I’ve had bicycles off and on since childhood, and for a period of several years a borrowed cruiser was my primary transportation in the warmer months. I certainly didn’t consider myself a cyclist, and my son’s cycling skills were exponentially better than mine in no time.
Last year, however, we decided to take my love of camping and exploring, and my kiddo’s love of cycling, and merge them into one epic vacation. We rode our bikes from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. along the Great Allegheny Passageway and the Chesapeake & Ohio canal towpath. To say it changed my life is an understatement, and I’m now madly in love with seeing my world from a saddle at 10mph (I am definitely slow). Even though I rode all summer, I still feel like I’m learning from scratch because my body and physical ability is quite different now than when I last rode regularly more than ten years ago.
I’ve never ridden a bike during winter, and in fact until mid-summer 2016 I didn’t know what most parts of a bicycle were even called (saddle? you mean the seat, right? aaaaahh so much to learn!).
Between internet research, a really fabulous local bike shop and community, and a very generous bike loan from my kiddo who’s at college, I’ve managed to outfit my son’s mountain bike for winter commuting.
I live in a metro area in the upper Midwest that gets a fair amount of snow and ice, leaving the bike lanes on roads rutted by mid-winter and often throughout early spring. The off-road bike trails here are usually very well-maintained (often through separate city or county budget items so their schedule isn’t tied to road snow removal), but my winter commute is mostly on the street. I surveyed every local cyclist I met about winter tires, and consulted my shop, and set up the bike based on the conditions I assumed I’d be riding in.
While most cyclists may say any bike can make a decent winter bike, there are definite advantages to a newbie like me in having someone knowledgable convert a very nice ride into a winter beast. Less overall maintenance (since I don’t know how to do a lot yet), better ride quality (more noticeable on long rides), and most of all, we already had the bike 🙂
The bike itself
Being a new rider whose handling skills aren’t yet very good, I think the most important decision was switching from my regular bike with drop handlebars (like you see on road racing bicycles) to a mountain bike with straight handlebars. The straight bars give me more control over the steering and brakes while I’m wearing thick gloves and 137 layers of clothing. This setup also puts me in a more vertical body and neck position than my regular bike, which makes me a little bit more visible to drivers and also helps my own vision a tad.
I am lucky that my son and I are close enough in height it was easy to fit his bicycle to my body (with the help of bike shop eyes). Making sure your bike actually fits properly is the biggest factor in how comfortable you will be while riding. My son’s arm and torso length is bit longer than mine, but I’m riding shorter distances in the winter so it’s ok, and being stretched a little bit there is much better than being too cramped.
For my road conditions, studded tires give me so much peace of mind and have already proven themselves more than once. I rode in a group ride during a freezing rain event where it was scary to put my foot down because the road surface was so icy, but my tires didn’t slip at all, even on (slow) downhill turns. The falls and slide-outs on ice in the group all happened to riders with regular tires. I chose the Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tires based on my shop’s recommendation and the rave reviews of everyone else I asked.
The saddle, or seat, is the second most important factor in comfort on the bicycle. When I first started riding again last spring, I quickly realized that my body did not get along with the saddle that came with my bike. Thanks to REI’s generous return policy, I tried multiple saddles and found one that has a center cutout in the right spot for how I sit and lean while I’m riding. Making sure the saddle is the proper height is also important – too low and the rest of your body’s angles are affected, too high and your hips will “rock” causing bruising or soft tissue chafing.
My winter commute is entirely in the dark. My area is used to seeing cyclists all year, but I still light up much more aggressively than I do at night in the summer. I want to be seen from the front and back, but also from the sides. I do use blinking modes in city traffic, as I’ve noticed when I’m driving they stand out to me much better than solid light patterns. I currently use two headlights, one on a blinking mode aimed slightly downward so it isn’t blinding to drivers, and one on a bright enough setting to see dips and ruts in the roadway myself. I use a blinking taillight that is mounted to the post under the seat, and another clipped to my backpack. So far I haven’t had trouble with the rechargeable lights malfunctioning in below zero temps, but on longer rides I carry cheap AAA-operated backups in my inner coat pocket just in case.
I also use battery-operated spoke lights to be better seen from the side. I get a lot of comments on them at stoplights, and once had a waste company truck driver stop to yell out that he loved them and could tell I was a bike from halfway down the alley. One of my headlights also has side-lights for better visibility.
I have full coverage fenders on both wheels. The front fender needed to be cut and specially installed because of the suspension on the mountain bike. This bike allows me to “lock” the suspension which is recommended as the fluid can become thicker in our winter temperatures, and suspension isn’t necessary – even with our potholes 😉 This model of fender also has mudflaps for extra protection. I chose the full coverage instead of a more typical “blade” type fender because I do often have other cyclists behind me, and the blade style only protects your own backside. The front fender gives decent protection to my legs and feet.
I have one gear 🙂 The bicycle I rode all summer is also a single speed, as was my beach cruiser for years before, and I love the simplicity while riding. For winter riding, it’s even more simple – no fussy shifting mechanics to try to keep clean and lubricated. For me, the simpler the better as I still have a lot to learn about caring for my bikes.
There are a lot of different options for pedals on the market, but I’m a beginner who is already worried about handling ability so regular ol’ platform pedals it is. For winter I have an inexpensive pair of mountain-bike style nylon pedals with small knobs for better grip. In my climate, metal pedals can act as a heat sink, causing your feet to be cold.
Just for fun
My bicycle mechanic handmade my pogies (or bar mitts) and for longer rides they are absolutely fantastic — totally wind-proof, and I can take my gloves off and just wear liner gloves. If I had gears this would be invaluable for being able to shift more easily. As it is, I find that they keep my forearms warm as well, which seems to make my upper body feel warmer overall. Even though they weren’t needed to be comfortable enough, I have been happily surprised at the difference and am always happy to support local makers and creators.
The majority of winter bicyclists I’ve talked to pick up a cheap beater bike for the season. A handful have higher end bicycles just for winter. Everyone I’ve spoken with so far knows how to do fairly extensive repairs and maintenance. I’m not yet at that level, so I feel that my investment in having my bike set up by my shop was a great decision. Could I have ridden for commuting without all the extras? Sure! Could I have waited a season and sourced items used? Probably! My son rode his regular road bike with skinny tires for multiple winters in high school. But I’m at an age where I can finally appreciate the wisdom in doing things right instead of forcing myself to make do to the point of discomfort and resentment. I budgeted for the expense as I would my car, and I think the combination of things I already had (lights and pedals) and items I purchased (fenders, tires, pogies) have added up to a commuting machine that I truly enjoy.