Winter Riding Guide: Tips for the Central-Northeast

Tips to keep you biking through cold and snowy weather.

If you live in the Upper Midwest or the Northeast, sleet, slush, snow and ice are just around the corner, so maybe you’re thinking about mothballing your bike for the next few months.

Instead, Gin Kilgore suggests giving cold-weather biking a spin. She helped found Bike Winter, a Chicago-based grassroots organization that promotes all-season cycling, with offshoots in St. Louis, MI, and in Milwaukee and Madison, WI. “Winter biking helps you stay active and in the sunshine all year, which is so good for the body and mind,” Kilgore said. “And it sure beats shivering at the bus stop.”

If you normally get around on a European-style city bike, your vehicle is probably well-equipped for inclement weather; otherwise it may be time to winterize. Mark Beaver, co-owner of Cyclesmith bike shop in Halifax, NS, has a few suggestions for accessories to keep your bike out of the basement. “Halifax winters are, in a word, changeable,” he said. “We get storms that start as snow, which turns into rain and then freezes into ice; so you have to be prepared for anything.”

To keep the cold and wet off your feet, back and bike, Beaver recommends full fenders with mudflaps. A chainguard is especially helpful for protecting your clothes this time of year.

Less daylight means you’ll be riding in the dark more often, so a white headlight and a red rear blinkie are essential. Assuming your city does a decent job of plowing after snowstorms, whatever tires you normally use should work fine. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of riding on snow, consider switching to wider tires with a knobby tread.

How you dress is at least as important as what you ride. “You’re not going to have any fun if you’re cold,” said Beaver. “But a lot of items the active person may already own are good for winter cycling.” He recommends investing in a waterproof, breathable jacket and wearing several thin layers on your upper and lower body that you can put on and take off as temperatures fluctuate.

Gin Kilgore likes to layer with silk long underwear tops and bottoms. “They’re warm, lightweight, wicking and not prone to being stinky,” she said. Polypropylene and merino wool undergarments are also great. It’s important to pay special attention to keeping your extremities warm. Keep your hands toasty with ski gloves or mittens and wear a wool or fleece hat or balaclava under your helmet. The Power Cap, a trim, black fleece cycling cap with earflaps by Louis Garneau, is a popular choice.

As for feet, Kilgore recommends buying waterproof, windproof boots one to one-and-a-half sizes too big so that you’ll have plenty of room for thick socks and toe wiggling. Or try NEOS, warm, waterproof overshoes that you can wear over fancy footwear.

If your residential street isn’t plowed, walk your bike to the nearest major street. In the saddle, remember to ride a bit slower than usual to maintain control in wet conditions, and stay seated for maximum traction on snow or ice. If you live in a town like Minneapolis where off-street commuting paths are maintained during the winter, try using these trails as a traffic-free alternative. And if the weather gets to be too much for you, don’t hesitate to put your bike on a bus or train for a well-earned ride home.

Since precipitation and road salt can wreak havoc on bicycles, it’s important that your bike be cleaned and lubricated on a regular basis (see our winter maintenance tips on p. 29). Consider attending a winter maintenance clinic at a nonprofit community bike shop. Otherwise, this is a great time to get friendly with the mechanics at your local for-profit store.

One of the best things about cold-weather biking is “winter spirit,” the heightened sense of camaraderie you’ll have with other bicyclists who choose to fight cabin fever and celebrate the season. And while winter cycling might be challenging at first, Kilgore promises it gets easier and more fun with experience. “Get tips from lots of other people, check the websites and embrace the learning curve,” she advised. “It might take some time, but you’ll figure it out.”

Bright Ideas for Fashionistas

Staying cozy on a bike doesn’t have to mean bulky clothes or head-to-toe performance outerwear. Dottie Brackett, who blogs at Let’s Go Ride a Bike, offers the following ideas for a “sleek and streamlined” winter cycling look for women: Layer tights over warm wool leggings and under your favorite skirt or dress. Wool socks and chemical toe warmers allow you to wear your favorite fashionable boots, even if they’re not insulated. Top it off with a thick sweater, a double-breasted wool jacket and a stylish scarf and you’ve got a smart, practical outfit for pedaling.

4 Comments

  • Tom

    Sorry, guys…but you should really differentiate between winter commuting in a city – and winter commuting on an island, which is where I live.

    In most cities, the snow on the streets is gone within an hour two after it falls. On an island, we can wait an entire day to see a plow, and all they do is push the snow onto the bike lanes and shoulders of the roads we would normally ride to work, Then, for the next several weeks, there’s barely enough room for two lanes of bi-directional traffic to fit on the parts of the roads that are clear.

    I am convinced that I could ride straight through the winter by putting on a hat and wearing an extra layer of underwear, but the logistics of winter riding when you don’t live in a big city are not quite as cut-and-dry as so many of these articles would have people believe.

    Please be mindful that you might be convincing people to ride in the winter when the conditions in their specific neck of the woods make it really unsafe!

  • Drew

    If conditions are that extreme, it’s probably best to switch to cross country skis. Or a car or 4×4.

  • Govannon Thunorwulf

    Unlike Ed, I have public transportation in this part of Maine. Just don’t depend on it, because it is very unpredictable. I was going to comment on the tires bit as well. I ride with studded tires. I rode last winter, even when we had 97 inches of snow in one month.

  • Ed from NH

    >And if the weather gets to be too much for you, don’t hesitate to put your bike on a bus >or train for a well-earned ride home.

    I always laugh when I hear this type of advice. Most of the country, my part of it included, has no access at all to public transportation. None. At. All. If the weather turns, or it’s too cold or windy, just keep riding. A warm shower at the end of the day works wonders!

    >Assuming your city does a decent job of plowing after snowstorms, whatever tires you >normally use should work fine.

    Black ice is a common occurance in my part of New Hampshire — using studded tires is the only way to stay upright.

Momentum Mag Shop

A curated shop with a distinctive mix of gear & clothing worthy of the city rider

Shop Now