Reporting by Tavia
Presenter's introduction: I’m Liz (she/her pronouns), and I’ve been winter biking for three winters now. I don’t make every trip in the winter on my bike, but I do usually bike to and from work. I ride a hybrid bike - a mix between a road bike and mountain bike, with flat bars and knobby/sticky tires.
Being seen is a crucial part of winter biking. There are fewer bikes on the road, and drivers are not as attentive and aware. Sometimes visibility is decreased, or drivers are distracted by other weather conditions.
You should have a front light and a rear light, if possible. I like rechargeable lights, and I have a charging cord both at home and at work. Make sure your lights are charged before you leave, or have backup batteries just in case. If visibility is decreased because of snow or cloudy skies, I recommend having your front (white) light on the flashy setting, even in the daytime.
Don’t forget, twilight hours (which often end up turning into rush hour) are decreased visibility hours as well! And the sun sets very quickly! Better to have lights on just in case than have to stop and dig them out of your bag during the middle of a ride.
Lots of winter clothing is black, which is great for my inner goth but not so great for being seen. The best kind of hi-vis clothing is the kind you’ll use. If you’ll wear a crossing guard vest, they have them for $3.99 at Ikea. If that seems too dorky, there are lots of options on amazon. No judgement here regarding vanity - if you’ll use it, it’s worth the investment.
You have a right to the road!
If road conditions on the edge of the road make it dangerous, and you feel comfortable taking the lane, go for it. You have a right to be there. You are more likely to be seen in the middle of the lane than on the edge of the road.
Other things to have, just in case
- Bus card or money for the bus: sometimes the weather changes for the worse, sometimes bodies and minds get tired. It’s okay to bail, you can always try again.
- Handwarmers: if you have room, it’s nice to have a couple handy. I’ve never needed them, but knowing in the back of my mind that I could warm up my toes if needed is nice.
- Helmet! There are lots of debates about helmets, but I think winter biking is a situation where helmets are a very good idea.
There are many different road conditions you might encounter while winter biking. The goal is the same for every road condition: connect your tires with pavement. Here are a few tips on how to do that when the elements make it difficult.
Coasting is not ideal for slippery surfaces. If you have a single or fixed gear bike, that’s great! If you have gears on your bike, I recommend gearing lower than you normally would.
If the chain on your bike is skipping teeth, try lubing our chain and cleaning your drivetrain before you replace anything. I usually lube my chain about every 2-3 weeks in the winter.
As much tire surface on the road as possible
You can deflate your tires a bit, or upgrade to wider/knobbier tires.
If you can see spots where pavement is visible (instead of ice or snow buildup), try to bike there!
If you feel yourself slipping or wobbling, try to hold steady and keep moving forward.
Slamming the brakes is something you do not want to do. Locking the wheels will cause your tires to disengage with the pavement.
I often sing a song to myself, a la Dory in finding Nemo: “just keep swimming” etc.
Steady and controlled movements are better than fast and reactionary movements. Try focus on moving straight forward rather than over-correcting.
There are usually two things to consider when routing - distance and traffic. Winter adds a third consideration to the mix: how likely the road is to be plowed. Caveat: I spend most of my winter biking time in Minneapolis. I know St. Paul is a lot worse at plowing, especially side-streets.
Most Minneapolis city streets with bike lanes will eventually plow the bike lane, but it’s likely to be the last thing plowed
The greenway also gets plowed, but later than would be ideal. The grease rag facebook page is a good resource to check! This open source-map is also useful, though only as good as its updates/frequency of use.
- Trails that get plowed very late: Johnson NE overpass, Loring Greenway, Minnehaha Trail
- If you see conditions that are dangerous, call 311 and report the info to the city.
Side streets get plowed after snow emergency routes.
Later in the winter, ice berms often build up in the biking part of many streets. Don’t be afraid to take the lane if it’s too dangerous to be on the side of the street.
Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference and priorities. I prefer to take the most direct route and would rather deal with traffic than icier roads. Some people prefer to take it slow and deal with roads that might be worse, but where there are fewer cars.
- If you are biking a regular route for the first time after it snows, leave your house earlier than you normally would. If I’m taking a trip that I would expect to take 30 minutes in normal conditions, I’ll give myself 40 minutes in “new winter weather” conditions. (Not always fresh snow - sometimes it’s fresh ice!)
- If it’s your first winter biking and you and want to commute to work but are worried about timing, one thing I recommend is taking your bike on the bus to work and then riding the route home. Roads will be more plowed and there will be less pressure to arrive on time.
- Other ways to ease into winter biking: short easy trips! Ride to your favorite local coffee shop or restaurant. Ride to your favorite lake and go ice skating or take a walk around the lake! Trips with no pressure/time constraints are a great way to get a feel for winter biking.
Other Odds and Ends
If you go out and have to bail, that’s okay! I believe that you should do what makes you feel happy and safe. If that’s a few leisure rides in the winter, awesome! If that’s trying it one day and switching to the bus in the middle of the ride, that’s fine too! No one is obligated to bike in the winter. There’s no wrong way to ride a bike.
Feel free to lean on the GR community! Asking questions in the facebook group is a-okay. No question is too silly. If you want a riding buddy, posting in the GR facebook group is a great place to start.
- Stay loose and relaxed! Tightening up will just cause jerky movements.
- If you wear glasses, consider goggles that go over your glasses or a brimmed hat to help guard against precipitation.
- Keep your center of gravity low - consider lowering your seat, and think about your movements when biking
- Use your feet when going around corners if it helps you feel more stable
- Don’t forget sunglasses if it’s sunny outside
- Your own personal preferences will be the most comfortable - if you get a chance, practice biking around a low-traffic area after it snows