THE CONVENIENT CYCLIST

Winter is coming: Ready to keep biking?

Rear wheel splashing through mud during winter riding
Winter riding is tough on bikes. But with a little effort, you’re up to the challenge.

In the summer of 2020, millions of people bought new bikes or dusted off and repaired their old bikes to take advantage of a bicycle’s unique appeal for safe social distancing. But now the weather is changing, efficiently sorting bike riders by attitude into three camps…

Fair-weather riders. If you’re this type of rider, biking is what you do when everything else is perfect: temperature, sunlight–maybe even someone to share the ride. Outside of that, hang it up.

young woman with flowers and a bike
“Well…that was nice. I’ll ride again when it gets warm next May.”

Opportunistic riders. If you’re this type of rider, you’re looking for a lucky break–specifically, a break in the weather when you’re lucky enough to get on a bike. Here in the Seattle area, we actually call those moments “sun breaks,” and have big plans for when we get one in the Winter.

woman peering through blinds
“Can I ride now…? How about now?”

Dedicated riders. If you’re this type of rider, Winter is just another season. Steel yourself to power through the toughest times outside, and it will just make the arrival of Spring all that more spectacular.

winter riding cyclist commuting in a downpour
“I’ve been meaning to wash my bike off anyway…”

The point is, Winter riding is first about attitude, not aptitude. Anyone can ride in tough weather; you just need to want it enough to prepare like the kind of rider you want to be.

How much riding do you still want to do? After all, it might be a while until everyone around you has gotten a COVID vaccine…

No matter what type of rider you are, winterize your bike.

bike in the snow against a tree after winter riding
Rain and snow are tough on a bike. To make your bike last longer, bring it inside.

If you’re a fair-weather rider, “winterizing” means finding a way to get your bike out of the way until Spring. This happens only once a year, so you can get away with taking a wrench to it, flattening it by turning the bars sideways, removing the pedals, and putting it against a wall.

Opportunistic riders have a bit more of a challenge. You’ll want your bike tucked out of the way when you’re not riding, but also want it to convert to riding mode at a moment’s notice, with no tools. The Flatten Your Bike Kit from Flatbike is a good way to do that.

Bike conveniently  flattened with a Flatten Your bike kit.
George sent us this photo of his conveniently flattened MTB.

You’ll also want a good set of fenders. Our favorites are those that can be easily removed with no tools, for when the weather is nice enough for a fender. SKS has some nice ones.

Back spray from having no rear fender during winter riding
How do you know if you need a rear mudguard? Oh… you’ll know.

Next, with days getting shorter, you’ll also need lighting—not just for you to see the road, but for others to see you. Anything with USB charging is a good choice. And your rear light is just as important as your front, to protect against distracted drivers coming from your blind spot.

Finally…tires. In wet weather and especially snow, every bit of traction matters. Wider tires are better, and if you’ve got more than water on the road, knobby tires are better still.

Your bike is now fully winterized. Now we need to winterize you!

Three basic rules for what a Winter cyclist should wear.

  1. First, layers. This isn’t much different from going for a high-altitude hike. You’re trying to do simultaneously opposing things–keeping cold out while also moving heat away from your body so you don’t sweat and get cold from the inside.

    For your base layer, this means anything but cotton. Search for any shirt that makes a claim of “moisture wicking.” Not only will it be less wet, but this type of shirt feels awesome against your skin. You’ll be hooked!
wicking diagram for winter riding
Wicking moves heated air away while keeping outside water from coming in. Magic!

Your middle layer can be anything that adds warmth. Wool, more wicking stuff–anything that helps you feel warmer. And if you get too hot later, this is the layer you shed.

Your outer later is a waterproof “shell” to stop the wind and downpours. Whether you use a rain coat or a rain poncho, it should have enough coverage that your lower back doesn’t get wet. Combine it with rain pants to make the rain so inconsequential that you can stand at a bus stop in a ripping deluge and casually say to the guy next to you, “Nice weather, eh?”

2. Extremity coverage. Your hands and feet will be the first to complain about a cold, wet ride. So give them extra care. Wear waterproof gloves. Still too cold? Wear mittens that allow your fingers to touch. Still too cold? Here’s what they do in Minnesota…

Bar Mitts for winter riding
Bar Mitts: Neoprene mittens that stay on your bike and create air space.

Similarly, you want to create air space with your feet. Fluffy wool socks are good. Oversize shoes are good too. And there are neoprene shoe covers as a waterproof shell, but some folks just use a plastic baggie over each sock in their shoes and pocket the deferred purchase costs. Whatever works!

2. Visibility. It’s dark in the evenings. This is not the time to look cool in black jacket and black pants. Look visible! I personally admit to wearing plain black rain pants out of purchase convenience, but my commute home is still fully visible thanks to reflective dots all over my light grey cycling rain coat and reflective bars on my gloves that shine whenever I signal for a turn.

So now you’re warm, dry, and visible. What’s next?

Developing new winter processes.

If Winter riding is about attitude, this is where that attitude becomes real. You can’t purchase your way into a good Winter habit; you’ll need to do the thinking and planning to overcome these three obstacles.

woman showering after winter riding
  1. Where do you clean up? Whether you’re coming in on a frigid day or a wet and mucky one, you’ll want to change out of those clothes, take a nice shower, and put those clothes someplace convenient to warm up or get dry for the ride back. If you don’t have access to a shower and locker room at work, then maybe your Winter riding is a loop from home outside of work hours.
  2. How does your bike clean up? Most of your bike can handle grit and road grime fine, but your chain is 116 moving parts (that all rust), and your brake pads can have bits of rock that will scratch your rims or discs. You’ll need one rag for cleaning grit off your rims, brake discs, and frame, another one that will get black and greasy for cleaning off your chain, and a third that gets clean and oily for gently applying chain oil back on your bike. This doesn’t have to be at work! But where and when?
  3. When do you need to not be on your bike? Here at Flatbike, there are days when I need to cross over a busy highway and ship a bike at UPS. Those are days for my truck, not my bike. When are you carrying bulky stuff, driving to an offsite work meeting, or anything else that requires a car-based approach? Planning is key.

Ultimately, cycling in inclement weather is a lifestyle choice, made by desire or necessity, but requiring preparation either way. If COVID social distancing isn’t enough to push you into it, here are a few benefits to pull you, from a Spokane blogger about what she values about Winter riding:

  • Zero worries about whether the car will start in the cold and no windshield scraping–my motor doesn’t freeze up and I don’t have windows.
  • The feeling of fellowship with whoever rode in the bike lane before me and left a track.
  • The childlike feeling of glee at being the first to ride in the bike lane and leave a track in the untouched snow.
  • The realization that cold weather just isn’t as—well—cold as people seem to think it is if you get out and move around a little.
  • A sincere appreciation for my warm house and a hearty bowl of soup at the end of the ride home.
  • An awareness of the difference between the soft black of a summer night and the crisp black of a winter night.
  • The joy of riding my bike.

Happy riding, whatever Winter brings you.

Bob Forgrave
President, Flatbike

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