Winter-Cycling Tips to Keep You Riding All Year Long
The one thing nicer than coasting down a calm street blanketed with freshly fallen snow may be the rare, but always warm, encounter with another winter cycling enthusiast. As evidenced by the simple waves, knowing nods from balaclava-wrapped heads, and quick stoplight chats, there’s a definite camaraderie that’s felt in bike lanes during the coldest months of the year.
Yet, venturing out into the frozen tundra can seem like a head-scratcher for many riders, who may be apprehensive about frigid temperatures and potentially dangerous conditions. But the truth of the matter is that biking in winter asks very little and offers a world unique experiences. And with our simple winter bike clothing tips and safety rules, you too can confidently pedal along with the tight-knit tribe of winter warriors.
How to Dress
“Aren’t you cold?” Winter cyclists are no stranger to this question. Their answer is, almost invariably, “No,” and sometimes, “Actually, I’m sweating.” After 5 or 10 minutes of pumping those pedals, your body temperature gets a serious boost. So the first rule of dressing for a winter bike ride is pretend it’s 15 degrees warmer than the thermometer says it is.
Pro Tip: Dress so you feel chilly, but not cold, before starting your ride. That will ensure you won’t overheat by the time you reach your destination.
What to Wear
Torso: Biking in the cold means trading in the big parka or puffy jacket for a lightly lined, water-resistant shell. Underneath, a long-sleeve shirt and moisture-wicking base layer is usually all you’ll need to keep your core happy.
Legs: These move the most and thus need the least insulation. A wind-breaking layer can easily slip over your prefered pair of pants or leggings. Opt for one that’s waterproof to keep you dry while you pedal through puddles of slush. And don’t forget an ankle strap to keep muck on your chain from yucking up your pant legs.
Head: Your helmet goes a long way to keeping in warmth, so a thin hat that covers the ears is usually enough. On extra-cold days, a scarf, neck gaiter, or full balaclava may be in order. Don’t forget eye protection, too. A basic pair of sunglasses may do if it’s not too cold, but a set of untinted ski or snowboard goggles will make a world of difference.
Extremities: On a bike, your arms and legs are moving, but your fingers and toes generally aren’t. It’s easy to protect the rest of your body with gear from your closet, thrift shops, and surplus stores for cheap, but you may want to invest in ultra-warm gloves, wool socks, and waterproof boots. To make the most of your investment, dress your hands and feet in thin silk liners, which quickly wick away moisture.
Mix high-tech and classic fabrics for the most comfort. For winter cycling, technical fabrics work especially well for outer layers because they move sweat away from the body and dry quickly. But that doesn’t mean wool isn’t a beautiful solution for socks, glove liners, and headwear. Wool stays warm even if wet, and unlike synthetics, it tends to smell fresh longer. A note for ladies: a regular pair of tights add warmth without bulk under pants, and fleece-lined tights keep legs surprisingly toasty if you’re wearing a skirt. Just stay away from cotton, as it’ll hold on to sweat and make a cold ride absolutely miserable.
Pro Tip: Good gear for winter cycling isn't necessarily cycling-specific gear. Raid your closet for ski, snowboard, even hockey apparel to keep you warm and dry.
How to Ride Safely
Stay visible: First and foremost, if you’re going to be biking in winter, you’re going to be harder to see, whether that’s due to falling snow on a dark day or glare on a bright one. That means taking extra care to make certain drivers know where you are. At night, adding reflective elements to your helmet and bike are a good start, but blinking lights are always your best bet. During the day, pick colored fabrics to ensure you don’t inadvertently blend into the snowy landscape.
Keep your bike clean: Clean brakes and gears work better and more consistently. You’ll want to wipe off and grease your chain more often than usual and give your whole bike an occasional rinse to keep salt from corroding the parts. For a full rundown of how to care for your ride, see our guide to winter bike maintenance.
Consider your route: Whether you commute every day or just love moseying around your neighborhood, it’s important to know that winter weather can greatly affect your route. Quiet side streets may not get as much plow attention as larger avenues, which could mean that you have to ride in heavier traffic to stay clear of snow and ice. Don’t be afraid to exercise your right to take the lane if plows have pushed snow into your way. And always be willing to step off and walk for a moment to get around dangerous conditions, such as metal-grate bridges or large expanses of ice.
Pro Tip: Familiarize yourself with alternate bike routes while the weather is still nice—you’ll feel more confident taking those roads when winter sets in.