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On Biking: How to cycle in winter weather

Posted by Your Town  November 1, 2011 09:34 AM

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For the avid cyclist, this weekend’s storm was more trick than treat. For the fair weather rider, the end of fair weather means the end of the season.

And then there are the hardcore bikers. For them, snow, sleet and rain are just opportunities to log a few extra miles while normal people are hunkered down by the fireplace.

With that in mind, here’s my guide to everything you ever wanted to know about riding your bicycle during a New England winter (but were afraid to ask).

First off, lights: use them. It’s the law. It’s also common sense. With Daylight Savings just around the bend, it’s going to be dark out even earlier. No lights means it’s hard to see potholes and debris. No lights also means you’re invisible to motorists. So please don’t be stealth, okay? You can spend hundreds on a high end set of lights, but for most cyclists, $40 will do the trick.

Lights are good, but reflective clothing is even better. Even in the middle of the day it can be hard for motorists to see us if we’re wearing all black. Add in the late afternoon glare and you’re practically invisible. Neon green reflective garb won’t win any fashion awards, but it will increase your chances of being noticed and avoiding an accident.

Now that you’ve got a light and you can see and be seen, what about the ice and snow? Slide, turn or stop on tundra and you’re going down (and often coming up with a broken collarbone or wrist).

Fortunately there’s a solution: studded tires. These rings of rubber are festooned with 100-300+ tiny carbide studs that keep you upright even while you’re navigating sheets of ice. I’ll admit that you’re not as nimble on studded tires, but as long as you ride carefully they’ll work just fine. My favorites are Nokian and Schwalbe. Normally I wait until Thanksgiving to mount these on my commuter bike, and leave them on until Opening Day at Fenway Park. This year the studded tire season just happened to arrive a little early.

Even with global climate instability, winter riding is still pretty cold. Fortunately, Windbloc and layers will keep you warm. Just be sure to cover your ears. When it drops below 20 degrees I suggest adding a face mask for the ultimate in cold weather protection.

Gloves and boots (either winter boots or neoprene booties that slide over your cycling shoes) will keep you toasty from head to toe. Some cyclists use ski goggles to prevent dry eyes and frozen eyelids. The problem is they cut down on visibility. In my opinion they’re just not safe for city riding. My solution is to use a pair of sunglasses. If that doesn’t work, it’s probably too cold to be out on your bike, anyway.

Whatever you do, make sure to get out of the cold long before you start feeling numb. Over the years I’ve gotten mild frostbite on my fingers and toes. That’s bad enough, but what’s worse is that as a result, my fingers and toes now tend to tingle whenever it gets below 45 degrees and become downright sore when it’s below freezing.

Even with the right equipment, I suggest staying off of the street during snowstorms and for a day or two afterwards (or at least until the roads are cleared and relatively smooth). Last winter that meant I was off of my bike for most of January and February. Fortunately, my cold weather cycling gear was perfect for a nice walk around town.

With a little planning and the right attitude, you, too, can be a year round cyclist. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

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