscous substance:
If you want to save a few bucks, buy a quart of chainsaw bar oil, it’s the same thing. Keep the chain lubricated, and wipe it down after wet rides! Even with proper lubrication, the chain may need to be replaced after the winter riding season. Replacing the chain is not expensive or difficult. If you have a stainless steel chainring, it probably won’t wear enough to need replacement, and my rear cog hasn’t worn enough to need replacement either.
I also install studded tires when ice starts to form on the road. These tires are too beefy for riding on the road; there are more studs than necessary — and I’ll be replacing them shortly with Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires, which have fewer studs and have less rolling resistance:
Winter is harsh on bicycles. Before the winter, any missing paint should be touched up. Cable housing should be inspected for cracks and replaced if necessary. Exposed cables should be lubricated with a light lubricant like WD-40, and kept lubricated through the winter.
The rest of the bicycle is pretty standard; I hadn’t had issues with these parts in the winter so I saw no need to consider using anything different. The bottom bracket is a modern sealed cartridge type. The stem, handlebars and pedals were harvested from my old bicycle. The offset seat post was necessary to get a better fit. The seat is more comfortable than my previous seat, but not specifically designed for winter.
There’s no need to bundle up with many many layers of fleece sweatshirts and a ski parka and other excessive heavy fluffy clothing when cycling in the winter. You’ll generate a lot of body heat moving the bicycle through the slushy crud that these roads turn into. Even on days when my ride starts slightly chilly, I’m comfortable five minutes later. The key is to keep wind and water out, minimize sweating, and wear a thermal base layer when it gets cold.
I wear or pack specific clothing depending on the temperature, wind, and precipitation:
– Cycling jacket: A good cycling jacket will be both windproof and waterproof. It will also have reflective material. I wear a cycling jacket whenever the temperature is less than 50 degrees; my jacket has air flaps that can be unzipped if I start to sweat or get too warm.
– Waterproof, insulated cycling pants: I wear these in rain and when I’m expecting lots of slush or puddles.
– A BMX-style helmet: This style of helmet has fewer airholes. As a result, my head is warmer in the winter.
– Thermal base layer: This is really important and can make the difference between a comfortable ride and a miserable, cold and wet one. I’ve tried a lot of different types of thermal fabrics.
— Wool is warm, even when wet, but inflexible and itchy.
— Silk is very warm and lightweight, expensive, and not durable enough — it doesn’t even last a season
— Cotton should be avoided, since it absorbs moisture
— Fleece is very warm but in my experience holds moisture against the skin
— Wicking synthetic fabrics are not cheap, but have worked best for me. Columbia makes a synthetic fabric they call Omni-Dry. It is flexible, warm, lightweight, durable, comfortable and wicks moisture away. I’d anticipate that any wicking synthetic fabric is going to have similar properties.
– Lobster claw gloves: These gloves have two ‘fingers’ and a thumb. This allows me to operate the brakes and keeps my hands warmer than regular gloves. I wear these when the temperature is below 30 degrees.
– Glove liners or lightweight gloves: Lightweight glove liners or gloves are sufficient in temperatures between 30 and 45 degrees.
– Booties: These fit over shoes; I use them in rainy or wet conditions.- thick winter socks: Worn when under 40 degrees.
– balaclava liner: This can be worn under a helmet and keeps my head and face warm. The opening can be stretched to expose your face or pulled closed so that it only exposes the area around your eyes. I wear this in weather under 35 degrees.
– Goggles or protective glasses: I always wear safety glasses; I once spent an afternoon in the ER getting a dirt particle removed from my eye after riding behind a large truck. This was an unpleasant experience and another afternoon like this is easily avoided by wearing some form of eye protection. In the winter, goggles help keep the wind off your eyes and the area around them. Goggles tend to fog up if you’re wearing a balaclava liner and there’s no wind; when this happens I pull the liner down to expose my face. This way, I’m not breathing into the liner and the warm, moist air from my lungs isn’t directed onto the goggles.
Adjusting clothing for weather
It’s important to check the weather in the morning because temperature changes of over 20 degrees by the evening are not uncommon in this area. Comfortable clothing for the morning ride may not be warm enough for the ride home, so pack accordingly.
Cold rain is the absolute worst weather to ride in. The worst part, however, doesn’t need to be the ride — for me it is usually changing out of my wet outerwear and into dry clothes. In these conditions, I wear my cycling jacket, waterproof pants, thermal underwear, booties and glove liners (these get wet but keep my hands warm enough).
Snow is dry. As long as it’s not going to change to rain, there’s no need to waterproof for snow. Expect the roads to be wet, but good water resistant shoes and fenders will keep that water away. If there’s a lot of snowmelt, consider wearing waterproof, insulated pants and booties.
Any decent cycling jacket should be windproof. If there’s a significant headwind, however, I generally wear the next warmer set of clothing, because any exposed skin will be colder due to the wind chill.
Winter riding strategy is fundamentally the same as riding any other time — other excellent guides exist that I won’t needlessly rehash. However, there is one factor to be aware of when riding in the winter. Snow tends to build up on the edges of the roads, so cars park further away from the curb. This usually causes the bicycle lane, if there is one, to be blocked by parked cars. Even if the bicycle lane is clear of parked cars, snow, slush and ice often accumulate in the bicycle lane but not in the car lane. When the bicycle lane isn’t safe to use, take the entire car lane! It is a safer way to ride; you are supposed to use it, and you are not in the way — bicycles are also traffic, just like automobiles, so don’t worry if you’re slower than the cars.
If there’s no bike lane, cars are still often parked further from the curb, so the same solution applies — take the car lane, be well lighted and visible, and safe — and ride with confidence! You’re out there in the weather, experiencing it first-hand, riding a bicycle — be proud!