Biking in the winter
For most of us who ride our bikes to commute, it’s no problem in the spring, summer and fall, when temperatures are balmy and the sun shines. When the thermometer drops and the daylight is abbreviated, though, many of us put the bike away and turn to the auto. But with a little planning and precaution, biking during the colder months can be rewarding, invigorating and can even help save a little money. Plus, you’ll look pretty tough on Winter Bike to Work Day.
No question, there are days when snow and ice make biking a challenge. But here in Colorado, our 300 days of annual sunshine usually result in clear roads most of the time. In fact, many commuters find that biking gets them to their destination faster than driving, especially in slow winter traffic. While winter riding requires more fluid and attentive riding, you don’t have to be a professional cyclist to handle winter conditions. There are a few things to be aware of, though.
First, equip your bike for the conditions for winter riding. It’s best to use an older bike in good working condition as the salt and sand on winter roads can affect your bicycle. You may want to consider winter tires with knobs for traction if you want to commute efficiently through snow. Deflating your tires a little bit gives you better traction on icy spots. Have your chain lubed weekly and your brake pads checked often. If you’re not sure if your bike is sufficiently equipped, stop by one of Boulder’s many bike shops to talk to a professional.
In addition, map out the best route to take; preferably the safest, not the shortest. In Boulder, we’re fortunate that the bike paths are cleared quickly — sometimes before the roads. In Boulder alone, there are more than 300 miles of dedicated bikeways. This includes on-street, contra-flow, designated routes, paved shoulders, and multi-use and soft surfaces. If a bike path goes in the direction of your destination, take it. If you have to go on major roads, keep your head up and ride defensively.
Next, plan your clothing. It’s best to layer, as you will warm up on the ride. The essentials are:
Wicking base layers, like silk or synthetics; no cotton, as it retains moisture and will leave you cold and clammy
A waterproof, windproof outer jacket (insulation is not necessary, you will generate plenty of warmth on the ride)
Waterproof shoes/boots with warm socks
Warm, but thin head covering that will fit under your helmet and protect your ears. If it is really cold, you might want a face mask
Remember to stay well lit — have a good front light and use a rear red flashing light on your bike, helmet or bag — if you ride early in the morning or later in the day. Using a light and rear reflector is the law, punishable by a fine. Wear brightly colored, reflective clothing if visibility is low.
You want cars to see you from a distance so that they have time to give you some room. When it is wet or icy, pump the brakes, ride more slowly, keep your weight stable and on the back wheel, and don’t lean into turns as much. Stay the course and keep pedaling; your bike wants to stay upright, and momentum will help it.
Follow the ruts created by cars, avoiding ridges which can deflect the front wheel. It is legal to ride in a general traffic lane when the bike lane is covered in snow, but be careful if you do.
Remember, be smart, be cautious, give yourself plenty of extra time and don’t get discouraged. In time, you will learn what does and doesn’t work for you. If you haven’t tried bike commuting in the winter before — to work, shop, or school — try riding on warmer days first. If you are not comfortable riding in the dark, consider riding on the weekend as you move about town.
The goal is to ride a little, and before you know it, you will get in the habit, which can save you money, help you to stay fit, and help reduce car trips around town. Finally, if you are in a car, thanks in advance for keeping an eye out for us on our bikes.
Rich Points is executive director of Community Cycles, a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the safe use of bicycles as an affordable, viable and sustainable means of transportation and personal enjoyment within our community. These winter biking tips originally appeared in the Camera on 1/18/09.