Winterizing Your Ride

The seasons they are a-changin'. Warm, sunny summer rides are soon to become a thing of the past here in the northern hemisphere... until next spring. But you don't have to stop riding your bike everywhere! With a little forethought and some cold weather gear, you can enjoy fresh air and endorphins all year long.

What kind of winterizing you need to do depends on your climate. It doesn't have to be a big production, and you might just need to put on a couple extra layers and hop back on your bike. Keep your climate in mind when you consider the following.

GEAR

As the days get shorter and the mornings and evenings get darker, lights become an absolute necessity. We covered these in some detail in our article, See and Be Seen: A Guide to Bike Lights. When it's raining or otherwise precipitating, we recommend keeping your lights on all the time.

Fenders keep water and mud and other road gunk from spraying up onto your feet and clothes. Without fenders, you might arrive at your destination with soaked socks, even if it's not actively raining, just from the water that's being thrown up by your tires.

The closer your fenders fit your tires, and the longer the fenders, the better. Often a close fit is easier said than achieved, however, and high-quality, close-fitting fenders can be both expensive and a real pain to install.

At the other end of the spectrum are simple fenders that attach to your seatpost (rear) or your downtube (front) and will fit almost any bike. These probably won't keep your feet dry, but they'll prevent the worst of the muck from staining the back of your jacket, if nothing else. The Crud Catcher Front Fender, for example, does exactly what it sounds like, and it's cheap: ten bucks. The SKS X-tra Dry Rear Fender is similar. If you're a DIY type or on a $0 budget, you can make your own fenders out of an old tire, a campaign sign, or a bunch of old water bottles!

For a better fit that's still convenient even if your bike doesn't have fender mounts, try SKS's Race Blade fenders, which are designed to fit most road bikes by attached with simple rubber straps to the seatstays and front fork. If you do have fender mounts, or you're good at jury-rigging attachment points, the next step up is a set of plastic full (i.e. longer) fenders from Planet Bike. They come in sizes to fit most wheels. Speedez XL fenders are sized for mountain or cyclocross bikes, and Cascadia fenders will fit most road bikes--plus, they come with mud flaps for extra protection.

If you'll ride more often in fairly dry snow than in rain, you might want to skip the close-fitting fenders--snow will get packed between your tire and fenders and add a lot of drag.

Next, consider your tires.

Avoid assuming that more tread means more traction--that's not true if you're riding on hard, paved surfaces. More rubber contacting the road is better, so stick to slicks for street riding. Bicycle tires can't hydroplane (see Sheldon Brown), so you don't need to worry about tread for that reason. However, some tire manufacturers make slicks with "water channels" and inverted tread patterns that theoretically help keep water from flying off your tire into your face (or, hopefully, your fender).

When it rains, the water on the road brings bits of glass and debris out of the cracks in the pavement to the surface, where they can get stuck to your wet tires and work their way in to puncture your tubes. So extra puncture protection can be a real boon in the winter. Tires like the Continental Ultra Gatorskin and the Schwalbe Marathon Plus will protect your tubes from the worst road gunk. However, these tires tend to be made of a more rigid rubber than less puncture-resistant tires, which can make them slippery on wet roads. You can get good grip from these tires if they're wide enough, so consider getting the widest size you can fit on your frame.

If your bike will only fit skinny road tires, you might want to consider a more supple rubber compound, such as that found in not particularly puncture-resistant road tires. Slicks that are marketing as having "good grip" or being "supple" are the way to go here. They are, however, more prone to flatting. Consider adding a tire liner to your tire to help keep debris from working its way in. These aren't fool-proof, though, and some folks will tell you that they cause more flats than they prevent, by catching the rubber at the point where their ends overlap. Thicker, beefier tubes might help.

For snow riding, winter cycling site IceBike.org recommends mountain bike tires with open treads for rougher snowy riding, with plenty of space between the lugs, to avoid snow compacting between them. For road riding in light snow, they suggest lower-profile tires with inverted treads, such as the Continental Town and Country. Lower your tire pressure for extra contact with the road.

If you're going to be riding on actual ice, think about buying a set of studded tires. If you can only afford one, put it on your front wheel--as long as you can steer your front wheel right, the rear will generally follow.

There's a DIY solution to this, too. Several tutorials on the web explain how to add studs to existing tires using ordinary screws from a hardware store. See here and here for examples.

MAINTENANCE

Regular maintenance is especially important in the winter. Before you go on a long ride, or on a regular basis, clean dirt and debris off of your bike and check for loose bolts or worn parts. Make sure your quick-release skewers, if you have them, are tight enough. Keep your chain well-lubed, especially if it's been raining, and make sure your tire pressure is adequate. As mentioned above, many riders like to lower their tire pressure somewhat for a bigger contact patch on the road, but be aware that this can increase your risk of pinch flats.

Check your brakes and make sure they're functioning well. A slippery road is the last place you want to discover that you should have replaced your cables or a bolt is loose somewhere. Check the wear on your brake pads if you have rim brakes, and consider replacing your pads, worn or not, with a type that works well in the rain--we recommend Kool Stop's salmon-colored "wet condition" pads. They'll perform well when it's dry, too.

If you can, familiarize yourself with the way your bike handles and brakes in rain before you're out in traffic! Watch out for slippery wet leaves and metal on the road (such as manhole covers).

CLOTHING

If you're working hard, you heat up easily, but if you're going downhill or you've got a tailwind, you'll cool down again quickly. And if you're not a little chilly when you first start out, you'll be sweaty and overheated after five or ten minutes. So how do you stay warm--but not too warm--on a winter ride? The key word is layers, which allow you to easily adjust your temperature to keep comfortable.

In particular, think about your extremities. While you ride, your hands are on your handlebars in front of you, exposed to the elements. A warm pair of gloves will help you feel cozy. If they're wind-proof and waterproof, so much the better! You can even layer your gloves, if one pair isn't thick enough, or if your water-resistant pair isn't very warm.

If your hands are still cold, consider a pair of "lobster claw" gloves. Like a mitten with the main pocket split in two, these are warmer than regular five-finger gloves but allow for more dexterity than mittens, so you can shift and brake with ease.

If it's really, really cold, get yourself a pair of pogies. Pogies are mitts that were originally designed for kayakers--they fit around a kayak paddle so a paddler can hold onto the paddle itself, without gloves getting in the way, and still stay warm. Someone had the bright idea that they'd work well for cyclists, too, and indeed, pogies designed to fit on mountain bike handlebars are very popular among riders in cold climates. Trail's Edge makes pogies for drop bars, too, though they look a little less cozy than the flat bar type.

Wear warm shoes and thick socks (wool, if possible). If you have waterproof boots, wear them! If you don't, or if you use clipless pedals, get a pair of shoe covers.

Scarves and neckwarmers will warm you and keep wind and water out of your jacket, and a scarf is relatively easy to pull off while you're riding if you get too warm (just make sure it doesn't get caught in your spokes!). If you need extra warmth, balaclavas designed for winter snow sports will help you out.

One of the easiest ways to regulate your temperature and comfort level is via your head. If it's really cold outside, a cozy wool hat worn underneath your helmet will make a world of difference. If it's just a little chilly, leaving the hat at home will help keep you from sweating in your rain jacket (or whatever). If you want to keep your ears warm without getting too hot, you can buy low-profile "bandless ear muffs" that fit comfortable around your ears without interfering with your helmet straps. Or, if you're crafty, you can knit your own specially-designed ear warmers that attach neatly to your helmet.

As far as the rest of your clothes go, avoid cotton! Stick to wool and synthetic fibers. Cotton stops being warm and insulating when it gets wet, so that if you start sweating you'll arrive at your destination feeling cold and clammy. (And if you forget your rain jacket, well...) Wool, on the other hand, stays warm regardless, and tends to be less stinky, besides. As a result, it's developed a reputation as a sort of miracle fiber, and for good reason! Merino wool is more comfortable and classy-looking than high-tech synthetics, and it performs as well.

If you hate getting wet, or need to wear somewhat nice clothes while you ride, invest in rain gear: a good waterproof jacket and a pair of rain pants. You do get what you pay for with these--cheaper gear will be less durable and less waterproof, or else basically made of unbreathable plastic that will have you wet anyway from your own sweat. Rain tends to dull color, so think about wearing bright colors (or investing in a brightly-colored rain jacket) for extra visibility.

Showers Pass makes waterproof cycling clothing out of eVent™ fabric, which is as waterproof as GoreTex™ but even more breathable. Their Elite 2.0 jacket is pretty much the ultimate in cycling-specific raingear. The company is based in Portland, Oregon, where they know rain and bikes.

Some folks like wearing rain ponchos, which they can stretch over a bag or backpack and which partially protect the thighs as well. Specially-made ponchos, or "rain capes," which reach the handlebars, are another option. They do increase wind resistance, but for some riders they are a more practical option that rain pants that must be wiggled in and out of at every desination. A clever designer observed that the tops of riders' thighs get the wettest, and created easy-on-and-off protection for just the thighs: Rainlegs.

You'll figure out what kind of protection you need from the weather in your climate by riding. Don't stop riding, and add elements as you need to through the fall, and you're sure to be prepared and confident come the worst winter weather.

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