This is a series of posts aimed at the beginning winter rider. More seasoned riders may also pick up a few tips along the way. It contains tips and strategies for staying safe and warm when enjoying the outdoors during the most beautiful season…winter.
So you’re new to this bicycle commuting thing. You started riding in May when the weather was nice. Over the summer you increased the number of days commuting by bike, per week, from one or two days to five days a week. Congratulations! That’s a big accomplishment and it’s makes you feel amazing. You feel like you can now ride through anything. You enter the Fall months. It’s gets colder and wetter and less fun. But over time you figure it out. You’re still feeling good about it but you know winter is coming. You’d like to try riding through the winter, but how do you do it? To try and get more information you do an internet search for winter bicycling commuting tips. And a picture like this comes up:
Now take all of this with a grain of salt. Dressing for winter is a very individual task. The clothing and equipment that works varies from person to person. The money you can spend on clothing and equipment can be astronomical. Or you can use other outdoor gear you have laying around. I cringe at the picture you see above. I have been commuting in harsh winter conditions for many years and I can honestly say I have never, ever, looked like the picture above. I wore a balaclava (an item every list mentions) once…..I repeat….once on a bike commute and swore never to wear one again. I felt like I was suffocating inside the thing. My nose runs in cold weather and there was no easy way to to blow my nose with it on. It filled with my own snot….yuck! I wear a neck gaitor I can easily pull down to vent or take care of a runny nose. Balaclavas are not easy to get on and off if you are getting to warm.
My head runs very hot, even in sub-zero weather. If I wore a balaclava, ski goggles and a hood over it all, my head would be soaked with sweat by time I reached the top of the first hill.
Googles? I’ve worn them twice in blizzard conditions. I find it quite un-nerving the way they block my peripheral vision. Specially when riding in traffic. I felt like I was in a fishbowl. In the winter I rarely wear eye protection because of my hot head. I can fog any lens in any temp below 50F degrees. Yet, I have never frozen my eyeballs. Not even when I’ve been out in sub-zero temps for 10 or 12 hours during some winter ultra races. On rare occasions I will wear eye protection. Usually when there is sleet coming down. Or I’ll put them on for longer downhills if there is any type of precipitation falling from the sky. Also for winds over 30 mph (we get those a lot in the shoulder seasons living next to Lake Superior). I wear these:
These wrap around safety glasses offer as much protection as goggles without blocking any of my field of vision. And they only cost 7 bucks.
Another tip I’ve noticed on multiple winter cycling lists is: Don’t bring your bike inside where it’s warm. Keep it outside so that any ice or snow doesn’t melt. Bringing it back and forth between cold and warm air causes condensation inside your frame. My response is, “Yeah, so what”!! If that’s a problem then you should also add to the list: Never ride your bike in the rain. What happens when you ride in the rain? Water gets inside the frame. That’s a non-issue. Of course it helps if you have your steel frame properly treated with Frame Saver or some other rust inhibitor. But even if you don’t, it would take 15 or 20 years before a frame would fail due to damage from condensation.
If you never bring your bike inside, then you’re probably not cleaning it. The one single thing that will help your bike survive winter more then anything else is frequent cleanings. Any day that you ride in wet conditions, winter or summer, your bike needs to have the chain cleaned, dried and lubed. If you are using rim brakes, your rim sidewalls and the brake pads need to be cleaned as well. If you leave your bike outside and never clean it, components will start to work less and less efficient each day. In harsh winter conditions they will begin to not work at all. Derailleurs will fail to shift and brakes will not stop you. To properly take care of your bike in the winter, bring it inside.
Another one from those lists: Buy a beater for riding in the winter. This one can be good advise, but it’s not the only way to do it. A beater can be good for many reasons. If you lock up in a high theft area, or you have a short commute. If you live where winter is short.
I tried a beater for some years. The idea is not to expose your expensive summer bikes with expensive components to winter conditions. Many locales use salt and/or sand on the roads. This can destroy components. But guess what kind of components it destroys the quickest. Cheap stuff. I learned you can extend the life of components if you clean them properly. It takes a whole different level of commitment though. Of course my definition of beater and your definition of beater may be different. My beater was a 1987 Specialized Rock Hopper. An old mountain bike. After many years of winter riding, it is still in use. But I’ve replaced it with a different bike for winter.
I define the length of winter based on when the first snowfall happens and lasting until they clean the streets of all the sand and salt in the Spring. Where I live winter can start as early as the last week of October and stretch until the last week of April or first week of May. That means winter can be six months of the year in Northeastern Minnesota. I got tired of riding a beater daily for six months out of the year. I wanted to ride a bike that rode nicer then a beater. Over the years I learned to build up bikes with components and drivetrains that were impervious to the salt and grit. I ended up designing a bike and having it custom built specifically for use in the winter. When it was all done, my winter commuting bike became my most expensive bike I ride. The exact opposite of a beater.
This bike can run all winter without having to be cleaned thanks to an internally geared hub, a belt drive, disc brakes, sealed BB, sealed bearing headset and a corrosion resistant frame made from aircraft quality stainless steel tubing. Yes it’s over the top. And yes, I want to make sure I have a secure spot to lock it up wherever I go. But it’s an extreme example to show you that you have other options other than riding a beater around all winter.
Can you tell I’m not a fan of “lists”? I suggest you use the lists as a starting point. And then find out what works for you.