Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter Cycling Tips

We've had some requests for information on how to prepare for and successfully navigate commuting by bike in the winter. We are fortunate in our area to be able to ride almost all year round. I have compiled a few thoughts and tips on the subject, including some specific to the kind of weather we've been having.

In the longer term, an excellent source of information on bicycle commuting, including inclement weather tips is the WSDOT Bicycle Commute Guide, by Larry Leveen, of OlyBikes. It is available online (also in a print-friendly version), and will be available in print sometime this spring.


Commuting by bicycle in inclement weather, especially in the winter, requires a bit more commitment, preparation, care and attention, but also offers its own rewards. Breathe the fresh outside air while staying fit and healthy year round. Feel the comeraderie when you see another intrepid winter commuter! Save money on gas and car repairs. Be good to the planet and your community by reducing your carbon footprint and reducing traffic congestion. Feel the satisfaction of knowing you got there on your own steam...

Depending on the distance and conditions of your commute:

There may be some added expenses for winter cycling gear, but these will soon pay for themselves in money saved on gas and maintenance for a car.
  1. Decide if it's safe to ride: There are some days when it is just really dangerous to ride a bike. Rain, or a spot of black ice here and there is one thing, but rutted snow and ice everywhere, combined with inexperienced drivers and ill-equipped vehicles on the road is a recipe for disaster. The safest way to travel on days like that around here is by bus!
  2. Be Visible: Wear bright colors (light colors at night) with reflective trim or a reflective vest or sash. Mount reliable, bright lights on the front and rear of your bike. The front light should be a steady white beam (you can augment this with a second white flashing light for added visibility). The rear light should be a red steady or flashing tail light. Washington State law requires a white front light and a red rear reflector, at minimum. I ride with two front and two rear lights, for maximum visibility and in case one light malfunctions or runs out of battery power. Mount your lights securely and properly! They should be aimed close to level (the beam shining paralell to the ground) LED lights are bright, but very directional. If they are aimed away form drivers' eyes (up or down), they will be MUCH less effective. Make sure you charge your batteries regularly- make a habit of it so you don't forget.
  3. Ride Defensively: For complete information on safe cycling techniques, check out the WSDOT Bicycle Commute Guide, take an Urban Cycling class, join and go on skills rides with the Capitol Bicycling Club and educate yourself by asking other cyclists and your bike shop. Also check out the other links on this blog. In a nutshell: In inclement weather and darkness, it is even more important to ride defensively. OBEY ALL TRAFFIC LAWS- you are a vehicle on the road and have all the same rights and responsibilities as if you were in a car. Ride slower, watch the road and traffic attentively, give yourself more time to stop (brakes don't work as well when wet), assume drivers don't see you and ride predictably. Get to know your route and the roads you ride on: remember the static hazards such as potholes and drain grates. Learn where the problem intersections are, and where there are obstructions to your sightlines or those of drivers. Pay attention to how long it takes for traffic lights to change. All these things will help you when it is dark and raining, and you are tired after a day at work.
  4. Dress for the weather: Unless you have a very short commute, it pays to have good rain gear. This means a waterproof, breatheable cycling-specific rain jacket, and either winter cycling tights or waterproof, breatheable rain pants. Wear layers, so you can stop and peel off a layer or add one, according to conditions. Wear eye protection- there is more debris on the road in the winter, and you don't want it flying into your eyes. Good gloves keep you warm and protect your hands in the event of a fall. Your local bike shop has everything you need to equip yourself with cycling clothes and other gear.
  5. Equip your bike: Lights as mentioned above, followed by fenders and a luggage rack, are the most important equipment for winter commuting. Fenders should be full-coverage, good-quality, properly mounted ones from your bike shop. In my humble opinion, "shorty" or clip-on fenders that only cover part of your wheel are a pointless encumberance of your bike, guaranteed only to frustrate you or cause a hazard by twisting sideways and catching on something. Racks, baskets or carriers should be sturdy and properly mounted. A pair of waterproof panniers or buckets will make you happy in the rain. Be careful and attentive when using "bungee" or stretch cords to attach a load- they can get loose and whack you painfully, or get caught in your spokes if not well-secured. For a more worry-free commute, get some good puncture-resistant tires (Continental, Schwalbe, Panaracer,etc) and keep them inflated properly. Another good habit: pump up your tires once a week. Some bicycles are more adaptable than others to winter riding. Make sure your bike has clearance for fenders and wider tires and mounting points for racks and fenders. If not, and if you are serious about year-round cycling, consider a second bike for winter. You can go all-out at your bike shop (they will advise you what to buy) or you can buy a used bike and fix it up for winter commuting. An older mountain bike or touring bike can make an excellent commuter- just make sure it is a good brand, not a department-store bike. If possible, take it to your bike shop before purchase to see if it can be adapted to your needs.
If you have specific questions about commuting by bike in the winter, your local bike shop will be a great resource. Also feel free to contact me during weekday work hours at 705-5874, or anytime at dgreen"at"  Happy, safe cycling!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's better to ride the bus or drive than to bike in dangerous winter conditions.