Your bike knows when winter is coming. It starts sagging in the tires, hunched over in a quiet corner of the garage sharing space with boxes of once-loved treasures. That sagging might continue until March or April, depending on where you live – maybe even longer depending on how much you like to ride.
Well, it doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to extend your riding season by a month or two, maybe even throughout the year. If you are going to keep pedaling into winter, you will want to be as comfortable (and safe) as possible. When it comes to winter biking, three key words come to mind: layers, warmth, and dryness.
Although you may be feeling cold at the start your ride, you will be surprised at how much you perspire once you get started. That perspiration needs someplace to go in order to avoid discomfort or even worse, hypothermia. It is also wise to try to keep outside moisture from coming in. Here are some suggestions for keeping warm and dry.
For the Head
Look for a winter cap that fits comfortably under your helmet, covers the ears, and gives moisture a chance to wick away from the head. The cap should have a liner to aid transport of moisture to the outside layer. Polypropylene and silk make good liners. Wool and wool-blends make good outside layers. In less extreme conditions, you can get away with a buff head wrap. When temperatures drop below 40-degrees Fahrenheit, or when there is wind, you can use that wrap to cover your nose, jaw, and neck. The woven-in elasticity will help it stay in place. Wrap-around glasses will help protect the eyes from side winds. Interchangeable lenses are just as important in winter as they are in summer. Snow and ice present different light variations to the eyes, including glare. Clear lenses should be one of your options in case you get caught in low-light situations on your way back home.
For the Hands and Feet
It is extremely important that your hands are working properly for braking, shifting, and manipulating zippers and buttons. Extremities are vulnerable not only because they are furthest from your heart and your core, but also because they don’t move much while you are pedaling. Frostbite is a very-real danger when the temperature drops or when wind is present.
Breathable and wind-resistant materials play a key role in keeping you safe. If you are using your regular riding gloves (i.e., fingers exposed), use a thin silk, polypropylene or thermal liner under your gloves. You can wear flexible ski gloves over your riding gloves for added protection. A nice thing about a layering strategy is it gives you a reasonable amount of flexibility in the fingers as well as adaptability to changing conditions. On very cold days, it might be better to wear gloves specially made for the task. The wind will go right through those liners. For your feet, wear moisture-wicking materials such as wool or a wool blend for socks (not cotton) and use wind-breaking covers for your shoes if needed. It might be worth it to pack (or pocket) hand and foot warmers for when you are off the bike.
Legs and Torso
It’s very important to keep your knees warm. A pair of wool-blend tights will do the trick. If you don’t like wearing tights, you can try a breathable base-layer (not cotton) under your pants. Be sure to wear long, breathable socks so no skin is exposed at the ankles. A wind-breaking jacket over one or two breathable base-layers will take care of your top-half. I use a thermax turtle neck as one of my base-layers to help my neck stay warm. Make sure your jacket is breathable and fits snug. The absence of air pockets will enable moisture to wick out instead of getting trapped inside the jacket.
Although riding on snow isn’t for everyone, studded tires could help make that experience more practical. The studs prevent mud and snow from packing onto the tire thus improving traction. The snow should be hard-packed when riding. Although trail-riding could be interesting, I would strongly recommend that you not ride on snow-covered pavement unless it is a bike path with no motor vehicle activity. Practice your handling skills in familiar territory before venturing out. Also, it is very more important to let someone know where you are going, especially if venturing out alone, as snowy trails will be less frequented, calls for help will travel less distance, and the cold will present additional threats if you become stranded.
Bring a compass and know how to use it. When there is snow on the ground, trails and landmarks can be deceptive. Gray skies further add to the confusion. If you have a GPS tracking app, that might work effectively as long as you have a signal and battery power.
When traveling more than a few miles, bring a day pack stuffed with snacks, an extra pair of shoes, socks and gloves in case your experience becomes extended or wet. A lightweight emergency blanket (e.g., mylar) takes up little space, as well as a whistle and first-aid kit. A bright-colored windbreaker & insulated hat could be a lifesaver.
Most of the clothing and equipment mentioned above can be used for other winter activities such as hiking, camping, skiing, snowshoeing, and running. Keep this in mind when seeking out new gear. For example, a cycling jacket may offer wind protection in the shoulders only but a jacket will be more useful if it has wind protection in all parts as long as it’s breathable.