How To Ride Your Bike All Winter – And Love it
Yesterday, we had a second crazy fall snowstorm here in Colorado. The first one struck one week ago, and while it was fun at the time, I welcomed the warm sunny week that followed and returned us to normal conditions. But then, another storm came along and, DUMP, there were about seven inches of fluffy powder on all surfaces this morning. So while many of you are still enjoying lazy tropical temperatures in the Southern US and other warm places, some of us above 40 degrees latitude are actually starting to think about the approach of winter.
My son and I made the most of today’s snowfall by biking to school as usual. I ride the bike, he rides in the trailer. We did some deliberate skids around corners and crashing through snowbanks, and he hooted and hollered through the whole 4-5-minute ride (a little under a mile). Bike trailers are actually very cozy for the passenger, because the velcro-closing front window blocks any wind and water, making it almost carlike inside.
When we got there, we found that we were the only ones who had biked to school. I was not surprised, since we have already established in an earlier article that Mr. Money Mustache is the most badass resident of Longmont. But my son was very pleased with our top-of-the-school status nonetheless*.
Although I like to joke endlessly about my own badassity, the truth is that riding a bike year-round is actually an incredibly easy and trouble-free thing to do in most of the world’s populated areas. Even in the most brutal climates (I’m talking Siberia and Northern Canada here, not just balmy Minneapolis or Detroit), you can still crank out 8-10 months of it.
I’m not saying everyone should bike even when the snow is a foot deep, the snowbanks have eaten up the road shoulder and bike lanes, and the sidewalks are lumpy and unplowed. But these conditions only affect a tiny minority of the world’s population, for a small minority of the days of the fall/winter/spring season.
I am astounded every time I hear a resident of the Lower 48 talk about how they can’t possibly bike in winter, because in many ways it is easier than trying to drive a car. And in all ways, it is more fun.
My own winter biking experience began at around age 15, in a small town about 60 miles Northwest of Buffalo, NY. Winters are long, cloudy, and snowy there, and like everyone else, I assumed that bikes were only useful in summer.
But then I bought my first mountain bike using some of my minimum-wage earnings from working at the gas station. It was a bright orange Miele bike with gnarly wide studded tires and very nice quality components for the time. I bought it in late fall, and when it snowed I was eager to see how it could handle the conditions, so I took it out for a spin.
What I learned is that bikes do just fine in the snow. In fact, I had so much fun on that bike that a friend** and I were featured on the front page of the town newspaper with the headline “Teaming up for Winter Travel”. He was on a snowboard holding a rope which was tied to my bike, and I was providing the power to get us around town at high speeds.
Just as with a car, it’s all in the tire treads. A lowered Honda Civic with 18″ wheels and racing slicks will slide straight into the ditch when it hits the first inch of snow. But a stock Honda Civic with tall-treaded snow tires will clamp to the road and out-perform most SUVs running their stock all-season tires. Similarly, my road racing bicycle with skinny racing slick tires will topple when it hits any real snow. But my mountain bike sticks confidently to packed snow, floats luxuriously through powder, and smashes through snowbanks.
So we’ve established that grip is no problem, if you outfit your bike with nicely treaded tires. But what about comfort? Won’t you instantly freeze to death by even touching a bicycle if the outdoor temperature is below 68F or 20 degrees Celsius?
Yes, it can indeed be quite uncomfortable to ride a bike in cold weather. If you insist on riding in a bikini or a tanktop. Luckily for the rest of us, “Clothes” have been invented, which allow you to keep comfortable in any weather. I learned about “Clothes” by growing up in Canada, where they are required to survive the winter. Now that I live in a region of the US that does not have an actual winter, but rather just a season where the stream of warm sunny days is very occasionally interrupted by snowstorms, I regularly encounter people whose only strategy of dealing with cold weather is to hide in their cars. This is an inefficient, expensive, and wussypants habit, and it’s time to break it once and for all. Your car is for inter-city travel. Not for keeping your lazy ass warm during local trips just because you’re not smart enough to figure out how to dress for winter weather.
So with that long introduction, I will now reveal Mr. Money Mustache’s Secret Wardrobe for all-weather cycling comfort. This has been battle-tested in the slushy streets of Hamilton and the crispy arctic tundra of Ottawa, Ontario, and it obviously makes a mockery of the light chills of Colorado as well.
California Winter Nights Chilly: 50-68F (10-20C): All you need is some jeans and a sweater or light jacket. A nylon shell coat works well, since these can be fairly rainproof. Remember, you’ll be pumping your legs and burning calories at about five times your normal rate, so you tend to be warmer when biking than you might expect.
Colorado Winter Days Chilly: 40-50F (5-10C): Now you add a normal hat (there are thin ones called “skull caps” that fit under a bike helmet if you like, although I prefer my Canadian Club hat that came with a bottle of Whisky I bought once), and some optional gloves if you tend to have cold hands. My hands are still comfy at this temperature, so I don’t use gloves unless it’s a long ride. Use a fleece sweater under your outer nylon shell coat now.
The Freezing Mark: 30-40F (-1 to +5C): Gloves become quite useful, and some people might throw a layer of thermal underwear under the jeans.
Winter Wonderland: 20-30F (-6 to -1C): You could upgrade the coat to a full ski or snowboarding coat if you like. If your face feels cold, you can use a scarf or a balaclava (shown in the picture with the word “Hind” on it).
Icicles In Your Beard And Nostrils Chilly: 10-20F (-12 to -6C): You might want to upgrade your shoes to some nice insulated hiking boots as I have in the picture.
Canadian and Russian Winter Chilly: (10F/-12C and below): The clothing above is very powerful and it is hard for any winter weather to defeat it. But for complete invincibility, I throw on my snowboarding pants over the jeans (and subtract the thermal long underwear since that would be overkill). This is an outfit that keeps me warm even sitting stationary for 10 minutes on a ski-lift at 13,000 feet in January with winds above 50MPH. So when doing something as relaxing as riding around on the city streets with such nice clothing, you’ll be extremely toasty.
Most of my winter clothes are higher-end stuff from REI or similar mountaineering/outdoors stores – but I bought them all from REI Outlet during the 50% off sales where you get the odds-and-ends from the previous season for less. That Ground jacket, for example, still cost me $90 and is normally a $180 coat. I had never had such an expensive piece of clothing before, but damn, now I can see why the higher-quality gear costs more. It’s worth it, because the higher comfort level encourages you to get outside more, and high quality clothing lasts much longer. The coat is over 5 years old, the Grandoe gloves are 10, and the other things are somewhere in between.. and they get used every day during the chilly season.
The nice thing about this clothing setup is that it is still worn right over your street clothes. Even in the worst weather during my working days, I would bike to work in the full outfit, then could strip the outer layers off within two minutes and would be dressed as a regular office worker. The time to dress up, and the time to strip down, is less than the time it takes a car driver to scrape off his windshield or find a parking spot or shovel his driveway.
The last issue regarding winter bicycling is that you’ll often be doing it after sunset. Biking is not statistically more dangerous than car-driving (more on that in a future article), as long as you follow standard safe riding practices, and one of those is making sure you are just as visible as a car at night. Luckily, this is easy: A flashing red LED light mounted to your seat post, another one on your backpack if you like, reflective leg straps and standard bike reflectors, and a bright LED headlamp on your handlebars and/or your head. These days my favorite is the Niterider Minewt 150 Combo from Nashbar (or its even brighter 250 lumen brother). Mrs. Money Mustache and I used to do the 35-minute uphill bike ride in the dark on our way home from work all winter, on fairly busy roads. We made sure we were a rolling light show when seen from any direction, and cars were able to see us from literally almost a mile away, because we looked like police cars. LED lights are cheap, bright, incredibly low in battery consumption, and indestructible, so there is no reason not to have some fun with them when setting yourself up for night riding.
I will admit that all of these steps, when taken together, do take an initial round of using your brain and putting in some effort. And I’ll even admit that while you’re figuring out the whole system, you might even experience brief periods of discomfort because you might be too cold or too warm and need to make clothing adjustments. But guess what? You don’t score yourself a happier life by running from all forms of discomfort. It’s just the opposite – you get happier by ramming yourself right up against obstacles like this one and then smashing through them.
You are NOT ALLOWED to stop riding your bike just because it is cold outside. So if you’ve ever used that excuse before, shut your whining trap, put on your coat and gloves, and I’ll see you on the streets this winter – every day!
* Honorable mention goes to my friend Luc, who ran to school that day while pulling his daughter on an old plastic sled. Technically, that out-badasses biking.
** Coincidentally, this guy is now an MMM reader. Do you remember this story Adam ;-) ?
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