Biking in winter is something that just sort of happened for me. It was four years ago and we found a house in the Kenny neighborhood that we loved. The only problem is that the five-mile commute to my work on the northwest corner of Lake Calhoun would require a three-bus trip or walking a mile and taking two buses. With only one car and my wife having a much longer commute, I had to decide whether the house would be an option or not. Biking year round was something I figured
I could figure out.
It was something I learned to do and it is something I’ve come to love. It’s really not that different than most other winter outdoor activities, as you get to enjoy being outside, getting physical activity and conquering the conditions. Certainly there are a number of risks, but I’ve found that there are a few ways to mitigate much of the risk. In winter, there are risks whether you walk, bike, bus or drive.
For those thinking about biking in winter, or for those who are just curious, here are a few thoughts on how to do it. First off, the right way is what works for you.
The general rule of thumb for keeping upright is to not make sudden moves, not to turn on ice and be careful when dismounting on a slippery surface. The bigger the tire, the more stability but the more difficult it will be to cut through fresh snow. Studded tires, which I have used the last two winters, provide incredible traction on ice but will make you go slightly slower on dry pavement. I’ve biked both with and without studs and never fell; some people swear by studs while others think they’re unnecessary.
Fresh snow isn’t that hard to bike through, but packed down snow (typically a brown snow on streets) is essentially impossible to bike on. I’ve found that when side streets haven’t been plowed, it is better to take snow emergency routes or empty sidewalks. Biking through 5 or 6 inches of fresh, untouched snow is possible.
Stay visible, stay predictable and stay aware. I’ve found that people are usually pretty careful around bikers in winter, despite whether they think bikers should be on the roads in winter.
For visibility, I’ve seen people be invisible with no lights wearing dark colors to folks wearing safety vests and lit up like a Christmas tree. I have two very bright lights on the front, one for me to see the road and the other for being seen. I usually have two rear lights, one on my shoulder bag and the other on the seat post. I wear reflective bands around my legs so my moving legs catch and reflect car headlights.
The key to predictability is not darting in and out of the driving lane and gradually slowing down for stop lights or stop signs so drivers know your next move.
Awareness is also a critical component, as preventing a sticky situation is far better than being in one. Don’t have headphones in. Do look over your shoulders. Do look ahead to see if there’s black ice so you and cars don’t slide and collide. Pretty basic stuff, but worth repeating.
There’s a lot of ways to keep warm but it really is more about managing your body temperature. I dress to be cold for the first mile but warm the other four. I wear a lightweight, lined shell that breathes well and keeps the moisture out. I wear it in 40 to below 20 degrees. Under that I wear a fleece pullover and usually a long-sleeved bike jersey under that. A pair of thicker, less-restricting bike pants with wind-proof fronts keep my legs warm and dry no matter the condition.
I now have really warm winter boots but I used to bike in hiking boots with wool socks. On really cold days (-20 degrees), I used to end up using plastic bags over my toes to trap heat in, which seemed to work okay but not well. My insulated boots are a slim profile and have always kept my feet warm. As for the hands, my lobster gloves (a two finger + thumb glove) have worked very well for me, even on the coldest of days. As for the head, I wore a Smartwool thin hat under my bike helmet along with a wool neck warmer and a wind-proof face mask and ski goggles.
Others swear by old wool sweaters, long underwear and work pants. There’s not a right way, but most seem to agree to avoid cotton and other absorbent materials. You don’t want to have sweaty clothes if you pop a tire and are standing around in the frigid air. Lastly, if you find yourself cold, do some jumping jacks or bike up a hill. That will warm you up in no time.
Biking is a fun way to enjoy winter but it’s also a viable mode of transportation for many people. It is easier to bike in winter if you ease into it and base your clothes, route and gear based on your experience the day before. So get out there and see what it’s all about. It surprised me with how easy and enjoyable a winter bike ride can be.
Thatcher Imboden is a lifelong Southwest resident, now residing in Kenny. He is a development project manager with Southwest-based The Ackerberg Group and is president of the Uptown Association. He blogs at ouruptown.com.