Are you ready to cruise beyond fair-weather bike commuting and continue to ride all throughout the year? Read on for some tips and tricks to keep you and your bike happy all winter!
Clothing and General Preparedness
Winter biking calls for quite a few more layers and accessories than summer biking. If you are used to commuting in fair weather, plan for a winter commute to take a little longer. If the roads are slushy or slick, you’ll want to ride a bit slower and start braking sooner to play it safe. You’ll also probably need a little more time to layer up before leaving the house, and to de-layer once you get to work. If you haven’t done much winter riding before, it might be a good idea to do a test ride to your work and back so you know what to expect. Keep in mind that main roads are typically plowed before side roads, so if you’re comfortable riding on busier streets they may be easier to navigate.
Some people may opt for a full outfit change once they get to work, or even a shower if your workplace offers that. If you have a fairly short commute, it might be easier to wear your typical work clothes with a few layers on top, that way you won’t have to peel off any base layers when you get to work. Here are a few tips for gear and layering:
- A roomy outermost layer allows you to add bulky, warm layers underneath while still maintaining mobility. Alternatively, a warm vest over other layers can help keep your core warm while maintaining full range of motion in your arms.
- Keep in mind that different conditions will elicit different outerwear! You may opt for rain pants and a waterproof shell on slushy days, but insulating down pants and a puffy jacket on those cold, frigid mornings.
- The days are also much shorter and more overcast in the winter, so it’s a good idea to have a reflective layer with you as well.
- You can layer a hat, balaclava, or headband underneath your bike helmet to keep your ears warm. Your helmet should still fit snugly to your head as usual, so make sure your ear warmer of choice isn’t too bulky. Author’s Pick: a Skida brand balaclava.
- If you have a ski helmet, that will also provide ample warmth and protection for winter cycling. These have fewer vents than bike helmets and often come equipped with pads that cover your ears.
- A jacket hood that is able to fit over your helmet is helpful for warmth and precipitation protection.
- Ski goggles can be very useful for winter biking, both on very cold days and days when it is actively snowing! Author’s Pick: Outdoor Master goggles.
- A neck warmer is a good accessory for chillier days, especially if your jacket doesn’t zip all the way up to your chin. On the coldest days, you’ll want to minimize exposed skin!
Legs & Feet
- For flat pedals, insulated waterproof boots are a great option for winter riding. Author’s Pick: Lowa Renegade Warm GTX.
- Winter-specific biking boots, such as the ones made by 45NRTH are awesome if you prefer to ride clipless in the winter (there are options available with and without cleats). You could also use neoprene booties or toe covers on your existing clipless shoes.
- Battery-powered heated socks and disposable toe warmers can be a total game-changer, and they also aren’t bike specific! These can be used for winter hiking, skiing, camping, etc.
- Gaiters are a useful piece of gear designed to cover the vulnerable space where the top of your shoe meets your ankle or leg. They keep out moisture and debris.
- Battery-heated gloves and mittens also exist! Similar to the socks, these can be a great and versatile piece of winter gear for many activities. Disposable hand warmers can also be placed inside analog mittens or gloves.
PRO TIP: Almost all of the items mentioned above can often be found on consignment at OGE! The basement of bargains is a magical place if you’re into saving money and giving gear new life!
The Winter Bike Itself
There are no rules about what you can and cannot ride during the winter, but there are definitely some things to consider that could improve your winter commuting experience. If at all possible, it is recommended that you have a secondary (beater) bike for winter riding. Northeast winters are not kind to bikes, with salt and slush contributing to corrosion and wear of your components.
If having a secondary bike is not an option, just be sure to regularly clean and maintain your bike throughout the winter. If you have a secondary bike designated for winter riding, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy! Searching Craigslist and other online markets for cheap, old mountain bikes is often the move. These bikes typically have strong steel frames, wide tire clearance, and flat handlebars (these can be good for stability on slushy days).
Here are a few other recommendations to consider for a winter bike:
On messier days, fenders will protect you (and your pants!) from being sprayed by slush and debris.
Rear view Mirror
When bundled up on colder days, it can be hard to hear cars coming and even harder to turn your head to look for them. A handlebar or helmet-mounted mirror allows you to see what’s behind you with just a quick glance!
No tires are completely immune to slipping, but studded winter tires will certainly offer more traction on ice. Wide tires with big knobby tread will also typically provide ample grip on slipperier days, so if that’s what’s already on your bike you might not need to change anything!
Fat bike tires (for fat bike-specific wheels) also offer strong stability and are a great option for riding on snow and trails.
Considering that you will often be riding wearing bulky gloves or mittens, a shifter that is easy to maneuver without a lot of dexterity will be very helpful! For flat bars, some good options are grip shifters and thumb shifters. For drop bars, bar end shifters or downtube shifters are also recommended.
Bikes have two main styles of brakes: rim or disc. While both are totally capable on a winter bike, there are some benefits to disc brakes that are worth discussing. For a disc brake, the braking surface is a small metal rotor attached to the hub of your wheel. Being in the center of the wheel, this rotor is a bit more protected from the salt, grit and oil on the road than the rim of a wheel is. A rim is riding right through puddles and uncleared snow, making it easier for debris to contact the braking surface. A messy braking surface can affect your braking power, and it can also cause the brake pads and the surface itself to wear out faster. However, rim brake pads are typically easier to access and clean if troubleshooting is ever required, so both brakes have their strengths!
As you are more likely to be leaving work in the dark during the winter, lights are an essential part of winter commuting. Batteries in lights will die faster in cold temperatures, so try to charge them more regularly and bring them inside whenever you can. One way to guarantee that you always have charged lights is by running a dynamo hub wheel! A dynamo hub produces electricity as you ride, and can be used to power lights or charge other devices.
An internal hub is another good option for a winter bike, because it encloses and protects a large portion of the drivetrain. Instead of having a cassette and a derailleur for the rear wheel, internal hubs remove these external components and operate by allowing you to change gears all within a closed system. This reduces the upkeep required on gears and derailleurs, but you will still have to maintain the chain as usual. If you are curious about either of these hub options (dynamo or internal) or wondering if they could work with your bike, come chat with us at the service desk any time!
Maintaining Your Winter Bike
Cleaning, maintaining, and properly storing your bike are especially important for winter riding. The basics will be outlined here, but if maintenance feels intimidating or could present a barrier to you riding through the winter, OGE is here to help! The service department is offering Winter Commuting Packages (new this year!) that include a set amount of winter-specific cleanings and care for your bike at a heavily discounted price.
One of the best things you can do to keep your winter bike happy and prolong its lifespan is to store it inside. Even better if you are able to store it inside a heated space! Shelter will reduce your bike’s exposure to the elements, and heat will allow all the slush that you pick up on a ride to melt off your bike instead of sinking in and accelerating the rust and corrosion process. If you don’t have access to a garage, basement, or mud room for storage, you can always put down an old towel wherever there is space in an apartment and wheel the bike right inside with you. The towel can catch whatever melts off the bike, and then you can stare longingly at your bike while being cozy inside. A kickstand is recommended so that you can easily prop your bike up anywhere and know that it will be stable.
You will want to regularly clean the frame and drivetrain with warm soapy water. Any degreasing dish soap will be great. You want to remove salt and grit to keep parts of your bike from rusting, corroding, seizing, and just wearing out in general. If you don’t have a space to use a soapy bucket of water on your bike, you can dump a bucket of warm water over your bike before bringing it inside to rinse off some of the salt and grit. Isopropyl alcohol is a good substance for cleaning braking surfaces as it does not leave any residue that could contaminate the pads.
After washing your bike, it is equally important to LUBRICATE! The chain is the most crucial part to keep well lubricated, but other areas can benefit from lubrication as well. If you have externally routed cables, you can apply lubricant where the cable enters the housing. This will help your shifting and braking to remain smooth and responsive. Spoke nipples (where the spoke attached to the rim on a wheel) also have a tendency to corrode and seize, and a drop of lubricant on each nipple from time to time can help prevent this process. Lubing pivot points on derailleurs can help them continue to shift smoothly and quietly. Wet lube is a good option for your chain on messy winter days as it will not get washed away as easily. For lubricating the other parts of the bike, a deep penetrating lubricant such as Tri-Flow will do the trick.
You will want to check your hubs and bearings more often to see if they are developing play. Hubs and headsets can be adjusted and re-greased to prevent them from wearing out as quickly. Re-greasing your seatpost and pedal threads can also keep them from corroding and seizing in the future. You’ll want to keep an eye on your brake pads and braking surfaces, as sloppy winter roads can wear these down faster. Lastly, make sure the tread on your tires is still fresh enough to give you good traction!
To summarize, here is a checklist of general upkeep and things to keep an eye on:
Winter Bike Care Checklist
Cleaning & Maintenance
- Clean and lubricate your chain regularly
- Rinse off grit from derailleurs, hubs, bearings, and braking surfaces
- Lubricate cables inside of housing
- Lubricate spoke nipples
- Lubricate pivot points on derailleurs
- Re-grease seat post and pedal threads
Keep an Eye Out For:
- Play in the wheel hubs, bottom bracket, and headset
- Worn out brake pads and braking surfaces
- Dry rot or worn out tread on tires
Hopefully now you know a bit more about winter biking than before, and you feel empowered to take on the roads any day of the year! If you have any additional questions, feel free to stop by the tech desk to pick the brains of the service department. We’re happy to chat and share knowledge any day!
About the Author: Deb Kraft (she/her) is one of our talented service techs here at Outdoor Gear Exchange. Read Deb's OGExpert profile here.