The cold has hit in full force but the roads are starting to dry and Chicagoans are out winter biking. The Roll The Cold Bike Challenge starts next week. DNAinfo featured survival tips from Winter Warrior bikers just yesterday. The moss team is no stranger to winter biking … here are our tips for staying safe, warm, and on the road.
As long as there isn’t a frozen snow/ice bank on the side of the road in the bike lane, winter road riding is exhilarating. I stick to a couple of known routes to keep road conditions predictable. If its somewhat warm, and the wind is southerly, I’ll head towards Calumet. If its cold, likely the wind is north and I’ll pedal to Highland Park.
Proper gear for winter biking will let you enjoy the roads as if it was summer. Aside from, you know, the sun and warm air.
The most important thing for me is to keep my toes and fingers warm. Everything else takes care of itself after a few minutes of pedaling. Here’s what I use:
GEAR YOU NEED FOR WINTER BIKING
Base – Rapha’s Deep Winter Tights are essential. They are to be worn over your regular riding bib tights. If its really cold I wear them even when Im not riding. Walking around outside, sitting around the house. Whatever. These have become part of my regular winter wear.
Clip Shoes – The proper foot warming technique proved to be the biggest challenge. Shoe covers are stupid, so these winter road shoes from Specialized keep my feet protected from the harsh wind. They also look a little bit like the hightops I rocked in 1991, upside being they keep my socks free of melted snow and salt.
Jacket – Not to be a Rapha shill, but they do have some of the best stuff Ive worn. Including this winter jersey. You only need a thin base layer under it so the jacket can be snug.
Headgear – I typically wear a merino wool headband under my helmet. If it’s really cold I break out the balaclava. Ninja.
As for the bike itself, keep it as clean as possible. The road salt and dirt can gum up the gears and your chain. Take time right after the ride to clear off the salt before it can start eating away at your gears, chain and frame. A quick application of car wash soap (not dish soap) and brush down, then spritz with a hose or pump sprayer can save maintenance dollars and add years to a bike’s lifespan.
There are alternate tires you can use for winter to prevent skidding, but I try to simply stay off the road if the asphalt is unreasonably slick.
SUPPLEMENTS FOR A WINTER BIKING COMMUTE
Chris is our in-house champion bike commuter. He racks up the miles, rain or shine, all summer by zipping from just outside the Chicago city limits on the south up to our office in Lakeview. In winter, though, his choice to bike to work is a little more difficult … and a lot more weather dependent. He also chooses to stay off the road when its wet or slushy. His gear list adds one more element:
Bag – There are two options for this one: backpack or panniers. Matt’s around-town bike sports an Ortlieb Classic Back Roller pannier. Chris’s go-to bike doesn’t have a rack for panniers but he’s pretty darn tickled by his Chrome backpack (the Pawn) with its handy top extender, capacious pockets and fully welded waterproof lining. Matt sports a Mission messenger bag for his not attached to bike carrying needs.
Why would you choose one or the other? Road bikes have a shorter chain stay – the connection between the pedal gear and the back wheel – than touring bikes and upping your chance of kicking the pannier off its hooks with your heel (this is really annoying). Also, some people don’t like that putting weight on the back rack changes the way a bike handles. On the other hand, a backpack can serve as an insulator making it harder to cool down when you overheat – yes overheat – en route. Chris has plans to build a dedicated commuting bike some day soon (to supplement, not replace, his current cross bike) which will support a rack for panniers and plenty of gear.
FIVE TIPS FOR WINTER BIKE COMMUTING
Any time you go urban riding, be attentive and safe. For winter biking this means:
- Look out for ice and moisture
Check the forecast – don’t plan to ride when it is scheduled to snow (drive, walk or take public transit). You can also check twitter at #bikechi to see what your fellow winter biking enthusiasts think of the conditions.
Ride slower and be more cautious. Leave more time to avoid an ice patch or asphalt crater
- Watch for more potholes and debris
The streets are NOT cleaner in the winter and the road conditions will only deteriorate through the season.
Be extra alert for road debris (especially hidden in the slush)
Swap your summer tires out to for an all season tire – something wider, more robust, and with more traction
- Expect a mess
Even when it hasn’t snowed recently, the roads can be wet, grimy and slick. You won’t be able to avoid getting slimed when you bike in the winter so make sure your gear can keep up with the challenge.
Use a water proof backpack or panniers
Winter clothing – gloves, water proof jacket and pants (see Matt’s list above)
Sport fenders – they are more than a fashion statement at this time of year
- Expect not to be expected
Even the drivers who are used to cyclists in the summer probably won’t be expecting you in winter. Up your alertness level to compensate for shorter reaction times from the cars around you.
Be more attentive near traffic
- Less daylight = Less visibility
Remember that short winter day-length? It means you are more likely to be doing your winter biking in the dark. Make sure you are prepared to compensate for the darkness around you with brightness on you and your bike.
Wear high-vis / bright clothing
Always have your “BRIGHT” lights front and rear. Sun sets early and you never know when you get caught in the dark. Make sure they are always charged. Remember, your bike lights are not so you can see, but so you can be seen.
AND SOMETIMES IT IS JUST TOO COLD FOR WINTER BIKING…
Or is it? If it is too cold to bike outside, you can stay in and still rack up the miles. In that case you’ll need a water bottle and towel, your very own bike and one of two additional fun toys:
- Trainer – hook up the rear wheel – good for longer rides when you want to catch up on your TV shows. It keeps you steady and upright while you focus on pedaling forward: fast, slow or in intervals.
- Rollers – moving cylinders – need to pay attention but is good for bike handling. These rollers don’t do anything but spin under your wheels. They don’t brace you and they’re just about as slippery as they sound. But they are great for working on your balance and core strength … and an excellent training tool for riding a ruler straight line – good practice for aspiring racers.
If all else fails you can always use the winter for circuit training. For anyone who spends a lot of time on their bike through the year, its important to take a balanced approach to fitness (pun TOTALLY intended) and make sure that the whole body is strong, healthy and ready for spring.
Are you tempted by next week’s winter bike commute challenge? We’re considering it … depending on conditions. Let us know in the comments!