Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Plan Now For Winter Cycling

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.

13 Comments

  1. I disagree with the statement about prefering wide tires. I’ve commuted year-round for ten years in Minneapolis, and I’ve found that the most dangerous situation in winter riding (next to riding on glare ice) is losing control of steering in “tire churned”, brown snow. The front wheel begins to float, unable to cut through to the pavement below, and the bike begins to move where the snow want to take it. I have found that a thinner tire is less prone to float; it cuts through to the pavement, so the cycle maintains its intended path.
    I also don’t believe that knobby tires will help in winter, but instead may hurt because less rubber is in contact with the road. I equip my hybrid with 28 c touring tires (medium tread) and rarely fall.
    One other tip: take the weight off your handle bars in icy / dicey situations. The weight up front can exacerbate float in loose snow or cause the front wheel to slip out from under you on ice.
    Anyone else agree?

  2. Don’t forget us out staters. Brown snow is a city phenomenon. In East Grand Forks the roads have a packed snow surface from mid December to March. A wide, soft fron tire (with studs or chains) that doesn’t get caught in the ruts/irregularities works best. How come no one has mentioned that the back tire makes almost no difference on icy or slushy roads? Do we just expect everyone knows?

  3. Full fenders! Very important to avoid the skunk-stripe up your back in sloppy weather especially when dirty snow has melted into slush. The back end of the fender should be closer to the tire so snow doesn’t pack underneath. The front fender needs a mudflap reaching almost to the ground, to keep slush off your feet and the bicycle’s drivetrain.

    Cleaning the bicycle: After riding in sloppy weather, rinse it off with clean water (bucket or garden hose kept indoors/drained).

    Winter bike: this is not the time for a fancy new bike.

    Internal hub gear, or single-speed. More reliable than derailleur gears in winter weather.

    Enough for now…more info at massbike.org/info/winter.htm

  4. As a year around commuter in another “M” state to the West, I would like to put a plug in for studded tires. I use a full fendered, old mountain bike–no suspension to get filled with mush. On the first snow, I mount Nokian Mount & Ground studded tires & they keep me upright even on solid ice. These tires have carbide studs that last years, so I have an extra set of new tires for sale.

    Another great find is the “FogeVader” facemask that won’t fog up your glasses, available from http://www.ruoutside.com.

    Linda Gryczan
    Helena, Montana
    conlin@mt.net

  5. One of the reasons I prefer wider tires is that I’ve always found them easier to change with gloved hands. I tend to prefer knobby tires on snow, but would certainly understand a preference for a smooth tire like the 28cs Tony mentions. I’d certainly not favor a 21/23/25c type tire.

    Perhaps the key thing is simply having/using a bike that can adapt to a wider tire if one isn’t normally the choice, and/or can adapt to chains. A lot of people who commute in summer aren’t on bikes that necessarily can be adapted for more weather-intensive riding. fenders, wider tires, and chains take SPACE.

    Keep in mind this was published on THIS site in September! It’s now being re-distributed again in December.

  6. I don’t live in Minnesota, but I do live in Wisconsin and agree with many of the comments made about types of peddles. Its been & years now since I broke my hip in a black ice incident in January, 2001. I “think” I could have prevented that, had I had NO CLIPS! Clips make us “part of the bike” and the legs wont unwrap from the peddles. My Opinion, but if it helps save broken bones is just worth my saying it. I used to bike until the temp. reached 8 below, and had no trouble because I was properly dressed. Its great excersise and people think we’re NUTS!!!

  7. I’m happy to see there are others out in the winter. I’m a hoosier. I ride year-round. The only special gear is over-sized running shoes to allow 2-pair smart wool hiking socks. When the wind-chill is high or temp below zero I use my ski goggles. I’ve been caught in white-outs and big wind. Always carry a dry fleece for under-layer if you have to stop outside in a big sweat. I seal it in a zip-log and put it in my over-sized fanny-bag. For snow I use a standard mountain bike with knobbies. For clear roads, a road bike with 23′s. Not so much snow out here, though.

  8. I commute in Southern Nevada, it dipped in to the low 50′s yesterday.

  9. Low 50s??? Wow. You’ve got it good. It was -4 here in Montana today. I have been riding an older mountain bike with fairly knobless tires, although today I experimented with small nuts and bolts through an older tire for when the snow gets a little deeper. My main problem when it’s just cold and not so snowy is knowing when I’m on black ice. I’m a bit lax about wearing a helmet in the summer, but winter is a different story.

  10. (Finger Lakes area, New York) Every time I feel like whining about how cold/snowy/icy it is I just browse the Iditabike website and shut up. 13 years of winter commuting (12 mile commute on country backroads) has taught me a couple things: 1) Nokian studded tires (106′s for the cross bike and 296′s for the mountain bike) will handle even WET ice. 2) Definitely fenders to avoid the inevitable salt bath. 3) Craft layers really wick. 4) Lake Winter MTB shoes stop the cold from coming up from the cleat. 5) Goggles prevent frozen tears when its near zero.
    You are all heroes in my book….keep riding!!!!!

  11. Hi,
    I bike commute all year long in Massachusetts. I definitely agree with the recommendations for
    - old bike ( I like an old beater mountain bike frame )
    - fenders to keep the wet snow and salt off your back
    - studded tires ( I feel so secure, especially on ice )
    - good lights
    - keep change and derailleurs well lubed ( the salt rusts metal quickly)
    - warm clothes

    - enjoy it. I often go faster than the bogged-down folks in cars!

  12. Hi,
    I bike commute all year long in Massachusetts. I definitely agree with the recommendations for
    - old bike ( I like an old beater mountain bike frame )
    - fenders to keep the wet snow and salt off your back
    - studded tires ( I feel so secure, especially on ice )
    - good lights
    - keep chain and derailleurs well lubed ( the salt rusts metal quickly)
    - warm clothes

    - enjoy it. I often go faster than the bogged-down folks in cars!

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