Preparing for winter cycling

Originally, I had planned to talk to a few people about dressing for winter cycling, as well as describe my own (somewhat limited) experience. Then I asked Christine Bachman-Sanders, of The Golden Tandem a few questions and she provided me an enormous amount of information. As Christine actually did most of the work here, I will simply include my questions and her answers. All images are courtesy of Christine.

Christine out on a winter ride.
 When did you start biking in winter (if you remember) and what prompted you to start?
I think my first winter biking excursion was in 2011 when my partner, Ian, and I biked from Boston to Block Island, RI–about 100 miles each way–for a weekend of snowy riding.  On our tandem.  This is when we learned about the magic of leg-swings every hour and chemical hand warmers.  We made the trip again the following two years, each time managing to catch another cold spell and significant snow-fall, which just made our pit stops for hot tea and pie all the more justified.
I’ve been an avid cyclist for ten years, and do plenty of long-distance touring in all weather, but while living in Boston and New York City, I often took the subway on rainy days and during the winter.  Upon moving in August 2014 to Minneapolis–the cyclist’s dream city–I decided to commit to bicycle commuting year-round.
Last winter, 2014 – 2015, was my first official all-winter, every-day bicycle commuting.  It was such a joy! I loved knowing that no matter what the day brought, I’d get a chance to be out on my bike.  I was very nervous at first about whether or not I could really stick it out.  I’m from the northeast, so winter isn’t new for me, but I was intimidated by Minnesota’s reputation for extreme cold.  I know last year’s winter wasn’t the coldest on record by far, but it was certainly the coldest winter I’ve ever faced.  That said, I was amazed by how easy it was to continue biking through even the chilliest and darkest days.  A few things really helped to keep my motivation: 1) I decided early on that I simply wasn’t going to take a single day “off.”  If I had to get somewhere, the bicycle would be my only option.  I knew that if I made even one exception and took the bus one day instead, it would be much more difficult to convince myself to continue cycling on the hardest days; 2) I’m really cheap.  Why take the bus when riding my bike is free?; 3) I have never owned a car, and hope to make that a life-long reality.  Biking through the winter was one way I was able to test whether this car-less lifestyle is sustainable and achievable for me.  Very happy that the answer was yes!; 4)  My partner is also a winter cyclist.  Knowing that he would also be out every day was enough motivation (and competition) to ensure that I’d brave the elements, too; 5) I love being outside and moving my body. I know the winter can be an especially isolating time because of the freezing temperatures and shorter days.  Getting on my bicycle every day meant that I’d get at least an hour of outside time.  This is also the only designated part of my day that I don’t have to do anything else–it can be meditative for someone who doesn’t like actually mediating.
View from the bike
What type of winter riding/ distances do you do?
These days, most of my winter riding is my daily commute.  I ride almost every day for a total of about 12 miles.  This is a good distance because my commute isn’t long enough to risk actually getting too cold.  For me, 30 minutes of riding each way, even on the coldest days, is manageable.  As long as I’m wearing the right layers, I can maintain a comfortable and safe temperature.  On a ride longer than that, I would need to make some larger adjustments to my wardrobe and perhaps even make chemical warmers a consistent accessory.
As a long-distance tourer, I brave the occasional long-distance ride in the winter, like the 100 mile trips between Boston and Block Island, RI. This kind of winter riding is quite different from the daily commute.  I risk becoming much colder on these rides, because I’m outside for so much longer, and I’m usually biking at a lesser intensity in order to maintain my energy for 8 hours on the bike.  As a result, the key to long-distance winter riding is to make many, many stops.  I make it a habit to stop every hour at least to swing out my legs and arms, make sure the blood is flowing, grab a snack, and when necessary, take refuge in a warm place for a warm drink.  I also tend to wear more clothing when long-distance riding, and have plenty of back-up layers for when I need to make a longer stop without finding a place indoors.
Christine's Winter Biking Gear
Christine’s winter biking gear
 For someone who is just starting and doesn’t want to/ can’t afford to invest a lot of money, what is the basic winter gear you would recommend? Any fancier gear that one can live without but you absolutely love? 
Clothing is super important for winter riding.  It’s really all about the wind-stopping layers.  Many first-time winter cyclists (like me!) make the initial mistake of wearing too much.  When I ride, I wear much less clothing than I would if I were walking or waiting for the bus.  That said, dressing for winter cycling is a project.  There are lots of moving pieces, and many decisions to make based on weather and riding conditions.  Once you get the hang of your winter system, it becomes automatic, but knowing what to wear when is a learning process.  For me, the following items are all essential at different times, and while the cost can certainly add up, there are ways to get creative and re-purpose items you already have.  Here is everything I wear on the bike:
  • Light-weight wind-stopping jacket 
I wear the Patagonia Houdini. This isn’t cheap, but if you can find it on sale, it’s my absolute favorite shell.  I use this as the outer-most top layer, and depending on the temperature, I can wear more or less underneath.  As a result, I use this jacket on cool days in the spring and fall, and every day in the winter.  It’s also super light and and packs down into a tiny ball, which is great news for any backpacker or cycle tourist.  Keep in mind that while this jacket does an awesome job stopping the wind, it has no insulation and is not water-proof.  I replace this jacket with a rain shell on very snowy or rainy days.
  • Breathable wind-stopping, waterproof rain pants
I wear REI-brand Novara rain pants made specifically for cycling.  Not top-of-the-line, but not free!  I tried a cheaper version that didn’t claim to be breathable, and it was a huge mistake.  I arrived dry on the outside, but very, very wet on the inside from my own sweat.  Breathable, even if not perfect, is definitely superior.
  • Clear-lens Ski Goggles
I start wearing clear-lens goggles when it drops below 20* F, or when it’s actively snowing or sleeting.  In weather, it really helps with visibility, and I love wearing them on the most frigid days, because it keeps a good chunk of face protected from the wind–nice and toasty!  You don’t need to break the bank on these.  You should be able to find a good pair for $15 – $25.  Go for clear, because you never know when you might find yourself riding in very grey weather or in the dark.
  • Gloves
The are tons of options for winter biking gloves, and depending on your circulation and the length of your ride, this will vary significantly.  For 30-45 minute rides in 32* F or above, I’ve done quite well with a simple glove liner.  These are cheap, light-weight, and basic.  Once it drops below 30*, I switch to a heavier duty bicycle glove, like the Planet Bike Borealis.  Below 20* F, I wear the liners underneath my Borealis gloves.  For rides longer than an hour, I usually wear (or at least bring) heavy insulated winter mittens. These can be awkward to bicycle with (less handle-bar control), but if you’ve already got them, and you’re on a budget, they will do the job.
  • Hat/Neck Warmer/Balaclava 
These don’t have to be anything fancy, but they are essential.  I wear a super thin liner hat.  Anything thicker won’t fit easily under my helmet, and I find I don’t need the extra warmth.  I pair this with a light or medium-weight neck warmer that I can pull up to the edge of my goggles when needed, or pull down if I’m too hot.  On really cold days, I combine my hat-neck warmer standard with an additional full-coverage balaclava.  There are lots of super fancy bike-specific balaclavas out there, but after much hand-wringing last year, I found that the basic hiking balaclava I already had did the trick.  This gives me one extra layer and a little extra coverage on the coldest days.  The idea is that if necessary, with balaclava, hat, neck warmer and goggles, I can protect all the skin on my face from chilling winds, but still have the option to pull that neck warmer down if I’m over-heating and need some air.
  • Winter boots and socks
Fancy insulated winter bicycle shoes aren’t warm enough for a Minnesota winter.  Instead of spending the money on a pair of cycling shoes that won’t keep my toes from freezing on the coldest days, I just use my general, heavy-duty winter boots for winter cycling.  Inside my boots, I wear a heavy hiking sock.  It’s clunky and takes some getting used to, but I adjust to it pretty quickly, and it keeps me warm. I also replace my pedals with big platforms for the season.  Using platform pedals is an advantage for winter cycling because you can easily remove your feet from the pedals in an instant to avoid a fall or retain balance on an icy patch.
  • Layer up!
Underneath my jacket shell and rain pants, I layer up or down, depending on the temperature.  On the coldest days, I tend to wear three layers: 1) a light or medium-weight base layer, like merino wool long underwear.  I like Minus 33 brand base layers for tops and bottoms, but anything comparable will do the job; 2) Because I’m commuting and don’t want to change clothes completely upon arriving at my destination, I tend to wear a regular pair of pants over my base layer and under my rain shell.  This provides an extra layer of warmth and reduces the hassle of having to change.  On top, I wear a zip-up fleece on the coldest days over my base layer and under my wind-stopping jacket; 3) Finally, I suit-up with my wind-stopping layers (see above).
The Bicycle:
In addition to my wardrobe transformation, my bicycle has a winter make-over as well:
  • Studded Tires
These have been a life-saver. Trying to bicycle on narrow road or touring tires can be very dangerous in the snow or on ice.  As soon as there is ice on the road, switch out your slicks for a pair of studs, and witness the magic!  Sure, you go a lot slower, but winter biking isn’t about speed–it’s about getting outside everyday and staying alive to enjoy it.  I use Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires, but there are several brands that will serve the same function.  They aren’t the cheapest, but it has made a huge difference in my sense of safety and how and where I am able to ride. Make sure that they are sized to fit your wheels!
  • Lights, Bell, Rack, and Fenders
These are year-round accessories for me, but I think they are especially important for winter riding. A good head and rear light are super important for making sure you can see all the tricky ice patches ahead, and so that other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists can see you!  I’ve recently fallen in love with the Serfas True 505 headlight.  It’s USB rechargeable, easy to take on and off, and has excellent visibility. It’s pricey, though, so if you’re on a budget, just make sure you’re using a light strong enough to see and be seen.  I’ve used Planet Bike’s affordable SuperFlash rear light forever, and have no complaints.
Get a bell.  Get a rack.  Get fenders.  The bell makes me happy and makes me heard.  The rack saves my back from lugging all the stuff I need at my job or while I’m out on errands.  It also means that I don’t need to factor in how my temperature will change while riding and wearing a backpack.  When I do wear a backpack, I tend to get sweaty, but I’m not warmer, so I have a harder time knowing how to layer.  On my rack, I use a waterproof pannier.  There are lots of great options, including the very popular Ortlieb brand. They are quite expensive, but excellent quality.  I still use my Outdoor Pacific Equipment panniers, now called Hyalite Equipment panniers, which work great.  They are a little more affordable, but have a very similar design and, most importantly, they are totally waterproof. The fenders will save you and your bicycle from all kinds of grit and slush.  Not only will you arrive cleaner and drier, but your bicycle will be better protected from all the nasty salt, grit, and chemicals that cover roads in the winter.
  • The Fat Bike Question
I had never heard of a “Fat Bike” until I moved to Minnesota.  Here, I see them on mountain bike trails in good weather, and zooming along bike paths on the snowiest winter days.  I biked on my touring commuter bike all winter last year with the studded tires, and it got the job done very well.  But this year, I got to try a fat bike for the first time, and fell in love.  It is by no means necessary for safe and fun winter biking, but if you have the extra cash, the extra space, or you come across one on sale, it can be a really fun way to experience winter cycling.  We’ve only had one really snowy day so far this season, but when I took my fat bike out early in the morning before the plows had cleared away the several inches of snow from the bike paths, it felt so powerful to be able to bike through and over anything without fear of falling.  And I’m pretty sure I had the easiest, fastest, and most fun commute of anyone I know that day!  I hope to use both my fat bike and my every-day commuter this winter, depending on the conditions.
What factors do you take into account when you figure out what to wear in the morning?
I think about temperature, chance of precipitation, and whether I’ll be riding in daylight or in the dark.  If the temperature is in the 50s or 40s and clear, I’ll just wear one pair of pants, and a base layer on top with either a fleece or the wind-stopping jacket, but not both. I might wear a hat, and have the neck warmer just in case, but I’ll definitely wear some thin glove liners. In the 30s, I’ll definitely wear a hat, neck warmer, glove liners or Borealis gloves, but not both.  I’ll usually wear long underwear under my pants, but I won’t always wear the rain pants over that.  I will wear a base layer up top and my wind-stopping jacket.  Sometimes I’ll bring an extra fleece, but that’s usually too much warmth. In the 20s, I suit up completely: three layers on top, three layers on bottom, hat, neck warmer (plus balaclava on the coldest days), glove liners with Borealis gloves over them, clear goggles, and heavy winter boots.  When it’s raining or snowing heavily, I’ll replace my wind-stopping jacket with a raincoat.
Any lessons learned the hard way? 
I’ve fallen twice–once last winter, and once this winter.  Both times, I lost control of my bike while riding through a patch of very rutted ice.  This kind of ice usually occurs after there has been a partial thaw, which turns the ice and snow into slush, and then freezes again after lots of bicycles, cars, or feet have made lots of impressions and ruts in the now frozen-again ice.  In both cases, my bike lost traction when it got steered by a rut in another direction, causing me to lose balance and perform a rather impressive full-frontal asphalt-flop.  In both cases, I didn’t yet have my studded tires on, and I was going too fast.  I’m pretty sure that if my studs had been on, I first of all would  have been biking more slowly out of necessity, and secondly, I think I would have retained traction and control more easily due to the grip of the studs.  Luckily, both falls occurred while cycling on an off-street bike path, so cars were not an added danger.  When I share the road with cars while winter biking, I am always careful to bicycle more slowly, and take up more of the lane.  The on-street bike paths are often icier or snowier than the main road, and can build up a gritty, icy snow-ledge between parked and moving cars.  I avoid the death-ledge at all costs–this is exactly the kind of thing that will result in a nasty fall, and falling on the street is something I’d really like to avoid.
 Anything else that comes to mind.
Do it!!  Biking in all weather year-round is great for so many reasons: it gets me outside and celebrating the day even in the dreariest weather; it keeps me active during the hibernation season; it saves me money on other forms of transportation; it allows me to be independent and control my commute time more easily; it makes me feel like I’m doing my small part in making environmentally conscious, sustainable decisions; and also, I just love biking.