Ultimate Winter Cycling Guide

Depending on where you live, ‘winter’ can mean different things to different people – in New York, it means inches of snow and temperatures that plummet to below freezing for three months of the year. But even if you’re a casual winter cyclist and ride when you can (or feel like it) the more you ride the more you enjoy it. Being in condition for the new season means more enjoyable mileage the further down the road you get. And you don’t need to be a racer to have winter training plans or riding goals. Winter riding is all about base miles so that you can keep trim and ready for the harder training come Spring. So for now, don't worry about heart rates, power meters or targets, just get out and ride.

The other major part of winter riding is preparation: during the summer, throwing on a jersey and bib shorts and rolling out just after work seems as easy as filling a bidon. But when the nights are long and the mornings are frosty, motivating yourself to crawl out of bed and pull on several layers takes more strength. So make a commitment to the ride, check and embrace the weather, your kit and bike to be 100% correct the night before. And also, know the difference between a problem, and an excuse. Just think, are there really any barriers between you and the great outdoors? It is possible to ride in the snow and the dark if you have the right kit, equipment and preparation.

So to get you prepared, here are a few things to keep in mind when you're craving a ride in the winter wonderland.

Prep Your Ride

Check The Weather - I'm a weather channel enthusiast. I always keep an eye out for good weather days to plan kit and gear ahead of a ride. Check temperature, sunset, and wind. You want to be able to get a warmer ride in before it gets dark and keep in mind that winter winds make the temperature feel colder so you can better equip yourself and bike with this knowledge. If you have to ride a road bike, plan to ride routes that have been plowed, and give the roads some time to dry out in between snowfalls and rain. Fitness bikes, hybrids, and mountain bikes can all accept knobby studded tires and in many cases are already set to go for a winter ride no matter the weather. 

Tires - Riding through snow can get a bit tricky. The traditional tire dimensions of most road bikes, which tend to be quite skinny, do not cut it when the road is slick. Ride the widest tire that your bike can handle. Cyclocross bikes are a good alternative for slushy roads, as they are typically shod with wider tires. Although the difference might look insignificant, a wider tire substantially improves traction and control. The knobbier cyclocross tires help grip in snow, but for the deepest snow and ice, some riders swear by studded tires, which incorporate small metal studs in the tread.

Lights - Look for the brightest bike lights you can find, preferably those that cast a wide viewing angle. Rechargeable lighting systems work the best but are pricey. The less-expensive clip-on variety work well, too. Just keep the batteries fresh so they are at their brightest, and get the lights with the widest viewing angles and beams you can find.

Be Visible - Visibility is important for safety. It sounds like a basic idea but, on a snowy January afternoon, you might not realize how much you can fade into the whitewashed landscape. In general, I find that cars are much more respectful of keeping their distance in the winter months, but do all you can to help them see you even if it's not dark yet. Wearing reflective gear can help you stay noticeable on the road.

Fenders - Tires are guaranteed to throw slush, snow or rain up at you. Even if you're covered in Gore-Tex garments, the cold liquid will get heavy and start to pull heat away from your body. Fenders don't have to be extravagant, just basic enough to keep spray from hitting you. Front fenders should reach a couple of inches in front of and behind your fork. Rear fenders should either be full length or, if a clip-on variety is used, have the ability to angle up to compensate for less length. If you're riding in milder temperatures with rain, an Ass Saver can go a long way.

Panniers - If your bike commute is farther than a couple of miles, you're probably going to need to carry work clothes. There are 3 options for this: backpacks, messenger bags or panniers. For winter riding, I like to use a waterproof backpack. It offers a slim profile and a stable 2-strap configuration. A messenger bag has a single strap and, if not loaded carefully, can shift around and throw off your balance. This can be a nightmare when the ground is wet or snowy. Panniers are good but they do make your bike a little wider. This can be a concern when riding in winter because it's best to stay farther out from the curb then you would in the summer—which means that you are closer to cars than normal.

Winter Kit
Wool Is Your Friend - Good judgment goes a long way. Always remember that when you add wind chill, the “feels like” temperature can be much colder when riding than standing on your front porch. Staying dry is also crucial, so invest in a good quality wool socks and merino wool baselayersThe goal of a base layer is to keep you dry. Merino wool or any synthetic wicking fiber (such as polyester or nylon/spandex) works well. Cotton soaks up sweat and holds it next to your skin, making you feel cold, so avoid that.

Shell - For cold, dry conditions: I have found that a soft-shell jacket like Machine For Freedom's Day Break Wind Jacket makes the best outer layer. A soft shell keeps you warm and dry while allowing a little wind to penetrate—this helps to counter the heat your body produces. In milder conditions, you can get away with just a vest as an outer layer.

For cool, wet conditions: Riders in snowy and rainy areas such as the Pacific Northwest and Northeast require a good waterproof or water-resistant shell. Look for ample breathability and a longer cut in the back and arms so it won't ride up on you while cycling. Generous vents in the front and along the chest work best, but underarm zips work well, too. Most cycling rain shells come with 2-way zippers, which is a godsend on a bike. They allow you to zip open the jacket from the bottom while covering your arms and upper torso. This is a tremendous way to shed heat.

Tights A good pair of winter tights are essential if you are planning on cycling in cold weather. I love my MFF MVP bib tights in cooler temperatures from 45F+ but when it gets freezing, I have to pull out my thermal tights to keep my legs from cramping up in the cold. It's essential you keep your muscles warm as you don't want to injure yourself or fatigue too quickly.

Head CoverageYour head (along with your hands and feet) is prone to getting chilled and losing large amounts of body heat. It is also near impossible to warm up again just with physical activity. A wool cap (or helmet liner) worn under your helmet is sufficient for most days, with a balaclava or a wool buff carried just in case. Just make sure the cap you wear is thin enough to fit under your helmet. In rainy conditions, a cap with a visor helps to keep your forehead warm and water off your glasses. 

Gloves For milder areas where rain is a factor, wear waterproof gloves. Best are cycling gloves with grippy palms and fingers, since handlebars can get slippery when wet. Many companies make gloves suitable for cold-weather riding—don't get too hung up on the intended activity of the product. For instance, snowboarding gloves will keep you warm even if you are not snowboarding, but you must make sure you can still safely operate the shift and brake levers while keeping your extremities warm.

Shoes - The key to warm feet is to get some extra insulation into your footwear. Clipless bike shoes tend to fit small so all of your power can be transferred to the pedal stroke, but that limits the thickness of socks you can wear. A good rule of thumb is to go a half size bigger with your shoes. I wear a slightly oversized pair of shoes that I can use with a warm wool sock. I then slide on a pair of thermal waterproof/windproof booties over those. If you don't use clipless shoes and pedals, you can wear lightweight, waterproof hiking boots that accommodate thick socks.

Again, avoid cotton. Cotton socks just can't keep you warm when it gets wet, and you will get wet when riding in cold months (think road slush, rain, freezing rain or just the sweat produced from riding).

Eyewear - Also be aware of any uv light reflecting off snow, road salts, and sand that may impact your skin or eyes. Getting mud and grit in your eyes can be both painful and dangerous on a bike, and the chances of that happening are greatly increased in winter mud and rain. One way round the problem is to invest in some UV protective clear riding specs
Ride Safely

Be Predictable - As with your spring-through-fall rides, you should always ride predictably. Limit any sudden or erratic movements and use hand signals when turning or changing lanes. Remember to be as visible as possible.

Black Ice - In harsher conditions, watch out for areas with melted snow. Snow often melts in the sunlight but refreezes in lower temps or as the sun sets. These are likely places to find black ice, which, as with auto driving, is probably the single most dangerous aspect of riding a bike in below-freezing conditions. If you start sliding, just relax and go with it, you'll be wearing enough padding if you fall.

Road Conditions - In milder areas, you have less to worry about in the way of ice or road debris. But the same riding techniques apply: ride loosely and proactively, watching out for anything dangerous to your wheels and body. Ride as close to the curb as is safe, which due to road debris is not necessarily as close as is possible. Always pay attention and know what is around you at all times. 

Bike Maintenance

Clean Your Bike - Make sure to bring the bike indoors after a wet ride to let the water drain out. Trapped water can corrode frames, or freeze and burst the stays if not properly drained. This can even happen in unheated garages over the winter.

Winter is tough on a bikes exposed drivetrain. There is just too much sand, salt and debris on the road to keep your chain and derailleur free and working. Gears tend to get mucked up after only a week or so in my area. They can also accumulate slush as you ride, and when the temps drop to well below freezing that slush can start to freeze up when you are stopped at a light. Once that happens there is little to do but find a warm spot to let them defrost. Even in areas where the temperatures don't get below freezing, the winter months tend to bring on rain. Rain washes dirt and grime onto the road where your wheels will throw it into your bike's drivetrain.

Cleaning your bike is important, but if you are riding frequently and can’t get to it between rides, it isn’t absolutely necessary to clean it right away. However, keeping the bike clean will help prolong the life of the bike and the components, as well as make you more motivated to get back out for a ride. It is a good idea to clean the bike before use on an indoor trainer as well. Dirt and debris can easily be lodged inside the trainer and cause some unforeseen issues.
Other Tips

Hydrate and Eat - Remember to stay hydrated. This is just as important when it’s below freezing, and fatigue can often times sneak up on you. This includes bringing snacks along for the ride and staying ahead of fatigue. Food is key to your winter cycling comfort. Without sufficient food intake, your body doesn't have the right kind of fuel to produce heat or energy. In warmer climates, lack of food causes you to tire easily and lose power, but in cold conditions it can make staying warm next to impossible. Eat a meal or have an energy snack before you head out.

Skin Care - I wrote a whole post about Winter Cycling Skin Care you can read up on. Leaving any skin exposed can spell trouble, especially in frigid conditions. Frostbite is real, and it can set in pretty quickly. Be sure to moisturize, wear SPF, and cover up if it's freezing out.

Warm Up - A warm core is the best way to get out when you first start out on a ride. Before I get on my bike I do shoulder reaches, jumping jacks, and knee kicks and quad stretches to get my temperature and muscles warmed up. This helps me to fight that little voice saying "stay in, it's warm" and get going on my ride.

Regardless of the weather, you benefit greatly by riding a bike more. The exercise alone is an almost unimaginable reward. Instead of sedentary transport by car, the very act of going from place to place by bike gets your heart pumping, blood flowing and the calories burning, leaving you with a winter glow rather than a fade. At first, it might seem to be a daunting activity—bundling yourself up to ride through winter snow, ice, rain or even just cooler temperatures. But give it a chance... and you'll be ready to #OPTOUTSIDE all winter.

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