The LGRAB Guide to Winter Bicycling

Do you want to be as happy this winter as Mr. Snowman?  Ride your bike!  There’s nothing like spending time outside engaged in physical activity every day, enjoying the crisp air and scenery while everyone else hibernates.

We won’t claim that winter cycling is always a big party, but it’s certainly not the nightmare scenario that most seem to imagine.  As with any activity, knowledge is power: the more you understand about biking in the winter, the more comfortable you’ll be and the more you’ll enjoy yourself.

As we enter our third winter of biking and blogging, our archives offer a wealth of information for new and experienced winter cyclists alike.  Hence we bring you the LGRAB Guide to Winter Bicycling.

Seriously?

Yes!

What should I wear?  A spacesuit or footie pajamas with ski goggles or what??

That’s the easiest question to answer: absolutely, but only if you can rock it.  Otherwise, you may want to stick with your normal winter clothes.  Once you see the basics of how to dress for winter cycling, you’ll say, “aha” and move on.  You may even find that dressing for winter cycling can be effortlessly chic.

Like all superheroes (be prepared: co-workers will call you that), you will have a weakness.  For example, freezing fingers, but it is possible to keep hands toasty warm.  Embrace your weakness and then overcome it.

What about the awful weather?  Rain, snow, wind, ice, freezing cold?

Take it one day at a time.  Some days fluffy snow creates a winter wonderland and bike paths are perfectly plowed.  Other days the snow is dirty and nasty and in the bike lane.  At the extremes, you may set out on your bike and then give up due to ice or extreme cold. No shame in trying!

Your winter may consist of a lot of cold rain, but luckily women don’t get Jane-Bennet-ill from cold rain anymore, especially if you know what to wear.  Just make sure that your brakes are in good shape.  Then on the rare days when it snows, riding could be a fun adventure.

If the weather on a particular day is really bad, simply choose not to ride that day.  The most important thing is that you honestly differentiate reasons from excuses.

Or maybe you live in Southern California.  If so, #@!% you.

I slip walking down the sidewalk.  What chance do I have on a bicycle?

A really good chance, actually.  The roads, maintained by the city, are in much better condition than sidewalks.  Once plows come by after a snow, main streets in the city are generally clear and dry.  Depending on your city’s climate and your preference for sidestreets and bike trails, you may benefit from studded tires.  Or if there’s just a bit of ice, you could simply walk your bike through the slick patch.

Doesn’t it get old, riding in the dark all the time?

Sometimes riding home from work in the dark everyday is a drag, but sometimes it makes everything seem quiet and calm.  Just make sure you are cognizant of safety and security concerns and have good lights.

I see you have fancy bikes.  I don’t.  So…?

While our Dutch bikes (WorkCycles and Batavus) are great for winter riding, due to enclosed brakes and chains, a fancy bike is not necessary for winter riding.  In fact, some people intentionally use old beaters for winter.

Most bikes in good condition would make decent winter bikes, although some may require more caution and more maintenance.  Be aware of what kind of brakes and tires you have and ride with caution in bad weather accordingly.  If you have old steel rims, seriously consider replacing them.  Decide whether you would benefit from studded tires.  Remember that fenders are your friend and install some.

If you plan to ride extensively in the winter, investing in a solid bike is worth it.

Will I be the only crazy person out there?

Maybe you’ll be the only bicyclist out there, maybe not.  You may find and appreciate a whole winter cycling community or just enjoy the alone time.  Even if there aren’t many other winter cyclists, you’re bound to meet colorful characters and bloodthirsty dogs simply by spending a lot of time outside.

But can I really do it?

If we did it, you can!  For inspiration, check out a retrospective of the first winter biking.  Is winter cycling a simple act or sheer will? Both!

Hey, it’s really cold.  Why am I doing this again?

Because winter bicycling will change your life.  You will better appreciate the differences between summer and winter cycling (for example, not smelling like B.O).  You will feel the yin, the yang, etc.  By season’s end, you will shed grateful tears over the first buds of spring, the first delicate bird’s nest.  Also, for hot legs.  Obviously.

How can I verify that you’re not lying to me for kicks?

You really can’t – welcome to the internet!  But other resources are out there pretty much verify our advice.  See, Bike Winter. Also, those other bike blogs listed to the right.

Anything else I should know?

The secret to bike commuting (hint: it’s not that bad).

If you have questions or would like to leave your own winter bicycling tips, please share in the comments!

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57 thoughts on “The LGRAB Guide to Winter Bicycling

  1. I slip walking down the sidewalk. What chance do I have on a bicycle?
    A really good chance, actually. The roads, maintained by the city, are in much better condition than sidewalks.

    For me, the discovery of this was a real “A-Ha!” moment. As much as I complained about winter cycling last year, it was always better and safer than walking. Kept me warmer, too!

    • Iyen says:

      Same here! In my previous city, many sidewalks weren’t even cleared at all! So I wouldn’t be able to walk where I needed to go, even if I wanted to.

  2. LC says:

    Super post! :D and totally agree on feeling ‘safer’ on my bike than walking on slippery pavements. I fell hard twice last year when I walked *ouch* instead of cycling during the winter months… this year, on bike, none so far (touch wood!).

    But I also agree about not being a hero, different cities cater better or worse for their cyclist citizens, if your city doesn’t, and you’ve got to ride on icy roads, slush snow that gets collected to the side of the street, and you don’t feel safe, then don’t. But if conditions aren’t bad, and you feel like giving it a go, then go for it! Because it seriously is great, and empowering :) thrilling, with caution, to tackle winter conditions on your bike!

  3. Sigrid says:

    “If so, #@!% you.” This good sense of humor made me laugh out loud.

    I am not a winter rider, yet…but I can say Patagonia Capiline is the best thing since sliced bread. When I moved to the midwest I did not go outside in winter, it was a mistake mentally and physically. I have stepped up my outside time and found that it is all in the clothes, and mind. I CAN be nice and toasty when it is 10. My tip, get some Patagonia anything and go for a walk, see how warm you are – you will be warmer on a bike (once you get going).

  4. Emily says:

    I’m a longtime reader, moved by this post to de-lurk and say thank you! All your tips and daily stories helped inspire me to get rid of my car and start cycling this winter with my two little children. I would never have realized how cozy tights and dresses are in the cold weather without your advice. (Even here in Oregon, where cold rain is the norm in winter, wool tights and a wool or fast-drying dress keep me quite warm.)

    Did I hear something about LGRAB Winter Games in the air? That would be fun.

    Again, thank you!

    • Molly says:

      Ooh! +1 for some LGRAB Winter Games. So far I haven’t missed a day on the bike and it’s been in the 20s for a couple of weeks, but once it gets snowy I know I’m going to want to quit. A little friendly competition will help keep me going.

    • Dottie says:

      Yup, there will be a Winter Games, sometime after the holidays and new year.

  5. neighbourtease says:

    This will be my second full winter biking everywhere and I have to say it’s really improved my general attitude about winter, which I hate. Though I still pine for a Mediterranean climate, I find cycling has a nice moderating effect on my body temperature. I am less hot in summer (though I do not mind heat) and less cold in winter and less inclined to complain throughout, to the delight of my husband :)

    Many more cyclists than last year this winter, so yay for that.

  6. Hi, LGRaB Girlies!!

    First of all, I needed this post because check out my post on how I *DID NOT* love riding in the cold : http://my2010ishere.blogspot.com/2010/11/battle-of-bike-riding-seasons.html

    But, yes…Winter Biking scares me, but I think I’m going to give it a try.

    You ladies inspire me!

    Love,
    Amanda Z from NYC

  7. Lynnety says:

    I hate cold, and I’m actually jealous. We’ve been having an unusual cold snap and I still don’t wish that I was in a car. Who knew that riding a bicycle was this much fun?

  8. cycler says:

    I constantly (including yesterday) get comments about “aren’t you freezing?) from Co-workers and random strangers. Honestly, even in light layers, I’m normally toasty warm once I start moving (enough to remove my scarf most days, and unbutton my coat usually too).

    It’s all about habit- if you are just used to climbing on the bike every time you go somewhere, it just becomes easier than the alternatives.

    I worry much more about cars sliding into me than the bike sliding and falling, mainly because there’s nothing I can do about it. I do like to ride on the off road river path when its even partly cleared, just because it feels more separated from slipping sliding traffic. I just go slow. Not that different from biking in extremely hot temps, interestingly

    • Treesounds says:

      I know, I get the “aren’t U cold” comments when it’s in the 20’s, and I laugh. I’m like it’s not 5! or -5, that’s much colder. 20’s feels like a heatwave.
      I also overdress. And I’m always toasty to too hot some days.

    • Iyen says:

      Cars go noticeably slower in the winter. Especially during blizzards. It makes me feel very safe, actually.

  9. naomi says:

    Any specific recommendations for comfortable warm boots?

    • Treesounds says:

      This is a tough one. A lot depends on how far you go, and your foot tolerance. If you only go 3 to 5 miles one way, that’s not far at all. And just a decent winter type boot and wool socks should hold you. If you ride less than that, then well, you can wear anything. Once you get over ten miles one way, then it’s hard. I have some Columbia boots wih 200g insulation, and two pairs of socks, one pair is electrically heated. Crazy, but it’s the only thing that works for me. But I ride over an hour in single digit temps.

  10. Melissa says:

    How funny, I am just starting to notice the superhero effect… this will be my first winter biking. I had fully intended to stop when it got too uncomfortable, and then the temperatures dropped, the wind picked up and I wasn’t too uncomfortable. Nobody – friends, coworkers, strangers – will be fully convinced that it is just actually faster and warmer than walking or waiting around at bus stops.

    • Janet says:

      I’m with you, Melissa. It’s colder just standing around. I got my first “Wow” today, so I get the superhero effect.

    • Iyen says:

      Last winter was my first. I was intimidated, but took it day by day. Before I knew it, the days were getting longer, the temps were rising, the snow was melting and I hadn’t missed a single day.

  11. 300 Pound Gorilla says:

    Okay, I’ll throw in the SoCal advice.

    1. Before I leave for the morning commute, I step outside for a moment. If I can see my breath, I need some warm gear.
    2. Light gloves make a world of difference.
    3. On the coldest days, I wear a light sweater as well.
    4. I wish I had a light scarf for the nose and neck. A nice, pretty, silk one would do. :-)
    5. Precipitation is relatively rare here in San Diego, but it happens at least once or twice a month. Fenders are soooooo nice…even in San Diego.

  12. Rob says:

    Today was day 2 of the commute. It’s a lot slower than I’m used to in the summer, mostly because of the full headwind (traveling north and west in the morning with a NW wind at 10 mph and air temperature of 9 degrees is not fun) and because the village plow doesn’t do a great job of clearing the sidepath. (in fairness, at least Bartlett tries; Carol Stream just leaves the town’s only bike route under inches of snow for 3 months of the year).

    My biggest problem to-date has been the fact my stopping distance is as long as a train (freight, 120 cars long, fully loaded!), and so I’ve had to utilize my “leg brake”. :-p

    However I just made some adjustments to my bike over lunch and wiped a lot of brake soot off my rim, so hopefully I get braking power this go-around. It also seems as though the cold reduces the efficacy of brakes in general.

    • Lynnety says:

      Well of course they leave the bike path covered in snow. What sort of silly people would ride on it in the winter?

    • Coreen says:

      Some break pads turn into hard plastic blocks when it gets cold. Try some Kool-Stop salmon brake pads. They’re a little pricey, but I put some on one of my winter bikes and now it feels like I’m running disk brakes.

  13. Dave says:

    Great post (and collection of other posts!)

    I think the point here, and a great point to make about cycling in general, is that it’s not as complicated, scary or risky as it is made out to be.

    Take the same precautions you would with any other thing in life (walking, driving, eating, drinking, etc), and you’ll be fine. That is to say, just think about it rationally, and make a good decision based on what you *know*.

    Try it out and make adjustments if you need to. Trial and error is the best way to learn what works.

    If you cycle in the cold or rain and you end up with a cold, enjoy your hot chicken (or tofu) soup and a relaxed day. Then go try it again with better clothing or do a better job of warming up and drying off when you get where you’re going.

    Humans are hardy creatures, we’re capable of a lot, way more than I think most of us realize.

    I agree with you, while riding through the winter isn’t always pleasant, I do feel more in tune with the weather, and honestly, the extremes of the weather (hot and cold) don’t bother me as much as they used to. I still don’t like hot weather, but it’s not as incapacitating as it used to be for me.

    I also often think to myself as I’m riding home in the rain seeing people sitting stuck in traffic and honking at each other and remembering what it’s like to drive in those conditions (poor visibility, nervous, hurried, etc), that I’m pretty satisfied with a slowly meandering ride home, stress-free, in the rain.

    • Lynnety says:

      I have to respond to one comment in this post. Colds are caused by viruses, not by being in the cold and/or rain.

      • Dave says:

        Yes, but being in stressful conditions (such as wet and cold) can weaken your body’s ability to fight off the viruses which cause cold and flu and other things. I’m not suggesting that rain carries cold germs, but thanks for enlightening me.

        • Amy says:

          I’m actually dealing with this right now. I’ve gotten a cold (actually, Strep), and my body is saying loud and clear to REST as much as possible. Which means not cycling my half an hour commute in the 20 degree weather. Short little 5 minute trips to a store or something seems to be fine, but I think that in the interest of getting well, staying out of the cold and wet so that the body doesn’t have to work harder is best.

        • Iyen says:

          LOL. What do you know? Sometimes conventional wisdom is right?

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Apparently, there is no scientific or statistical evidence to support our long-held belief that cold and wet conditions increase the likelihood of catching a cold or flu; or at least that’s the latest medical research line. Cold conditions just temporarily make our noses runny, and colds make our noses runny, so society (apparently) as falsely associated the two.

  14. Treesounds says:

    I like Dottie’s secret to winter biking, the whole “most days aren’t that bad”. It’s so true.
    But Yes, of course, if your city is in the middle of a blizzard, or you have six inches of slushy snow not yet plowed. Then please commute another way, it’s not worth the work and danger.

    • Iyen says:

      Actually, cycling in blizzards works very well for me. Much better than driving (which is frankly terrifying because of poor visibility and slippery roads) and walking (freshly fallen snow is great at hiding ice patches).

    • Iyen says:

      I should add that cars go very slowly during blizzards.

  15. Carolyn I. says:

    I find myself biking more this Winter. Last winter I biked most of the time, but we had hardly any snow. Life is just so much more fun on a bike! I twittered recently how for some reason it was easier to hop on my bike for a ride then to put on snowshoes and go snowshoeing. And I still get exercise! Go figure, I guess whatever works. I am so in love with bicycling it seems.

    I have been walking to work sometimes and that’s not so bad as it’s 20 mins to work. But today, I just HAD to bike! I just bike with more care. I don’t have studded tires, but I want to invest in a Winterized bike next year.

    There are stormy days which it is impossible to walk let alone ride in, but most of the time it’s good riding. You are right about the sidewalk vs the road. After work today I biked home on the road, it looked better and safer then the sidewalk did.

    Thanks for posting about this, I know I’m not the only one doing it even though some people think I’m nuts (but not my co-workers).

  16. Karen V says:

    This is a wonderful post. Love it! Thanks for the reminders and the smiles. I’ve been using the slushy/icy streets as an excuse not to ride (no plowing in my city), but I haven’t been feeling good about it. Now the next time I’m discouraged I will look back at this post and give it a go.

  17. Dwainedibbly says:

    Excellent post, Dottie. Here are 3 tips:

    Don’t dress your torso too warmly. You’ll be making enough heat that you can actually dress fairly lightly given the ambient temperature.

    Do, however, concentrate on hands, feet, and face. The wind chill on those parts mean that you need to cover them better than you would otherwise.

    Carry tissues!

  18. SM says:

    Studded tires are definitely a good idea. I learned the hard way years ago thinking that my mtb tires would hold up well in the snow and ice.

  19. velojoy says:

    Thanks for your post — I loved the humor.
    As a rider who is relatively new to winter commuting, I can’t say enough about the toasty goodness of wool. It insulates beautifully, resists odor and, contrary to popular belief, is itch-free. I thank the sheep of the world for all their contributions to keeping me warm on my bike!

  20. Janet says:

    Oh, Dottie, that’s a wonderful post. I really enjoyed going back and forth to your older posts too. I’m still biking (went to the bank, whole foods and the library) and I’m a big fan of Cashmere and clear ski goggles. I met another winter rider lady getting off her bike who asked me how I liked my goggles and I give them an enthusiastic thumbs up. (Who cares if you get lots of stares).

  21. [...] you’re new to winter cycling (as I am), check out The LGRAB guide to winter cycling chock full of excuse-busters and tips and advice, as well as Dave’s post on Portlandize on how [...]

  22. donna says:

    I busted out the ski googles this morning to keep my eyes from tearing up and everyone who saw me laughed at the sight of me!

  23. Catherine says:

    Ha! I get the “superhero” thing a lot, too, and it totally cracks me up because (a) even though I probably qualify as “athletic” these days I still consider myself very much non-athletic and (b) I am insane about the cold. I love winter, I’m passionate about snow, I like brisk weather etc, but I get very disgruntled about the physical sensation of actually being cold. And still, I ride all winter, and still maintain that it’s better than walking/standing around waiting for the bus.

    I still have yet to find my method for warm fingers and toes, though. I have achieved “not frostbitten”, but have yet to make it to “warm” or even “not freezing”.

  24. Coreen says:

    One more tip for keeping the hands warm: keep your gloves/mitts on while unlocking your bike if it’s parked outside (it’s sort of fumbly and it takes a little practice). The cold metal just sucks the heat out, and I find that if I start a ride with cold hands, they stay cold.

  25. tschitschi says:

    I ride my bike all winter (except when it is snowing so much that the snow is still lying on the street) and love it – with the proper clothing it is much better than being stuck in a crowded and stuffy subway with lots of people in their winter coats!

  26. Vee says:

    yeah! Today was cold cold cold and windy but sunny. I thought of a few reasons I am excited for winter biking- no need to scrape ice off the windshield! I can hop on and go.

    I appreciate hopping on the train after a warming ride uphill. I can unzipper my coat and feel warm and enjoy it each time the doors open and cold air flows inside the car.

    I love that cold wind beat feeling you get after a ride. It feels like one does after a full day skiing. I look forward to falling into bed and sleeping soundly. I also look forward to a treat of hot chocolate to warm me up with.

    and like you said- Legs. Def the Legs!

  27. donna says:

    My tip is to try a pair of felted wool mitts. Sometimes I stick in a liner mitt but even without they keep my hands toasty.

  28. Hippie Brian says:

    My winter riding suggestion? Move here to southern California! Winter riding? Meh…

    Sorry, just like to gloat now and again…I love Long Beach!

  29. Erin says:

    I’m a lurker here on your blog, I just love reading it and HOPE that I will be brave enough to actually commute to work one day (I’ve done my practice run and have everything I need here at work to clean up, just have to do it!)! What prompted me to write though: Love your reference to Pride and Prejudice. :) Seriously, who gets a horrid cold from the rain? A little like Marianne Dashwood near the end of Sense and Sensibility!

    It’s 17 degrees this morning here in VA, a high of 38 today. I have my bike at my boyfriends house where he has a nice bike path just across the street. Just can’t get the gumption up to get dressed and take it out on the path when there is a nice warm fire going. Might have to make the jump this weekend…it’s too dark by the time I get there and I don’t have a decent light at all for the front…the ones I want are too expensive, and I figure the ones I can afford, aren’t going to do what I want them too.

  30. Laura B says:

    I’m an American girl studying in Holland, which is practically Bicycle Land, full of amazing Dutch bikes. I love cycling here particularly because it is flat, flat, flat. However, I discovered that cycling in balmy August weather is one thing, and cycling on snowy, icy paths is another. In fact, I was horrified on realizing that I would STILL have to cycle 5+ miles to class every day in spite of the weather (it’s the only way to get around). Even when it’s subzero and blizzarding out, the majority of Dutch people are still cycling everywhere, without batting an eyelid. It’s really not that horrible, I’ve found, and your tips are great! The eye protection is BRILLIANT, because when the snow is blowing in my eyes, it’s painful and blinding! I will be the only one biking around with lab goggles on, but that a-ok! Now if only I could figure out how to keep my torso from getting sweaty and overheating while the rest of me is chilly…

  31. [...] from the Department of Random: Let’s Go Ride a Bike’s guide to winter cycling. Maybe someday [...]

  32. Toby Wollin says:

    I have to admit that I’m a weeny in terms of riding home in the dark in the winter. So, I tend to not ride until after New Years, when the daylight starts to turn around. Let’s see, what works for me in the cold (and I have ridden down to 12 degrees F; pretty cold but there was no wind):
    Layers: Champion sleeveless tank with a built in bra, turtleneck of not cotton, lightweight wool sweater, zip up warm up jacket covered with a water resistent zip up jacket. Bike tights that I made out of Polartec polar stretch – I put feet in them. Wool socks. Nylon wind pants. Largish sneakers. I wear padded bike gloves on my hands, covered with lobster mitts. I wear a wool knit cap under my helmet.
    If it’s really cold/windy, I also wear a wool scarf, which I use to cover my face up to the eyes. My one big issue which I have not been able to cure is that I fog up my glasses something terrible. Other than that, I usually arrive at work(the ride is about 7 miles one way)toasty warm. I keep a washcloth, soap, a towel, etc. in my locker at work and as soon as I get in and drop my shoes, outer garments and helmet, I grab the washing up gear and my change of clothing and hit the bathroom to clean up, dry off and change. If I do that immediately, then I don’t get chilled. And as everyone else said, my coworkers think I’m nuts. Actually, they think I’m nuts when I ride to work between April and November, so winter riding is totally insane to them.

  33. [...] I’ve spent several years working in a bicycle store in Chicago. While I’m not the person out riding when its below freezing, my friends are the ladies and gents you’ll see on bikes in a snowstorm. Their advice and recommendations have been invaluable to keeping warm and cozy regardless of how I’m traveling. If you’re looking for advice on how to survive winter bike riding, check out Let’s Go Ride A Bike’s incredibly thorough Guide to Winter Bike Riding. [...]

  34. [...] I’ve spent several years working in a bicycle store in Chicago. While I’m not the person out riding when its below freezing, my friends are the ladies and gents you’ll see on bikes in a snowstorm. Their advice and recommendations have been invaluable to keeping warm and cozy regardless of how I’m traveling. If you’re looking for advice on how to survive winter bike riding, check out Let’s Go Ride A Bike’s incredibly thorough Guide to Winter Bike Riding. [...]

  35. [...] For more info on dressing for winter bicycling, see The LGRAB Guide to Winter Bicycling, How To: Cycle Sleek Winter Wear, and How To: Dress For Winter Bike [...]

  36. [...] {See also; video of cycling the lakefront, how to dress for winter cycling, and the LGRAB Winter Guide} [...]

  37. Columbia boots will definitely insulate your feet during winter season. Plus, the boots can cater to any outdoor activity.

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