Overcomplicating Winter Cycling: Why It’s Bad

Winter is nothing new. Citizen cyclists have been struggling through it since the beginning of bicycle culture. In many places, they still do.

One of my main focuses has always been on how Copenhagen has succeeded in increasing cycling levels by approaching the subject using mainstream marketing techniques. When subcultural groups start trying to indoctrinate and convert the public, it rarely ever succeeds.

With winter’s impending arrival, all manner of “how to cycle in the winter” guides are slapped up all over the place. Year after year, the subcultures put on their professor hats and look down their noses at the general population while they attempt to “teach” people how to be just like them. You know the type – real cyclists.

Now, let’s assume that a regular citizen wanted to ride a bike in the winter, as many do. What if they stumbled upon one of the guides with a long list of expensive and specialized clothes? What would this citizen – who, like the majority of the population, doesn’t want to be a member of a club or subculture – think about what they read?

What would it cost me – Joe Bicycle User – if I followed the “advice” on these websites? I did some quick searching online to find out some prices of specialized winter cycling gear. I didn’t spend an enormous amount of time on it, I must admit. So some of the items may be cheaper – or they might be more expensive because I didn’t discover “the coolest brands”.

If I don’t calculate my bike, I would be easily $1,100 out of pocket in order to be a real cyclist. Sure, there are many people who wish to take their hobby seriously and acquire all that gear. But let’s face it: most people do not. Most are just pondering riding their bike in the winter because they’ve gotten hooked riding it all year.

Imagine if the “avid bowlers” controlled the advocacy for bowling – a fine hobby that provides the bowler with some important exercise and social interaction – like cycling. What would people who just fancied some bowling be led to think?

A quick search reveals that bowling is cheaper than cycling, but at $574 for a ball, bags, shoes, and special hand wipes, it’s no picnic getting started.

Winter is nothing new. Citizen cyclists have been struggling through it since the beginning of bicycle culture. In many places, they still do. Bring on the winter. I don’t own any “cycling gear”. My winter wardrobe will serve me just fine. On a bike or on foot.

Mikael Colville-Andersen is an urban mobility expert and CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co. copenhagenize.eu


  • Roger Geller

    My favorite winter cycling gear? Warm wool clothing–whatever I’m normally wearing that day–and a $40 cycling poncho. It’s my favorite rain gear because it allows me to wear my normal jacket and I never have to put on rain pants!

  • JohnR

    Took off this morning for what will probably be my final century ride of 2016, Starting temp, -8°C. Cold enough to freeze my water bottles. By early afternoon the temp was a comfortable 5°C. My outfit: The same clothes I wore two days before when I shoveled snow from our latest storm. Plus my helmet.

  • c byron

    check out Frost Bike by Tom Babin

  • MarkB

    I don’t think I’ve put on any of the miniscule selection of cycling gear that I still own on a couple years. I have a few routines for winter riding:

    1. Attach fenders, F&R.
    2. Switch to more aggressive tires for ‘those mornings’. Get the studded ones out and close at hand.
    3. When the day’s highs drop below 50F, I get out the athletic tights that fit under my work clothes (my work area in winter averages 60F all day long). Below 40F, medium winter coat and heavier gloves (good for all temps below this). Below 30F, full layered headwear; I think about the insulated coveralls, wind conditions make that firm decision. Below 20F, the coveralls go ON, no question.

    Up to three inches of snow get the studded tires; until the roads are plowed, that’s my limit. (One weekend last January, we got a FOOT of snow in one weekend — everything shut down for a day, but the roads were plowed the next morning. Except MY street…..)

  • Todd

    Good article for flat relatively temperate locations. Where I live we get REAL winter – prolonged periods of -25C with periods of -30C to -40C. Winter cycling gear is not an optional extra. Special gloves, face and neck protection, thin insulating layers, thermal socks… all required to stave off frostbite. This isn’t vanity or the fetishization of cycling we’re talking about. It’s survival.

  • Pen

    Good points. So many articles are about expensive gear and bike fashion. I thought this article, “How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling” was a good start into the kind of thing you’re talking about: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/07/how-low-income-commuters-view-cycling/374390/

  • Donna

    A common theme I’ve noticed in winter cycling photos is that they don’t involve HILLS. I live in a town with steep hills that become extremely dangerous, either up or down, the minute there’s black ice or snow. It is not a healthy lifestyle move to slide under a truck or crash and break a leg. When the going gets icy, I WALK.

  • J Samson

    All that angry ranting and not a point to be found in this comment. Go for a bike ride, it can be calming and help ease the burdens that lead you to this incomprehensible anger.

  • David Kehoe

    Dress as you would normally if you had to go outside without an umbrella. That’s it. The rest are optional enhancements.

  • B Hamon

    Sorry, but so much of what I find in Momentum magazine’s pages anymore feels like a sort of reverse snobbery: We’re going to make cycling unhip and thereby reinvent the idea of hipness. Cycling clothes will become snarkily ironic — designer riding jeans with reflective stripes when you turn up one pantleg? Those plaid shirts now have reflective pipng in the weave. And that helmet with the fabric cover? Too chic. And expensive.
    It seems you’re trying to sell us on the idea of being a “real” urban cyclist by not looking like a “cyclist” — and by spending a ton of money on your advertisers in the process.
    I worry that by making cycling ironically “un-hip” (and thereby more “hip”), you are more sharply drawing the lines between those who ride in a “cool” way (because they can afford to live in cities and neighborhoods where it’s safe and chic to ride) and those who ride because they cannot drive (i.e., too poor, DUI, etc.)
    We do not all live in chic, expensive, clean cities with largely homogenous populations. I would love for Momentum to be among the vanguard in helping to change cycling culture for those who still cycling as the default of the drunk or poor and begin to really speak to and about underserved populations who could benefit from riding every day. The fashionista approach I too often find here has left a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Spivonious

    Winter in Copenhagen is not winter everywhere else. Without some specialized gear (face mask, gloves, tights) I would not be able to ride my 30 minute commute when the temperatures get below 40F. I also can’t just wear my normal walking outfit because it would be way too warm.

    I agree that fancy expensive gear is not needed, but “I don’t own any “cycling gear”” isn’t going to work in my area.

  • Pat Bibbins

    Really like your approach. I’ve definitely gravitated away from being a “real cyclist” in the winter. It’s just a hassle. Here’s what we advise for riding in the winter in our town. http://www.medfordbikes.org/winter.html

  • Wisailer

    When I commuted in Wisconsin the streets along my route were snow packed or iced for a few month and I needed studded tires. When the snow was fresh and over 4″ I took the bus – I’m not that strong rider. When it was less than 15F I had to wear ski goggles. In truth – the hardest part wasn’t dressing for the ride – but getting the layers off as fast as possible at my destination before i turned into a sweat bomb.

  • Al Brody

    Staying safe is the primary goal. Staying comfortable is how you stay safe with a touch of class. I use what I already have. I started wearing a ski/snowboard helmet when I rode through the winters back in the 1990s. I wear insulated industrial boots and ride on flat pedals because the ability to dab your foot when you need to is worth way more than the efficiency gained from clipless pedals. Pogies are a game changer for keeping hands warm. It doesn’t matter if they are your grandmother’s old muffs or inexpensive handlebar covers off of a snow-mobile but they do make a significant difference. Be safe and enjoy the ride.

  • Janet Fletcher

    YES! lights are where effort should be spent….and highly visible clothing…for your sake and those you share the road with – pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.

  • Payton Chung

    For someone who was born in Fort McMurray, Mr. Colville-Andersen has remarkably little empathy for those who live in places — like Alberta — with less clement weather than his adopted home of Copenhagen. Here in Washington, D.C., our *average* summer heat/humidity is worse than Copenhagen’s worst-ever, and much of the world’s population lives in tropical places that are even more hot & humid.

    When I cycled through Chicago winters, I found that I did need to purchase slightly different gear than what I already owned. Wind-proofing and water-proofing is much more important on the bike, and full-length coats are impractical.

  • Olav Torvund

    It is simple: I dress for winter, not for cycling in the winter. Warm, practical and wind-protecting clothes. And it is crucial to be visible when it is dark. Good lights and reflex are mandatory. And studded tyres on the bike. If I go for a longer ride, that’s another issue. Then I dress for cycling and the current weather, be it summer or winter.

  • KimG

    I consider myself a “citizen cyclist” – in fact, I’m what most people would call an avid cyclist (the word “crazy” has appeared in there from time to time). I ride everywhere; I haven’t owned a car in 8 years. I work as a bike mechanic and I teach beginner’s maintenance classes as well as riding skills clinics. I especially love helping people start using their bikes for everyday errands, for commuting to work, or just venturing out on pleasure rides. I love demystifying it for them.

    Some of my bikes are the upright European style that Mr Colville-Andersen likes, though I fear my riding attire would disappoint him, given that I do not wear skirts and high heels while I ride. (I don’t wear heels when I’m off the bike either.) Some of my bikes aren’t. The bikes and the clothing that I choose for any given ride vary considerably, based on several factors including the weather, how far I am going, whether I want to carry things with me, how fast I would like to go, and so forth.

    Now, an extension of the above, specific to winter riding: I live in Calgary. Winter riding here *does* require some specialized clothing and equipment if you don’t want to endanger yourself and/or reinforce other people’s view of cycling as scary and dangerous. You know what? Walking and driving in Calgary during the winter ALSO require a certain amount of forethought and careful choice of gear. This is because it is freaking bloody cold sometimes. Funny thing, actually – did you know winter is different in different places??! Isn’t that crazy? So no, the things that work in Copenhagen may not necessarily work in Calgary, even though they’re further north than we are.

    Going back to what I was saying about helping people get started cycling – attitudes like the one in this article don’t help that. People might read it, try to ride without making any changes from their summer setup, and it will be scary and they will not enjoy it, and they will give up. I know this because I have talked to hundreds of people about exactly that scenario!

    Knowledge is power. Choose the right tools for the job. Insert cliche phrase of your choice here.

    And Mr Colville-Andersen? Come on back to Calgary. We’ll go for a ride – me in my (not nearly $1000) semi-technical wardrobe, on my winterized bike with fenders and studded tires, and you in your regular winter clothes on the bicycle of your choice. I’m sure we’ll both make it to our destination. I think I will be warmer, drier, and in a better mood though.

  • Steve

    I do appreciate the minimalist idea – use what you have. It works pretty well.
    The marketing side of blogging is just like in your face advertising, and it does complicate the issue. Years ago I commuted in Goodwill/military surplus fashions. It works. I did break down and invest $200 in 2 “bike specific” (as in bought at the bike shop) pieces… Cannondale Morpheus jacket and pants. Mainly for the rainy cold stuff. Waterproof gloves and a warm hat from Marshalls, $35. This all keeps me dry and warm with standard layers I have or would buy regardless of riding or not. It’s been cold this year and I start at 5 am… lately it’s been teens and single digit temps. The snow isn’t much of a bother – like any form of “transportation” you slow down and pick your lines. My concern with commuting here is the ice we tend to have. It has slowed me down but not thrown me so far. Traffic is a huge concern – distracted drivers, the odd a-hole that believes they own the road and we cyclists (and pedestrians) belong on another planet. My “cycling” jacket is neony green/yellow. I have put some money into lights. Be seen or be squished is my thought. Fenders are essential. The bike I ride most is an old Diamond Back that’s turned out to be a great commuter and has served me well for 15 or so years.
    The tone of the article I do understand. I find it a bit dis-heartening that “true riders” won’t even cast a wave at the commuter. I shrug it off. I sit pretty upright on a funky looking bike in a very funky “kit”, not the norm in this area. I used to drive a Jeep Wrangler, we had the “Wrangler Wave”, and we all shared it whether you drove a basic or a highly modified model – we were part of something bigger.
    I feel that we cyclists – commuters, racers, fixxies, off roaders, etc. – are definitely part of something bigger and better for our communities, ourselves and our planet. Can’t we all just get along?

  • MarkB

    I’ve been doing it for 13 winters now; because we do get some snow, and the city has historically been spotty about removal, some weeks during winter have been spent on the bus. I am now in my third winter with studded tires — but deep snow doesn’t care.

    Special clothing? Other than the Shimano MT-33 hiker-style clipless shoes, I wear civvies for my commutes. Layers, varying according to temp/wind chill.

    I DO own some lycra shorts — wear them about 1x/year now. No jerseys, a couple wicking T’s.

    LIGHTS are 100x more important than wardrobe.

  • neil fairbrother

    “… have been struggling through it since the beginning of bicycle culture”… really says it all. Specialist gear might just make your winter riding enjoyable, not just a struggle.

    Although I’m far from certain I know what a “citizen cyclist” is.

  • Not a snarling roadie

    I think I’ve come back here for the last time. This magazine insists on an us versus them attitude, pitting cyclists against cyclists. The tone of too many articles is dripping with envy or hate at traditional roadies or cycling enthusiasts. It seems that only a certain kind of cyclist is approved of here on the pages of Momentum Magazine. Riding in the winter can be very difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous. It took me a while to ‘figure it out’ so that I could do it consistently and comfortably. Once I figured it out, I was eager to share what I learned with others. I accumulated winter riding over time. I don’t have a thousand bucks in it at all. If you saw me riding, I’m sure you would label me a traditional roadie. As a 6k plus mile per year rider, commuter, road and track racer, I look the part. I’m sure Mikael would not approve.

  • JamesBikesGreen

    The point is marketing. Most people in North America don’t have strong psychological associations with cycling. Complicating the task of biking simply makes it seem even stranger to the general public. It creates a divide between “normal” people and “cyclists.”

  • Jean

    “I’m not sure if you meant for this article to read as negatively as it did, but its “get off my lawn” attitude is very off-putting. Also, you’ve got some great points buried under that tone, but you lack empathy for other viewpoints.”
    +1. I bike 70% of all winter days in Calgary, Alberta where we get -15 to -25 degrees C temp. as the norm. I never bike in my dressy wool winter coats, just in an older 15-yr. old heavy Gortex longish jacket past my bum to keep warm. I scarcely doubt Copenhagen gets as cold as Alberta. Andersen is from this area. I don’t want to smell up my wool winter coats and have an expensive dry cleaning bill. Sure I agree, winter cycling doesn’t have to be expensive. I haven’t gotten stud winter bike tires yet but my partner loves his set. I absolutely must wear my lobster claw cycling mitts since I have Reynauld’s syndrome where my fingers over freeze at cold temp. No, I haven’t cycled with my $280.00 pile lined knee high leather winter boots….I don’t want to wear down the boot with my toe clips. Very warm winter boots for women that look stylish are…expensive. So it’s my old mountain biking shoes. With ordinary sock layers.

    So some minor clothing for winter cycling..and it’s fine. My dress pants are way too cold for Alberta’s winter cycling. And I wear $100.00 black jeans at work..don’t plan to wear down the seat of those pants. So far..they’ve held up for 4 years….because I DON’T cycle in them.

    • Lena

      I also live in Calgary and I agree wholeheartedly. He does sound rather patronizing to anyone who wishes to dress even practically for the weather. While I’m not as hardy as you and don’t go out when it’s lower than -16C, I can’t imagine wearing the clothing that man is wearing in the photo for a commute. It may be ok if you are going less than 5, maybe even 10km (in fact I have worn something similar to go shopping before), but my bike commute is about 20 km each way, 10 if I can catch the train. I have seen office workers walking around downtown dressed more warmly than that!

      Anyway, I think the point he was trying to make, and which is getting lost in translation, is: You don’t have to dress to BIKE, per se, but you have to dress for the WEATHER – and yes, sometimes that does mean buying gear. When it gets to a certain temperature nobody cares if you’re wearing a fancy trenchcoat or your nice wool gloves. I made that mistake at -16 and I was sitting in class shivering for 20 minutes barely able to write from the cold. YES winter gear makes a difference. BUT dressing to go bike in a cold winter day does not have to be any different from dressing up to shovel your driveway, or go out skiing or skating. Just a note to anyone who has read those cycle blogs and gotten intimidated.

      As for other things like tires, I have used both fat studs and normal tires, and yes the snow tires aren’t necessary, albeit they do illicit some confidence. But all you really need is to be careful and be confident in yourself!

  • 1plaiche2

    it’s way overhyped. It might be wise to include some practical tips on leveraging a handy item form our existing wardrobe (for example my snowboarding shell and even pants for extreme days) are long since bought and paid for and and provide versatile additions to a standard winter wardrobe).

    Anyway, waterproof gloves, some sort of windbreaking waterpoof shell, and the rest is mainly fashion. And even the worst fails learning what works are easy to laugh at (through chattering teeth of course)…as long as your digits are not yet numb :-/

    Most importantly #rideon …whatever your wearing.

  • Whitney

    I got some “gear” at Goodwill, including a Gore-Tex coat with ventilation zippers! Marshall’s also had biking pants and gloves by Pearl Izumi. However, so far, I’m ok adding an extra spandexy layer of pants I found at Goodwill. I will probably go back to Marshall’s for the gloves.

  • Amy Lavender Harris

    I began winter riding last year after a decade of three-season commuting. One of the main reasons I didn’t start winter riding earlier was because almost every article / forum discussion on winter riding emphasized expensive gear, special tires, extra maintenance, etc.

    I was surprised and delighted last winter to discover that almost none of the gear described as required (it’s rarely “recommended”) is at all necessary. Sure — over the winter you’ll learn which gloves / mitts work better, and how to layer, and whether you need tights (maybe an easier wardrobe decision for women like me, who winter ride in skirts). But there’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars on specialized gear. Last year I bought new gloves to replace the cheap ones whose lining pulled out when my hands got sweaty. Total investment: $15. This year my total investment has been a bright fuchsia jacket a size too large (makes movement and layering easier) from Value Village, on sale for $7. Last year I was perfectly comfortable riding, and this year I’m hoping for the same. I live in Toronto, Canada, and have a 12 km X 2 commute that has me riding home at 10 pm.

    Colville-Anderson makes valid points in this article — not because expensive gear is a bad thing for those who need / prefer / can afford it, but because an excessive emphasis *only* on expensive gear dissuades regular commuters like me from winter riding.

  • Genessa

    I’ve been riding all year long for 3 years now and have yet to purchase “bike specific” gear. I have warm clothing, warm waterproof boots (the most important of all winter bike gear), lights – etc. I wear what ever I am wearing to go where I need to go, I may invest in a nice pair of leg warmers this year so I can wear skirts more often but really you just need to dress for the weather and go. It’s more important to make sure you ride more visably as drivers are not expecting cyclists in the winter compared to summer and that is the biggest thing – being an assertive winter cyclist.
    I have always been someone who fights the “you need special clothing to cycle” BS and winter is no exception.

  • Patrick

    Real bowlers have at least three balls. Just like “real cyclists” and their stable of bikes. And just like real cyclists, they’d rather have the lanes all to themselves- Joe Public has no regard for the history and etiquette of the “sport”.

  • Vic

    I’m an Ironman athlete and ride and train right through winter in New England. Cycling articles way over complicate winter preparation to the point where I think I can’t get out there…and I already have ALL the gear possible. I ride 75 to 100 miles if I can see some black top. I can only imagine poor Joe or Jane Commuter reading some of this stuff and calling it quits. Let’s not over complicate the thing: dress warm and ride safely.

  • Phillip Merritt

    I would have to agree with Ray whole heartedly. Last year was my first full winter of commuting. I started in an old “track” suit with sweaters underneath and it worked, but it was like riding in a parachute-which in the Chicagoland area is not a good thing. As I went through the winter I was able to put together some kit with the help of riders and friends from the local bike shop. Some of the gear was bike specific, some made for running and some neither (Running tights from Walmart, gloves from the local outdoor/hunting store, beanie cap from the thrift store, etc.). It did not cost a whole lot, maybe $400? I have been telling my friends starting out that there is no bad weather, just poor clothing choices. I do tell them that I wear more bike specific clothing in the winter. It is not necessary, but it is more comfortable. Where in the summer I’ll wear shorts and a loose shirt, in the winter I’ll wear full length bib tights (Spent $129-my most expensive bike only clothing purchase) and a winter liner/jersey under a Dick’s sporting goods brand running jacket. The clothes keep my body heat in and don’t cause the parachute effect I mentioned before. Necessary? No. Do I ride more since I am dressed appropriately for windy cold conditions? Yes.

  • Ray Brown

    I’m not sure if you meant for this article to read as negatively as it did, but its “get off my lawn” attitude is very off-putting. Also, you’ve got some great points buried under that tone, but you lack empathy for other viewpoints.

    I started cycling a few years ago, and didn’t have much winter gear at all when I first decided to bike year round. Just as you suggest doing, I used my winter wardrobe, and it did indeed get me through the winter.

    However, I was pretty miserable on many of my commutes – my wardrobe wasn’t really built to be out in the freezing, slushy snow during my commute, let alone on longer recreational winter rides. I searched the web for tips, and yeah – a lot of the winter riding guides out there were elitist and out of touch. But there are also great guides out there, and I used their advice to invest in a few key items (like subzero rated gloves) and to improve my comfort during the harsh winter months.

    Maybe this makes me less of an average joe, since I’ve decided not to show up to work dripping wet and frozen to the bone in my crappy cotton clothes. But I’d like to think that the average person would be interested in investing a small amount of money, time, or effort into making their winter commutes a bit less miserable. The photograph you’ve chosen to attach to this article shows a man with no ear, face, or hand protection. Sure, he’s going places, but I can’t imagine he’s feeling very good about it! Spending $10 at a thrift store could go a long way for this fellow.

    You should also be reminded that the money that I’ve spent on my winter riding gear pales in comparison to the amount of money that most of my US neighbors spend on their winter riding – cars, SUVs, and trucks cost a considerable amount more than my gloves, coat, and boots. I’ve basically paid for the superhuman ability to withstand the brutal winter elements, while still harnessing my body as an engine that gets me wherever I need to go. That’s incredible, and I consider that worth the investment.

    It took me a couple of years to get to this point, but I wouldn’t consider myself an elitist bike snob. I volunteer at a co-op bike shop, and I give people my humble advice on how to get comfortable with the concept of winter riding. I stress that buying expensive gear isn’t the only option, but I also know that it helps. I personally tend to wait until spring to buy gear at steep discounts, knowing that I’ll use it next year. I also look for gear at thrift stores and yard sales. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, and it seems a bit masochistic to suggest that people suffer through winter rides with whatever they’ve got, no matter how good or bad it is. That almost seems as objectionable as the “real cyclist” guides you so bitterly oppose!

  • Andrew Boone

    But some people DO want to know what better quality clothing is available to make cycling in cold temperatures more comfortable. People who aren’t interested in that don’t have to read those articles.

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