By Bob Krzewinski
Why ride a bicycle all winter long in Michigan? For one, it's a great antidote to cabin-fever, especially as the cold months drag on. It also helps keep your body in shape all year, and helps take off those easy-to-add winter pounds. The scenery can also be exquisite, especially after a new snowfall. But winter riding does take more preparation and motivation. While I don't profess to be an expert on riding in the winter, here are some suggestions I would pass on to a new winter cyclist...
Motivation – Schedule a set time in your day to go cycling. Before that time arrives, set out your cycling clothes and get the bike all ready to go too. Keep in mind that in winter, the first 100 yards may be the hardest (that initial getting on the bike!). If your cycling club offers a winter ride, use that as a motivator. Try setting a "pact" with a friend - where you both commit to meeting at a time/place for a ride. Also, set a personal record on the lowest temperature you have ever cycled.
Downsides – Yes, winter riding can be challenging, but can be dealt with (to a point). One thing is that with all that winter clothing, wider tires and challenging road conditions, you may be 20 percent slower and put out 20 percent more effort to maintain a "summer" pace (especially if using studded tires). You can also heat up from the inside out, so how to dress must be thought out.Clothing – Just a couple words right off... synthetics and wool. One of the worst things to wear in the winter is anything cotton. Once it is wet, it becomes useless as a form of keeping you warm. Synthetic, or wool, bicycle clothing has the distinct advantage of still managing to keep you warm, even as you sweat, as it tends to wick sweat away from your body. These fabrics also have the ability to dry themselves fairly quickly. Most bike shops have dedicated synthetic bicycle winter gear. Although, you can also find some good deals at the clothing section of department stores (just read the labels and look for polyester blends).
Fingers – Over the course of the winter, I tend to alternate between three sets of gloves. For mild temperatures (i.e. above 40-45 degrees) I use thin, synthetic gloves. Colder than 40 degrees, I use dedicated, thick cycling gloves. When it starts getting even colder, out come the "lobster mitts". The "mitts" (see below) are sort of like mittens, but have three areas for your fingers and keep your hands really warm.
Head –For years I have used a thin, fleece under-helmet cycling cap. It has pretty much always kept my head warm. An example of one (available at your local bike shop) can be seen here...
Toes – To me, the worst thing about riding in the winter is when my toes start to get really cold. In the winter, I routinely wear a thin wool sock, and also some type of shoe cover. Still, even with the socks and covers, my toes would still go to the chill zone while the rest of me was fine. For the past few years, I have been a huge fan of toe-warmer chemical packs. You can find them in the sporting goods section of many stores. The packs consist of two, small paper-based packets, with adhesive backs that stick to the tip of the shoe's removable insole. Once the packet is opened and exposed to air, they will produce heat for 3-4 hours. When you are done riding, just peel them off the insole.
Going back to shoe covers, they do help provide another insulating layer on your cycling shoes, as well as help keep your shoes a little dryer. The disadvantage of them is that they tend to get chewed up on the bottom from walking. However, they will last a number of years. Of course another option for insulation, and quite a bit cheaper, is placing plastic bags in your shoes between your sock and the shoe. If your feet are still getting cold, get off the bike for a few minutes and walk it, as the shoe to pavement contact may help get circulation going.
Fenders – They can be a blessing and curse in the winter, but overall they have more benefits than problems. The biggest advantage is they keep slush and water off you and your bike. The biggest disadvantage is that sometimes snow jams between them and your wheels.
Keeping Your Bike Clean – Winter can be hard on a bike, to the point that some people buy a cheap "beater" bicycle just for winter use. Probably the biggest enemy of your bike in the winter is salt, which can corrode many parts of your bike. Even if you ride on dry pavement in the winter, there can still be loads of salt residue on the road that will be attracted to your bike.
Gently rinse down your bike after a ride where salt contamination is suspected. If you have a heated garage, this might not be too hard of a task. If you don't have heated bike storage, fill up bicycle water bottles and then spray down your bike (especially the derailleur, brakes and hubs), squeezing the bottles to give some pressure to the spray. Afterwards, pick up the bike a few inches and drop it down (to shake water off), wipe it down, and then apply some lubricant to critical parts, especially the chain. On the lubricant, some people will simply spray some silicon spray on the front and rear derailleur, but be sure to use dedicated chain lube on the chain.
Tires – While standard bike tires will work fine over the winter, there is always the question of "what happens if I hit a patch of ice?" A few years ago, I finally took the plunge and bought a pair of studded bicycle tires and was pleasantly surprised how well they worked. The studs really do provide quite a bit more traction and allow you to stay upright in conditions that normal tires would have you skidding out. At the same time, even with studded tires, you can't handle everything or be immune to the laws of physics. The two biggest disadvantages of studded tires are they slow you down and they are somewhat loud. Bike snow tires (with or without studs) are more expensive than regular tires, but then you are not going to keep them on all year either so they can last for years and years.
Still, for most dry pavement winter riding, the tires you have on your bike right now should work. For a cheaper alternatives to studded tires, consider some bike tires with deeper thread, or at least decrease your tire pressure to the lowest recommended value (look on the side of the tire for the inflation range) so that the tire has more of footprint area with the pavement.
Lighting – With shorter daylight hours, you may find yourself riding in twilight or at night. Lights are essential in those conditions and also make you more visible during daytime snowfalls. One cardinal rule I have, however, is that no matter how many bike lights I have going, I always act as though motorists do not see me. Many motorists do not expect someone to be bicycling in winter, let alone at night.
Weather – There are times, however, where you might just want to keep your bike in the garage. These times could include when it is raining and temps are right above the freezing mark. If you are not dressed properly, it can rapidly lead to hypothermia. Temperatures below 15-20 degrees require you to be dressed right or face frostbite. For me, some real ride-breakers are ice-storms and heavy snow. After all, if weather people are telling you not to drive a car in those conditions, being on a bike is not going to be a great idea either.
Overall, when it comes to weather and road conditions, don't be afraid to get further out onto the street (take the lane) when needed, watch for ice, give yourself more time to arrive somewhere, slow down more than normal for turns and finally, don't bike if you have a gut feeling it is not safe to do so.
Hydration – Drinking enough water in the winter is just as, if not more important, than in warm weather. Many winter riders mention that a big problem is actually sweating too much, meaning all that water you are taking in is going out of your system. Also, humidity in the winter tends to be very, very low, meaning you might sweat more, but never notice it due to the rapid evaporation.When it starts going below 32 degrees, water bottles may start freezing rapidly. Some hints are to fill your water bottle with hot water or keep a water bladder on your back or inside your jacket. Also, most people buy the insulated bottles for summer riding to keep drinks cool, but they also do a great job at keeping liquids from freezing in the winter.
- Bike Winter – http://bikewinter.org - Out of Chicago with loads of good winter riding tips. The group has notice that anytime it snows over two inches to meet at a neighborhood bar for a ride ("warm your gloves on the radiator") followed by sledding. That's the spirit!
- Ice Bike - www.icebike.org/category/ice-biking – Updated from the "old" pure IceBike website (not as much information as they used to have), but still good information.
- Gearing Up For Winter - http://joeclark.org/design/gearingup.html - Clothing hints
- Conquer The Cold - www.conquerthecold.org - A program in Ann Arbor encouraging winter bike commuting with a really good selection of various winter riding tips, including videos (go to "Hints & Tips).
Bob Krzewinski is a dedicated advocate for equitable transportation options. Bob has been a Ypsilanti resident since 1985, a US Navy veteran (1973-79) and is a retired 30-year airline captain. He has a legacy of organizations that he has either founded or helped them increase bicycling access and safety in Michigan: board member and secretary of the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition (he co-founded the organization), founder of the Wolver-Bent Recumbent Cyclists, founder and current board member and chair of Friends of the Border To Border Trail, member of the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, Greenways Advisory Committee, chair of the City of Ypsilanti Non-Motorized Advisory Committee, secretary to City of Ypsilanti Parks & Recreation Commission and coordinator of Ypsilanti Bike-Bus-Walk Week. He is also a member of various bicycle-related groups, including: League of Michigan Bicyclists, Michigan Trails & Greenway Alliance, Rails To Trails Conservancy, League of American Bicyclists and Bike Ypsi. He is also working to garner a bicycle-friendly city award for the City of Ypsilanti. If that wasn't enough, this year, Bob became a volunteer for Programs to Educate All Cyclists (or PEAC), and regularly attends mechanic nights.