Guide to Winter Biking

The winter months are best loved for their holidays and the return of the pumpkin spice latte, but for bicyclists, they might sadly signal that it’s time to put the bike away. Dropping temperatures, black ice, snow-packed roads – biking during winter is impossible, right? Not so fast! (No but seriously, slowing down is a big winter biking strategy.) With a few adjustments to your bike, your wardrobe and your riding technique, biking is still possible  come rain, sleet or snow. To help get you and your two-wheeler ready for frosty rides, Footprint has put together this handy winter biking reference with help from Sarah Ashman, store manager of Walt’s Bike Shop.

“Snow brings a whole new layer of obstacles on the road for cylists and motorists,” Ashman says. Make sure your bike is up to the challenge. Even before considering cute fuzzy hats to keep your head warm under that helmet or stressing about how to navigate icy pavement without injuring (or just embarrassing) yourself, the first thing on any bicyclist’s winter agenda is a bike check-up. A bike’s brakes and gears can lose affectiveness in inclement weather, and icy temperatures demand a well-lubricated bike chain. Ashman also suggests lowering the pressure of both rear and front tires for increased stability in snow, though to exactly what pressure depends on your individual tires.

Get your gears and brakes checked and make sure your chain is well-lubricated before winter riding. Photos: Tina Casagrand and Kristin Torres

At the end of this guide we’ve included information on a number of places to get your bike in top shape if you need help getting set up. And now, the tips:

In the winter months, less sun means less visibility. Mornings will be darker and night will seem to come sooner, meaning you’ll have a harder time sticking out to other vehicles than you did in the summer. While most bikes come with reflectors, they aren’t enough to maintain visibility during a dark morning or a snowfall. Get equipped with lights for both the rear and head of the bike to help stay visible in your own lane and to oncoming traffic. And though it might cramp your style, reflective clothing like a vest or jacket can offer an added sense of security and maybe even a bit of warmth. Speaking of which…

A sweaty ride might seem unthinkable during the winter months, but overdressing in warm clothes is common and can lead to an unpleasant ride. Combine wet clothes and cold weather and once you’re off the bike you’re even colder than before. While we know most bicyclists will wear to ride what they plan to wear for class or work and won’t be running out to buy a Lycra bodysuit anytime soon, a few considerations can keep you dry and reduce the chance that you’ll have to pull over and strip off a layer. And since many cyclists in Columbia are only biking short distances, especially students, less modification is needed.

– The extremities
This includes your head, feet and hands — especially the fingers. Wear a knit cap or insulated headband under a helmet to protect the ears from chill. As for the hands, Ashman suggests wearing a glove that will provide warmth while still allowing you to easily reach for brakes and gears. And if you find your feet lose heat easily and you don’t want to spring for a pair of insulated boots, Ashman offers this tip: wear plastic sandwich bags over your socks and in your shoes for a cheap wind barrier while riding. If you take care of them and are hygenic, you can re-use them multiple times.

– The core
The chest is especially important to keep warm in the winter months, and riding in wind increases its vulnerability. Ashman says if you make just one change to your commuting clothes, it should be to avoid cotton directly on the skin. “Cotton, when it gets wet, will stay wet while you’re in class,” Ashman says. Consider wearing a moisture-wicking layer like a tank top made of synthetic fibers under a shirt. She also advises wearing a windproof jacket.


– Embrace the helmet
There’s no getting around it–sometimes, helmets just don’t look cool. Bulky and often bulbous, they’re the bane of the cycling aesthetic. Still, riding in winter can be more dangerous than in any other season, making a helmet pretty imperative, even for short distances.

A helmet is doubly important in the winter when riding on slick and icy surfaces. Photos: Tina Casagrand and Kristin Torres

– Know thy brake
Braking suddenly can lead to skidding or even flipping over the front wheel without special precautions. Ashman says to help avoid accidents, don’t brake heavily on the front wheel and instead utilize your rear brake.

Braking on wet or icy surfaces won’t be as on point as when biking on dry surfaces, meaning it’ll take a longer time and distance for your bike to come to a stop. Though unexpected obstacles like a suddenly stopped car or a rogue squirrel won’t give you much time to react, visualize distance in your head to estimate how much room you have before knocking into something.

And lastly,

– Traction is your friend
The good news is you have control over the traction of your wheels. The bad news is you don’t have much control over anything else. Over the course of the winter months, you’ll encounter freshly fallen fluff, rain puddles and tightly packed snow. Your best defense is a pair of thick tires with deep ridges, though the rarely-seen studded tire is best suited for the elements. So what about that road bike with the thin, smooth wheels? Ashman says winter biking is still possible, especially considering most Columbia cyclists are biking relatively short distances, but even more emphasis is added on safe riding technique. This means cautious braking and making slow, controlled turns. And if you’re really worried about your grip-less tires, maybe zip ties can come to the rescue?

After a snowfall, the best scenario would be to ride on gritty snow, as it provides for more traction. Snow that hasn’t been plowed or that has been driven over a lot will create bumpy ridges that will take away some of that steering ability. In this case, it helps to keep your body weight equalized on your seat to keep the tires pressed into the ground — don’t lean or bounce side to side, especially when pedaling out of the saddle. Though biking ordinance calls for riding as far to the right as possible and at a safe distance, narrow paths created on the road when snow is plowed onto either side of the street make staying in the shoulder nearly impossible. Ashman says that a cyclist comfortable in their skills and abilities should take the road in this case, but only when sure surrounding motorists are very aware of your presence.

It boils down to this: make sure your bike is up to the challenge of gritty winter weather, dress accordingly and take it slow and steady out there.

To get your bike tuned in time for winter, check out these local resources:
Klunk Cycles and Repair 12 N. 2nd Street
Walt’s Bike Shop 1217 Rogers St. #A
MU’s Bike Resource Center
PedNet 501 Fay St. During certain times of the year, PedNet offers classes for those wanting to learn how to pedal safely and confidently around Columbia.


4 thoughts on “Guide to Winter Biking”

  1. This is super helpful. I definitely kept my bike in my room all winter last year, but I’m thinking about braving the cold in 2011, now that I know a little more about how to prepare. Also, that’s the only picture I’ve ever seen where I like my nose. Good job!

  2. This is fantastic!

    One thing to keep in mind with the zip tie trick: you can only put zip ties on your tire like that if you don’t have rim brakes (you can do it with coaster brakes, roller brakes, and disc brakes, etc). Since rim brakes depend on friction with the rim, having zip ties in between your rim and your brakes would essentially mean that you wouldn’t have brakes anymore, which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do and would probably damage both you and your bike. If you don’t know what kind of brakes you have, go here for a decent guide:

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