How to Enjoy Winter Biking

Guest post by Duncan Hurd, managing editor of Momentum Mag

“I’m not one of those die-hards” is most likely what you’re thinking. Winter cycling, especially in snowy, rainy and bitterly cold places, is often believed to be only for the truly dedicated. The ones who are out there making a statement, dedicated to the cause of two-wheeled transportation for life. I know because I once believed this myself. Winter weather arrived and I started buying monthly transit passes again, my bicycle stowed away until spring.

winter bike ridingBut then on one cold day I kept on riding. We had been experiencing a very mild winter that year and as long as the streets were dry I was on my bike. I made only short trips at first. Going up the street to the grocery store, across town to a friend’s place or riding one neighborhood over to a restaurant. I commuted by transit during the day, but my evening and weekend activities all remained by bike. Sure, it was cold and my eyes would water and my nose would run like Niagara Falls. So I bought some handkerchiefs and kept on riding. I bought a better pair of gloves and kept on riding. I learned to love wool and kept on riding.

As the mercury drops and the days feel like they’ve barely started by the time it gets dark again, continuing to bike ride is the best way I’ve found for improving my mood and giving me energy to do more than just sit under a blanket. If you’re curious about riding in the winter here are a few tips to help you get started:

Start Small

You may have a personality that allows you to jump right into anything, but I sure do not. Biking is never an all-or-nothing proposition. At first you’ll spend more time debating with yourself over whether or not you should ride, but over time you’ll learn what works for you.

  • Ride when you’re comfortable and ride to help you become more comfortable.
  • Start on a quiet weekend and set a destination.
  • Experiment with what clothing you’ll wear and give yourself time.

Consider Your Wardrobe

I prefer to dress for the destination. While I do own an array of cycling gear, most of my winter weather bike trips are for transportation and not recreation. Having been car-dependent for far too many years, once I began walking and biking in the winter I quickly realized that I didn’t have clothing suitable for the outdoors. I didn’t own boots, my jackets were too thin, my gloves proved to be just for show and I owned maybe two cotton sweaters.

There are plenty of cycling-specific gear choices that can help you feel more comfortable on your bike in the winter, but these aren’t a necessity. I’ve started wearing more layers, choosing wool over cotton and thinking about comfort and warmth as well as aesthetics. I’ve now built a wardrobe that surprisingly still looks like what I would regularly wear to work but is also going to keep me warm on winter walks and rides.

Your Bike Needs Love

Winter streets can wreak havoc on your average bicycle. In Toronto, ON, we get snow and slush and roads covered in salt and grime. When it’s wet your tires will pick up road debris and toss it up at you and your bike. Left to freeze and accumulate debris and moisture will ruin your gears, render your brakes useless and eat away at parts prone to rusting.

  • Wipe down your bike after messier rides to help keep parts running smoothly longer.
  • Learn basic chain maintenance.

If becoming an amateur mechanic isn’t for you, then consider what bike you ride. Upright city bikes so common in Amsterdam and Copenhagen are excellent all-weather vehicles. Fenders keep debris away from you, chain guards protect the parts that keep you rolling and internal-gear hubs and hub brakes conceal moving parts, increasing their longevity. You’ll enjoy your winter rides far more if you don’t have to worry about your bike.

Ride with Care

It’s tempting to make your winter rides as short as possible by riding fast and furious. While extra exertion can help you warm up, it also can get you into trouble.

  • By riding slower, it may take a little longer to warm up but you’ll be better prepared to navigate around debris and keep an eye on your surroundings.
  • Biking slower may also help you identify new places to stop and warm up such as at a book store you’ve not noticed before or a café you’ve never found time to visit.
  • Always remember your lights. Since people may not expect to see you out on your bike, and since clouds and earlier evenings make streets darker in winters, it is always best to have your lights on at all times.

Finally, have fun. While not all winter rides are going to be bliss, learn to have fun and feel comfortable biking. It will keep you motivated to ride all year.


Duncan Hurd is managing editor of Momentum Mag, an independent media company that promotes, encourages and inspires “Smart Living by Bike.” He lives in Toronto, Canada and believes that every ride is a group ride, even if those around him don’t know it yet. Subscribe to Momentum Mag’s free newsletter.

Photo: Kathleen Wilker

5 Comments

  1. Josh

    How to enjoy winter biking: walk.

  2. Doug D

    All the people I know who think winter biking is hard or crazy or cold have never tried it.
    Fenders are almost a necessity though.

  3. alliwant

    Winter is pretty challenging, especially in a climate like mine (upper Midwest). A few things make it a lot easier; 1) good gloves, because keeping your fingers warm but not sweaty really helps 2) eye protection, like safety glasses or even ski goggles when it’s really cold. Watery eyes are a true nuisance, and may be hazardous if you can’t see clearly 3) studded tires, because nothing ruins an otherwise pleasant ride like the bike flipping out from under you on a patch of ice. The hazards are a bit more in the winter, but I’ve never found them overwhelming. And the last things to mention apply any time of the year: be visible (bright colors and reflective gear), and use a mirror so you know what’s going on behind you.

  4. Glenn

    You hit the nail on the head. I cannot tell you how often I have debated on whether to ride or walk during the Fall to Winter transition. A mild winter in Atlanta (40s in the morning and 60s in the middle of the day) has kept me riding. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Here’s the secret I’ve learned from two winters of bike commuting: The problem isn’t staying warm; it’s being able to cool off enough. I have hills, so getting the layers right for downhill chills and uphill overheating is tricky. I’ve found that if my neck is warm (scarf or gaiter), I’ve never felt cold on the bike.

    I don’t do studded tires, and it’s true that slush and ice make things challenging and sometimes dangerous, so you should know your limitations — but you should also know that cold really isn’t one of them.

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