Riding a bike in the worst weather can be a huge challenge. Rain, snow, sleet, hail and wind can be significant barriers, and all but the hardiest riders will stay home. Some folks are made of tougher stuff, though, and they have figured out the tricks for riding in these harsh conditions. This will be the first article in a series of two dealing with the subject: look out for the second article soon. Now, let’s jump into it and learn some of the tricks of the hardiest riders in the world.
When it snows outside
When the snow falls, smart cyclists stay inside. Suffice it to say, some of us aren’t that smart. But in all seriousness, riding in the snow can actually be pretty safe if you do it right. First, forget about your road bike. Slick tires aren’t going to cut it; you will want something pretty knobby. A few companies even make studded bike tires especially for the winter. Whatever tires you use, be extra careful of cars (they can slide too) and try to take back streets. You will be riding a lot slower than usual at any rate.
Next, let a bit of air out of your tires. Running below maximum PSI will flatten your tire a bit for more contact with the road surface and better grip. Another pro tip: lower your saddle a bit; it will make it easier to stick out a leg to regain your balance. Watch out for ice, especially black ice that is hard to spot. Like in a car, steer into slides if you start to lose your grip. Fighting gravity will only put you on the ground quicker in this case! If you do take a tumble, try to roll into the fall and use your momentum to move sideways rather than straight down onto the hard ground (your body will thank you).
One last tip: wear appropriate clothing.
It’s a scorcher
On those really hot days when the mercury is soaring, cycling can be quite dangerous. It’s really best to avoid riding in the heat, but if you just can’t keep yourself off of the saddle, make sure to stay hydrated. Drink lots of water on these days — dehydration can occur more quickly than you think. The sidekick of water when it comes to tackling proper hydration is electrolytes — salts that keep your cells functioning smoothly. Make sure to use sports drinks or to eat plenty of snacks composed of varied foods with good nutrition. In all but the most extreme conditions, it’s probably better to get your electrolytes and energy from food rather than energy drinks.
A few more tips for the heat: make sure to use sunglasses and sunscreen. Sunburn ain’t fun, and squinting your way through the day because you forgot your shades will give you a splitting headache in no time. Another good trick that you may see on the Tour de France: if you have extra water, douse your jersey with it to quickly dissipate extra heat. The evaporation will pull heat away from your skin rapidly. If all else fails and you are overheating despite all efforts, take a break in the shade. Heat exhaustion is a serious condition and can become life threatening.
Raining cats and dogs
Whether you live in Seattle, Madison, Salt Lake or Miami, you are going to encounter some rain if you ride on a regular basis. Light rain usually isn’t a big deal, but heavy downpours can put a serious damper (ahem) on your ride. However, the focused rider can pedal through all but the worst rainstorm with the right gear and the right technique.
First up: rain gear. It’s pretty obvious, but if you want to ride in this sort of weather you will need some high-quality waterproof-breathable raingear. A $20 rain jacket from the department store isn’t going to cut it, nor is a thick rubberized jacket from the Army-Navy Surplus. No, for biking in serious rain you will want to look for a high-performance jacket built for cycling or other aerobic outdoor pursuits. Look for Gore-Tex, eVent or similar fabrics, long rear-panels and arms to cover your lower back and wrists, vents to let off steam, and bright, reflective fabrics.
You will want to look for the same high-quality gear for rain pants; it won’t do you much good to arrive at your destination dry on top and soaked down below. Make sure your rain pants aren’t too baggy to avoid getting caught in the gears. You will also need waterproof shoes (think hiking boots) or waterproof covers, which allow the use of clipless shoes. Some riders even use gaiters to cover any gap between their shoe and pant hem. Oh, and don’t forget the waterproof gloves!
With all this gear in place, now it’s time to mention safety. Rainy days are dark, so you will want to be extra visible to cars. Use bright, reflective clothing and bags, and make sure to use several bright, waterproof LED lights to show your position. Now just watch your speed around corners, and you should be ready to tackle some of the nastiest rainstorms.
When high winds rage across the landscape, cycling can be extremely difficult. Right up front we’d better say that sometimes biking is impossible (or impossibly dangerous) when it’s extremely windy — but there are some windy conditions that can be ridden in. Here are a few tips for getting it done.
If the wind is blowing from directly behind you, congratulations! You’re getting the best side of the wind without any of the drawbacks, and this article isn’t for you. However, if the winds are blowing from the sides or the front, this advice will apply to you. Read on and learn.
First, you will want to make sure to have the right posture. Try to block as little of the wind as possible — the less resistance you have, the better. Tuck your elbows in towards your body and bend forwards to show as small of a profile as possible. This will be tougher on a mountain bike, but try. Every little bit helps.
If other cyclists are around and are experienced with the technique, try drafting or forming an echelon formation to block as much of the wind as possible. If possible, try to take a route that sticks to low terrain — higher elevations are more likely to get blasted by the wind.
Along the same lines, try to secure any parts of your bicycle or clothing that may flap around in the wind, creating an annoyance or safety hazard and increasing your drag. Tuck in your jersey, tighten the straps and buckles on your bags, and make sure that everything is securely fastened. You don’t want a nasty surprise when a loose strap blows into your chain, do you?
Speaking of clothing, make sure that yours is appropriate to the conditions. Most often that wind is going to be chilly, so use a windproof or wind-resistant layer on the outside to help maintain body heat. Gloves and a hat or helmet liner can be pretty darn crucial in this type of weather.
Last but not least, let’s talk safety. Cycling in the wind can be dangerous, no doubt about it. It can blow you around, but it can also blow dust into your eyes, debris across the road, and even cause cars and trucks to swerve and drive erratically. Variable winds can also make drafting pretty dangerous, so pay close attention to the conditions and the riders around you. Be sure to give extra space between yourself and any of these obstacles on windy days. Basically, be especially careful and you should come out ok!
Freezing cold riding
Believe it or not, some people ride their bikes in temperatures well below zero. It ain’t easy, it ain’t necessarily fun, but it can be done. It may take a bit of a masochist to ride in these conditions, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes, right? Here are some tips for those extra cold days.
First up, if there is snow or ice on the ground, riding can be difficult. This section will focus on cold, not snow and ice — but when the two go together as they often do, follow the recommendations given in part one of this article for riding on these slippery surfaces.
The biggest thing to worry around when it is freezing cold is staying warm (not to put too fine a point on it, but duh), and this is where clothing comes in. When you ride in these conditions, you need a layering system that allows you to stay warm; transports moisture and sweat; protects against wind, rain, or snow; and can be removed in portions for variable conditions.
The foundation of your layering system should be a lightweight layer of polypro, silk, or long wool underwear. This layer provides warmth against the skin and helps move moisture away. The second layer should be a bit thicker and warmer — perhaps a fleece layer or a wind-resistant insulated softshell. This layer starts to provide insulation and also allows you to stay somewhat warm if you have to take off your upper layers.
The third layer should be something beefy — think a down jacket or something similarly puffy and insulated. This layer will provide the most warmth. Lastly, use a wind or waterproof outer layer to repel snow, rain, or other wind.
The reason a layer system works is because you can add or remove layers as needed. As you ride, you may warm up. This system allows you to remove the third (thick insulation) layer, replace the top layer, and go on your way with much more comfort. It’s best to avoid up-and-down routes in the winter, as constantly taking off and putting on layers can be a pain in the butt.
To make this system work, you will need the accessories to tie it all together: thick warm gloves (mittens don’t work so well for biking, so check out the “crab claw” designs), warm woolen socks, winter boots, and a warm hat or helmet liner (ideally wind-resistant to preserve your ears). With all that gear ready to go, you should be ready to ride. Enjoy it — you’ll likely have to bike paths to yourself!