Winter Riding (Ice Biking) on the Road

Winter Riding

Riding in the winter can be safe and a lot of fun. There are different elements that need to be taken into account when riding outdoors in the winter in Michigan that w don’t worry about in the brighter months. There’s 4 things that we need to take into great consideration: temperature, darkness, snow, and ice. I will give some suggestions on making riding in the winter more fun and safer. This guide is meant to help those who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to winter cycling and in no way are these rules of what does and doesn’t work, we are all built a little differently. If there are things you still have questions about, your local bike shop will be a great source for information.

Temperature

First off, temperature considerations. The key to dealing with the winter cold is to cover up in layers. A base layer and outershell are the most important aspects, something to block the wind and something to help hold the heat in while moving the sweat out. A thermal mid layer is good for when it starts getting really cold, for me that’s under 20ºF. 2 base layers is also an option. Moisture wicking fabrics help greatly for longer rides because once the material gets wet it starts to transfer the heat away from the body more, making you colder.

If layered properly you should start cold, you’ll warm up, start to sweat, chill off slightly, and then you should level off to being at a comfortable temperature with some fluctuation based on your efforts. Trial and error is the best way to find what works since we all acclimate to the cold a little differently. I’ve found the more I ride in the cold, the more heat my body seems to generate on it’s own. For the legs, the only different consideration that from the torso is that you just want to make sure when you’re layering that you don’t get too much bunching in the crotch or behind the knees, this can cause discomfort.

Hands and feet take special considerations when staying warm. Because they are 2 of the 3 points of support with the bike, it is difficult to keep them warm while not adding too much bulk which happens ride feel. For gloves, good ski type gloves are fantastic. They are usually a softshell material. Most important is stopping cold air from getting in. Personally, I’ll take sweaty hands over something that allows cold air to get to my hand because my hands are sensitive to the cold. As far as bulk goes, if it’s too bulky to use the controls on your bike, you have a problem.

Footwear for the cold can be done several different ways. If you ride with platform pedals, you have it easy. Get some winter boots and tear it up. I like clipless pedals in the winter because I like the added control of being attached to the pedals. Cycling shoes for the winter should be a little looser so you can wear thicker or more socks without compressing the fabrics, which reduces the socks warming potential. If you ride often in the winter and you have the budget, some good winter cycling shoes/ boots are great. These typically run above $150. Most people can get away with winter-weight socks and good thermal shoe covers. I use neoprene shoe covers because they’re cheaper than more high tech fabrics  and still effective. If you don’t mind buying foot warmer insoles, these are also a great option to add some warmth.

For the head, covering the ears and eyes are the most important in my opinion. Your head generates mad amounts of heat and a full cover may not be necessary. A good headband that has some wind-resistance and thermal properties is great for most of the winter. A balalava can be worn when it starts to dip below 20ºF. Eyes tend to tear up in the cold wind so at minimum regular athletic glasses should be warn. Fogging up can be a problem, I’ve found open frame glasses to be the best solution; products like rain-x or other anti-fogging chemicals can help too.

Some people will wear full ski or snowboard goggles to cover more of the face and have some success, I have not tried this myself. A trick I learned from a ski blog a while back is to apply vaseline to the exposed skin on my face. This helps create a light layer to help prevent wind burn and keeps the face more comfortable.

Darkness

Lets face it, it’s not the brightest in the winter, but that should keep us form riding. IF you ride at night, when it’s really dark out, I would highly suggest a good headlight and taillight, probably more than one taillight in fact. Head lights should be over 100 lumens for good visiblity in my experience. Brighter typically means better. You want to make sure the light unveils enough area that you can see enough road to be able to react before you reach whatever needs reacting to.

If you don’t want to ride at night, then you’ll just want something that get you seen by drivers. Most bike likes cover this area adequately. Blinking lights are better for being seen in my experiences because they help draw drivers attention to you. Most importantly, ride on the road if at all possible. Drivers aren’t looking for you on the side walk and usually the sidewalks are not nearly as well maintained as the roads. Some drivers may not like it but if they’re angry you’re there, they must know you’re there. Personally I like getting honked at because the I know I did my due diligence to be seen before an incident could occur.

Snow

Snow is usually not much trouble on many roads. They get plowed regularly so deep snow usually isn’t much of a problem. Select a good set of knobby tires with moderately aggressive tread patterns and you’re good to go. Riding in the snow is easier than riding in sand, for those that have done that, because snow is much lighter that sand. Slush is much more of a concern because it has the ability to push you around. Riding slower is the best option along with having good tires.

Turning in the snow is really where riding in the snow can get interesting because of the looser conditions. Ride slower and keep the bike as vertical as possible and you should be fine. Most importantly, ride within your comfort zone, winter isn’t the best time to see how fast you can take corners on your road bike. Starting and stopping follow the same precautions.

Ice

Ice is much more of a concern that snow because it is not always seen before you get to it and it is much more slippery. My best suggesting is studded tires. They are costly but they add a good deal of traction on ice over regular knobbies. Studs do not affect performance in snow or on pavement, they only help on ice. As far as traction, Peter White puts it, “it’s like running on an iced over lake with sand sprinkled on top. You can run in a straight line but you’re not going to be real quick to turn.” If you don’t want to spend much on studded tires, just be extra cautious when turning and avoid what looks like ice in corners. If you’re not comfortable for a section of road, walk it. You may feel stupid walking your bike but safety is more important.

The Rest

Any bike that can accept knobby tires is a good choice for a winter bike. Keep in mind that road salt will cause a bike to wear out faster that normal, how fast is not certain. Many people like to ride an older bike that already has some miles on it for the winter. You don’t want to ride your brand new carbon race bike. A single speed bike is a great choice for durability because there’s much less moving parts and winter is especially hard on your rear derailleur, brakes, and cables.

For wheels, select the cheapest wheels you you’re willing to run, with durability being the most important factor. You don’t want to ruin a nice pair of wheels by riding them through road salt. Sealed bearings are much better that unsealed for the winter because it only takes a little salt to get into the bearings and they’ll quickly wear out.

Braking in the winter is less affective for rim brakes because your wheels will usually have some crud on them from the road. Plan your stops ahead of time. It may take longer for the brakes to bite. Brake cables may freeze up, in which case pulling harder on the levers is the best recommendation I have for this. Dragging your feet may help if you’re going slow enough. I’ve never had to do this personally but you may want to “park” the bike in a soft snow bank.

Wet conditions aren’t as common in the winter as we think. If it’s below freezing, everything is frozen except for what melted on the road from road salt. Fenders can help keep this off of you and the bike, but be careful of stuff building up on the bike. Waterproof footwear and/ or rain pants are a good option to eliminate this factor.

A good amount of information is available on the internet about riding in the winter. The best I’ve found is icebike.org. There is a great article section with great advice from years of ice biking knowledge.

Wrap Up

If you’re like me then you start to really dislike being indoors all winter. Ice biking is a great way to get outside and enjoy life. Many people who ride in the winter admit to feeling more fulfilled. Riding in the winter lets us tap into that inner adventurer and try something new and exciting. Starting is the hardest part, and the easiest way to start is to just keep riding later and later into the season until you find spring has already arrived.

Clothing Materials

Covered AreaRecommendedNot Recommended
Headsynthetics with brushed backings, wind-resistant, moisture wicking, merino woolCotton, wearing too much, anything that doesn’t cover the ears,
Body (outer)Softshell, nylons, tight-knit polyesters, wind-proof/resistant, water-resistantUnbreathable fabrics, lack of wind-resistance, high bulk, not enough room to allow layering
Body (base)moisture wicking, some thermal properties, merino wool, light polyesterCotton, thick materials, anything that holds moisture well,
Body (mid)Brushed back polyester, mid-weight wool, multiple base layers, thinner fleeceCotton, tight knit fabrics that don’t breath well,
LegsSame as for the body, pay special attention to crotch and knee areas, Waterproofing is more acceptable to prevent road splashSame as body, be careful not to keep pant legs out of chain
Socksmerino wool, synthetics, moisture wicking, mulitple layerscotton
ShoesWind-proof/resistant, water-proof/resistant, thick shoe covers for cycling shoes, size up if needed to allow more room for socksAero shoe covers, highly-breathable shoes with no covers, overly snug shoes
Handssoftshell, ski type gloves, wind-proof/resistant, water-resistantonly wind-resistant, only thermal, lack of wind-resistance
Posted by
Clive Hirst

Clive Hirst was born and bought up in Frankfort, Kentucky. He was the only child of his parents. He graduated from Kentucky State University and did a major on Microbiology. He is a veteran cyclist and has travelled all across the United States. He is currently working as an assistant professor in a middle eastern College, somewhere in Kurdistan and he still loves cycling when he is not teaching his students.

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