Usually the best part of my day is my bike commute to work from the New North End of Burlington. It’s about 6 1/2 miles, and takes me about a half hour. I get some valuable time to myself, freed from the demands of work or family, it’s great exercise, and it’s a good time to mentally prepare for or unwind from the work day. I’m saving money on gas and health club memberships, it’s good for the environment, and it’s just more fun than sitting in the car.
I’ve been bike commuting in the summers for years, but in the fall last year I attended a lunchtime session sponsored by the EPIC crew about winter biking. They brought in Chapin Spencer, the director of Local Motion (a local “active transportation” advocacy group) and one of the mechanics from the local bike shop The Old Spokes Home to give advice on clothes, equipment, and things to watch out for.
It didn’t seem all that hard, so I decided to give it a try, and for the most part it turned out to be way easier than I thought it would be. Once I figured out the clothes and equipment parts of it, the actual biking turned into part of my daily routine, just like it is in the summer. It even made snowboarding more fun, because my legs were much stronger than they’ve been through previous winters.
If I can do it, you can do it too! In retrospect I’m kind of surprised that more people here don’t winter bike, given the fact that we are generally big fans of winter at Burton. If you ride a snowboard in the winter, you are most of the way towards being able to do it on a bike – you probably already have a lot of what you’ll need. Fortunately we have a proform deal with the bike supply outfit Hawley, so you can probably get anything you need for pretty cheap.
The most important thing in any winter sport is to stay warm, and that means wearing the right clothes. When I started I was basically wearing an old version of what I would wear to go snowboarding, and while that worked pretty well, I ended up changing it a bit. With snowboarding, you alternate moving around and sitting still a lot, so you go through a lot of hot/cold cycles.
With bike riding, though, you’re moving the whole time, so you need less. Instead of snowpants I would just wear a first layer with a pair of shorts on top, so that there was less fabric around the drivetrain to get caught on the chain. And instead of a fleece or a sweater underneath my shell, I’d generally just wear a thick first layer and the shell, and that would be good enough. The heat you generate is enough to keep you warm, but you should carry sweater or something warm with you in case you break down or have to stop for some reason. And speaking of stopping, you should definitely carry a spare tube. They’re bigger than a patch kit, but it takes just as long to apply a patch as it does to just change the tube, and that way you’re not trying to find a tiny hole in the dark and cold.
I also started with heavier winter boots, but found that plain old sneakers worked fine. Warm socks were a must, of course. Winter in Vermont means that some days will be slushy and wet, while others will be frozen solid. On the wet days you might want to stick with the heavier waterproof boots, because your feet will get wet and we all know that wet socks + cold = painful toes. It’s equally important to keep your hands warm. Unlike with snowboarding, they’ve got to keep warm enough to work well. They are less likely to get wet, but you need a good pair of gloves to be able to have enough dexterity to work the brakes and hold on properly while still staying warm.
Some people say to just wear work clothes underneath the outwear so you’re good to go when you arrive, but I always carry a backpack with my work clothes and stuff in it. I just give myself an extra 15 minutes or so to change clothes and take a quick shower when I get here.
As far as hardware goes, you might think that you need a ton of special bike gear to bike thru the winter, but you only really need a few key things.
You will definitely want to use your warmer R.E.D. helmet with the ninjaclava underneath, and you should have a pair of your Anons in case it snows. Get some night lenses because it will probably be dark. The darkness will also mean you should have some good lights. Now, you can get really fancy and have super bright floodlights on your bike, but I used a $15 front and back light combo I got from Hawley that worked just fine. Your lighting needs will probably depend on where you are riding, but since my whole route is in Burlington I can depend on streetlights, and just need my lights to be visible to cars.
I just have one mountain bike, which I think lets me get out in the widest variety of conditions, but I see fixies and road bikes and touring bikes in the winter all the time, so don’t let that stop you. I rode on knobby tires for a long while, and they worked pretty well, but when it comes to ultimate winter domination you can’t beat studded tires. These will be the most expensive piece of winter biking equipment you might get, but I hear they last years and years because they get ridden for a relatively short period of time per year.
One of the biggest changes for me was the route I had to take. In the summer, I’m lucky enough to be able to take the bike path the whole way, but in the winter it gets taken over by cross-country skiers and never gets plowed or anything, so it’s less than ideal for biking. I ended up just taking over the sidewalks. Some people just ride on the shoulder of the road, but I always got a little worried about hitting an ice patch at the wrong time and falling, so the sidewalk seemed better.
As I mentioned before, the conditions can vary a lot, and are probably the biggest challenge to winter biking. I stayed warm with the setup I mentioned on all but the coldest days. On the below-zero days, I’d throw on a sweater underneath the shell. During the very coldest cold snaps it can be hard to keep hands and feet warm, but that only put me on the bus a handful of times when it was -10 or lower. When it’s super cold like that the sidewalks and roads can be a strange combination of dry patches melted by the salt-spreaders and sheets of ice. Studded tires will keep you upright on the ice sheets, and even on regular knobbies you will usually be ok if you take it easy. The main thing to remember on ice is not to turn or brake if you can help it. If you go slow in a straight line, gravity will stay your friend.
If it’s snowing heavily, I usually depended on the diligence of the road crews to keep me rolling. It’s easy to bike in up to about 6 inches of snow, especially with good wide knobby and preferably studded tires, but anything more than that can be slow going. Generally the roads are cleared pretty quick thanks to our tax dollars at work, though it’s pretty fun to ride through loose snow, though, and your snowboarding skills will come in handy with knowing the fall line and how to manage a skid gracefully without having to bail.
On the warmer days the challenge is keeping your feet dry, but fenders and good waterproof boots will help keep you dry, along with slowing down through the block-long puddles that can form in the spring.
Bring your bike inside at Burton and at home if you can, because the water that builds up on it during the ride can hurt your parts when it freezes. And since you’ll be ridiing through lots of salty water, you will rust out most of your drivetrain over the course of the winter. Once spring comes around it’s a good idea to get your friendly local bike mechanic to check it out, and they’ll probably to replace at least the chain and a few other parts.
Trust me when I say that winter biking’s really not that hard. You’re already going outside on a regular basis to ride a snowboard, so it’s really not that much different to ride a bike, and it’s another way to enjoy playing in the snow on those work days where you might not be able to any other way.
Honestly, what with getting all sweaty and swallowing bugs by accident and dodging all the yahoos that walk their dogs on those stupid retractable leashes on the bike path, I’ve been missing my dark silent lonesome winter rides lately…