The challenges of winter biking can be considered in four categories: the six U's of winter biking. (Two are double-u's)
- Keeping warm is not very different from staying warm doing other aerobic outdoor activities.
- Keeping your bike working: Salt wreaks havoc. Fenders and a serious mudflap help a lot.
- Keeping upright: Studded tires make ice much less treacherous.
- Staying unhurt: Use good lights, and wear visible clothes, and wear a helmet.
Winter Riding Tips
Cycling at any time of year involves traveling fast enough that wind affects perceived temperature. In warm weather, sweat and wind creates a cooling affect to avoid heat related problems. In winter however, your body has no natural defenses to staying warm when cold air is passing by. Winter biking generally involves riding 10-30 miles per hour, so between the pocket of warm air around your body and the perceived windchill on exposed skin, body heat can be quickly lost.
Dressing for the correct temperature becomes a game for winter biking, although not terribly difficult. Too many layers, and you will be sweating profusely; too few layers, and you will need to pedal harder and faster to keep warm. Try as best as you can to preserve body heat without significantly inhibiting your riding. You can also add to your own heat with electrical and chemical options.
If temperatures are below freezing, keeping all skin covered becomes very important for comfort. Hands, feet, ears, and face tend to feel coldest, so these areas are very important to cover.
- Hands: Water resistant gloves work well in warmer winter weather, but insulated mittens are best for cold. Many options help with managing bike parts such as shifting and braking, which include:
- Full mittens with all 4 fingers together in one pocket. The popular "Sheep-skin mitts" are of this form and very warm. Unfortunately, they don't wear very well. Consider the full waterproof mittens that motorcyclists use, with thin summer gloves inside. Use of gears and particularly brakes may be impaired (but maybe not that you'd notice).
- Lobster mitts with pockets for pinky/ring, middle/index, and thumb. They will not help you reach the gears very much, they're slightly less warm than full mittens and have more seams to split
- Handle-bar Muffs or Pogies are insulated covers that cover the hands and controls. Regular thin gloves inside allow you to operate the gears and brakes normally.
- For more on keeping hands warm, see Winter biking: Hands.
- Feet: Keeping feet warm starts with insulative socks. Thick winter socks made of wool or synthetic material work well, but don't overstuff your shoes as this can inhibit circulation. Footwear options include:
- Neoprene booties which cover a cycling shoe but still allow cleated clipless pedals
- Regular boots on platform pedals, possibly with a Power Strap [Picture requested]
- Winter cycling shoes which are insulated but often expensive and hard to find at over 200 USD.
- There are a few electrical and chemical foot warming options such as rechargeable battery powered footwarmers (e.g. Hotronics, $200) and iron footwarmers (single use packs that stick to the footbed, ~$5 a pair).
- Thin hats that fit under a helmet and cover your ears are great around 15F and warmer.
- Winter hats. Not an adequate alternative to a helmet, but they do provide some impact protection
- Headbands and ear-warmers if the top of your head isn't seriously affected but your ears burn from cold
- Full helmets such as for skiing, which sometimes have vents that can be opened and closed as needed while you ride
- Helmet covers are windproof and negate the ventilation holes of a helmet by keeping the warm air in.
- Face: Keeping your face warm can be done with:
- A scarf covering the neck and mouth but not the nose. This stops your lips getting chapped and largely defeats the cold. Only prone to getting snotty if you have a cold already. Only scary to passers-by if that's what you want.
- Faced balaclava head covering - Special balaclavas that are thin on top and thicker below are made for use with helmets.
- Neoprene face masks are very cheap and functional, although rough on a face for long periods of time. Hooded types that fits easily under a helmet stays in place better than the kind that just wraps around the lower half of your head.
- Vaseline protects skin but requires cleaning off, so this is a good solution for recreational rides but not ideal for commuting to the office.
- Full-face helmets offer some wind protection in the front but may inhibit heavy breathing
- Ski goggles can protect your upper face from the cold, and are designed and treated to avoid fogging, although use with a balaclava often still fogs the lenses of many types of goggles. For riding at night, clear lenses are best.
- Inhaling extremely cold air may be harmful and contribute to asthma. A heat-exchanging balaclava can help. The Talus Cold Avenger is excellent for allowing uninhited breathing when working out hard, but only warms incoming air moderately. The psolar mask does more to warm incoming air, but is not quite as good at allowing fast airflow. Psolar is not to be confused with Polar Wrap, whose products restrict breathing more and are not generally suitable for atheletic activity. (These evaluations are based on reports on the icebike mailing list and a Wall Street Journal Article, "A Breath of Warm Air on a Cold Day", Feb. 16, 2010, by Laura Johannes
- Beards tend to accumulate ice, but if the hair is longer than about a half-inch, it tends to still insulate the skin underneath acting as a wind guard.
Other areas that tend to get cold next are neck, knees, elbows, arms, and crotch.
- Necks can be covered by full collar clothing, neck warmers, or balaclavas.
- Knees can stay warm with cycling knee warmers, insulated long johns, or pants
- Elbows and are similar to knees, and can be covered with cycling arm warmers. Arms in general can be covered with long sleeve shirts, winter cycling jerseys, and jackets.
- Crotches (especially for men) get cold with extended riding in cold weather from air funneling to this area. It is difficult to wear more layers here since your legs will have a harder time pedaling. Makeshift solutions include a square of fleece, windproof underwear, and specialty items such as "The Hand" (an actual product).
Details about chemical hand and foot warmers: In extreme cold, consider chemical hand warmers. They work particularly well with mittens. You can preheat your mittens by putting the warmers in the mittens about 5 minutes before you go out in the cold. Chemical warmers are small bags of iron, cellulose, activated carbon and salt that oxidize slowly giving off heat for several hours. Because the heat liberation process is one of oxidation, they can be stopped or "turned off" by placing them in an air tight bag and squeezing out as much air as possible before sealing the bag. By using this technique one can get several commutes from a single pair of warmers.
Keeping your bike Working
Fenders and a serious mudflap (almost--or actually--dragging on the ground) help keep salty slush off your bike. However, rusting chains are still a problem. The KMC rustbuster chain is treated to avoid rust and holds up much better in salty conditions. Some people find that wax-based lubes work best in salty conditions--oil-based lubes can get salt solution mixed in and become corrosive.
Bikes that don't use derailleurs--single speed bikes or bikes with the gears internal to the hub--are much more tolerant of worn, rusty chains, and also avoid issues with derailleurs freezing up. They also allow the use of full chaincases to protect the chain from dirt, salt, and water. Chaincases are popular in Europe but very hard to find in the US. See the resources section for some options.
In serious cold (well below freezing), some grease used in some bikes thickens or freezes. If you run into that, it may be helpful or necessary to repack with low-temperature-rated grease...or, as a quick fix, to flush out the grease with a light lube spray. A classic example is freewheels or freehubs, which can stop engaging when it gets cold. Detailed instructions for dealing with this are available on the icebike web site.
Studded tires are great insurance for riding on expected or unexpected ice. Carbide studs last more or less forever, even riding on bare pavement. Steel studs wear out very fast on bare pavement and quickly become useless. A studded front tire gives you steering and braking; a studded rear tire gives you traction so go with a front only studded tire if you only have one.
For snow, studs don't really matter, unless there is ice underneath the snow. Knobby tires are good for snow. Chevrons don't work as well--they allow too much sideways movement. There are two strategies for tire width and pressure. For riding on roads with moderate amounts of snow, narrow tires can cut through the snow so that you are riding on the pavement. For trails with deep snow (e.g. snowmobile trails), very wide tires with low pressure help you "float" on the snow.
Riding in winter often means riding in the dark. Good lights and reflectors are essential.
When purchasing and mounting rear "blinkey" lights, be aware that many products direct the light in a narrow beam. These must be mounted and aimed carefully, and even then, they are not as visible to drivers coming around a curve, or drivers seated high up in a truck. The Planet Bike Superflash and the Real Lite both have relatively wide light distribution, similar to that used (and required) in car tail lights.
The best reflective material available is "conspicuity tape" made for marking trucks. It is available in red and white at most auto supply stores. Yellow is brighter than red, and is made for school buses. It is harder to find, especially in small quantities, but you can get 15 feet for $15 which should be a lifetime supply.
Retroreflective material positioned low to the ground is advantageous because that where other vehicles' lights (particularly low beams) are brightest. Possibilities include the back of fenders and seat stays. Moving parts can attract more attention and may help the driver identify a bicycle. Such locations include the inside of rims, crank arms, pedals, shoes, and ankle bands.
In low light--dawn and dusk--where headlights don't do much--fluorescent colors may be more effective than reflectors, whereas when it's really dark, fluorescent colors do very little and reflectors are much more effective. Fluorescent materials don't need to be positioned near the ground, as they work with ambient light more than with headlights--fluorescent colored clothing is a good option.
- For generator lights, Peter White Cycles in Hillsboro NH has a web site with extensive information.
- DiNotte Lighting is a New Hampshire manufacturer of high-performance bike lights.
- The Real Lite is a giant LED tail light.
- Light & Motion A California manufacturer of high quality lighting systems.
This list was compiled by Icebike email responses in 2009:
- Recommended headlights:
- CygoLite Nitro XM - Bought for $80 at Performance Bike, halogen bulb, focused beam for seeing the road, fits on handlebars or helmet, last about 2.5 hours per overnight charge
- Planet Bike Blaze 1W, similar flash pattern to the Superflash tail light
- NiteRider's MiNewt. Similar O Ring mount as Princeton Tec's Swerve, charges with any USB charger, long burn time, great value for the price. Does not indicate the charge status of the battery, or if the battery is correctly charging.
- Blackburn System X8. About $200. The battery charges quickly enough and is a peak detection charger, so over-charging isn't an issue. It also has voltage cutoff so over-discharging isn't an issue either. Before the battery gets that low, the system will dim to allow you to get somewhere before the battery dumps on you. About 2+ hours of use per charge on full brightness.
- CygoLite Rover II Xtra: It's a dual-beam LED headlight with a claimed output of 255 lumens, a compact NiMH battery, smart charger and surprisingly long burn times. The spec sheet said to expect 2 hours at highest intensity, but apparently it sometimes lasts double that.
- Planet Bike Sport Spot: 4-LED see-me light that comes with a helmet mount, a bicycle mount and an elastic strap that lets you clip it to your arm or forehead. $35 MSRP, but often discounted at Amazon.com for $19.
- Recommended tail lights:
- Planet Bike Superflash - ~$20, flashing and solid modes, one of the brightest tail lights and a great value for the price
- Cateye TL-LD1100 - It has 10 LEDs, 6 of which are rear-facing and 2 on either side. With fresh batteries, this thing is BRIGHT.
- Planet Bike BRT-3H - Planet Bike thoughtfully provides each BRT-3H with both a bicycle mount and a helmet mount. I have found that the helmet mounts wear out over time, so when that happens, I toss the mount and use the lamp with the bicycle mount. Eventually, brackets break and light seals wear out, allowing rainwater to get in and kill the electronics, so if I don't need a bracket or demoted-to-bicycle lamp at the moment, I keep it as a spare.
- PrincetonTec Swrve - easy on/easy off rubber band mounting, cheap ($20), 2 half watt super bright LEDs, a multitude of mounting options, and a great big toggle switch for easy on/off operation.
Note that voltage sensors may not work in winter. Some lights include these to automatically dim the light when batteries are running low to last longer. In colder temperatures, batteries will output less voltage, tricking the light into thinking that it may be closer to dead and therefor giving less light with voltage sensors.
- The KMC Rustbuster chain is coated to prevent rust. The 1/8" version, for single-speed and internally geared bikes is available through the Quality Bike Products distributor, so almost any bike shop can order one easily, or you can mail order it from Maine, for example. The derailleur version is harder to find but here is one source.
- For studded tires, Peter White Cycles in Hillboro NH has a web site with extensive information.
- US bikes with internal gears and chain cases include the Breezer "new" Uptown 8 and the Redline R530.
- Dutch bikes, which typically have internal gear and chain cases, are imported to North America by Fourth Floor Distribution who provide a list of Canadian and US dealers. Bikes they import include Batavus and Koga-Miyata.
- Fatbikes, such as the Surly Pugsley: http://www.surlybikes.com/pugsley.html, Wildfire Designs Fatbike: http://www.wildfirecycles.com/fatbikes.html, Speedway Fatback: http://speedwaycyclesak.com and the Chain Reaction cycles 9:ZERO:7 http://www.chainreactioncycles.us/907.html
Often cycling-specific clothing is not necessary, is overpriced and/or is not meant for cold enough weather. A good first place to look for warm clothes that will work is your closet. If you do want to buy something, two sources of reasonably priced general-purpose outdoor clothing are Campmor and Sierra Trading Post. Consider also local gear stores and local thrift stores.
- Icebike web site. Also links to the icebike mailing list.
- Wikipedia Icebiking page. In case you are wondering what the point of this page is, given the existence of the Wikipedia page, Wikipedia forbids things like specific product recommendations, commercial links, etc.