This week, temperatures in Minneapolis, Minnesota plummeted to the -20s (colder than Mars!) and in between throwing boiling water outside to make snow and huddling around my radiator, I went for a bike ride. This ride was just for fun since my job (as well as half of Minneapolis) closed up shop due to the extreme temperatures - and I know you might be thinking “HOW COULD SUB-ZERO BIKING BE FUN?!” - but it was.
Winter biking is all about preparation and mindset. Biking is truly an efficient, fun, and healthy way to get through the city, and it can be even more fun biking through snow! You don't need a 2-thousand dollar bike and hundreds of dollars worth of clothing to get through winter - in fact, I highly recommend you don’t use an expensive bike or invest in cycling-specific winter clothing unless you really feel the need to. Most of what you need to bike through cold days you probably already have in your closet.
The first mistake a lot of people make is that they are more bundled than the Michelin Man. Once they start moving, they start to sweat after a few blocks and just get colder. You want to dress in layers, but you also need to balance how hot you will get while riding your bike and how cold you will get when standing still. On any ride below 30 degrees (F), packing an extra pair of gloves and hat will help you out tremendously. When you first step outside, you want to be a little cold. Not “I wear shorts while it's snowing” cold, but just a little. Thermal underwear (top and bottom) and some thick socks will go a long way. Jeans are fine for most days, but you might want to throw wind resistant pants over them if it is colder. A good Minnesotan sweater or flannel with a simple windbreaker to seal in the heat works for me until around 15 degrees. After that, I would recommend a heavier coat that doesn't restrict your movement. All of the gear I just mentioned can easily be found at your nearest thrift store.
The biggest areas of concern are your hands and feet. A pair of Answer Sleestak mittens ($40) will keep your fingers nice and warm after the temperature drops, but as a rule, never be caught without some hand warmers just in case. (Hand warmers also work well for your feet regardless of their name!)
When it gets colder, be careful if you double up on socks as sometimes that cuts off circulation and does more harm than good. Instead, try using a plastic bag to insulate your feet. If your toes get numbingly cold while riding, don't be afraid to hop off your bike and walk a block. This helps to circulate the blood in your feet and warms up your toes pretty quickly!
A scarf and a face cover such as the merino wool 45Nrth Lung Cookie Balaclava ($45) help to cut down on the freezing air you breathe in and, with the addition of a helmet, keeps you and your ears warm even in the coldest temperatures.
When it is 10 degrees or below, 100% MX Goggles ($25) will shield your eyes from freezing winds, hail, and snow. They also cover exposed skin, which helps your body retain heat. The issue most people have with goggles is that they fog up. Every pair of goggles fogs up eventually, but to extend your visibility time, put them on before you walk outside and arrange your face covering in a way that directs your exhales downward, not up into your goggles. Doing this will give you the longest time without a frozen haze in sight.
Now that you are dressed appropriately, you have a decision to make: Fat or Skinny? I’m talking about tires!
Any bike will do after the streets are plowed, but when it comes to getting to work on time, you can’t always wait until the roads are clear. Regardless of how many fat bikes you see slowly rolling up a hill, they are not the end all, be all. Skinny “Pizza Cutter” tires find their grip by cutting through snow banks and packed snow. They are great for most days but can lack traction on ice or very deep snow, as opposed to fatter, more aggressive tires that seem to “float” over snow and ice. But when things get really slushy out there, it can be hard to keep a straight line as bigger tires struggle when they sink into the slush. It is really all about your riding style and the bike you choose to use.
The most common bikes used for winter can be broken down to four categories:
(1) The Old-school 26er Mountain Bike - It brings your center of gravity lower to the ground and is an inexpensive machine that shreds through the salt and grime because of the aggressive grippy tires.
(2) The Fixed-Gear Beater - fixie-fools will attest to the fact that the retro-tech of yesteryear gives you better traction-feedback than any other kind of bike. That, coupled with the simplicity of these bikes (less parts to go bad), makes for a winter monster.
(3) Cross/Hybrid Bike - The medium sized tires of these “anything bikes” can be the best of both worlds when the streets aren’t plowed. They cut through lighter flurries and dig through deeper snow when they need to.
(4) The Fat Bike - They are slow and sometimes very expensive, but these bikes were literally made for Minnesota winters (no, really. Check out the Surly Pugsley). It comes as no surprise that their 4+ inches of grippy goodness can get you through any blizzard Minnesota throws at you. If you are leaning towards the fat bike option, the Momentum Rocker 3 ($615) offers a light and supple ride-over-anything goliath.
I am serious when I say any bike will do for winter commuting, but a studded tire, such as the Schwalbe K-Guard Winter tire ($54.59), eats up black ice for breakfast. I personally use it as my front tire and I highly recommend it. Studded tires are an investment, but they can be used for several seasons before they need to be replaced. If you can only afford one, put it on the front. You can usually pivot your weight if your rear tire begins to slip, but it is hard to correct your front end from slipping.
Always wear a helmet and always have front and rear lights on your bike. Drivers have a hard enough time seeing us cyclists on a sunny 80 degree day, so help them see you by adding some lights like the Giant Numen Mini HL (only $4.99)!
The best “winter bike” is a clean one. Regardless of the bike you ride, there is no denying the decay salt-infused grime can cause to your steed. To prevent this, clean your bike after every ride. It only takes ten minutes and it will insure less mechanical mishaps will happen when it is cold! Always keep your chain lubed and free from salt as this is the main reason your bike will stop working after a hard winter.
The final tip for winter riding is to have a good mindset. Riding over ice and bumpy-frozen ruts can be scary, but calmly reacting and correcting the steering will make you a better rider and help prevent you from falling. When you are rolling over ice, always keep pedaling and steer in a straight line. This will increase the traction and keep you from slipping out. But listen… Everyone falls. So when you do fall, try to roll towards the right (away from traffic) and laugh it off. Yes you look silly (crazy even), but falling in the snow hurts a lot less than when the snow is not there, so have a good laugh, brush yourself off, and keep pedaling!
You don’t have to be crazy to ride through the winter, you just have to be prepared. Ride safe!