Whether you commute by bike year-round, or just want to try to continue to train in the off-season to keep your fitness up, riding your bike in winter weather presents its own set of challenges. Just like the old tale that says that Eskimos have 12 different words for snow, there are probably 12 different techniques for riding in varying winter conditions. As with all skills, there's no substitute for experience, and practice makes perfect. Here's a few tips to help get you started.
1. Dress for success in the winter
You'll want to dress for the weather, of course, with more and/or heavier layers the colder it is. You'll be working hard while pedaling, so you'll want to wear breathable fabrics to manage moisture. If you sweat too much, you'll end up colder in the long run. As a general rule, if you're comfortable when you first step outside, then you'll be over-heated about 10 minutes after you start your ride, so get used to being a little chilly at first, and then warming up gradually.
You'll probably want to dress a little heavier than if you were running outside in the same weather, but lighter than if you were doing a less-strenous outdoor activity, such as hiking or downhill skiing.
In general, use the three-layer system for dressing in winter. The first is a base layer, a thin or mid-weight garment that fits close to your skin made of a wicking material, such as polyester or wool. Next, add an insulating layer, a mid- to heavy-weight layer of polyester, fleece, or wool that helps trap and hold your body's warmth. Then, put on a water-resistant or waterproof barrier layer to keep the wind, rain, and snow on the outside.
On your legs, wear insulating tights and/or waterproof shell pants.
Use a skull cap or balaclava to keep warm under your helmet, and a helmet cover to keep the wind and moisture out.
For your hands, there are heavyweight winter cycling gloves available, some with separate liner gloves for quicker drying post-ride. On your feet, don't layer up with multiple socks, as the increased bulk may cut off your circulation and make your feet colder. Instead, use slightly heavier wool socks, and shoe covers to keep the elements out.
Dressing in layers allow you to add and remove layers to adapt to changing conditions.
For more information, listen to the Radio Century Cycles Episode 10, where Chip Ellison, sales representative for Pearl Izumi, discusses the technologies and techniques for dressing using the three-layer system.
2. Fresh Snow
Pedaling through several inches of freshly-fallen snow can very strenuous and tiring. It's also much slower than usual; figure on going at least half your typical speed, or even less. You'll be using your lower gears a lot more often and your higher gears not as much. Studded tires offer little to no benefit in deep snow. However, wide snow-bike or fat-bike tires (4 to 5 inches wide) excel in these conditions.
Keep your weight centered between your wheels, and brake evenly with both hands as you would in normal conditions.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but it's usually easier to make your own track in fresh snow, rather than trying to follow somebody else's track who came before you. It's takes 100% of your concentration to steer within an existing track, and if you veer off, you'll either get knocked sideways by the edge of the track, or you'll sink deeper as you roll off the slightly compressed center of the track.
Look for undulations in the surface of the snow that will indicate hidden obstacles underneath--it's like looking at the regular road or trail with blurry vision. For example, a large depressed circle of snow may mean a pothole. A raised ridge of snow could be a large crack, or even a fallen branch or log.
The upside of riding in deep snow is that things seem to happen in slow motion. If you start to veer sideways or lose your balance, you'll have more time than you think to make corrections. Just keep powering with your pedals and try to correct your steering, and resist the urge to put your foot down, and you'll probably recover, albeit at a slow speed. If you do have to dab a foot on the ground once in a while, no big deal, just keep going. If you do fall over, at least it's a softer landing!
3. Hardpack Snow
Hardpack snow can be the easiest condition to ride in, but it can also be the hardest.
In the best-case scenario, hardpack snow has been compressed by previous traffic to a smooth, even layer. It may even be mixed with dirt, gravel, or cinders spread by road crews. This mixture provides enough traction that you can get a good grip even without studded tires, but studs won't hurt.
In the worst-case scenario, hardpack snow is an unpredictable combination of compressed snow, soft new snow, and ice. Existing tire tracks will be even more dangerous and difficult to follow than those in fresh snow; the edges will be harder and more likely to "railroad" you in an unintended direction. If you do get caught in a track, try to bunny-hop over the edge, rather than ride it. For tracks going across your path, approach them the same way as you would railroad tracks, that is, turn slightly so that you cross them as close to perpendicular as possible.
When riding in hardpack on multi-use trails, tracks from hikers, snowshoes, and even horses provide an added level of challenge, as they create ridges and depressions of varying sizes and unexpected locations. This is where your mountain-biking skills come in handy, as it helps if you can take all of the rough stuff fast enough so that your tires just skim over the top of all the bumps, rather than getting hung up in the holes. Gauge your speed carefully, however, as you want to still be going slow enough to be able to maintain control should you hit a patch of smooth ice.
For maximum traction, lower your tire pressure to the minimum recommended pressure. Go even lower if you feel you can ride with enough finesse to avoid pinch flats.
Smooth, solid ice can be the most tricky and most dangerous surface to ride on. Be especially on the lookout for "black ice," so-called because it's actually clear, and takes on the color of the pavement underneath.
The main trick for riding on ice is to try to keep your bike as vertically upright as possible. During turns, slow down much more than usual, and don't lean into the turn as much as you normally would.
One reason that you don't lean into turns on ice is so that more of your tire remains in contact with the road. However, the main reason is that the more you lean, the more that lateral (side-to-side) forces come into play between your tire and the road, as opposed to vertical forces. It's more likely that lateral forces will be overcome by the centrifugal force of your turn, and thus more likely that you'll slip over on the ice. Slow down enough BEFORE the turn so that you DON'T have to apply your brakes DURING the turn.
Riding on ice is one situation where you break one of the normal rules of riding. Your front brake is much more powerful than your rear brake. Thus, you want to AVOID using your front brake on ice. The more likely you are to keep your front brake from locking up, the more likely you are to remain upright.
When braking on ice, use your rear brake gently, and shift your weight back for increased traction on your braking wheel. If possible, at the beginning of each ride, do a test do find out how much pressure it takes to lock up your rear wheel. While moving in a slow, steady pace on a straight stretch of road or trail, away from traffic, squeeze your rear brake lever VERY gradually until your rear brake locks up and your rear tire starts to skid. Then try to avoid applying that much pressure later. If your rear wheel does lock up occasionally, as long as you're going in a straight line and your front tire keeps traction, you should be able to maintain control.
The most important thing to remember is that it's just as important to replace fluids lost due to sweat during cold weather as it is during hot weather.
That being said, many winter cyclists find that they don't drink as much during winter riding compared to summer riding. This may be because winter rides are typically much shorter, and that they don't sweat as much in the same amount of riding time during the winter.
The main problem to deal with during winter riding is keeping your water or sports drink from freezing. Even in sub-freezing temperatures, you've probably got about 30 minutes of riding time before your water bottle freezes to the point where it's un-drinkable. That may be enough for short commutes and errands.
One solution for longer rides is to keep your bottles in a trunk bag or pannier, perhaps wrapped in a spare jacket or towel for insulation. Another method is to stuff them inside your outer layer of clothing.
If you use a hydration pack, after taking a drink, blow the water from the drinking tube all the way back into the bladder to keep the tube from freezing. Or, you can purchase a cold weather kit that insulates the tube and mouthpiece to keep them from freezing.
Of course, repeated riding in wet weather, plus road salt, can wreak havoc on a bike's frame and drive train, so be sure to wash your bike often and clean and lube the chain on a regular basis.