So, last year Cupcake put together an amazing guide to #bikewinter that, if you haven’t read by now, you should follow this post with immediately.
In the meantime, though, and with ice fresh on the ground from last night’s snow-and-freeze, I wanted to put some suggestions out there for some folks who might want to power through this bizarro Disney on Ice shit that they’ve gotten themselves into, particularly if you’re new to winter riding. This post was specifically written for people I know who are riding their first winter, so it’ll likely be a refresher for experienced riders.
Disclosure: My winter bike is a 43cm 80s chromoly frame Nishiki road bike with 27” gatorskins. I don’t know its exact weight, but it isn’t a massive lugged steel frame. So, if you ride a very heavy bike, or a mountain bike, or have special winter tires—feel free to share your hot tips in the comments if you feel they differ. Or how they changed your winter riding life if you want folks to come to your side. (This stubborn girl still ain’t getting studded winter tires.)
Here we go…
1.) Give yourself time. When winter begins, I consider both time and my daily commute all the more differently and prep starts the night before. If it’s going under 10-15° in the night alongside being slick out there, I usually will ride to public transportation.
In Chicago, it tends to take (in my observation) between 6-8 hours for major salting + melting on heavy use cycling roads/lanes and up to two days on neighborhood streets (unless you get 311 on blast or maybe threaten or bribe your alderman). The city may say otherwise. For example, I live off of a street that turns into an ice gutter after accumulation. The 30-40 minutes of extra time I pad onto every winter morning gives me time to consider if I’ll need to walk for 15 minutes to the next major street before taking my 25 minute ride. If I’m not hurrying, I’m probably not sliding either.
2.) Upright is most right. Keep your body weight centered and as on top of your bike frame as you can manage. Being super crouched on the drops is going to make it all the more challenging to see what precisely is coming up next. The natural instinct for walking on ice is to hunker down, but on moving wheels we have to adjust. I’m not saying shoulders to the sky Cruiser-style riding is mandatory here (especially if you’re super tall and it could throw your weight), but the best view you can snag of the half block or so in front of you will treat you nicely in return.
Take turns slow, or weave gently to move out of the way of ice and snow patches on the path in front of you with your bars steering more than your body to avoid tipping. Posture is critical.
3.) Know your pace, and embrace your surroundings. Most people have their winter pace. When winter comes, I zen the fuck out. Take your time. Cars will beep, other cyclists will pass, but this is truly not worth worrying about. That’s what step #1 is for. Last night, a fellow commuter and I bonded about how slow we were going over some treacherous black ice on Milwaukee Ave and kept an eye on each other.
In my opinion, the best part about winter riding is just how meditative it is. You’re becoming aware of your surroundings at a slower place. Watching an old man comb his hair in a storefront window’s reflection, or a little over bundled boy waddle his way to school are the moments that make me happier on the ride to work that’s otherwise so goddamn bitter. And they are much different feels than when I’m just getting the fair weather adrenaline rush, seeing if I can make it to the west loop in 15 minutes that day or not.
4.) Trust your senses and learn the best way to brake. You can physically sense what’s happening to your bike better than your eyes can sometimes. What appears to be some run over road slush occasionally has a strip of black ice underneath and you can most clearly learn that by letting your body lead. Really, though, it’s all senses on deck for the winter. If there’s an uncanny shine to the wetness on the ground: assume it is ice. If you need to take the lane, TAKE IT. It’s not illegal; ignore the misguided occasional honk.
Use rear brakes when possible and ease into slowing down (an inadequate front braking usually turns into a fall rather than a fishtail like with the rear). Fishtailing is normal although terrifying, but avoiding the impulse to suddenly brake is crucial. As a hypocritical aside, I ride a single-speed mixte in the winter whose rear brake cable freezes on and off all winter, so if you’re stuck with a front I suggest mastering the slow pump.
If your senses are saying “ABORT!” then you should pack up your feelings and walk your bike. Seriously.
5.) Get acquainted with the death patches. Those spots that flooded all spring? Those classic Chicago potholes and divots you became skilled at avoiding? Yep, those same areas are maybe even more dangerous at this time of year. Because folks often end up alternating their routes alongside plowing and salting schedules, be sure to ask fellow cyclists for pointers about spots they avoid at certain times of the season. I learned about under the viaduct at Green and Hubbard the hard way—by falling off my bike and sliding in front of a truck last winter.
If you happen onto ice or into those patches? Keep going. Braking on ice will more than likely take you down.
7.) Learn to fall. Yep, it’s probably inevitable. I’m sorry I misled you in the title. And it’s the thing most people cite as their reason to not ride all year. The fact that it can and likely will happen might have you considering side streets over main streets for the rest of the season. I personally don’t due to salting patterns, but having endured a few hard falls last year, I understand the reticence.
A lot of winter falls have to do with icy turns and in that event: try to fall back, onto your butt or your hip. Avoid bracing and just hold on to your handlebars. The good thing about a slowed winter pace is a more relaxed body; if your limbs are chilled out, you’re less likely to do serious damage.
8.) Love your bike. Salt’s gonna mess up your shit. It just is. It’s corrosive. Anywhere that metal and metal are touching? Keep it lubed to avoid seizing. Check on & clean your chain more frequently. Try to do a thorough frame rinsing once a week, and wipe down as much as you can on the daily. Get appropriate lube for the weather you’re riding in! If your brakes start acting funny, look into changing your cables and don’t wait on getting ’em checked. If you can bring it inside at all, do. Keep your lights on you and on in general–you will need to use the lane more in the winter, period. Be seen.
The last piece of advice? Consider riding fixed. I know it seems obvious with our name and all, but the one thing I’ve been meaning to change about my beater is putting a flip-flop hub on it: more control of the bike = a happier winter ride. Less metal, less gunk accumulation. The better shape your bike is in, the less chance of having a mechanical issue. Preventive maintenance, y’all.
Eventually, it will become easier, as most things do when we practice them more frequently, but never so easy that all the risk is gone. It’s often a departure from cycling to have to put more brain time in it and disconnect a bit from your body, but the highlights of winter riding (like kicking Seasonal Affective Disorder’s ass and avoiding an over-crowded bus) are worth it.