Riding in the depths of winter through snow, ice, wind and sub-zero temperatures may seem intimidating if you haven’t tried it or if you’ve tried it with the wrong gear. But if you hang up your bike when the temperature drops, you’re missing out. Believe me there are more than enough gear options out there to help you stay warm and dry.
Not only that, but winter riding can be the most blissfully peaceful riding of the year. Just follow a few simple guidelines and you’ll have a whole new season of cycling opened up to you. (To clarify, we’re talking about in-town riding here: commuting/running errands/riding to get from one place to another.)
I’ve broken up my guidelines into main topics – Bike, Accessories, Clothing, and Technique. Once each of these parts is dialed in, you’ll be hopping on your bike with a chuckle while your neighbor puffs away scraping his windshield.
(Disclaimer! Every person is different when it comes to what they need to regulate their body temperature, and what their comfort level is in varying conditions. This article describes what I’ve found to be the best clothing and gear for my winter riding. You may find that your needs are a bit different than mine, and that is awesome. Use these tips as guidelines, not absolute laws.)
The Bike and Tires
Other than a few basic requirements, you don’t need a specific type of bike to ride in the winter. There are however a few things that make a bike ideal for winter riding:
- The bike should accommodate 35c or wider tires. Wider tires make maneuvering in the snow much easier and safer. This is the most important requirement of your bike. The next two points are nice to have, but not at all required.
- Disc brakes – not totally necessary, but they are more reliable in wet weather, and particularly in conditions that go from wet to freezing (like when you ride through slush and then it freezes).
- Internally-geared rear hub. Again, not required at all and most bikes don’t have them, but if you DO have one then you can get through most weather conditions trouble-free.
After you have a bike, you need to get some winter-compatible tires on it to complete the package. There are a few different ways to go here, depending on how much you want to spend and how much you want to get into winter riding. Tires are also a compromise – in the snow, wider tires are better for balance; when it’s dry, wider tires are slower. Colorado winters will give you plenty of snow AND dry, so you have a few decisions to make:
- At a very minimum you’ll need grippy tires that will perform well in the snow. These would be cyclocross tires or nubby mountain bike tires. A great option is the new Continental Top Contact Winter tire.
- Studded snow tires are just the thing for icy conditions. You’ll ride over ice like it’s nothing and will have no fear of any kind of winter conditions. The only downside of studded tires is that in dry conditions they wear down faster and are slower than non-studded tires. Given that it tends to snow and get icy and then melt relatively quickly in Colorado, you probably won’t want your studded tires on all winter long. Having an extra set of wheels makes the switch easy. If you can get yourself an extra set of wheels (or just an extra front wheel), you can have the best of both worlds.
- Finally, use a heavier tire or tube than you usually would. Although it’ll make your bike heavier, it will also decrease your chances of getting a flat. Avoiding flat tires in freezing weather is a major bonus.
Just a few key items here to keep your ride fun, safe, dry:
- Front Lights: In the winter when it gets dark early and there are patches of snow and ice on the ground, you need to have a front light that lets you SEE instead of just BE SEEN. I recommend 200 lumens or more to see the road or path ahead of you. Head lamps are great too, but at some point they can feel a little heavy.
- A good, bright, blinky rear light is important in all seasons – keeps you from getting hit from behind.
- A rack for carrying panniers is very helpful. Regulating your temperature in the winter is hard, and wearing a backpack makes it even harder.
- Fenders. Getting slush all over you sucks.
- Bell sounds dampen when wet, so get a hefty, substantial bell with a loud, long ding time. That way even if the sound is dampened by the rain or snow, it will still be audible to those around you.
What to put on your head and neck
- A mountain biking or commuting specific helmet is your best bet for two reasons. When temperatures drop low, you’ll want less ventilation. Road helmets tend to have lots of ventilation. Also, in extreme weather you need to be able to get ski goggles to wrap around the helmet and stay in place. Road helmets are more aero in the back and won’t hold a goggle strap well.
- For your eyes, I recommend three options: regular sunglasses during a non-precipitating day, sunglasses with clear lenses for the darker hours, and ski goggles for when it’s raining/snowing/snaining/sleeting/all of the above.
- For head warmth, ear warmers are the first line of defense. A little colder and a skull cap will do the trick.
- When it gets really really cold, you’ll want to cover up all exposed skin. In this case, layer up your ski goggles with a face mask. I have neoprene mouth/nose mask that I like.
- One of my favorite pieces of gear is a fleece neck warmer. This covers up the last bit of exposed skin, is easy to take on and off for temperature regulation, and can be pulled up as an impromptu face mask when you’re going down hill and don’t have a ski mask on.
Keeping your core warm
Number one most important piece of gear for your torso is the wind and waterproof jacket. You’ll need fewer layers if you can keep your heat in, which this piece will do nicely. Make sure it has velcro wrist cuffs that can tighten enough to keep the wind out. It also needs pit zippers to cool off when you’re working hard.
Under the jacket there a bunch of layering options. Which you choose is up to you and your own body temperature needs. I like merino wool for all my under layers – it’s warm and comfy and not itchy, and allows me to wear fewer layers than I’d need with synthetic materials. I follow the following levels of layering as it gets colder:
- (Note all of these layers are merino wool)
- Tshirt + long sleeved shirt
- Tshirt + light sweater
- Tshirt + long sleeve + sweater
- Tank top + tshirt + long sleeve + sweater
How to keep your hands from freezing and falling off
Again, everyone’s hands have different requirements to stay warm. Some people have toasty digits, others feel like they’re getting frostbite at 50 degrees. You’ll need to experiment with what works for you. For me, the top priority is that whatever I wear on them needs to be windproof/waterproof. After that, I use a combination of cycling gloves, then mittens, then mittens over gloves, then all this plus chemical hand warmers.
What to wear on your legs & feet
In my winter biking gear bin I have knickers, waterproof pants/knickers, wool ski socks and wool tights. Mix and match these and you’ll find several good combos that keep you warm in all weather. Pants that unzip to become knickers or long shorts are a great option for temperature regulation.
For my feet, I start with wool socks and cycling shoes with toe covers. As it gets colder I’ll put chemical toe warmers on top of my toes (because that’s where they get cold), and in wet weather I use overshoes. If it’s really cold? Full-on insulated snow boots do the trick. My pedals are Shimano clipless on one side and platform on the other so I have my options of what kind of shoes to use.
Tips & Technique
Just a few more tips to review and remember and you’re good to go:
- Pack enough for temperature changes. Temps can warm up or cool down quickly, so you’ll want to be prepared.
- Layers, layers, layers
- Take your speed down a notch. Go too fast in cold weather and you’ll sweat too much, get your clothes wet, get cold, and then never warm up for the rest of the ride.
- Stop and adjust as needed. Take the time to add and remove layers. You’ll enjoy your ride much, much more.
- Save room in your panniers for layers you’ll take off.
- Front brakes + ice = fall down. Use studded tires or lay off the front brakes.
- Note changes in weather before you ride so you can predict dangerous conditions. For example, if snow is melting in the afternoon and then temps drop down below freezing that night, there will likely be a lot of ice the following morning and you’ll need to be extra careful.
- Even in a town or places where cars are used to seeing cyclists, they won’t expect to see you in inclement weather.
That about wraps it up. The main take-away point? It IS possible to enjoy a winter ride, and enjoy it a lot! If you find you’re too cold or too this or that, examine your gear and see where you need to make changes. Stop in Full Cycle and we’ll be happy to help you piece together the gear you need to make your winter riding fun. Most importantly, enjoy the peace and beauty, and remember: There no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate gear.