On two wheels: Tips for biking through the winter

Winter Biking
With the right gear and safety measures, biking through the winter should be no problem. — photo by Olgierd Ruda via Flickr Creative Commons

It’s common to dread winter’s wrath, but one way to acclimate to low temperatures and snow is by commuting on bike. It might seem intimidating, but bike riding in colder months is easy with some level of preparation.

To encourage winter biking, the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability, in conjunction with the UI Bicycle Advisory Committee, launched its Second Annual Winter Warrior Challenge on Dec. 1. The goal of the challenge, which ends Dec. 20, is to encourage bike commuting by tracking miles and number of trips and rewarding with prizes from local bike shops. According to George McCrory of the UI Office of Sustainability, there are 150 bikers participating in this year’s challenge.

During last year’s Winter Warrior Challenge, the Office of Sustainability tracked the benefits of winter biking: According to McCrory, 189 bicyclists burned 497,640 total calories in 2013, using an average of 60 calories burned per mile biked, and helped reduce CO2 emissions by lessening fuel dependency. Encouraging alternative transportation means is one of the UI’s 2020 Vision Sustainability Targets and is also one of the activities that gained the university a silver designation from the League of American Bicyclists.

For those curious about winter biking, here are some tips for safely cycling through the cold weather:


Remember that it gets darker earlier in the winter season. Vehicles and snow plows are less likely to anticipate cyclists on the road, and roadways are more narrow due to snow drifts or a sudden winter blizzard could make you less visible. Always use front and rear lights and reflective gear. You may want to wear bright colors, or a larger helmet style depending on your winter headwear. Remember that if the weather gets too treacherous, you can always store your bike, phone a friend for a lift or use public transit and place your bike on the front of the bus.

Outfitting your bike

While you can cut through snow with a thinner tire, it’s best to equip your bike with knobby tires. Reliable options include cyclocross or mountain bike tires and studded tires for icy conditions. Consult your local bike shop to what will fit with your bike frame, pocketbook and fork clearance.

Lower tire pressure can help with traction, but don’t deflate too much because it could harm your rim or cause a flat. If your pressure range is say, 50-70 psi, inflate to the lower end closer to 50 psi. You should be consistently maintaining your tire pressure.

Fenders are important for protecting from dirt, debris and sand. Fenders are useful not only to protect your clothing and bike swag, but also to help slow wear-away to your derailleur, chain and headset. There are some drawbacks to fenders — additional weight and limited access to wheels — but for commuters, the positive benefits of installing fenders outweigh the negatives.

Bike commuters should also consider learning how to change a flat. Carry a patch kit with you, as well as an extra tube, tire lever, hand pump and small tool set if possible.

Bike Upkeep

Since roads are covered in salt and sand, it is imperative that your frame can handle some dirt, grime and potential corrosion. The majority of us aren’t going to make a special purchase just for a winter ride, so decide if your current two-wheeled friend can do the trick. Popular bike options include single speed bikes (a good option for those on a budget) and fat tire bikes (if you have a little more money to spend). Bikes with internal gear hub options are becoming more popular for inclement weather as gears stay protected. Whether a hybrid, commuter, road, mountain or fat bike style, maintaining your bicycle’s health will be essential for commuting the winter.

Wiping down your bike before bringing it indoors will lessen the chance for corrosion from moisture and help protect the internal tubing, hubs, headset and bearings. Heed caution when switching your bike from extreme temperatures, like sub-zero Iowa winds, and if possible, take from the cold into a garage or less heated space. Cleaning your bike at least once a week, if not more often, will help the longevity of the frame and components. Pay attention to grime build up on your drivetrain, brakes and fenders. You can also seal your bike components with protective coverings and rust inhibitors on the headset, saddle, seat post and suspension parts.

What to Wear

Wear breathable gear with a wicking base layer. Depending on your tolerance to cold and wind, consider a face mask and goggles.

“I layer up,” said Anne Duggan, Iowa City Bike Library volunteer and board member. “If it’s in the teens or lower I wear a shirt and sweater and a fleece-lined Columbia jacket over that. Also, a headband over my ears and a scarf I can pull up over my mouth. I wear thick gloves in[side] lined claw gloves because I have a problem with my fingers getting cold. If I want to wear a skirt, I pull on some resin pants over my tights. Oh, and boots — I wear boots most of the winter.”

Mark Pooley, former President of the UI Bicycle Committee and one of the organizers of the Winter Warrior Challenge also recommends dressing in layers and figuring out what works best for you.

“Trial and error will inform you best regarding what is needed at a given temperature,” said Pooley. “Find good gloves/mittens, or spring for bar mitts. The worst part of the winter riding is cold hands, the aforementioned gear will help mitigate that quite a bit, if not entirely.”

Experiment to find out what works for you. If it sounds like the overall monetary costs could become overwhelming consider, stopping by the bike library for a reliable second-hand bike option. Remember your body will build natural heat quickly once you start moving and and at the end of the day, biking is meant to be fun. As always, ride on and ride safe.

Natalia Espina resides in Iowa City and checks out upcycled, donated bikes on Saturday mornings at the Iowa City Bike Library.