Winter Cycling

Bicycling in Nebraska Winters

I would like to thank my friends in Minnesota for providing much of the information in this guide.

How to Ride in the Winter – Winter riding requires different skills and techniques than other times of the year.  The presence of snow and ice will change the way you negotiate stopping or turning.  Travel is usually slower.  You have to wear clothing appropriate for the weather and consider darkness and personal safety issues.  Riding in the winter is entirely possible in Nebraska, but it requires some preparation.  This is a short guide to some of the basics.

Your Winter Bike – A winter bike shouldn’t be the same as your non-winter bike, if you have a choice.  Winter wears down all parts of a bike.  Having an older “beater” bicycle is a good thing in the winter.  It probably won’t ride as nicely, but you won’t care as much when winter eats it up.  Here are some tips:

Mountain Bike – Mountain bikes have greater stability because they have a longer wheelbase.  If you’re in the market for a winter bike, an old mountain bike is a good choice.

Tricycle – Some Omaha riders swear by using a bicycle with more than 2 wheels in the winter. You don’t have to worry nearly as much about the dangers of falling over on ice or uneven ground. Ask at your local bike shop to see what they carry.

Tires – Some people who are really dedicated to winter riding will buy studded tires.  If you do this, make sure to get carbide-tipped studs, not just steel studs (steel studs wear down quickly).  Good models are made by Schwalbe and Nokian, and are available in local bike shops.  I’ve ridden one winter without studded tires, and I would say that it’s entirely fine (which it is), but also that you’re subject to slipping and falling on ice when turning (which has happened to me).  I’ve ridden on studded tires the last three winters and have found them very useful but not required.

Wax Your Frame – Just like with cars, you can use waxes and shell-coats to get your bike ready for winter.  Just grab a product like Turtle Wax and follow the directions.  The wax will protect the frame and metal components from rust.

Keep it Cold – Rust really picks up speed when metal covered with salt and water is subject to freezing and thawing.  One strategy for slowing the rust is to simply keep the bike outside in an unheated space (such as a garage) – the snow/salt mixture doesn’t get a chance to melt.  You’ll still need to knock it off periodically, and this is definitely not a method for winning a bicycle beauty contest.  If you need to store a bike in a warm environment, just try to wipe off the ice/snow/salt as it starts to melt.  This is less of a problem here in Omaha than it is for our friends up in the Twin Cities. 

Gearing and Lubrication – If gears and cables are kept clean and in good shape, shifting gears works just as well in the winter as in the summer.  This isn’t always the case, however.  There is a lot of grit and grime on the road in winter, and it’s harder to clean it off.  Many people choose to ride single-speed bicycles in the winter to avoid any problems with shifting or derailleurs that don’t work properly.  Regardless if you ride a single speed or keep your gearing, your bicycle will need frequent lubrication in the winter.  Use a “wet” lubricant that will stick to your chain, but also be sure to wipe it down periodically and re-lubricate.

Fenders – If your winter bike can fit fenders, go get some and put them on.  Fenders keep the muck from getting on your clothes, and there can be a lot of muck in winter.  There are plenty of affordable fenders out there these days.

Lights – Winter is dark, and it’s hard to avoid it in the morning or evening, and many times you’ll have some degree of darkness going both ways.  State law requires that bicyclists use a white front light and red rear reflector when riding within a half hour of sunrise or sunset.  We recommend a red rear light instead of a reflector.  Most lights allow you to be seen, not for you to see the road.  In urban environments, this is usually sufficient, but if you’d like a nicer light that will allow you to see the road, visit your local bike shop.  Basic front/rear light combinations are available starting around $20.  You can also find front lights at a reasonable price that use rechargeable AA batteries and put out an impressive amount of light.  As some people that ride at night, and they will tell you what works and what doesn’t.

Riding Conditions

Snow – Snow isn’t all that slippery by itself.  But snow on top of ice is about as slippery as it gets.  Also pay attention to snow mixing with salt and dirt through the motion of passing automobiles.  This mixing produces a scaly substance (some people call it snirt or chocolate mousse) that is rather difficult to navigate on a bicycle.  The morning after a big snow is a great time to trade the bike for transit.  But a snowfall starting in the afternoon is one of those enjoyable times when a bike will carry you faster than almost all motorized traffic.  My most enjoyable rides have been at the start of a light snow storm.

Narrower Streets – After a snowfall, plows come along and push snow from the center of a street toward the edges.  It ends up piled toward the curb, and inevitably the result is narrower streets and sometimes disappearing bike lanes.  There are two ways to deal with the loss of bike lanes.

  • Practice riding in the center of the automobile travel lane.  This is called “taking the lane,” and it is entirely legal for a bicyclist to do to avoid unsafe conditions at the road’s edge (such as accumulated snow).  Traffic also moves slower in these conditions, so taking the lane is less stressful than you might think when the roads are narrowed by snow piles at the curbs.
  • Use alternate routes.  Side streets might seem more comfortable, but after a snowfall they’re less likely to be cleared well.  Trails are frequently well-cleared; sometimes earlier than main streets.  Report uncleared bike trails to the Omaha Park and Rec department.  They are usually VERY quick to respond to reports of uncleared trails.

Ice – Winter in Nebraska means persistent cold.  Snow falls, maybe thaws from time to time, but generally speaking it hangs around as ice until sometime in March or April.  Riding on ice is a special skill around here.  When riding in a straight line and not braking, you should take care, but don’t be overly concerned about falling.  It’s the motion of slowing and turning that cause problems on ice.  For slowing, be sure to anticipate the need to brake early when possible, and sometimes to pump your brakes as you would a car on ice.  Use your back brake heavily – your front wheel is key for maintaining traction.  For turning, slow WAY down and shift your weight.  We typically turn a bicycle by leaning – in warmer weather, the tires grip the riding surface and we can easily cruise through a turn at moderate or even high speeds.  In the winter, leaning on ice just doesn’t work (unless you’re using studded tires).  Your bike will be out from under you before you know it.  The technique for turning on ice involves keeping the bike as upright as possible (i.e. don’t lean).  This may involve shifting your weight to accomplish this.  These turns are necessarily very slow.

Safety – There are two issues with safety when biking in the winter: roadway safety and personal safety.

      Roadway safety: Winter presents particular problems.  Road surface changes (it can have snow and ice on it, as well as sand/salt/grit that accumulates); street widths narrow as snow accumulates near curbs; bike lanes frequently disappear; some streets receive greater maintenance than others for plowing/clearing.  The main goal is to select a route that you feel comfortable with, and that you ride predictably, in a straight line, and remain visible with reflective clothing and lighting.

      Personal safety: Winter means less sunlight and fewer people out walking and biking.  It’s hard to see and be seen, and there are fewer eyes on the street watching out for each other.  You’ll want to choose a route that you feel comfortable with, and this may mean riding on a busier street than you might otherwise choose, or adjusting your schedule to fit into daytime hours better.  If you feel uncomfortable riding on a low-traffic trail, turn around and take a different route or wait a few minute and ask another rider if you can buddy up.  Familiarize yourself with trail entrances and exits, emergency call box locations, and always be aware of your surroundings.

Clothing – While the cold is always an issue in Nebraksa, many winter cyclists say that it’s actually the wind that’s the problem.  It’s a persistent wind out of the north and northwest, and if you’re not wearing clothes to block it, the wind can feel pretty terrible.  When riding, you’re also propelling yourself through the air, so even on calm days in the winter, you’re subject to wind chill.  Covering extremities is very important.

Base Layers – Wear long underwear, several layers of shirts, and good socks.  Some people swear by materials that “wick” perspiration away from your skin, but they aren’t strictly necessary.  Wool is a remarkable material, though it can be pricey.  However, wool does not hold odor like other fabrics and you can get by with just a couple pairs of good wool socks.  I use knee-high SmartWool socks for most of my winter commuting (the kind used for skiing).  You can find good wool socks at most of the bike shops and sporting goods stores.

Wind Blocking – You’ll want something that blocks the wind, especially on your upper body.  A jacket with a nylon or other windproof outer layer is key.  It’s important that it covers your arms and your neck.  Some people like to wear wind-blocking pants, as well.  Try riding without them first (don’t forget your long underwear, though), and decide after that.

Thickness of Clothing – Some people assume that you need to wear a down parka if you venture out on a bike in the winter.  You’re guaranteed to be boiling in a few blocks if you go down that road.  A good rule of thumb – you should feel cool when you leave your house before riding; you’ll soon heat up.  I wear a lightly-lined nylon jacket over a long-sleeve shirt (sometimes also a sweater).  I leave the big down parka for days when I take my car to work.  Remember, you’re generating much more heat when riding a bike compared to walking or standing outside.

Hands – Mittens are warmer than gloves, without a doubt.  Nylon or felted wool materials keep the wind out.  Bike clothing companies do make winter wear, but most of it is for “winter” in places like California (where 40 degrees is crazy cold).  One exception is lobster-claw mitts made by companies like Pearl Izumi and Descente.  These provide more dexterity than actual mittens.  Some people even go in for pogies – devices which fit over handlebars which you put your hands inside (developed by kayakers to cover their hands on the paddle bars).  Ask other cyclists to see what they use.  I have three sets of winter gloves for different conditions.  It’s a bit expensive but nothing ruins a commute to work faster than cold hands or feet.

Feet – Toes get cold in Nebraska without real winter boots.  But good boots aren’t like wearing tennis shoes – they don’t fit well on pedals and they’re usually rather stiff.  I’ve used boots at times with good results.  If you wear clipless bike shoes, Lake does make a winter biking boot.  The main issue that I find is that you need to keep your ankles warm (the area between the top of your footwear and your pants.  I’ve seen people wear gaiters, but it’s usually not hard to tuck your pant cuffs into the top of your boots (very stylish).  Leave your bike boots/shoes on a heater vent overnight and put them on just before going outside and you’ll keep your toes even warmer on the ride to work.

Neck – Make sure the jacket you wear can cover your neck.  You may also want to wear a neck gaiter or a balaclava that covers your head/face/neck.  Gaps between your hat and collar will let that cold, chapping air in.  The rule – learn to cover everything up, especially on those really cold days.

Face/Head – I wear a neck gaiter that can be pulled up over my nose and mouth, while also wearing a hat or balaclava (not Baklava unless you’re really hungry).  Some people wear balaclavas that cover their head, face and neck.  Head gear should be thin enough to fit comfortably underneath a helmet.  Tape over your helmet vents to keep the cold air out if your a helmet wearer.

Eyes – You’ll want to cover your eyes, not just because it’s uncomfortable to have freezing air causing you to tear up, but also because of all of the muck on the roads in winter that autos can kick up into your face.  A pair of glasses is fine; some people wear ski goggles.  I wear goggles made for motorcyclists.  Goggles and some glasses decrease your field of vision, so be sure to swivel your head around if you wear them to make sure you’re aware of your surroundings when riding.

Visibility – You need to be seen in the winter, when there is low light and a generally drab landscape of browns and grays.  Many cyclists wear bright colors to stand out.  If you’re out at night, this is especially important.  If your cycling clothing tends toward dark colors, you might want to brighten up in the winter.  Reflective materials are useful.  A basic reflective safety vest will cost between $5 and $15 – you can pick one up at your local bike shop, hardware store, or larger stores like Target or Wal-Mart.  Bright and reflective clothing below the waist is also much more effective than above the waist as car lights typically are not aimed high enough to hit the upper body of a cyclist.  Reflective material on your feet and legs also draws more attention because of the movement.