Bike commuting seems a great idea as long as the days are long and the weather is fine. In the dream, you roll into work breathing in the fresh outdoor air, bathed in the warmth of the early morning sun. But what about bike commuting in winter?
Like any type of cycling, it’s easier to bike commute in fair weather than in foul.
This article will help you to keep your bike commutes going through the colder months. It tells you how to stay safe, what to wear and what you need in terms of gear and maintenance.
Why Commuters Ride Their Bike In Cold Weather
There are a number of reasons why you should consider bike commuting through the winter. Below are some of them.
1. Maintain Fitness
One reason why many people cycle to work is to get themselves fitter. Even if you only cycle slowly to work, the amount of time you spend on the bike builds and then maintains your fitness.
Health authorities worldwide recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week to help fend off conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Skipping your winter commute forfeits this benefit unless you exercise elsewhere.
For fitness cyclists and racers, winter is prime time to get in “base miles”. That means as many slow miles as possible in readiness for the next season or warmer months. You can do this even if the future goal is only long summer rides at weekends.
2. More Leisure Time
If you bike commute regularly, you’ll be getting in useful amounts of exercise at a time when you’d be travelling to and from work anyway. By doing this, you still have weekends or other leisure time to do with as you please.
During winter, this is even more convenient, as you have fewer daylight hours to enjoy when you’re not working.
You may find it harder to push yourself to exercise during winter, but the need to get to work provides you with a compelling reason to jump on the bike and get some miles under your belt.
4. Quieter Cycle Paths & Trails
If you bike to work through the winter, it’s highly likely you’ll encounter fewer other cyclists using rural and suburban cycling infrastructure than in warmer months. Enjoy the extra space!
Once you enter a city, the amount of traffic may be denser than in warmer months. Fewer people are on vacation and many are in their cars. Now and in the future, however, we can expect more and more people to travel by bike.
While you may encounter more cyclists eventually than you do now on a commute, a major shift in the cycling demographic should gradually improve cycling facilities and safety. It should. Maybe you’ve seen this already?
5. Burn More Calories
If you manage to ride at your “summer speed” during winter, you’ll need to burn more calories to do it. During winter, air density gets thicker and your tires don’t roll as fast, meaning you’ll go slower unless you put up a fight ….
You need a bike computer installed before you can benefit from specific speed-related stuff.
As well, your body burns more calories when cold through processes called shivering and nonshivering thermogenesis. However, these processes only activate if you’re not generating enough body warmth or are underdressed. (Source: Cara Ocobock, biological anthropologist).
6. Core Temperature & Sweating
When you ride a bike in winter, it’s inherently easier to control your core body temperature than it is at the peak of summer. The risk of heat exhaustion no longer realistically exists and you’re unlikely to sweat as much.
If you keep your effort moderate and wear breathable clothes, you may arrive at work in a state that doesn’t oblige you to shower and change.
7. Environmental Reasons
The collision of COVID-19 with ongoing environmental issues has caused many more people to ride their bikes into work. New cycling infrastructure is appearing across the world. The popularity of cycling as a whole has exploded.
One reason to bike commute during winter is that the world’s problems don’t vanish with low temperatures. Unless you’re skeptical of the 100% scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, now is a good time to make permanent changes.
On your morning commute, at least, you’re quite likely to see the beautiful scenery that doesn’t look quite the same during other seasons.
The light and the air are crisp; frost dusts fields, fences and spider webs; mist is suspended over water; low light creates dramatic shadows; and the sky is colored by the red-orange glow of the rising sun.
Scenery that might even look mundane during other months is sometimes magically transformed in wintertime.
Video: Scenic Winter Bike Commute in Sweden
How To Ride Safely In Winter
One thing that puts people off of winter bike commutes is the greater risk of accidents. The roads are often cold or wet, making the riding surface more hazardous. How should you deal with that?
If you believe the road surface is slippery, do not lean into corners as you otherwise might. Stay as upright as you can on the bike so that the size of the contact patch between the tire and road is maximized.
Taking corners at speed on the outside edges of your tire treads is a recipe for falling off when roads are icy or wet (especially the former).
To stay upright on the bike, you may have to take a wider, straighter line through corners than you’d otherwise do. Pick your line early rather than making any sudden maneuvers that motorists or other road users may not expect.
Video: Cycling In Winter Without Slipping
Choosing & Using Tires (incl. Ice & Snow)
If you’re going to be riding on dicey road surfaces during winter, pick a “grippy” tire that gives you extra control on wet roads. These are not always the same as puncture-resistant tires, which are also handy in winter.
The tire you want is ideally one with strong puncture resistance, but not one with a tough rubber compound and casing that barely flexes. Commuters who ride on snow and ice a lot might think about installing studded tires.
Before embarking on a wet or frosty commute, try reducing the tire pressure by a few PSI (~10) to increase the size of the contact patch with the road. If you have a choice of bikes to commute on, one with fatter tires gives you extra traction.
Slowing Down & Braking Early
If you know the road surface is going to be hazardous to ride on, allow yourself more time to get to work. This doesn’t apply so much to rain, but ice or snow on the road warrants more care and attention.
Riding slowly blends well with staying upright on the bike. Keep as much rubber on the road as possible and allow yourself time to react to traffic.
If you have rim brakes on your bike, remember your stopping time and distance is also likely to be impaired when wet. That’s especially true with carbon wheel rims. Much like driving, you should cease braking before you turn corners.
Finding Quieter Routes
The same rule that applies on a regular bike commute is doubly true in adverse weather. Make use of bike paths or quieter roads to avoid busier traffic.
The only caveat here is that side roads in some conditions may be more treacherous than main roads, especially if there’s snow on the ground. You have to be ready to improvise and constantly survey the riding surface.
In some instances, you may prefer the slightly higher risk of slipping in an open area than mingling with heavy traffic on gritted or salted roads.
Avoid The Gutter!
At any time of the year, but particularly during bad spells of weather, the side of the road is where all the debris washes up. Where possible, assert your place in the road as a cyclist and don’t feel obliged to ride at the extreme edges.
In the snow, of course, all kinds of obstacles can be concealed. Riding in the gutter, you’re quite likely to encounter said obstacles. The gutter is also where you’ll most reliably find punctures.
Watch The Hills
Another potential issue is having to climb hills when your traction is reduced by a slippery road surface. The best course of action, assuming it might be possible, is to go the long way round on a flatter route.
With any luck, the most hazardous roads you’ll encounter in slippery conditions will have been gritted or salted. But some people commute in the early morning before roads have been made safe. Stick to flat surfaces or walk the hill if it’s dangerous.
Watch The Paintwork
When the road is wet, and sometimes if it’s only damp from mist or fog, painted road markings can become dangerously slippery. It’s best to avoid them altogether if possible: ride between them as if they were obstacles.
Of course, these markings are less treacherous if you’ve chosen your tires and tire pressure well. Even so, aim for the bare road where you have a choice.
What Clothes Should Commuters Wear?
The way you ride isn’t everything when it comes to winter bike commuting. You also need to dress suitably. Following are a few ideas for your winter cycling wardrobe.
Base Layer (Upper Body)
Starting close to the skin, you ideally need a base layer if the temperature is at or below 50°F or 10°C. This will be made from wicking materials like polyester, as is the case with the DEVOPS base layer, or Merino wool.
Merino wool smells less than polyester after or between uses, but it also costs more on average.
During milder 50°F to 60°F (10-15°C) temperatures, you may find a long-sleeved jersey works fine for you without any other layers. The exact threshold depends a little on the intensity of your ride and your circulation.
Long-sleeved jerseys like the Pearl Izumi Attack are intended for colder seasons and are quite likely to be fleece-lined. An alternative is a regular jersey with arm-warmers, but that’s only for very mild days.
For the casual cyclist, a number of loose-fitting options exist, often made from Merino wool like this one from Woolly Clothing. Merino wool makes the transition between sporty and laid-back well but offers the same breathable quality in either case.
Windproof & Waterproof Jackets
A waterproof jacket will always be windproof and, to a lesser extent, the opposite is usually true. Why would you buy one over the other?
- A windproof jacket like the Pearl Izumi AmFIB is likely to be more breathable than a waterproof jacket whilst also offering a degree of water resistance. It counters the wind chill effect created by cycling, which otherwise causes us to lose heat faster.
- A waterproof jacket gives the cyclist better protection against rainfall or heavy snow, often at the cost of some breathability. The Gore C7 Gore-Tex ShakeDry Stretch Jacket is both waterproof and highly breathable, though not cheap. This type of garment gives you the confidence to face all weathers.
Leg Warmers, Bib Tights & Trousers
Consider wearing leg warmers or bib tights once the temperature is at or below about 65°F (18°C). As the temperature approaches freezing point at 32°F, you might want to up the stakes with a pair of thermal bib tights.
Leg warmers like the Castelli Nano Flex 3G are good, as you can use them with regular cycling shorts in all but the coldest temperatures. This way, you don’t have to add greatly to your wardrobe.
Have some thermal bib tights on standby for the coldest days (near freezing).
If you’d rather wear casual clothes than look too cycling-orientated, you can opt for waterproof cycling trousers like the Endura SingleTrack Trouser II. If they’re waterproof, they’ll also be windproof, though not always very breathable.
There are various ways to combat the cold when it comes to feet:
- Winter cycling socks such as these Giro socks are normally made from a blend of natural and synthetic materials. While it’s tempting to buy the thickest sock you can, note that you can make your shoes too tight this way. This may affect your circulation and ultimately make your feet feel cold.
- Shoe covers (aka overshoes) are an effective way to supplement the warmth of your socks. A thermal shoe cover like the C5 Gore Windstopper makes a lot of difference when temperatures are around or below freezing (32°F).
- Winter cycling shoes/boots like the Fizik R5 Artica may help if you find your feet uncomfortable despite the above measures. Naturally, some cyclists are more sensitive to the cold than others or live in colder climes.
You can also try wrapping your socked feet in tin foil or a plastic bag before slipping your shoes on. You only need cover the front portion of the foot for this to make a useful difference.
When there is a decided chill in the air, neck warmers are a good idea. Also known as neck buffs, neck gaiters or neck tubes, they typically slip over your head and act like a scarf without any trailing material.
Hands – Gloves & Mittens
With winter cycling gloves, you’re clearly looking for warmth, but it’s also nice if they’re water resistant and breathable. If they’re impermeable, they’re probably not going to breathe. A good all-round option is the Castelli Spettacolo RoS gloves.
Many winter commuters prefer mittens/mitts to gloves, because adjacent fingers retain more heat than separated ones. Lobster mitts like the Pearl Izumi Ride Pro AMFIB Lobster Gloves are popular.
Bar mitts keep hands warm in extreme temps and often allow riders to wear thin gloves or no gloves at all. They shield your hands from wind chill, allowing them to rest in a microclimate of still air. An example is the Road Pogie Handlebar Mittens.
Video: Cycling With Bar Mitts
In addition to the clothes you wear and the way you ride, there are certain bike accessories that are essential to a winter commute.
If you’re bike commuting to and from work, chances are you’ll be riding in the dark or in poor light some of the time. You need bike lights to increase your own visibility and maybe to see if you ride dark roads. Here are some of the choices:
- Front light – youdon’t need many lumens of light to be seen, but you can see a long way yourself if many lumens are crammed into a relatively narrow beam. The NiteRider Lumina 1800 Dual Beam Front Bike Light gives you both options: see and be seen.
- Rear light – back lights don’t need to be as bright as front lights, generally, because they’re never lighting the way. You’ll be plenty visible with around 60 to 300 lumens. Go for a higher number if you want to be seen in daylight, too. The Lezyne Strip Drive Pro Bicycle Taillight is a good choice.
- Flashing rear light – even cheap rear lights nowadays are quite likely to have a flashing mode as well as a static mode. A flashing rear light increases your visibility. On the front, it’s less beneficial because it reduces a driver’s ability to gauge your distance (a particular problem at junctions).
- Garmin Varia + light – a unique product is the Garmin Varia RTL515, which acts not only as a tail-light but also a radar. Provided you ride with a compatible bike computer (Garmin Edge, Wahoo), it informs you when cars are approaching from behind. The light emits 60 lumens – enough to be seen.
An accessory you can’t really do without in winter, unless you don’t mind the classic mud stripe up your back, is fenders. They come in various forms to suit different bikes, largely depending on whether the bike frame has eyelets.
Here are a few options:
- Traditional full-length – this type of fender covers a large portion of the wheel, shielding the rider, the saddle (particularly relevant if it has a cut-out) and upper areas of the frame. The Commuter II Bluemels Fender Set comes from top manufacturer SKS and can be fitted using eyelets or frame clamps.
- Clip-on lightweight – road bikes don’t typically have eyelets, and road-bike riders often want a lightweight fender they can fit with minimal clearanceand no extra parts required. We can turn again to SKS for this type of product with the Raceblade Fender Set.
- Saddle rail type – ideal for road cyclists who don’t want to encumber their bike with substantial extras, this type of fender only protects the saddle and rider.The aptly named Ass Saver is probably the best-known example. It simply clips under the seat.
- MTB type – this type of fender is necessarily wide to correspond with mountain bike tires. It will stop water and snow in winter and mud or sand at any time. Portland Design Works makes front and rear fenders that are easy to install and do a good job of protecting both bike and rider.
Bike Maintenance For The Cold Winter Months
Like cycling in general, bike commuting in winter is more labor-intensive in terms of maintenance. There are certain tasks you must perform to keep your bike serviceable amongst all the grit, grime, sludge and rainwater.
Washing The Bike
One of the best things you can do for your bike after riding through rain or snow (or just on wet roads) is to give it a clean. Even a quick wash with a sponge and soapy water is worthwhile.
For gravity reasons, you usually wash a bike from top to bottom, but first spray the cassette and chain with degreaser and let that soak in while proceeding with the rest. Use a bucket of soapy water to wash the bike, eventually rinsing with clean water.
These are some of the tools you can use to clean and maintain a bike:
- Large sponge(s) – preferably a separate one for the drivetrain
- Claw brush – usually with a toothed jaw like this that enables you to clear debris between cassette sprockets
- Drivetrain brush – large brush for cleaning cassettes and chainrings
- Chain brush – a brush with 3-sided bristles for getting grime out of chain links
- Chain cleaner – run the chain through a plastic cleaner filled with brushes and degreaser(perhaps the best way to clean a chain without removing it)
- Degreaser – use a bio degreaser to clean drivetrain components
- Rag – always useful for drying down your bike after cleaning or rain
- Lubricant – probably best to apply a wet lube to your chain for winter riding
You can use thin strips of rag to clean a cassette on the bike by running them between the sprockets. Some people use regular WD40 as a degreaser and lubricant, though its official purpose is as a water dispersant.
If you have the time and inclination, the most thorough way to clean drivetrain components such as the chain and cassette (other parts if you wish) is to remove them from the bike and clean them in a bath of degreaser.
Video: 5-Minute Bike Wash
Winter riding will wear down your chain faster, unless you clean it obsessively. Dirt and grit between chain pins and bushings (or bearing surfaces) causes the chain to elongate. This elongation then wears down cassette sprockets and chainring teeth (and can increase the likelihood of the chain falling off).
A chain wear tool tells you when you must change a chain. Preferably, this is before it starts trashing your cassette. These tools vary in accuracy, often erring on the cautious side, so they’ll flag up a worn chain before it’s entirely worn.
The Park Tool CC-4 Chain Checker is one product you can rely on for accuracy. There are others, like the Shimano TL-CN42.
The amount of wear you should allow before replacing a chain varies according to its speed (i.e., the number of gears it serves):
- 6, 7 & 8-speed chains – 1% wear
- 9 & 10-speed chains – 0.75% wear
- 11 & 12-speed chains – 0.5% wear
These wear limits are normally marked on a chain wear tool, though their meaning is somewhat fudged if the tool is inaccurate.
Wheels & Tires
After riding in the wet, check your tires to make sure they don’t have any pieces of flint or other debris lodged in them. Wipe them down with a rag. Water on the road acts as a lubricant for sharp items, so punctures become more prevalent.
It’s quite common for an unnoticed piece of stone or other item in the tread to cause multiple slow punctures. Examine your tire very closely after an initial puncture to prevent this from happening.
Remove your wheels when convenient, too, so you can clean under the forks and around brakes. Quick-release skewers are a common cause of noise (clicking), so you should clean the dropouts and grease the QR contact points occasionally.
If your bike has rim brakes, wash the wheels’ brake tracks, also, to ensure they are free from grit after riding in bad weather.
The way you store a bike over winter also plays a part in its maintenance. Ideally, it needs to be kept in a shed, a garage or even indoors rather than outside. If it must be kept outside for a time, a breathable or ventilated cover is a good idea.
A bike will start to deteriorate if left exposed in the cold even for a few days. Either rain or condensation will cause chains and cables to rust, bolts and bearings to seize up, bike grease to congeal or break down, and tires to gradually degrade.
A comprehensive solution to winter bike storage is a dedicated lockable storage unit designed to keep bikes dry and secure.
Wrapping Up – Literally!
Bike commuting is great for your health and the environment, but it’s definitely more of a challenge during the winter. That challenge is easy to meet, however, as long as you wear the right attire and stay on top of bike maintenance.
We hope you found some of the advice here useful. Please feel free to leave a comment or share the article with friends.
More than anything, ride on through the winter and get into great shape for the warmer months, when you’ll be riding longer and faster.