The idea of biking through the winter can be a huge barrier for some people. There is ice, distracted drivers, the cold, and early darkness. If you are tempted with the idea of bike commuting through the winter this article is for you.
I recently posted a Winter Bike Commuting Basics podcast that I did with Luke from Perennial Cycle in Minneapolis. I think we did a great job breaking down safety, visibility, strategy, and gear, but I wanted to dig more into the basics.
Winter Biking – Understand Your Limits
The very first thing I ask anyone that is going to be biking through the winter, “do you have a cut-off?” This cut-off maybe ice, it may be temperature related, it is really dependant on the person.
If you aren’t sure, just begin. The right attitude, caution, and basic gear (you probably already have) are all you need. I would rather you go that way then spend a lot of money in new gear, studded tires, etc. just to learn that you don’t want to do it! Let your process evolve and ask a lot of questions as you get started!
Winter Biking – Start With What You Have
If you are an outdoorsy type of person, you probably have good gear to start with. I have some additional bike things I swap out but they are minimum and really based on whether you think you are going to be biking every single day. The only caveat to this is that you have the appropriate bike setup, which leads me to the next section. (The exclusion is if your only bike is a fancy road bike with slick, skinny, tires. I wouldn’t recommend starting with that!)
The Crappy Weather Bike Setup
This bike setup is what I recommend for ANYONE that wants a true everyday bicycle but most of it carries over to crappy weather. In my mind, this is the type of bike that you can just hop on to and not worry about what you are wearing, or what the day may evolve into.
Key ingredients (in my opinion) to a good every day / crappy weather bike:
- Good reliable lights to see with (not just to be seen)
- Flat pedals so you don’t need special shoes (read my article on that)
- Durable city biking tires
Now, let’s pretend your bike has ALL of those things? The only things you *may* need to buy are studded tires and Bar Mitts for your hands, but that’s only if you are going hardcore with your winter biking.
Here’s my personal bike setup for this winter:
- Bike – Tern HSD S8i, Fat Bike, or Urban Arrow Family
- Main Lights – Built into the bike that runs off the electric system
- Helmet Lights – Light & Motion Vis 360
- Tires – Schwalbe Marathon Winter Plus
- Pedals – Fyxation Mesa or Mesa HP pedals
- Fenders – Built into the bike but would use Planet Bike Hardcore or Cascadia Fenders if you don’t have any.
Winter Biking Clothing
I’m a big fan of commuting in normal clothes if your commute is less than 30 minutes, beyond 30 minutes I switch to spandex just so that I don’t end up a sweaty mess and have to change anyways.
As I mentioned, if you already go hiking or skiing in the winter then you probably have a lot of what you need. My overall recommendation is to have a wind/water layer on the outside, and layer layer layer. You’ll get warmer faster than you think so you need to be able to shed those layers. Also, here in Colorado, it may be freezing in the morning and 70º by the afternoon.
Here’s my clothing setup until about 15º:
- Shirt – Wool Tshirt (anything that wicks and doesn’t stink)
- Pants – flannel-lined stretchy jeans or fleece-lined hiking pants, add yoga pants for very cold days
- Socks – Wool socks – thickness depends on the cold
- Shoes – Vans MTE boots (somewhat waterproof), switch to snowboots for slushy days
- Jacket – LL Bean Down Sweater 3 in 1 Jacket
- More Jackets? I layer my upper body depending on the temperature – typically adding a wool hoodie, sometimes (rarely) a 2nd jacket under my LL Bean jacket
- Gloves are either work gloves I picked up at Costco after losing many pairs of fancy cycling ones or medium weight Pearl Izumi gloves paired with Barmitts (see below)
- Face – A merino wool buff
- Helmet – I use a Kali City Helmet down to about 15º due to the built-in visor, lack of vents at the front of the helmet, and basic ear covers they provide. Around 15º I swap to ski helmet and goggles.
Start slow, give yourself time and patience! If you are looking for more tips, listen to this podcast. If you are looking to bike through the winter with kids, read my article on our winter family biking setup.
Do you commute through the winter? Add your tips below.