For some, winter biking is unthinkable, completely insane and far too much of a hassle--but for others, it’s a lifestyle and a means of transportation. Whether it be on hot, dry asphalt in the heat of the summer or in January’s frigid weather, if you have to get from point A to point B, it’s going to be on a bike. Of course, this is not a decision to be taken lightly. This type of commute in the winter requires a certain amount of preparation, as much mental as material.
Read on to discover our tips for how to mentally prepare, how to dress appropriately to face harsh conditions, how to prep your bike, the accessories that will simplify your life, our advice for safe travels on snowy or icy paths, and finally, how to take care of your equipment all winter long.
Before diving headfirst into winter biking if this is your first season, it’s important to have the right mindset. Know that it will be cold, but it will also be fine.
First things first: you can’t rush. In the winter, there’s no need for speed—it’s important to be careful (for our own safety and for others), but also because we have no control over the weather or the road conditions. The same commute from home to the office that usually takes 30 minutes in the summer can easily take 45 minutes or even double in the winter if the roads are covered in snow. So, plan to leave early and ride carefully.
Temperature wise, we won’t hide the fact that it’s hard to face the cold day after day, but remember that by moving, you’ll generate heat. You might be cold for that first five minutes, but once you get going, you’ll warm up.
Speaking from experience, it’s also an excellent way to start your day thanks to the happy hormones like dopamine that your body produces when you exercise.
Dressing for winter sports is always a challenge in and of itself. We don’t want to be too hot, or too cold, or feel trapped in clothes that are too thick and limit movement.
Layering is always a good option for adapting your clothing to your resistance to cold as temperatures change. Here is a list of must-haves for your winter biking endeavours:
A windproof/waterproof jacket: the shell will shield you from the elements, keeping you warm and dry. A practical addition to look for is “pit zips” in case you heat up more than you thought you would once you get going.
A light to medium fill jacket: You don’t want something too thick, as it needs to fit comfortably under your windbreaker, and you don’t want to be too hot.
Base layers (ideally in merino wool): Merino wool and all its benefits have earned base layers a spot on our must-haves list. The layer can be thin and keep you warm even if you’re sweating in it. Look for merino wool in your shirts, undergarments and socks. If you can’t find or don’t have merino wool layers, look for breathable fabrics that release humidity, since you’ll likely be working up a sweat.
Windproof/waterproof pants: These will be practical not only in wind or snow, but will also protect your clothes from anything that might splash you—think puddles, slush and mud.
Rain boots/shoe covers/gaiters: These are optional depending on the intensity of your ride. A combo of rain boots and waterproof pants that cover to the ankle is a good option, but some prefer to add gaiters if their boots aren’t fully waterproof to getting the tops of their feet wet. Others prefer the full shoe cover option.
Gloves/mittens/lobster gloves: If you have a tendency to get frozen fingers, opt for mittens or lobster claws to retain as much heat as possible. If you prefer having more dexterity for changing gears, gloves (or even lobster gloves) will do the trick.
Clear ski goggles: These are a practical accessory for those who get teary-eyed in the cold. They’re also great for shielding your eyes from the wind and snow during a storm. The clear lenses are best as darkness comes early and these will allow you to see in all levels of light.
Visible colours: As mentioned above, darkness comes early, so be visible.
Before starting to soup up your bike for winter, it’s important to note that certain parts react better to cold and are better suited for all conditions than others, for example: the different types of brakes.
Here is our list, in order of preference, based on effectiveness in winter weather.
Hydraulic disc brakes: This type of brake responds much quicker than those on a rim, and the hydraulic system will never freeze within the brake housing. Moreover, having a brake system housed in the centre of the wheel reduces the chances of accumulations on the brake pads as the tire and the rim are the parts which will have the most contact with the elements on the road (snow, dirt, slush, salt).
Mechanical disc brakes: They respond quickly, have less likelihood of accumulating debris thanks to the central disc, but as the brake is activated by a cable, there is a chance they could freeze in very cold temperatures.
Cantilever brakes: These brakes are powerful for rim brakes, they offer good clearance if one wants to install permanent mud guards but also have the potential to freeze because of the cable in the housing.
V-brakes: These brakes are responsive and are usually the type of brake that can be seen on leisure bikes, but they’re not as powerful as the cantilevers. The same issue related to the cable freezing can occur with this type of brake.
Road rim caliper: The road caliper is the most limiting of all the options as it reduces the options for installing different sized tires. Note that studded tires always require more space above, and if the caliper is already quite close to a regular road tire, there’s a chance that studded tires simply won’t fit.
It’s important to verify the state of your brake pads, especially if your bike is equipped with rim brakes as the brake band is located on the rim. This is always going to come in contact with snow, slush and salt, making it more susceptible to collecting debris that can cause your brake pads to wear more quickly.
The brake pads on disc brakes will wear less quickly, but it’s always good to check on them from time to time.
A necessary modification for winter is changing your tires. Certain cyclists ride on studded tires, either with nails or studs, or nails on the front tire for better control and studs on the back tire. Overall, all options are good options, it’s about finding what works for you. Here is a comparison between the two options.
Metal studded tires: There are several types of tires with metal studs. Some have 100 metal studs throughout the 200+ rubber studs and others have up to 240 metal studs. The difference between these different models is the placement of the metal studs and the surface area they cover when making contact with the ground. 100 studs typically cover the central surface area in a zigzag formation, with the two rows of studs in the centre. Those with up to 240 studs cover the tire with four rows of studs : two central and two a little closer to the edge to create more grip when making turns.
Cons: When the roads are clear and there is no snow or ice, they’re noisy as you hear the sound of the metal studs hitting the ground. These tires are also heavier than regular studded tires and fall in a higher price range.
Studded tires: There is also a wide variety of options when it comes to “regular” studded tires, based on the type of grip you’re looking for as well as the size. Studded tires are practical in snow and allow for more traction. They’re also typically much lighter than tires with metal studs.
Cons: One of the only cons when compared to metal studded tires is that when making a turn where there’s black ice hidden under snow, you could be at a greater risk of falling as the tire won’t have traction.
The type of transmission on your bike can have an impact on the efficiency of your gear changes, especially in winter on some of those colder outings. Bikes equipped with internal gear hubs are typically hybrid or city commuter bikes.
Logically speaking, an internal hub is a type of transmission where the gear change is made within the hub itself. You won’t see any cassette or derailleur on a bike of this kind and even at first glance, it looks like a single-speed bike.
The advantage of a bike with this type of transmission is that the shifting mechanism is less exposed to elements like salt, snow, ice and rust.
Bikes with external gear are more likely to see the chain and cassette rust and seize, which can become problematic for the malleability of the chain as it passes through the derailleur pullies. Plus, if your winter bike is stored outdoors, it’s possible that ice will form between the sprockets in inclement weather.
It’s possible to brave winter with a bike alone, but certain accessories are out there that could make your life easier and more comfortable. Of course, none of these are required, but they exist to make your rides more enjoyable during these harsher months.
Mudguard set: Considered an almost necessary item, mudguards are super practical. With the changes in temperature causing snow to turn to slush in less than an afternoon, if you’re riding without mudguards, you’ll definitely notice it on your clothes.
Barmitts: These big handlebar mitts are great for keeping your hands warm. Thanks to these mittens that protect you from the wind and help retain heat, you won’t have to wear huge gloves to stay warm. There are models for all kinds of handlebars from road to bullhorn to straight handlebars. For straight handlebars there are even models that can be permanently fixed to the handlebars thanks to an attachment that screws through the mitt into the bar end.
Wet chain lube: Because of the cold, snow and other elements you’ll face, a thicker Wet type of chain lube is essential as it will last longer.
Head and tail lights: Being visible in the dark is essential. It’s important to equip yourself with lights as well as reflectors to reflect car headlights. Also remember that brightly coloured clothing will attract the attention of drivers.
In the wintertime, if you sometimes forget to add air to your tires, that’s A-Ok! It’s better to ride on a lower tire pressure as it creates more traction. Plus, because of the elements you’ll realize that you’re probably not picking up as much speed; this is normal and even recommended.
If you live in a big city and are lucky enough to have bike paths that are cleared year round, we highly recommend you take advantage. They’re the safest route, especially in winter.
If you don’t have access to bike paths, try to take the road less travelled. Because snow banks accumulate on either side of the street, they become narrower. This increases the chances of riding closer to cars and in the winter, we want to avoid this as much as possible in case of a slip or a fall.
During major snowstorms or freezing rain, the answer is clear: avoid going out and potentially putting yourself in danger. Use another method of transportation if you really need to get out.
It’s inevitable, your bike will always be dirty. It’s important to clean it regularly to remove salt and dirt, but also to avoid premature rusting of the bike’s components. Here's our guide on how to clean your bike.
A tip for those who do not have a garage at home: To avoid snow melting all over your floors and carpets after bringing your bike inside, invest in a sled where you can let the snow melt off. It will then be easier to clear without dirtying the rest of your house.
Tips for your lock: To avoid having your lock freeze during temperature swings and rain following extremely cold weather, consider adding chain lube to your lock’s mechanism as well as its keyhole.
Cycling in the winter is not as hard to manage as it may seem. When you’re well prepared, both mentally and with the right equipment, it can be a lot of fun. You should try it!