The Cyclist’s Guide to Cold-Weather Commuting
Arriving at work through two feet of snow requires a bit more preparation than commuting in mild weather does. Not one to let his suffering be in vain, winter bike commuter Chaz Boutsikaris has some advice for those who have yet to take the storm by bike.by Chaz Boutsikaris
Cycling is typically a warm-weather sport ... to most of us anyway. So by the time Old Man Winter comes knocking, many of us retreat to the comforts of home, the stationary trainer, and Judge Judy.
Some of us, however, would rather gargle spoiled milk than spend two hours on a stationary trainer. Challenging winter’s wrath becomes our only alternative. Cold, wet rides to work or school replace mindless stationary-trainer spins in our living rooms, and we experience a whole new kind of adventure when nature adds frigid temperatures and a foot of snow.
As a cyclist who was used to spending my winters on Seattle’s wet city streets, my move to Salt Lake City, Utah, made me re-think my approach to winter commuting. It snows here in Salt Lake City, much more so than it does in Seattle. As you can imagine, arriving at work through two feet of snow requires a bit more preparation—and trial and error before I could do it well—than commuting in mild weather does.
While figuring out what to wear and what not to wear, what worked and what didn’t, I often ended up cold, stranded, and frustrated. Not one to let my suffering be in vain, I figured it might be time to share some advice with those who have yet to take the plunge—or slide—into winter commuting.
Let’s start out with four factors that directly influence what you should bring and what you should leave in your closet or garage.
1.Weather: Is it snowing? Is it raining? Is it bluebird and 75 degrees? If it’s sunny and balmy—unless you want to train like Rocky Balboa—leave the wool at home. If it’s precipitating, a waterproof (breathable) jacket will instantly become your best friend. Also keep in mind the weather will definitely determine what you need to haul with you—and what you don’t.
2.Distance: Is your commute 25 miles one way? Or 25 miles roundtrip? The distance of your commute directly influences every aspect of planning. Everything from your socks to your bike may vary, depending on whether your commute is five miles or 20. A longer commute may warrant an extra jacket, an energy bar, tubes, and more.
3.Terrain: Does your commute involve a jaunt through the industrial district? (Think road debris.) Do you jump on two miles of unpaved trail through town? Is there snow on the ground? Terrain should influence which machine you choose to ride (if you have more than one), and which tires you want based on their optimal grip, puncture resistance, and longevity.
Additionally, terrain affects what you carry with you, such as extra tubes and tools. Terrain also plays a role in your gearing. Do you climb the equivalent of the Col du Tourmalet? Are you running gears or a single-speed? Either way, just make sure to choose a gear ratio(s) that is conducive to the topography of your commute. Can you push your 44 x 16 up an 8% grade all the way home?
4.Assistance Availability: It’s snowing sideways, and you just double-flatted and sucked your derailleur through your spokes—oh, and you’re still six miles from home. Can you call your significant other to pick you up? Or are you stuck trying to make repairs on the side of the road with blocks of ice for hands? Catching a ride with a passing motorist may be more difficult if there aren’t any. If help is a long way off, and the weather is less than ideal, you may want to toss that extra jacket or tube in your pack before heading out the door, and make sure your cell is charged.
What you need to carry
If you’re like me, standard procedure means stuffing your messenger bag full of unnecessary items that may come in handy for the apocalypse but not your commute. Take it from me, since I’ve learned the hard way: if you don’t need it, leave it at home. Don’t get us wrong; having the right tool is always better than a walk home. But tools are for emergencies, and if you have an emergency every day, you might have bigger issues. The basic message here is to bring what you need, leave what you don’t.
Here are a few suggestions on what you should consider carrying during a cold winter commute:
Tire Irons: Ever tried changing a tube with frozen hands and no tire irons? It’s not easy; save yourself the frustration, and make sure you have at least one.
Note: If you’re ever in a bind because you forgot your tire irons, you can use the quick-release lever on your wheel to pry off a tire bead.
Pump: Inflating a tire without a pump is impossible at best, no matter how impressive your VO2 max. Also, don’t rely on CO2 for commuting. CO2 is great for racing (if self-supported), but the next time you flat on the side of the road in a snowstorm, Murphy will make sure that your last CO2 adapter doesn’t properly seat on the valve stem, sending precious air blasts into the atmosphere ... and leaving you with a half-inflated tire. If you want to carry CO2, great—just don’t carry CO2 in lieu of a pump.
Tubes: You should always have at least one. I strap two under my saddle with a leather toe strap—saddle bags entice thieves, so leave nothing to their imagination. Carry two tubes—at worst you need both, at best you may run into a stranded cyclist on the side of the road without a tube. Note: handing of an extra tube to a fellow cyclist in need is instant good karma.
Multi-Tool: If you want to spend your money on an expensive multi-tool, go ahead, but you can usually find a quality multi-tool for around $25. Multi-tools are great and offer a number of tools in one small package. Be sure to purchase a multi-tool that includes a chain tool (and know how to use it), especially if you ride a single-speed. Remember, if your chain snaps and you don’t have a chain tool, you’re walking home.
Sealable Freezer Bags: Plastic bags are quite possibly man’s greatest invention (or the worst if they end up in a landfill). Toss a couple baggies (freezer style, sealable) in your courier bag, backpack, or panniers—the uses are endless. The next time you are stuck in a gnarly, once-a-season downpour, you’ll be stoked you tossed your cell phone and wallet in plastic when everything else inevitably gets wet.
- Ibuprofen: Nurse a hangover, reduce swelling, or dull pain. Need I say more?
- Rubber bands: Rubber bands can be used to cinch down clothing or attach a light to your handlebar or pack in an emergency. They also keep loose items like extra tubes from running awry.
- Quick-release straps: As a courier, I used to carry extra quick-release straps in my bag so I could strap bank boxes to my courier bag. Nowadays, I still carry extra straps because they make it easy to strap your jacket, coffee mug, or even an extra wheelset (on race day) to your bag. If you’re really creative, you can even use the straps as a seatbelt for your favorite small dog.
Mini U-lock: Carry a U-lock that suits your environment. If you roll into work and park your bike by your desk, you may not need the biggest lock around. Small U-locks are great because you can keep them close and accessible—and in the not-so-unlikely chance that a motorist decides to resort to fisticuffs at a red light, you can at least use your lock as a deterrent.
Lights: The best commuter lights are small, bright, and removable—and powered by replaceable (or rechargeable) batteries you can buy at your local grocery store. Remember that thieves love accessories, especially if they can’t steal the whole bike. Unless you want to undress your machine every time you leave it alone, save the fancy lights and bulky battery packs for your next 24-hour race.
Fenders: Full fenders are overkill unless you live in the Amazon Jungle or plan on pedaling across the country. Are you riding in the wet every day, all day? Probably not—remember, this is a guide to cold-weather commuting. A simple clip-on fender keeps your butt dry and won’t rattle, bend, or make your machine look like your mom’s yellow cruiser. Clip-on fenders are also inexpensive, thus perfect for those on a budget—and when it stops raining, the clip-on fender stuffs easily in your bag and doesn’t add weight.
Clothing Essentials: Staying Dry to Stay Warm
Cycling Jacket: “Waterproof” is the yellow slicker Alaskan fishermen wear. “Waterproof breathable” is what you should wear to stay dry on your trek across town. It really sucks learning the hard way that your jacket is either: A. NOT waterproof or B. waterproof but not breathable.
The point here is, do yourself a favor and purchase a cycling jacket that keeps you dry and breathes. Feel free to thank me later.
I could also recommend that you wear a fluorescent yellow jacket and boot covers. But as much as I dig Andre Agassi’s 1992 garb, it pains me to promote it—even on a bicycle. Spend a little cash for some reflective material, and safety pin it to your bag, pants, or jacket. The result will keep you visible without compromising your street cred.
Pants: If you don’t have a pair of cycling-specific, water-resistant rain pants, you may as well plan on getting wet—then cold. Cycling-specific pants are reinforced in the crotch so you don’t have an embarrassing blowout and often feature ankle zips that allow them to be shed when necessary without your needing to remove your shoes. In addition, most cycling rain pants are ergonomically cut and rest higher up on the torso so you don’t end up exposing motorists to crack.
Booties: No, these aren’t designed for 6-month-old Johnny. Hands and toes freeze first, so a decent pair of booties can mean the difference between thawing your piggies ... or not. For extra-cold-weather commutes, take the layering approach. Wool socks, shoes, neoprene booties for warmth, and a waterproof outer layer to keep you dry. Neoprene booties are great when the roads are dry but act like sponges when exposed to wet tarmac—keep them dry, and feet stay warm.
Cap, Hat, or Noggin cover: Didn’t your mom tell you to wear a hat? Don’t be the guy who doesn’t wear a hat (or helmet for that matter); just don’t do it. Several cycling-specific hats are available on the market today, and most fit comfortably under your helmet.
Gloves: These may seem like a commonsense necessity, but gloves are still worth emphasizing. Remember, your paws and feet are the first to freeze on your ride to work. Make sure your gloves are windproof, water-resistant, and suitable to the climate you ride in. Capisce?
Cross Bike, Mountain Bike, Road Bike, Beach Cruiser, or Big Wheel?
Different strokes for different folks. There is no right answer here; ride what works for you. I ride a single-speed road bike with 25mm tires, which works for me but isn’t necessarily going to work for you.
When the roads get covered with snow, I switch to a 32mm cyclocross tire for better handling (I also switch out my fork to accommodate a wider tire). When conditions get really randy, studded snow tires are the best route to take—just don’t attempt to lay them through a corner on dry tarmac.
Winter riding has arrived, whether we like it or not. It may be cold and miserable at times but definitely worth the trouble. Take part in reducing nasty smog in your city (if you live in one), arrive at work with more energy, and spend less time logging base miles for the upcoming season on the stationary trainer—reason in itself to commute all winter by bicycle.