Get Your Ride Ready with Our Winter Bike Prep Guide
Becoming an all-seasons cyclist comes with some truly unique experiences: the glint of street lights reflecting off fresh snow; your breath puffing along like a determined steam engine; and miles and miles of empty bike lanes. But there are some challenges, too. Even if you’ve gotten yourself ready to ride, snow, ice, and salt are always conspiring to wreak havoc on not only your commute, but also your bike. Our guide to winter bike prep will show you how a bit of extra planning and some basic winter bike gear can transform any cycling trip from abysmal to astounding. Or at the very least, make it significantly more tolerable.
Check Your Brake Pads
If you want to winterize your bike, the first thing you should do is examine your brakes to make sure they’re in good shape. Brake pads get a heavier workout on wet roads, so you might want to start the winter off with a fresh set. Ask the experts at your local bike shop to inspect your brakes to determine if they’ll carry you through the winter—especially if you plan on commuting every day.
Don’t Neglect Your Lights
Leaving detachable bike lights on your ride after locking it up is never a good idea—even less so come winter. Batteries are designed to work in a very particular temperature range, and extreme cold can sap their charge. Remember to always bring your lights inside with you wherever you go.
Handle The (Tire) Pressure
On heavy snow and sheets of ice, a larger tire can mean the difference between a smooth ride and an embarrassing fall. Because you may not be able to fit larger tires on your rims, however, you can also try running with slightly lower than usual tire pressure. This increases your traction and is a good idea if your ride will take you over loose or slippery surfaces. Be careful not to let out too much air, though, as letting tire pressure get too low is the No. 1 way to pop a flat. A bike pump with a gauge takes the guesswork out of this process.
Pro Tip: To find a safe tire-pressure range, check along the sides of your tire to see the manufacturer’s recommended PSI.
Consider Winter Bike Tires
Kevlar-lined tires are a must for winter bike prep (or even as part of your fair-weather ride). A Kevlar sheath adds much-needed puncture resistance, which is especially important when you’re crunching over hazard-hiding snow and ice.
Depending on road conditions, knobby and even studded tires are helpful for winter biking. If your route keeps you off the beaten path, or your local plows don’t rumble out as quickly as you’d like, these can add some serious traction. Just remember, studded tires can be fairly pricey, and every time they roll over hard pavement free of snow to cushion the blow, their lifespan is cut dramatically.
If you do wish to swap out your tires, our guide on how to change a bike tire can help.
Say Yes to Fenders
As any year-round commuter will tell you, fenders are essential winter biking gear if you want to avoid being covered in cold, dirty slush. The big choice is whether to go the snap-on route, which lets you easily add and remove fenders to match road conditions, or the bolt-on approach, which attaches fenders directly to your frame.
The problem with snap-on fenders is that they tend to ride farther away from the tire, potentially flicking more muck on you and your bike. The problem with bolt-on fenders is that they tend to collect wet snow. That snow gets wedged between the fender and the tire, causing the snow to act like a brake unless you periodically tap it out while you ride. Nonetheless, bolt-ons generally give you better coverage, and you can’t forget them as you run out the door. Plus with bolt-ons, at least you’ll have something to do while waiting for the light to change besides playing tic-tac-toe on the fogged windows of the cars next to you.
Pro Tip: Hit the inside of your bolt-on fenders with a thin layer of silicone spray, or plain old Pam, to help them more easily repel snow buildup.
After a Cold Ride, Give Your Bike a Hot Shower
Get corrosive salt off your bike as soon as you can by rinsing it with warm water and letting it dry indoors overnight. Wipe down any other salt-crusted parts with a moist rag; this ongoing winter bike prep may feel like a chore, but you’ll thank yourself every time you hop on your fresh, clean ride.
Keep Your Bike Under Wraps
Even airborne salt can destroy your bike frame and parts. Cover up your bike if you’re storing it in a garage or outdoors. Pick up a contractor bag from a hardware store that your whole bike can fit under and keep it covered overnight. Better yet, bring your bike inside as often as possible. It’ll love you for it.
Try a Bike-Sharing Program
Maintaining your bike in the winter is a lot of work. So if you don’t see yourself riding it a lot when the temperature plummets, a bike-share program might be the perfect solution. Most bike-share companies build burly rides that, with their heavy frames, wide tires, and built-in lights, are designed to handle various conditions. The best part? You don’t have to do any maintenance. That makes bike-share programs a great choice if you only plan to ride a few days in the winter or would just rather keep your personal bike safely shielded from winter’s harsh touch.
If you’re new to bike sharing, check out our “First-Timer’s Guide to Divvy Biking” to see how a bike-share program works in a city like Chicago.