Bike commuting is great all year-round. Winter doesn’t mean you have to stop biking to work or for everyday needs. Bikes survive winter well with a little preparation and care, just like the person riding the bike.
First, the bike should be in good general riding condition, with a clean frame and drivetrain, true wheels, properly adjusted brakes and derailleurs, and good tires. Winter prep should include lubricating all moving parts and putting grease on areas prone to corrosion, such as the seat post. Brake cables and shift cables should be checked for corrosion and replaced if necessary. Sealed bearings must move smoothly; other bearings should be checked for cleanliness and greased if necessary.
Minnesota winter brings with it the double threat of salt and fine sand used to keep roads ice- free. Bike lubricants are vital in winter, as they decrease wear and reduce the effects of corrosion. Most bike lubes are either “dry” or “wet.” Dry refers to the condition of the chain and other components after the lubricant has been applied. Dry lubricants use wax compounds to provide the lubrication and protection to the moving parts. Wet lubricants use oil-based compounds to provide the same protection. Wet lubes work well in wet conditions, as they are more resistant to being washed off by water. Dry lubes are better at repelling dirt because the create a slippery, nonsticky surface on the moving parts. Dry lubricants, when applied, tend to float contaminants to the surface, which can then be wiped off with a cloth. Wet lubricants have the advantage of speed in that the lube can be applied, the excess wiped off, and the bike is ready to go. Dry lubricants should be applied, the excess wiped off and then the bike should be left for one or more hours to allow the liquid portion of the lubricant to evaporate, leaving only the dry lubricant. It is important to remember not to mix the use of dry and wet lubricants. When both are used, the oil interacts with the waxes to produce a sticky, gummy residue with no benefits for your bike. If you switch from one to the other, you need to thoroughly clean the components before using the new lubricant.
Tires are also important for winter riding. You want tires that will roll easily and also provide traction. If you’ll be riding in icy conditions, consider studded tires. Studded tires are available in various size ranges. These tires provide good traction on hard-packed snow and ice. Riding in heavy, wet snow is difficult regardless of tire style, just as it is for motor vehicles.
Since you’ll be riding your bike in cold temperatures, keeping the bike in a cold garage or unheated area is the right thing to do. Just as water condenses on a cold beverage can in the summer, your cold bike will attract moisture from the air when it is brought into a warm place. This moisture can condense on the inside of frame tubes and can start rusting the inside of a steel frame.
Once your bike is ready for winter, it’s time to outfit yourself for the elements. The key is to layer your clothing so that you can adjust to changing weather conditions. Often, the conditions can change significantly from your commute to work and your commute home. The other key component to clothing is to wick moisture away from you. As you pedal, you are generating a considerable amount of heat, and your body dissipates it through sweat. Having the evaporation of that sweat occur on fabrics around your body rather than directly on your skin will keep you comfortable and dry. Also, wet clothing next to your skin will chill you quickly when you stop the activity that is keeping you warm. Synthetic fabrics are good as a base layer, as they are very efficient at wicking moisture away. The next layers should have the capability to provide insulation and warmth even when wet. The outer layer should provide protection from wind, especially from the front of your body, while also allowing body moisture to pass through. If your perspiration can’t escape from your clothing, you will become wet and chilled and more susceptible to hypothermia.
Your face and head must be protected. The effect of wind while riding increases the threat of frostbite. Glasses to protect your eyes and protection for your ears and face are critical. A good helmet cover will make your summer bike helmet winter ready and will greatly reduce heat loss from your head and still allows for moisture evaporation as you ride. If you have a snowboard helmet, it can work to keep your head warm and protected. Remember to protect your eyes too. Sunglasses work fine except in low-light conditions, when clear lenses are appropriate. Frames that allow some air circulation around the lenses will keep condensation to a minimum. Ski goggles are also an option, especially in very cold conditions.
Your fingers and toes are very susceptible to frostbite, so keeping them warm and dry is essential. As the temperatures drop, consider wearing multiple gloves and mittens. You need to be able to operate the brakes and shifters depending on your bike, so try out the gloves to see that you can still control the bike while wearing them. Removable inner gloves or liners are useful, as they can be pulled out and will dry quickly during the day so they’re ready for the ride home.
As for your feet, you need to prevent the wind from penetrating your shoes and keep sloppy snow and road slush from soaking your feet. Often, this can be accomplished with shoe covers that cover the shoe as well as the lower portion of your pants. This keeps wind from coming in around the pant cuff. You can also purchase winter bike boots designed for cold-weather use. Two pairs of socks can help keep you feet warm; a thin inner sock wicks away the moisture while the outer sock provides some insulation. Wool socks as the outer layer are a good choice.
While riding, remember to stay hydrated. As important as it is to stay hydrated in the summer, it is equally important in the winter. You may have to keep your water bottle inside your jacket to keep it from freezing. Find shops or locations along your route where you can get inside and get something to drink. Think of these locations as safe harbors. Don’t be afraid to stop and warm along your route if you sense your face, fingers, or feet going from pain to numb. Warm the affected areas and change to dry socks or gloves if possible.
Dan Breva is the manager of the Freewheel Midtown Bike Center at the Midtown Exchange. He has bike commuted for more than 10 years.