New Perspective on Winter Commuting
-Chris J Johnon
This year brought the first winter since I moved to Colorado 11 years ago that I’ve lived and worked in the same town. This change of routine brought down a daily bike commute that varied over the years from 12 to 16 miles one way to a measly half mile one way. It did bring the added challenge of commuting on one of the most inhospitable stretches of roadway in town: crossing College on Drake. I also have much more dynamic schedule now, with meetings spread all over town on any given day.
It also brought about another important change: I don’t “kit up” in dedicated cycling wear for my commute anymore. It made sense for comfort and safety on longer rides (12 miles is guaranteed to make your work clothes a little damp and clammy, a half a mile not so much)
What surprised me is that I’ve learned a lot about local commuting and have changed my routine quite a bit and feel like I have more insight than ever on best practices and gear for tackling the “local”.
I always struggle with how to talk about winter commuting, because the most common interaction I have with people when it comes up is them being astonished or impressed. I think there was probably a brief spell 15 years ago where I relished that attention, but after many years and hundreds of incredulous coworkers gawking “YOU DIDN’T RIDE IN THIS, DID YOU?” I’d be fine if I never had to answer that question again. I’d much rather chat with my compatriots, who are more numerous every year, about good tires or cheap base layers or secret shortcuts.
At the same time, I am wary of being too casual about it. Winter cycling does present challenges that shouldn’t be underestimated, at risk of injury from cold and from trauma. The good news is- while they should be taken seriously, the risks from cold are no worse than they are on the ski runs we love spending out weekends running. And the risks of trauma can be mitigated by following best practices and using the city’s off street bike paths and other low stress routes where possible.
For 10 minutes on the bike, it just doesn’t make sense to suit up in the same expensive dedicated bike layers I’d wear on a 45 min commute. If for no other reason than back in those days, just suiting up at home and changing at work took close to 10 minutes each, so I’d effectively be tripling my commute time.
Its also just not as necessary. The main virtue of dedicated tech wear is that the longer you’re on your bike in the cold, the trickier it is to thermoregulate and the more inevitable it is that you’re gonna start sweating. Cotton casual wear and underclothes are particularly bad in those conditions. Cotton has an absorbent quality that sponges water and keeps it next to your skin, while the outside temps chill the moisture and begin a process of leaching heat away from your body very quickly (wet and cold is MUCH worse than dry and cold). So technical layering- using a strategic combination of wicking and insulating and venting layers- is mission critical the longer you’re outside and the colder it gets.
When changing clothes at work is either impractical, or just not an option, consider the following:
Your puffy winter jacket is probably plenty warm for walking around, but it might not be designed to keep cold air from flowing in thru the collar or cuffs. Neck gaiters or scarves block airflow down your neck, and simple wool or synthetic arm warmers under jackets are often all the extra insulation you need to keep the chill from creeping up your sleeves, without requiring a whole extra layer.
Waterproof overpants are pretty easy to get your hands on at just about any bike shop. They vary in quality and cost from simple pvc to fancy and expensive space age materials that breathe have features like vents and pockets. But the general principle is the same, they’re a convenient winter commuting tool, as they both keep road slush and grime off of work clothes, AND act as a windbreaking, insulating layer that keeps the chill away for a short ride.
I’d be wary of using them on longer rides, especially the cheaper ones that don’t breathe. Our legs are full of BIG muscles that work hard on the bike and generate a lot of heat (fun act: over 30% of fuel that you muscles consume while cycling is wasted as heat), if you don’t have some wicking and venting going on, you’ll get your work clothes soaked thru and it’ll quickly feel like you’re wearing a greenhouse. Once at work, rain pants will roll up pretty compactly in a bag or locker or desk drawer.
If your budget allows, dedicated winter bike shoes are one area where I’d suggest you consider sticking with technical gear, especially if your commuter bike is SPD pedal equipped. There are a number of really good brands of winter bike shoe these days (I have a few different models from 45NRTH). They’ll do the best job of balancing close, gapless fit, ankle support, water and slush resistance and a bit of grip for when you do need to put a foot down on ice or snow.
Short of that- or if you don’t have SPDs- winter hiking boots will work well too, but in general, footwear is an area where it does make sense to keep your work shoes either in a bag or at work and commute in something that will stand up to the elements. Chemical toe warmers are relatively cheap, as are wool socks.
I experimented again this winter with a ski/board helmet instead of a bike helmet and found I still didn’t like it. I have to subject myself to this every few years cuz it always seems like a no-brainer solution when I’ve forgotten why it doesn’t work. My main complaints are that the earmuffs compromise my hearing and spatial awareness, and that they limit peripheral vision just a hair, and make checking my surroundings periodically feel less effective. Thats a big no-no for me. So I will stick with the bike lid with various balaclavas, winter caps, and neck gaiters. I’m also a big fan of close fitting sunglasses that keep the gap between your brow and the upper rim of the glasses as tight as possible. Keep those eyeballs warm!
For me, gloves are the piece that require the least dedicated tech gear. If you have winter gloves, especially ski gloves, they’re probably fine. The only thing to be careful of is whether they compromise your ability to shift or grab your brakes effectively. Some knit gloves compromise grip. But most ski gloves do not. It’s not a bad idea to consider getting gloves that are a tad big and supplementing them with glove liners, and keeping a backup pair just in case your primary liners get damp. Its pretty miserable to ride in cold wet gloves, even for a short trip.
As with gear, budget will inform your range of options here, but shouldn’t scare you off if you aren’t in a position where going with top shelf winter solutions makes sense. if you can afford a dedicated winter bike, with larger knobby tires, cheaper components (or single speed) and above all, fenders, it’ll make the seasonal transition easier, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of other fixes to common winter problems that don’t require an extra bike.
As much as tire manufacturers want us to believe otherwise, when you buy tires you’re always calculating a trade-off between durability and speed. Slicker, lighter, faster rolling tires are also more susceptible to punctures. For many people, this is an acceptable trade off in the summer, but it can be a major pain, and potentially a major safety risk, in extreme cold. When the temperature drops, consider swapping to a super durable tire, like Schwalbe’s Marathon series. They’re available in a range of specific models but all of them are top notch for keeping the air on the inside of your tire at all costs.
I own a spare set of wheels mounted with studded tires (Schwalbe Marathon Winters). They hang on the wall in the garage so that they’re ready to go at a moments notice, rather than having to take the time to mount them when I need them. Here’s the thing though. I almost never use them. The occasions when roads are slick with ice are pretty rare. Neighborhood snowpack is much more common, and the more time you spend on it, the more you appreciate that mountain bike or touring tires with a decent bit of tooth give you plenty of grip on snowpack, especially if you lower the your tire pressure to the low end of the recommended pressure range (printed or molded into your sidewalls)
I’ve had days where studs gave me plenty of peace of mind, but I also wonder if the eagerness of well resourced winter bike nuts to espouse their virtues makes them sound more important than they are under less extreme circumstances.
Keeping your chain clean will extend your component life considerably, which will save you a lot of money and minimize the chances of a spontaneous failure out on the road. Rock n Roll lubes are chain cleaner and lube in one, and their blue formula is great for cleaning and protecting in bad conditions. And all you have to do is douse your chain with the stuff, give in a few spins, then wipe it down, and you’re protected for a few days.
for the most part, rim brakes don’t work as well when temps drop much below freezing. Combine that with the existence of more road hazards like snow and ice, and the importance of being aware of your surroundings and planning and looking ahead is that much more acute.
And of course, fenders are super helpful in the winter. They’re great to have year round, but particularly impactful on slushy thaw days, where its sunny and slightly warmer after a heavy snow. A number of manufacturers have quick mount fenders too, so its less of a commitment to take them on an off.
Daylight hours are a lot shorter in the winter, and low visibility from nightfall, active snow, or just heavy overcast skies can sneak up on you this time of year. Get in the habit of keeping your lights charged and on you, and err on the side of turning them on more readily than you might in the summer. USB lights are all the rage these days but if you’re out and your battery die you’re out of luck. Consider a replaceable battery backup light, or, if resources permit, keep a portable USB charger in your bag.
USB chargers are a really useful little indulgence if you spend a lot of time on your bike, one little piece of gear gives you peace of mind about your lights, your phone, and even your bike computer, if you’re the computer type.
Skills and Tricks
The misunderstanding a lot of prospective winter commuters share is that riding in winter is dangerous. The reality is slightly different, In some ways, winter/snowy riding is even safer. Who wouldn’t rather bail into a snowbank than a gutter? Who wouldn’t rather fall and slide across ice than get your clothes and body grated up with road rash from sliding across asphalt?
In fact, the truth is that much more so than bikes, cars aren’t very safe riding in the snow and ice, but when they make mistakes, it’s often cyclists who pay for it. As a thought experiment: take all the bikes of the road in the aftermath of a snowstorm but leave cars, now switch and leave only bikes. Which will result in more serious injuries? So what does that tell us about how to prepare for riding in snow?
For one thing, it tells us to avoid cars if we can.
If you have access to a bike path, that might be your best solution, even if it means going a block out of your way. Even an unplowed bike path (and FC is pretty good about plowing, most of the time) is safer than an arterial that plows all of its snow into the bike lane.
Don’t be shy about taking a lane where necessary. It’s your right. And it’s often much safer than sticking tightly to the far right of the useable road, leaving enough space for cars to try squeeze past you in their lanes, rather than changing lanes or waiting. In adverse conditions this can be more dangerous than normal, so if you don’t feel like a car can safely pass you, don’t give them room to try!
In some limited cases, you might even consider taking a sidewalk to avoid a hazardous stretch of road. I do. Be very conscious about speed and sharing the path with pedestrians, announcing your presence and passing wide. Beespecially careful at intersections. Cars may not be looking for you when you’re contraflowing on the sidewalk and they’re making a left in front of you.
It also pays to get comfortable on loose ground cover BEFORE you get caught in a surprise snowfall. Cyclocross and mountain bike handling exercises like riding on grass or soft dirt and sand will prepare you for snow. Keep your body loose (tense muscles slow reaction time), and your weight off your handlebars. Look and plan ahead down the road, not 10 feet in front of your wheel. There are many weekly grassroots race series here in NoCo that include (or require) beginner skills clinics and give you time to practice skills on closed, controlled courses. check out yourgroupride.com for calendar of races and clinics. You don’t have to be a stick thin spandex warrior to take advantage of these great resources.
You could fill a book with winter tips and tricks and there are in fact several out there, but hopefully these will get you started. It sounds like a lot of information, but believe me, most of it becomes second nature pretty quickly, and its no more burdensome than defrosting and scraping car windows, waiting for your car to warm up, fighting bad drivers for parking spaces, and bundling up and walking through the freezing cold parking lot anyway.
Got any suggestions or tricks? Add them on Facebook, or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Having the right bike, the right clothes, and a route that feels safe and scenic makes commuting enjoyable. Basic maintenance is important. See the resources below for help planning your ride.