Thursday, February 2, 2012

Biking in a Winter Wonderland

Believe it or not, winter is my favorite season. That doesn't mean I don't think winter can be brutal, but unfortunately, our options are basically move, or toughen up. In spite of the short days, the chapped skin, the snow shoveling, the ice scraping, and the heating bills, winter can be managed with the right attitude and the right preparation. This is equally true of winter bike commuting.

Ben Connor Barrie invited me a long long time ago to blog about biking in Ann Arbor. I've had a hard time thinking of meaningful things to say, until this past Sunday, at the intersection of Liberty and South Division, when it hit me. 

The road was nice and slippery when I came down to meet it. I landed on my hip (and of course, my keys) in the Northeast corner of the intersection, where my right turn had just gone wrong. I shot up off the ground, took an awkward bow for the passing bus driver, and dragged my bike to the sidewalk to inspect the damage: luckily, only a bent crank arm. The extra layers of clothing and the slick road surface combined to make the ideal collapse; it was the nature of winter cycling that allowed me to get back up and ride away (and ride another 5 hours that day).

I wish I could tell you that you were never going to fall off of your bike. Obviously, cyclists want to avoid accidents (though we do love our scars), but falls are inevitable.  Contrary to popular belief, winter is a great season for riding.  Here are a few suggestions to help you conquer the cold and keep your tires on the ground.

Wool socks - Wigwam and Smartwool are my favorite socks. By some miracle of Jesus, you can wash and dry them with the rest of your clothes, they stretch well, and they still keep your feet toasty warm, even when they're wet. Cotton socks are brutal when they're wet, and lose what little warmth they had. I will never wear cotton socks again. Don't believe me? Wigwam socks are less than $10 a pair at Sam's on Liberty. Go get some.

Plastic bags - It's really important, and difficult, to keep your feet warm and dry. You can get fancy waterproof socks, or expensive shoe covers, but a plastic shopping bag between your (wool!) socks and your shoes will help keep your feet dry when things get gross. I hate hate hate wet feet.

Fenders - Fenders work really well for keeping your legs dry and your pants clean. It's critical to stay dry in the winter, and fenders really help. You can pick up a set of full coverage fenders for maybe $50-60 at most local bike shops. Personally, my favorites are Two Wheel Tango on Jackson, Sic Transit Cycles on Broadway, and Great Lakes Cycling and Fitness on Stadium. I'd recommend that you save yourself a couple of frustrating hours and let them do the install for you.

Studded Tires - Everyone I talk to about bike commuting wants to know what to do about the ice. Nothing works as well as a couple hundred pieces of steel poking out of your tires. However, you'll probably honestly need them less than a dozen days out of the year, and they'll feel really sluggish the other 353. They're also pretty expensive.  Studded tires also tend to be a bit wider than some "road" bikes will allow, so your bike might have a problem accommodating them. Take it to a shop and see what's available. I think studded tires are totally worth it, assuming you don't mind the additional rolling resistance, or if you have another bike to ride when the weather gets nicer, or if you feel comfortable swapping your tires on and off pretty frequently.

Zip Ties - For those of you with disc brakes (thanks A.F. for the comment), these are a low cost alternative to studded tires. They look a little strange, but you can save some cash and give your tires a bit of bite with this clever trick.

Good gloves - I hate it when my hands get cold. I splurged and spent $70 on a pair of fancy Pearl Izumi gloves that look like lobster claws, but I've also heard people swear by oven mitts wrapped in a plastic bag. Whatever works!

Facemask - Maybe you'll know what I mean when I say balaclava. Get one. They're easier to work with than scarves. If your scarf works for you, that's great too. If you wear glasses, consider yourself warned that the true secret to winter commuting is bundling your face, while keeping your glasses from fogging up. It just takes a bit of trial and error, and paying a bit of attention to your breathing.

Goggles - Sometimes when it's really snowy, or brutally cold, I see people biking with ski goggles. They look cooler than a pair of $3 hardware store goggles, but the hardware store goggles work well too. You might only actually wind up using them a handful of times a year, and you'll probably look ridiculous. Except that you're riding your bike and it's 14 degrees so actually you look like a badass.

Good attitude - If you wake up with that sense of dread about riding to work, try to change your tune. Get yourself excited. Do pushups, jumping jacks, or whatever you need to, in order to get the blood flowing in the morning. Pull up Cyndi Lauper on Spotify or something. Then, put your biking clothes on 15-20 minutes before you plan leave the house, so you'll be toasty warm by the time you get out the door, and the cold air will actually feel refreshing (at least for a minute).

Common Cycle - Need help winterizing your bike? Got a problem with your brakes, your shifters or whatever? Bike working fine, but you just want to hang out with other bike people? Check out Common Cycle any Wednesday this winter in the Outdoor Adventures building at 336 Hill.  Volunteers  and tools will be on hand from 6:30p-9:00p to help you out. I promise they're really really nice (the volunteers and the tools).

Layering - You're probably bundled up beyond belief whether you're biking or not. Layering well is going to allow you to take things off as you heat up during your commute. Once you get moving, you warm up pretty quick, but eventually you'll get the hang of what's too much.  It's easy to overdress.

Lights - I can't believe people bike without lights. This is a great way to get hurt. You can get rechargeable lights these days that are super bright. My favorite headlight right now is the Cygolite ExpiliOn, which comes in a few different brightness models, but it also comes with a USB/wall charger. I've heard Performance Bicycle has some on clearance. Buy some lights, now.

Communicate with other road users - Roads get a bit narrower in the winter because of all the slush, so be aware of the distance people are giving you when they pass. When I see the road ahead of me narrowing, I reach out with my left hand, with the palm facing behind me, and move it backward, as if I were applying pressure to the traffic behind me. I'd like to believe that this indicates that I'd like them to wait a minute before they pass. Then, and only then, I move a few feet toward the middle of the road. When I feel comfortable again, and I'm ready for them to pass me, I pull over to the right and wave them on. If you fail to communicate effectively, you just look like some guy hogging the road at 15mph, and it makes us all look bad. Similarly, if you think that someone behind you is nervous about passing you, make it clear to them that you know they're there, and that they're free to pass. "It takes team work to make the dream work!" Or something.

I hope some of this helps some of you out this winter. Please join me and some friends from Common Cycle and the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition for a presentation this Saturday at 3pm at the Re-Skilling Festival.

Hope to see you on the road!


  1. Great post! Whose beautiful bike is that?

    1. I have such a hard time with my feet in the winter, even on my commute which is only a few miles. I've tried every combination of sock/shoe/liner/cover out there. So in the winter, I've just had to make my ride shorter. I have a folding bike that I take a few stops on the bus, and then I ride about a mile, which is off the bus route anyway. I'm going to try those zip ties too - that could be just what I'm looking for on the icier days.

    2. @Heather, I saw the bike parked outside of Angell Hall last winter. Have no idea whose bike it is.