While winter riding can be difficult due to the usually cold, wet, and dark conditions, this January’s warmer than average temperatures and sunny afternoons, as well as the looming cabin fever staying inside due to COVID-19, have found many of us logging more outdoors miles than usual.
The MassBike staff has found ourselves taking advantage of the dry January weather by exploring our local rail trails. Jes took her first ride of 2021 on the Southern New England Trunkline Trail in Douglas. Galen biked along the scenic Massachusetts Water Resource Authority Aqueduct Trails in Needham. While Chrystal has been biking on the Mattapoisett Rail Trail whose phase 1B will be open to the public this spring. Even as it gets colder and wetter, we want to make sure you are prepared to keep riding outside all winter long.
The key to riding outside in the winter is to make sure your bike and body are properly prepared for the ride. For your bike, this means making sure you have front and rear lights at all times and choosing fatter or gripper tires than during the summer months. This winter hasn’t been too icy thus far, but studded tires can make a big difference if you plan to ride in icy or snowy conditions. If it’s icy don’t be afraid to walk your bike if you feel uncomfortable and always take it easy when you find yourself on black ice – don’t make any hard turns or brake suddenly or you might slip out!
You may also want to lower the pressure of your tires, so you can more easily roll over the rock salts, and lowering your seat an inch or two will allow you to more easily catch yourself in case you do slip a bit.
Some folks go so far as to get a separate “winter bike” for the harsh seasons. We recommend a low cost, yet good quality used mountain bike that can be modified to suit winter conditions, such as platform pedals good for boots, limited or single speed gearing, wide and nobby tires, fenders, and some carrying capacity. Here’s a winter bike built by bike mechanic guru Sheldon Brown for inspiration:
Regardless of what bike you ride in the winter, maintenance and cleaning are especially challenging when the roads are treated with salt and sand. You’ll have to keep up with the basics of the A, B, C’s, and be extra diligent about cleaning off your drivetrain and chain, and use wet-weather lubricant for your chain. If you let the road slush melt into your gears, the salt and sand will cause nasty rust to build up and can lead to a breakdown of your drivetrain.
For your body, make sure to layer appropriately for the weather and keep your extremities covered. Keep in mind this great adage for New England: There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!
A moisture-wicking base layer made of wool or synthetic material, not cotton, will keep you dry and a wind-resistant outer shell will help keep you warm. Make sure you are wearing gloves or mittens to keep your hands warm as well as a head covering to insulate and protect your ears. Your layers are easy to shed as you warm-up and a good rule is that if you are warm before you start biking, you have too many layers on. It’s easy to overheat in the winter, so warm-up into your layers by starting your ride a little cold, you can also pack an extra layer if you’re nervous about the temperatures or think the temperatures may drop later in your ride.
Colder temperatures can sometimes make a rider feel like they don’t need as much water but you still need to keep hydrated. If there is snow on the ground, your ride may take even more effort than usual and you don’t want to find your bottle frozen when you need a drink. Keep your liquid from freezing by bringing along warm water in an insulated bottle. Or if you like to store your bottles in a feedbag on your handlebars, flip your water bottle upside down and the bottle will freeze from the bottom so you’ll still have water for your whole ride.
Just as you’ll need to change your bike and your clothing to suit the conditions, you may have to modify your route depending on how the snow and ice are cleared in your area. For instance, if your route usually takes you along a shared-use pathway, or on a road with a bike lane, that path or bike lane may not be cleared after a snow or ice storm, so you may find yourself riding in the middle of the roads in order to get where you need. Some roads will be cleared better than others, and some roads may be safer to ride than others, so be flexible in your routing, and be patient.
Lastly, if you do choose to ride in the roads, you’ll need to be bright and visible. We can’t stress enough how important it is for you to be predictable in your riding, and one of the best ways is to make sure your outermost layer is a reflective color such as day-glow and neon, and to have daytime running lights that will make you as bright as possible. Remember, though you may have a 360-degree view of the world from behind the handlebars, motor vehicle drivers may have limited visibility due to snow or fog on their windshields, especially if it’s actively snowing – so keep in mind that you may be more invisible than you think.
We hope these few tips will help you with your winter riding goals. Let us know where you’re riding this winter- we’d love to hear about it. If you have any questions or winter biking concerns- let us know! We want to ensure that you have all the tools you need to keep riding all winter long.