Autumn is the perfect time to plan ahead for winter riding. Cool mornings and dark evenings give a good indication of what is to come.
Winter riding is achievable for most people who regularly ride. It may not be the best introduction to bicycle commuting, which is another reason starting in the fall is a better idea. Riding through the winter achieves a fitness that your friends will envy come spring, and despite the initial investment that may be needed in gear, saves considerable money compared to the current price of gas!
To effectively commute in a Minnesota winter, there are some basic requirements:
- Warm clothes, preferably made of warm-yet-lightweight fibers for ease of movement. Some experimentation ends up necessary, because most people overestimate how much clothing they’ll need while riding. Riding keeps you warm! Bright colors are also a good idea, as always, to increase visibility.
- Appropriate shoes. While many bikers use clipless pedals and cleated shoes in summer, in winter this can be more problematic. At the very least, a good mountain cleated system is required (like a Crank Brothers Eggbeater, designed to shed mud); else, switching to platform pedals with toe clips allows for a wider range of shoe choice for cold weather and sock-layering purposes.
- A good lightset – both a front headlight and a rear ‘blinkie.’ I recommend finding lights that can be recharged or use rechargeable batteries for cost-effectiveness. Note that Minnesota Bicycle Law (169.222) requires a white headlight with at least 500 feet of visibility for the front of the bicycle, and a red rear reflector visible from 100-600 feet behind (inclusive).
- Good reflective additions to the bike. Lightsets provide front-back visibility. Adding marine-grade reflective tape to wheel rims and to pedal cranks helps provide side-on visibility. Because these parts also move (wheels spin, pedal cranks spin), it increases the visibility factor.
- Appropriate tires. Skinny tires are nice on clean pavement, but who sees that in a Minneapolis winter? Cyclocross tires on road bikes, or knobbier tires on hybrids or mountain bikes, are useful in winter, and easier to change with gloved/cold hands in the event of flats. Some bicycle brakes may need modifications to accept these tires.
- A route. Keep in mind that a route that works in spring-summer-fall may not work in winter. As it starts to snow, you’ll learn the plowing patterns more quickly. Some roads with sidepaths get sidepath plowing that is often quicker (and more effective) than the roadway plowing, although sidepaths still have their issues from a safety perspective. In Minneapolis, the Midtown Greenway gets plowed all winter. The Gateway Trail, however, gets groomed for XC skiing. Over time, by amassing a variety of routes, you’ll be ready for whatever happens and whatever you discover about the plowing patterns.
I also think, if one isn’t already cycle-commuting, getting started in fall helps with the lung issues. Winter air is colder, and harder on lungs than warm summer air. Developing the capacity and endurance over time, and as the air cools gradually, is better than jumping straight into breathing the cold air straightaway.