Home > Public Anecdotes, Safety Issues, Tips & Tricks > A Quick Lesson In The Art Of The Two-Wheeled Winter Commute

A Quick Lesson In The Art Of The Two-Wheeled Winter Commute

Some prefer to ski...photo by marc dalio

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was originally posted last December in an inaugural post. It’s looks like snow will be upon us within the week and so I thought I’d resurrect it.

This year, I’m including a new poll:

What type of winter Bicycle Commuter Are You?


Originally posted 12/16/2009

What do I need for Winter Biking?

It’s an annual question.

The truth is, I’ve never really thought it through; I’m no expert.  Usually, roads are scraped down to the asphalt and, besides the cold, there isn’t too much of a difference from any other time of the year. There are two basics to winter bicycle commuting: 1) layer (it’s easy to over-heat) and 2) don’t be dumb (winter is not the best time to challenge the worst designed streets in the city).

The rest will take care of itself, but here are some other specifics:

For the ride:

  1. Fender(s): Key for me. I hate that wet stripe up the backside.
  2. Tires: I’ve gone my entire life without studded tires–most riders do. This year I’m going to give them a try. December has been slippery. There are lots of choices…MyWHaT underwriter McClain’s on 8th will help. (They helped last year…but not always required)
  3. Lights: Less to see by and more To BE SEEN in these shortened days. My new favorites are the Reelights–always there, charged by the ride. (You’ll need more though).

For the Body:

  1. Good food: Internal fuel. Junk gets you nowhere fast.
  2. Base layer: Anything but cotton. Wool/Synthetic.
  3. Wind/Water Proof Shell: Anything with vent zippers under the pits is very nice.
  4. Head, Neck & Face: Key! Warm thin hat (under helmet),  scarf (not too long) or balaclava. My arms and legs are usually fine, but if the head isn’t covered I freeze.
  5. Gloves: Wind and water proof preferred.


Or rather, not riding. Some days are just hell. Depending on conditions, I might just walk or take the bus, but sometimes I’ll take BATA bus one way and throw my bike on its racks. Of course, if it’s that wintry outside, I’d probably just stay home.

But, on the days you do ride, keep it smooth and relaxed. Falls typically happen when trying to stop or turn too quickly.

Bad balance + icy spot = rider falls down.

But its important not to be afraid to fall. It typically won’t hurt all that much and often results in laughter in the street. I don’t adjust my brakes in the winter and just let them go loose to prevent falls due to skidding. I’m going slow enough along neighborhood streets and don’t need to accidentally lock them up and skid out. That’s me, you may be different.

Oh, and about cars. Take up the lane. The edges are typically uncleared slushy messes. It’s a public road, meant for automobiles, bikers and walkers if need be. Use it.

If you have other questions, let us know. There are a many winter riders in Traverse City, and elsewhere, and each has their own tips.

What are some other tips of the trade for winter bike commuting?

Are we ready for a bike to work day/week in Northern Michigan? (We weren’t last year.)

  1. J.Whittaker
    November 24, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Simple safety tip: When its really slick out, only use your front brake when you have to. This is critical when turning!

  2. Anonymouse
    November 24, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Listen, just don’t do it. I tried it a couple years ago. I took my bike to a local bike shop and had them put on some really big knobby tires. It helped tremendously for going through the snow, but ultimately I stopped riding in the winter for several reasons, the number one reason being you SHOULD be afraid to fall. There are injuries that could happen that you’ll never be the same again, I know this now. It’s just not worth it. The other two reasons for me are lack of clear areas to ride, you’re breathing road salt mist and getting it in your eyes and on your skin and clothes, drivers are less able to control their vehicles in winter and if you think they are scary in the summer…Just sayin man,it’s not worth it.

  3. Rob
    November 24, 2010 at 10:41 am

    It’s much more difficult to ride on an unplowed street where cars have already packed down a lot of the snow. Fresh snow is surprisingly easy to ride on, as long as it’s not excessively high. If you’re on a street where cars have already packed down some of it, try to stay on the fresh powder.

    If you ride in a city that uses salt, try to keep your bike as clean as possible. Salt pretty much destroyed my chain last winter. Although it’s not particularly expensive to replace it at the end of the season, it’s not particularly fun to ride with a loud, rusted chain all winter either.

  4. Anonymouse
    November 24, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Sorry my above comment is so poorly written. I wanted to add to it that it really freaks me out when people are riding or walking in the street in the winter. You could slip and fall and if I’m near you in my car I might not have time to stop or get out of the way in time to avoid hitting you. I don’t think you should ride or walk in the street in the winter. I don’t like bikes being on the sidewalk, but that is a safer space for you if you absolutely insist on riding in the winter. Better yet, if you don’t want to drive or take the bus then walk ON THE SIDEWALK!! That said, maybe you do have a right to ride in the road at any time of the year, I’m not arguing that at all. I’m just saying it’s not safe. I understand that aggressive mentality toward drivers as I get it every time I try to walk or bike anywhere in this city, but the thing is you are no match for any vehicle even a small one.

  5. November 24, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I’d amend/expand No. 4 on your For the Body list to “Head, Neck, Face & FEET.”

    Here in northern New Mexico (where it’s going to be 5 degrees tomorrow night) a wicked headwind can turn your toes into hypothermic little piggies within a few hundred pedal spins. A cheap pair of neoprene booties that cover the front half of your biking shoes is essential in my book.

    Otherwise, great list!

  6. Anonymouse
    November 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Whoa why are you editing my comments, especially with no note to readers!!? Guess I’m done here, WTF!!

  7. November 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    My policy is to edit for clarity and formatting issues, and possibly direct insults..it has been stated before.

    Typically, if someone provides the correct contact information I’ll email to be certain. Once readers submit, the system doesn’t allow edits and often we end up with large blocks of content that are difficult to read. I only reformatted your previous post, corrected a tense and tried to fix a run-on (now removed). It’s the role of an editor.

    Previously posted: “I monitor comments with a very tolerant editorial eye. Basically, as long as it’s not directly attacking someone, attempting to direct market a product or completely out of context, the comments remain. Where possible, I edit for clarity, improved formatting and attaching relevant links–all in the name of facilitating the discussion.”

  8. Anonymouse
    November 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    I admit I made a couple mistakes in that post, but what you edited was not one of them!

    You changed the impact and meaning of my post to be more in-line with your often far-fetched ideas about community transportation issues.

    Totally not cool, Gary!!

    You said you want people to participate on your blog, and now I see why many just don’t do it.

    I won’t be doing it anymore either, knowing that you just go ahead and change things to suit your transportation agendas.

    I’m very glad I didn’t use any of my identifying/contact information because then there would be words out on the internet that weren’t actually mine but attributed to me.

  9. November 24, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Sorry that you see it that way, but I don’t agree that I changed anything that would change your meaning or it’s impact. And, I reject 110% that I have some ulterior mission beyond editing for readability.

    The comment in question is now back to how you wrote it…

  10. Anonymouse
    November 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    And btw you didn’t edit just the format, you actually ADDED words that I didn’t write! It’s just unbelievable! How does that facilitate discussion?

  11. November 24, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Hey “Anonymouse” (if that is your real name) – why don’t you chill a little? Sounds like Gary is trying to make things more readable.

    As someone who daily deals with the challenges of hosting productive spaces on the internet, it seems that the policy is sensible and not worth busting a gasket.

    I will say that the prospect of falling is the main thing that keeps me off my bike most winter days. I prefer walking in wintertime!

  12. November 24, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Hey “farlane” of course it’s not my real name. What just happened here today is exactly why I don’t use my real name when putting words out there to someone else’s control. In case you missed my above post, Gary didn’t just edit the formatting of my post, he also added his own words and used punctuation which made them (visibly at least) stand out more. Maybe you think that facilitates discussion, but in my opinion it just breaks the trust of the participants.

  13. GLHJR
    November 24, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone. The main point of this comment thread has lost a little focus. My apologies.

    If you have a comment, question or general response to commuting by bicycle in the winter, I encourage you to do so here.

    Again, happy thanksgiving, happy riding, and thank you for visiting.

  14. tschmidt
    November 24, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    I like riding my bike in the snow. It’s fun.

  15. Arianne
    November 25, 2010 at 7:39 am

    I live in the city and enjoy winter riding. A few years ago I decided that it did not make sense for me to drive in the winter. I’d bundle up and head out to brush my car off and start it up to wait for it to warm. Then, I would drive two miles and go around in circles looking for parking. I can get to work in ten minutes on my bike and use front door parking. My route is on residential streets that are plowed early, so I have it pretty easy. However, winter bike commuting is not a safe choice for everybody. As stated in the original post; “don’t be dumb – winter is not the best time to challenge the worst designed streets in the city”. My top 3 tips: #1 Wear a helmet. Of the two times I have fallen in three years, my helmet was critical to preventing serious injury. #2 Use bright front and rear lights and reflective gear. #3 Get studded tires. Both times I fell were on wet ice prior to having studded tires.

  16. kriosconsulting
    November 25, 2010 at 10:42 am

    I have no greater joy than riding down the middle of Front Street on a winter evening with snow falling. For me it’s simply the bicycling self-equivilent of a Norman Rockwell moment, holiday lights in the trees, people bundled up against the weather, and being right square in the middle of my life.

  17. kriosconsulting
    November 26, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Oh, and something that I remembered today… or was reminded about. In the winter sometimes stuff breaks down. A lot of the mechanics of bicycles were not designed for the rigors of cold, salt, and standing water (snow).

    Today, with temps hovering at about 20 degrees F, my rear brake froze up. It’s a lesson on fluid engineering. A lot of the lubricants we use on our bikes simply aren’t designed for extended use in cold weather. This is where low viscosity oils are important. Unlike a car or truck, your bikes’ parts won’t warm up measurably with use. Brakes, deraileurs and anything using a cable are highly susceptible to lubricants that may thicken with cool temps.

    Today I did the unthinkable for most serious bike mechanics. I used WD40 on my brakes’ cables and pivot points. Normally I’d never use this stuff. It’s technically a solvent NOT a lubricant. In this instance, it worked exactly as planned, thinning the grease on the inside of the cables, and displacing water. A couple squirts and applying the levers, and now they work.

    So the lesson is, maintenance during the winter is different than in the summer.

  18. November 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Hello, I have lived in several parts of Alaska for the past 40 years and I write the Alaska Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance blog. I am a longtime winter bike commuter, including in my current hometown of Sitka (in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest) where it rains 100-120 inches a year and we get a lot of glare ice during the winter because of freezing rain. I use studded mountain bike tires (Nokian of Finland makes very good studded tires, though I know some people who use counter screws to make their own). When I lived up north, where we had more snow than rain, I didn’t feel I needed the studs. But in icy weather the studs are practically required equipment. Here is a post I did on my site about winter cycling last year (it has links to several Alaska sites with more tips for winter cycling),


  19. November 29, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Gary, Thanks for bringing up winter cycling. I ride to work and on errands every day. Other respondents have great suggestions…may I add a few more? 1) riding skill becomes magnified on slippery surfaces. Don’t make sudden moves when riding. All turns, large and small, have to be gentle arcs, not sudden jerks on the handlebar. 2) You can practice right now for riding on the snow, by letting almost all the air out of your tires….yeah, it’s a bit hard on the inner tubes, but the feeling and steering is almost identical…more resistance and an un-connected feeling up front. Get used to that and your winter ride is smoother. 3) Put the narrowest front tire with treads you can find…studs are not needed up front. You want your front tire to penetrate the snow and find grip below. The wider the tire, the greater the rolling resistance against the snow. 4) Simplify your winter bike. I ride a one speed coaster brake bike. Zero cables to freeze on brakes and no shift cables. And no front brake-any braking up front takes your front wheel out from under the bike, and down you go. 5) See and be seen! Blinkers front and back are mandatory, plus a headlight, either on your handlebar or helmet….it’s dark and most drivers are not looking for you. Reflectors and safety green jackets signal to drivers you are serious about your commute and gain respect. If cars can’t run without lights in the dark, neither should bikes.

  20. Sarna
    November 30, 2010 at 11:35 am

    How about a shout out to the glasses wearers in the crowd? The fog from breathing into your scarf can really get in the way of visibility! Perhaps an expensive balaclava would work (still hunting), but another option are super-cool-looking ski goggles that fit over your glasses. Double paned protection is not just good for your windows. Goggles provide added wind-chill protection too.

  1. November 25, 2010 at 9:05 am
  2. December 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

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