Some thoughts on Winter Biking

The cold Chicago months are now upon us and it’s time to commit to winter biking.  Yes, riding around in the cold is something most people do not consider, but it is fine if you are prepared.  When you bike in the cold, you learn fast if something does not work and then quickly adapt.  Winter biking is definitely more challenging and harder on the body.  The coldest temperature that I’ve ridden in has been 13 degrees.  Bicycle parts don’t work as well when the temperature is that low, but it is still manageable.

This is my third winter biking, and here is a summary of the past few years:

2011: First winter biking, mild Chicago winter.  Made the mistake of biking of the sidewalk after a first snow thaw.  Smacked my knee on some ice and then have never ridden on the sidewalk ever again.

2012: 2nd winter biking, mild Chicago winter, avoided biking in the Northern Burbs since drivers don’t give me space.  Rescheduled my working hours around a different train line that would bring me closer to work so that I would spend the majority of my time bicycling in Chicago.

2013:  The day after Thanksgiving the temperature dropped into the 20’s and I hopped on my bike to buy some seafood at the fish market.  Horrible cold, snow and ice Chicago winter with no relief.  No bike commuting for nearly 3 months waiting for the snow to melt.  I remember still seeing a remnant of little pile of snow up in my office research park in May and thinking how awful it was.

2014: Cold snap hits early, which means more time to try to enjoy the cold.  Made the 2nd annual trip to the fish market the day after Thanksgiving for some red snapper and oysters.  December is starting off cold but with no precipitation.  I intend to bicycle as much as possible before the snow hits.


Things to just accept and prepare for when winter biking:

1) Being in the cold

Yes you will be cold and then it becomes a game of mental motivation over your physical hesitations.  Probably the most uncomfortable thing I find about winter biking are the first few minutes to heat up.  Once my body temperature is elevated, then everything is okay.

Whenever it is cold outside, go out and enjoy the cold.  The more you expose yourself to cold conditions, the less likely you’ll feel uncomfortable when the temperature really drops.  When the first cold snap hits, I usually just go out and bike to acclimate myself for what’s to come.

Being in the cold is not a limiting factor for me as I know how to properly layer and keep myself warm.  I usually wear wool layers to keep myself warm and make sure my extremities are covered.  Wear appropriate clothing to keep yourself warm and cover any exposed skin or put a thin layer of Vaseline on your face.

Your feet will become cold when you bike.  You can combat this by wearing wool socks or getting off your bike at every intersection and jumping up and down or shaking your legs.  I used to do this but became lazy and decided to wear thin athletic socks with toe warmers.  For my hands, I usually double glove with an outer mitt.  If conditions are super cold, (below 20°F or a nasty windchill) I will place handwarmers in my mittens as well.

Yes, you will need to blow your nose, so carry some tissues.

Your eyelashes will freeze only if you don’t wear some sort of eye protection.  I use cheap safety glasses to prevent my eyes from becoming dry and frozen.

Keep hydrated.  Everytime you see your breath you are losing water.  I use a thermos bottle to keep my water from becoming so cold.  A regular water bottle will just freeze

On longer commutes, you will probably need to switch gloves halfway through if you’ve been sweating.  You hands will freeze otherwise.  I have done it on 20 miles commutes, but it becomes very uncomfortable when your hands feel like icicles and you are trying to brake.

2) Being in the dark

Morning or evening it will be dark and lonely.  Make sure you have lights and that you are visible from all angles – front, back and side.

3) Winterize your bike

Have appropriate lights, wider tires, a properly lubed chain , and occasionally rinse off your bike from the road salt.   You can add knobbies or studs to your tires if you’re really hardcore.   I prefer to use my hybrid bike with its regular tires and avoid biking when there is snow or ice on the ground.  Talk to your local bike shop and have them look over your bike and give suggestions.  This is the time of year when I know that it will be nearly impossible for me to fix a bike out in the cold.  Thank goodness for public transportation and a cell phone to call someone to come pick you up.

4) The cold wind

There are no windbreaks as all of the leaves have fallen off the tree, so you will feel the full force of the wind.  Just get used to it.

5) Trust your judgement

If you feel it’s not safe to bicycle around for any reason – cold, precipitation, or wind, then don’t do. it.   I avoid biking when the snowfall hits as there is not enough room on the road for both cars and bikes to share.  Also, the side of the road is filled with slick spots as the snow melts and freezes, and I do not feel as safe.  Also, check the weather forecasts for temperatures, wind, and precipitation conditions.  If it’s too nasty, then don’t put yourself through awful conditions since it simply won’t be fun and might be dangerous.


Why do I enjoy winter biking?

One of the more enjoyable things I find about winter biking is how quiet the air sounds.   I like hearing the sound of my pedals and my tires rolling over the cold pavement.   I like being able to conquer the cold.   Knowing that I can travel on my bicycle when the temperature is below freezing gives me a huge sense of accomplishment.  An advantage of winter biking is that you will most likely have the trail and road to yourself.

Also, with the holiday season it is a great way to fight off those extra pounds and to maintain your fitness until the weather warms up again.   When spring hits, you feel so much faster and confident on the bike because you’ve endured such harsh conditions throughout the winter.

In the winter, you will find yourself to be more alone on your commutes.  Some people will look at you strangely.  They seem to want to roll down their car windows and tell you that you’re crazy.  Some do, but only to complement you that you are brave, they could never do it, and to keep at it.

















5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Winter Biking

  1. I’ll have to try your thermos bottle trick. Insulated Polar bottles didn’t work. And a hydrapak seems terrible unless you can keep the hose and nozzle inside your jacket. My last attempt it froze in the nozzle, cutting me off from water.

    1. The thermos bottle is great in the winter as well as the summer. It also helps to hydrate before you leave the warm indoors.

  2. First year riding in the winter, been an experience and if anyone was going to start biking in the winter, it would be this one! 🙂

    Here in Canada’s capital (Ottawa), when ever it snows for the first time in a while or rains or what ever, drivers of cars seem to forget what driving means. Thus whenever that happens, traffic out of the downtown core is horrendous and I hop on my bike and drive home. In the snow it’s faster for me to bike than it is to take the bus home.

    At the same time, instead of going home, then going to the gym, I just bike into work and bike back home, giving me an amazing cardio work out (driving a fat bike as a commuter) and I’ve utilized my time efficiently, so I can now spend more time with my family.

    1. Yes! There was horrible traffic yesterday given Chicago’s first snow and I know if I had biked to worked, it would’ve been quicker. I am saving up for a fatbike one day and would love to have one so I feel more confident on the road. I tend to stop bike commuting in the winter though because drivers are not considerate enough to give me space.

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