A Peek at Winter Riding

This week has been a blur of bike commuting with buddies (Elizabeth and Mr. Dottie) and awkwardly working winter gear back into my routine. Waking up to temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s, I’ve been putting more thought into my layering strategy. The goal is to stay warm but not overdress.

11-2 us

The Dotties

11-2 ea

Elizabeth of Bike Commuters

My outfit every day has been some variation of a dress, tights and a sweater.  I’ve been overdressing, but my layers are easy to remove.  In the picture below you can see that my front basket is loaded, the contents including high heeled work shoes (gotta wear warm boots now), huge mittens, a scarf, a peacoat and safety glasses.  All of that was necessary yesterday morning, but overkill today.

11-4 me

Full Basket

In preparation for the cold weather, we’re working on a how-to guide for riding in winter. How is everyone doing with the weather so far? What specific questions or issues would you like us to address?

Full Moon

Full Moon over Lake Michigan

Let us know and we’ll make sure to include it in the how-to guide!

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54 thoughts on “A Peek at Winter Riding

  1. Ed says:

    Try Icebike (http://icebike.org/).
    Hasn’t been updated in a while because, except for gear changes, not much has changed. Most useful is would be the tips on how to dress for different climates and levels of activity.
    Worked for 5 Omaha winters.

  2. maria says:

    I can only imagine how tricky it can get in the winter! I look forward to reading your tips.

  3. nuliajuk says:

    How cold does it get where you live? Do you get snow and ice?

    • dottie says:

      Chicago gets very cold. Seems like last winter the average was around 0 degrees Farenheit or at most somewhere in the single digits. Lots of snow and ice. You can see an overview of last winter in pictures here.

  4. how do you keep your face warm? i also live in illinois and the winds get pretty chilly, but i can’t bear the thought of wearing a creepy facemask (eep!).
    do you wrap your sweater around your face, or do you succumb to looking a little like a burglar when the temperature drops?

  5. It supposed to be cool this weekend. In the high 60s at night.

    ::runs to hide::

  6. Charlotte says:

    Yes! I’m shopping for a new-to-me winter cycling coat. Warm, breathable, bright, mid-thigh, and most importantly, with long enough sleeves. I generally find all but one of those requirements in any given offering. Any suggestions?

  7. jOdy says:

    re: how do you keep your face warm, I got a fleece tube… It can be a hat, it has a drawstring on one end but I can pull it up over my nose when the wind is blowing or just leave it around my neck when it’s not that bad. It hasn’t been cold enough for me to break it out yet. So far I can just pull my raincoat up to keep the wind off my neck.

    It looks sorta like this thing: http://www.campmor.com/outdoor/gear/Product___66171

  8. That is a stunning full moon shot!

    One thing I’ve noticed while cycling in cold weather, is that I get too cold at red lights, then too hot once I get going. But it would be ridiculous to put on more clothes and then remove them again in such rapid successions. Maybe over time I will get used to the hot/cold fluctuation and simply won’t be bothered by it anymore – at least I hope.

  9. Sox says:

    You seem to have already covered most of it; warm boots, big mitts and safety glasses. The rest is probably personal experimentation.
    And you manage to look good doing it!

    • Can someone please explain the safety glasses? I am feeling dense: why do I need them for cycling in the cold?…

      • dukiebiddle says:

        They prevent the cold winter wind from sandblasting your eye sockets. I find my little regular glasses suffice on the Atlantic coast (and only wear them while riding in winter), but in the northern interior full on safety glasses make a lot of sense.

  10. Carolyn says:

    How do you deal with the the vehicles around you? In the winter they seem much less predictable, ie sliding, going too fast in bad conditions.

    Where do you bike if there is snow all along the edges of the road and there isn’t much room for bikes? Do you take a lane?

    Do studded tires work in deep snow? It seems to take our city plows forever to plow some streets…

    • Scott says:

      I had no problem riding every day last year on normal tires, but I lived on Armitage which was plowed every night. Now that I have almost a mile of side streets, I am considering snow tires.

      As far as the cars, I did not notice any difference from how they always drive. Sometimes there is packed snow where I want to ride because the super-important street parking blocks the plow. It is an annoyance, but not a real problem.

      • Carolyn says:

        That’s the main problem here, the snow removal has a lot to be desired, the sidewalks are cleared way before the roads are.
        People think I’m crazy biking in the snow,they say you shouldn’t be doing that….think it’s unsafe because of the vehicles. I reply by saying, “Well, I know LOTS who do just that, an they do not have problems”. Although I do admit, because I’m fairly close to work, I do walk to work sometimes when it gets really bad. It’s not the cold, but the deep snow/slush that makes me sometimes hesitant. I wear my down jacket and hood that keeps me so cozy when riding! I wonder what the coldest that someone has biked in? We get -26 f and colder here sometimes. Warm today though, a balmy 57!

        I like those gloves you are getting Dottie, I need to get a new pair sometimes.

        • Scott says:

          I rode to work every day last winter. The coldest I can remember was about -25F windchill. I was fine on the oma except my toes were a little numb when I got home. I wore the non-ventilated bern helmet, ski goggles, and my thickest wool scarf wrapped around my face. I also had my 11oz wool dress pants with a 200g gram baselayer, NEOS overshoes, and snowboarding mittens. I don’t think anyone at work had any idea I was riding in that weather.

  11. Dweendaddy says:

    One ingredient that helped me get through my first New England winter in a long time (and biking daily to work) were the NEOS: New England Overshoe System. They kept my feet warm and dry and you can wear any sort of shoe with them. At least any shoes typically made for men…

  12. Anu says:

    Those pictures seem to suggest that riding a bike in the cold is fun :-) Does riding a bike make you hot so you need to de-layer at some point?

  13. Mike says:

    We don’t get cold anything like yours, Dottie. I’m from Chicagoland originally and when Californians complain about the cold, I resist the urge to lecture them on what cold really means.

    Still, a damp, foggy morning of 45 degrees is nothing to sneeze at either. This will be my first winter commuting, so I’m eager to learn from your tips.

    Snow is a rarity here (at this elevation, but common a bit up the road toward Tahoe) so it’s really rain that presents the greatest danger… in the form of wet leaves that are slippery or that disguise uneven sections of pavement.

    I remember stepping out of my house in the north suburbs and feeling the air sucked out of my lungs by the bitter cold. Anyone who rides in a Chicago winter has my undying respect.

  14. Catherine says:

    My major concern (and now problem) is not the cold but the dark. Most of my trip is along an unlighted trail. My first (and likely only) attempt, just last night, on the trail with my existing light was in my opinion completely and utterly foolish and extremely unsafe (though there were many making the reverse trip with NO lights, so your milage may vary). I nearly ran off the trail on 3 different occasions and narrowly missed one jogger.

    Any and all suggestions for highly effective lighting that doesn’t cost $600 (like the “best solution” light I saw online) would be greatly appreciated.

    • This was my experience exactly cycling on a local bike trail after dark a few weeks ago. Never again. How are people supposed to commute along those things once October comes??..

      • Catherine says:

        I have NO idea, but I’m assuming that it has something to do with the retina-burning lights that some in the oncoming lane had. I’m also assuming that those are the $600 lights I’ve seen around the interwebs. I’ll be really disappointed if I have to give up my bike commute for the next several months on account of the dark!

        • Zweiradler says:

          Maybe switch to dynamo-powered lights? I’m enjoying rides through complete darkness – unfortunately there are street lights nearly everywhere. :)


          • cycler says:

            Sheldon Brown used to separate lights between “to be seen” and “to see” I’ve had a series of LED blinkies that were more about “being seen” but after 3 years of commuting, I finally broke down and bought a serious LED dynamo powered light. It was pricy, but the whole setup was well less than $600, and it produces plenty of light to see with as well as to make me visible to cars. Plus, no batteries and if I’m moving, it’s on. Runs the tail light too.

            • Matt says:

              I use a Planetbike Blaze 1W light for my commute – some road and mostly bike path. It’s probably a little dim for a “see” light but it was only $45. You can now get a Blaze 2W for only $60, I bet that would light things up pretty decently. These also have a good strobe function for being seen even during daytime (recommend the equivalent rear blinkie as well).

    • Xtra says:

      Peter White cycles sells some good battery powered headlights for around $100. For the ultimate in bike light safety and super cool fun check out the Down Low Glow from Rock the Bike.

    • nuliajuk says:

      BLT makes a little 7 LED clip=on that is very bright and uses those little lithium batteries. I have also gotten good lighting from using two lights, one either side of the handlebar stem. One is aimed low, the other is the “high beam”, and that seems to give me better depth perception. Failing that, you can always tuck in and draft someone who has a better lighting system. :-D

  15. Scott says:

    I went to the icebreaker night at Uncle Dan’s on Southport and I am feeling set glove and scarf wise. And the harris tweed cap has been doing me right. I’m looking forward to those cold, clear winter days with sun and low wind. Those are the best.

    I saw an oma with a basket parked outside the whole foods on north ave today, was that you dottie?

    • dottie says:

      Nope, not me. I wonder who that was. There is a lady with an oma and basket who parks in the loop everyday. I met her once on the road last year and have seen her bike parked a lot, but have not seen any other omas.

      Most of my wool shirts are Icebreakers, good stuff.

  16. Scott says:

    Can’t you wear boots to work? A lady I work with has above the knee boots and they are sweet.

  17. meligrosa says:

    brrrrrr. ok you are all coming to visit.
    not wishing and hoping. mkay!?!?
    currentyl 63° how can you resist?….

  18. oanh says:


    My first time commenting here, though I’ve been reading for a while.

    We don’t get anywhere near as cold as you, Dottie. (I’m in Southern England, UK.) Although I don’t know what the temps you are talking about are in celsius (I know I could look it up!), it does sit in the low digits celsius here from now until Feb/Mar and will drop to below zero for Jan, probably. There’s often lots of frost and ice, but very rarely snow. I continue to cycle and love it! And I love more that there are fewer people cycling, but I am a bit misanthropic and want the entire world to be mine and mine alone.

    My main problem with cycling in winter is how to keep my face warm – I have a ‘buff’ much like the fleece tube mentioned by JOdy – but I also wear glasses, which fog up if I wear my buff. So, my real problem is how to keep my face warm AND still see.

    RE: lights – I too cycle down a poorly lit path as part of my commute. I’ve seen many cyclists use bike lights, head torch and helmet light – so, all cheap lights, just lots of them. This seems pretty effective.

    • dottie says:

      Thanks for speaking up :) I’m too lazy to look up the conversion, too, but I know that 0 C is 32 F.

      I’m glad I asked this question, because I would not have thought much of a cold face. My face is usually warm as long as I cover my eyes, but it sounds like this is a problem for a lot of people.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      0 F is about -18 C. Yeah, I looked it up. I dork win.

      I know exactly what you’re talking about with the steamed glasses/face muzzle conundrum. I’ve found no solution. If I don’t want my glasses to steam up, I have to keep my nostrels and mouth exposed. Any face mask or muzzle will blast hot breath up onto your glasses.

      But I will say, unlike with walking, coldface doesn’t really seem like a big problem while cycling, unlike coldears, coldfeet and coldhands. The peddling and exercise seem to keep my face flush and warm enough.

  19. dukiebiddle says:

    Knowing I’ll sound like an infomercial, the best piece of winter riding gear I own are these 180s Exolite Acoustic Ear Warmers Being lightweight, they keep my ears warm by themselves in weather between 20 and 40 F, and being low profile fit well under either a knit cap or under helmet beanie thingie in -10 to 20 F. But the best thing about them: by being so thin while muffling the wind whistle, I can hear traffic twice as well as I normally do in summer.

    • dottie says:

      Those are cool, I’ve worn them for running. My winter Bern helmet has ear flaps and I never need anything else on my ears, but sound is muffled.

  20. Mamavee says:

    oh here is what I want to know…. the whole sweat vs freezing thing. I find that I hate being cold. my rides usually start on a downhill. So I have to bundle up with scarf etc and gloves so I don’t freeze. then I hit a hill and I had to shed. I am having a hard time finding a good balance. PLUS the whole just wear what you usually wear doesn’t work for me b/c guess you likes long sleeve sweater dresses? Me. seems like a good idea to bike in but then my pits suffer… I am now looking for sweater tank dresses. I think my answer will be tanks more often. except that when I am at home- I am too cold like that. ( you know trying not to turn the heat on so much at home so I can do good there too.)

    • Charlotte says:

      mamavee – for the cold-the-hot problem I find it best to cover my extremities (earbags, warm gloves, warm toes) and then zip or unzip my jacket as needed for regulation.

      It isn’t perfect but it does help.

  21. cratedigger66 says:

    I find that a scarf is necessary to keep warm. I usually use a Patagonia fleece one, but as the temp drops to the 20s, I break out a wool one.

    I am able to keep my neck covered and also able to cover my face when it gets really windy. I have never tried a balaclava, just look a little scary, methinks.

  22. Ooooo…Maybe you could recommend some studded tires at reasonable prices. I would love to know more about them.

  23. Wild Bill says:

    I commute in Chicago. The last couple of days, I’ve been fine with shorts, mesh sleeveless undershirt and a long-sleeve jersey. I tried tights yesterday, but I quickly overheated and had to remove them. I kind of wished for them this morning, but I got used to it. I have a thin polyester beanie that I wear under my helmet. That stayed on the entire ride this morning.

    Lights are a must. Even on the lake front path I find that I appreciate other biker’s lights because I can spot them much easier.

    • Scott says:

      Last night a lady in Bucktown was about to throw the door of her oversized SUV directly into my path, but stopped. As I rode past, she yelled out that she appreciated my headlight. The headlight is definitely an essential.

  24. BikeBike says:

    Might I humbly suggest you check out Bike Calgary for winter riding info. Here is a link to the winter riding forum – http://bikecalgary.org/?q=forum/38.

    We have a pretty active winter riding community here as the City of Calgary is kind enough to plow many many kilometres of our pathway system through the winter. In fact, they are so efficient at it that the pathways are usually plowed before many roadways!

    p.s. you may need to register with Bike Calgary to read all the member comments – thats where the real info is!

  25. Hope I didn’t miss this already, but what put me in the car last winter was cold feet (literally). I bought some booties from Performance Bike and hopefully that can at least get me well into winter. Since I live in Memphis, TN, I might be able to make it.

    By the way, order AT LEAST two sizes up if you get them.

  26. G.E. says:

    I am COMPLETELY freaked about riding a bicycle in the snow. A couple of winters ago around Boulder, CO, I witnessed a bicycle rider completely wipe out on some ice. It didn’t seem to phase him much at all, but I swore I would never ride in the snow because of it. So, perhaps (as others have mentioned) snow tires or ways to avoid the piles of snow on the sides of the road would be beneficial. The cold I can deal with, it’s the ice that scares me personally.

    • Zweiradler says:

      Riding in the snow can be fun. Fresh snow isn’t as slippery as ice and I like to practice my “bike sliding” skills on snow :) – but of course not in traffic.
      But I wouldn’t do that on ice, of course. That’s really dangerous.


  27. donna says:

    Dottie, do you have glow-in-the- dark tires? wher e did you get them?

  28. Stephen says:

    Here in north Florida, we do get winter weather of a sorts, mostly very chilly mornings (some below freezing) with relatively high humidity. (Please don’t laugh–I’ve been in Chicago in December, and I’ll well aware of what a true midwestern winter is.) The humidity burns off by mid-morning, but I’ve found that anything wool works well, as well as wearing layers to cut the wind. I take morning showers, and I’ll dry my hair before I go out. However, many times I’ll wear a wool cap instead of my helmet. My commute is a series of back roads, so I don’t worry about getting hit by a car as much as getting chilled from wet hair. I also just bought a gentleman’s charcoal grey wool coat for riding–it’s a three-quarter length with a button-up collar. It’s going to be great for cold days.

    While we’ve got plenty of morning light, the evening comes quickly here in the winter. Lights are essential, but mostly to let others know I’m there. I use battery-powered LED bicycle lights, which work very well. Last night I stayed late to work, and rode through a city cemetery completely in the dark. That was kind of exciting, but I was glad to reach the other side.

  29. […] can bike in the snowy, icy winters, those of us in the south should have no issues   Check out these posts about winter cycling  from Dottie at Let’s Go Ride a Bike.  She makes it sound so […]

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