The challenges of winter biking can be considered in four categories: the six U's of winter biking. (Two are double-u's)
- Keeping warm is not very different from staying warm doing other aerobic outdoor activities.
- Keeping your bike working: Salt wrecks havoc. Fenders and a serious mudflup help a lot.
- Keeping upright: Studded tires make ice much less treacherous.
- Staying unhurt: Use good lights, and wear visible clothes, and wear a helmet.
Winter Riding TipsEdit
Cycling at any time of year involves traveling fast enough that wind affects perceived temperature. In warm weather, sweat and wind creates a cooling affect to avoid heat related problems. In winter however, your body has no natural defenses to staying warm when cold air is passing by. Winter biking generally involves riding 10-30 miles per hour, so between the pocket of warm air around your body and the perceived windchill on exposed skin, body heat can be quickly lost.
Dressing for the correct temperature becomes a game for winter biking, although not terribly difficult. Too many layers, and you will be sweating profusely; too few layers, and you will need to pedal harder and faster to keep warm. Try as best as you can to preserve body heat without significantly inhibiting your riding. You can also add to your own heat with electrical and chemical options.
If temperatures are below freezing, keeping all skin covered becomes very important for comfort. Hands, feet, ears, and face tend to feel coldest, so these areas are very important to cover.
- Hands: Water resistant gloves work well in warmer winter weather, but insulated mittens are best for cold. Many options help with managing bike parts such as shifting and braking, which include:
- Lobster mitts with pockets for pinky/ring, middle/index, and thumb
- Full mittens with 4 fingers in one pocket and thumb separate
- Glittens which are similar to mittens but with separations between individual fingers while in the same pocket
- Pogies which are insulated covers that go over your hands and handlebars. If a bike is stored inside, a ride can start with warm pogies. Even for bikes stored outside this is compared to using a steering wheel inside an unheated car. Thin gloves allow you to grasp the handlebars and use the brake levers inside of the pogies. As you ride, heat is released from your hands, and everything inside the pogies warms also. Pogies are available both for mountain and road bars.
- For more on keeping hands warm, see Winter biking: Hands.
- Feet: Keeping feet warm starts with insulative socks. Thick winter socks made of wool or synthetic material work well, but don't overstuff your shoes as this can inhibit circulation. Footwear options include:
- Neoprene booties which cover a cycling shoe but still allow cleated clipless pedals
- Regular boots on platform pedals, possibly with a Power Strap [Picture requested]
- Winter cycling shoes which are insulated but often expensive and hard to find at over 200 USD.
- There are a few electrical and chemical foot warming options such as rechargeable battery powered footwarmers (e.g. Hotronics, $200) and iron footwarmers (single use packs that stick to the footbed, ~$5 a pair).
- Thin hats that fit under a helmet and cover your ears are great around 15F and warmer.
- Winter hats (if you opt not to use a helmet)
- Headbands and ear-warmers if the top of your head doesn't get as cold
- Full helmets such as for skiing, which sometimes have vents that can be opened and closed as needed while you ride
- Helmet covers are windproof and negate the ventilation holes of a helmet by keeping the warm air in.
- Face: Keeping your face warm can be done with:
- Faced balaclava head covering - Special balaclavas that are thin on top and thicker below are made for use with helmets. In extreme cold when inhaling air is otherwise painful, a heat-exchanging balaclava such as the P-Solar Bx is a good solution.
- Neoprene face masks are very cheap and functional, although rough on a face for long periods of time. Hooded types that fits easily under a helmet stays in place better than the kind that just wraps around the lower half of your head.
- Vaseline protects skin but requires cleaning off, so this is a good solution for recreational rides but not ideal for commuting to the office.
- Full-face helmets offer some wind protection in the front but may inhibit heavy breathing
- Ski goggles can protect your upper face from the cold, and are designed and treated to avoid fogging, although use with a balaclava often still fogs the lenses of many types of goggles. For riding at night, clear lenses are best.
- Beards tend to accumulate ice, but if the hair is longer than about a half-inch, it tends to still insulate the skin underneath acting as a wind guard.
Other areas that tend to get cold next are neck, knees, elbows, arms, and crotch.
- Necks can be covered by full collar clothing, neck warmers, or balaclavas.
- Knees can stay warm with cycling knee warmers, insulated long johns, or pants
- Elbows and are similar to knees, and can be covered with cycling arm warmers. Arms in general can be covered with long sleeve shirts, winter cycling jerseys, and jackets.
- Crotches (especially for men) get cold with extended riding in cold weather from air funneling to this area. It is difficult to wear more layers here since your legs will have a harder time pedaling. Makeshift solutions include a square of fleece, windproof underwear, and specialty items such as "The Hand" (an actual product).
Details about chemical hand and foot warmers: In extreme cold, consider chemical hand warmers. They work particularly well with mittens. You can preheat your mittens by putting the warmers in the mittens about 5 minutes before you go out in the cold. Chemical warmers are small bags of iron, cellulose, activated carbon and salt that oxidize slowly giving off heat for several hours. Because the heat liberation process is one of oxidation, they can be stopped or "turned off" by placing them in an air tight bag and squeezing out as much air as possible before sealing the bag. By using this technique one can get several commutes from a single pair of warmers.
Keeping your bike WorkingEdit
Fenders and a serious mudflap (almost--or actually--dragging on the ground) help keep salty slush off your bike. However, rusting chains are still a problem. The KMC rustbuster chain is treated to avoid rust and holds up much better in salty conditions. Some people find that wax-based lubes work best in salty conditions--oil-based lubes can get salt solution mixed in and become corrosive.
Bikes that don't use derailleurs--single speed bikes or bikes with the gears internal to the hub--are much more tolerant of worn, rusty chains, and also avoid issues with derailleurs freezing up. They also allow the use of full chaincases to protect the chain from dirt, salt, and water. Chaincases are popular in Europe but very hard to find in the US. See the resources section for some options.
In serious cold (well below freezing), some grease used in some bikes thickens or freezes. If you run into that, it may be helpful or necessary to repack with low-temperature-rated grease...or, as a quick fix, to flush out the grease with a light lube spray. A classic example is freewheels or freehubs, which can stop engaging when it gets cold. Detailed instructions for dealing with this are available on the icebike web site.
Studded tires are great insurance for riding on expected or unexpected ice. Carbide studs last more or less forever, even riding on bare pavement. Steel studs wear out very fast on bare pavement and quickly become useless.
For snow, studs don't really matter, unless there is ice underneath the snow. Knobby tires are good for snow. Chevrons don't work as well--they allow too much sideways movement. There are two strategies for tire width and pressure. For riding on roads with moderate amounts of snow, narrow tires can cut through the snow so that you are riding on the pavement. For trails with deep snow (e.g. snowmobile trails), very wide tires with low pressure help you "float" on the snow.
Riding in winter often means riding in the dark. Good lights and reflectors are essential.
When purchasing and mounting rear "blinkey" lights, be aware that many products direct the light in a narrow beam. These must be mounted and aimed carefully, and even then, they are not as visible to drivers coming around a curve, or drivers seated high up in a truck. The Planet Bike Superflash and the Real Lite both have relatively wide light distribution, similar to that used (and required) in car tail lights.
The best reflective material available is "conspicuity tape" made for marking trucks. It is available in red and white at most auto supply stores. Yellow is brighter than red, and is made for school buses. It is harder to find, especially in small quantities, but you can get 15 feet for $15 which should be a lifetime supply.
Retroreflective material positioned low to the ground is advantageous because that where other vehicles' lights (particularly low beams) are brightest. Possibilities include the back of fenders and seat stays. Moving parts can attract more attention and may help the driver identify a bicycle. Such locations include the inside of rims, crank arms, pedals, shoes, and ankle bands.
In low light--dawn and dusk--where headlights don't do much--fluorescent colors may be more effective than reflectors, whereas when it's really dark, fluorescent colors do very little and reflectors are much more effective. Fluorescent materials don't need to be positioned near the ground, as they work with ambient light more than with headlights--fluorescent colored clothing is a good option.
- For generator lights, Peter White Cycles in Hillsboro NH has a web site with extensive information.
- DiNotte Lighting is a New Hampshire manufacturer of high-performance bike lights.
- The Real Lite is a giant LED tail light.
- Light & Motion A California manufacturer of high quality lighting systems.
- A more compact and inexpensive tail light with excellent performance is the Planet Bike Superflash.
- Avoid Limotec lights they wear out quickly and have internal wiring issues.
- The KMC Rustbuster chain is coated to prevent rust. The 1/8" version, for single-speed and internally geared bikes is available through the Quality Bike Products distributor, so almost any bike shop can order one easily, or you can mail order it from Maine, for example. The derailleur version is harder to find but here is one source.
- For studded tires, Peter White Cycles in Hillboro NH has a web site with extensive information.
- US bikes with internal gears and chain cases include the Breezer "new" Uptown 8 and the Redline R530.
- Dutch bikes, which typically have internal gear and chain cases, are imported to North America by Fourth Floor Distribution who provide a list of Canadian and US dealers. Bikes they import include Batavus and Koga-Miyata.
Often cycling-specific clothing is not necessary, is overpriced and/or is not meant for cold enough weather. A good first place to look for warm clothes that will work is your closet. If you do want to buy something, two sources of reasonably priced general-purpose outdoor clothing are Campmor and Sierra Trading Post. Consider also local gear stores and local thrift stores.
- Icebike web site. Also links to the icebike mailing list.
- Wikipedia Icebiking page. In case you are wondering what the point of this page is, given the existence of the Wikipedia page, Wikipedia forbids things like specific product recommendations, commercial links, etc.