Winter biking

A wintery mix dusts the ground, my shifters are frozen, and my favorite bike space is available - cold-weather biking is here! Yes, winter biking requires a touch more effort than biking on sunny summer days; and yes, it is hard to look stylish in a balaclava, BUT the benefits of commuting – no burning of fossil fuels, great parking spaces, and an invigorated spring in your step when you arrive at work – remain! Madison is consistently in the top 10 U.S. biking cities; many commuters here bike year-round. I wanted to generate a list of favorite winter-biking equipment, so I polled seasoned locals, talked with a nearby bike shop, and added some of my personal picks.

Snowy Madison biking.

Snowy Madison biking.

So, about this list…  The purpose of this post is to raise awareness about winter biking and hopefully make biking in inclement conditions accessible for the average commuter. I wanted to provide some useful information – hence the list of favorite winter biking gear. However, by no means do you need a lot of specialized equipment to comfortably bike to work. In a few instances, I’ve provided links to certain brands / pieces of equipment, thinking that this would be helpful with the holidays on the horizon. Many times you can find these or comparable items used on E-bay, at garage sales, or in thrift stores.  Finally, I haven’t included general commuting items, like fenders, lights, panniers, and messenger bags.

Before we get to the list, I wanted to mention Revolution Cycles, which was an awesome resource for winter biking advice (and also sells some of the items discussed below). I talked with Earl (his suggestions incorporated herein) who also mentioned these potential sources for winter biking information: The Bike Federation of Wisconsin and Madison Bike Winter.

Now, onto Madison’s favorite winter biking gear. I’ve organized the equipment by body part, arranged head-to-toe!

1)         Head / Neck

 The thing that differentiates hats / balaclavas for biking from general-use headwear is thickness – you want a thin hat / balaclava so that it fits under your helmet. This hat came highly recommended, as did this facemask. Personally, I will be asking for a "buff" this holiday season. “Buffs” convert from scarf, to balaclava, to beany, and so on! Bern helmets have become quite popular and are warmer than standard biking helmets. Some models even come with inserts that provide extra warmth in the winter months. Finally, several people suggested fog-resistant ski goggles (any model) to protect your eyes.

2)        Body / Core

I’m not really going to discuss outerwear. This is partly because there are so many coat options and partly because people vary a lot in how they experience heat (and how much effort they exert when riding). I know many people who commute in mid-weight shells (paired with a base-layer; see below) during the winter. I’m always cold, so I start out with a down jacket, then unzip as I heat up. For extra warmth, several people suggested taper-legged snow pants.

In terms of a base layer, as with all winter sporting activities, you want a fabric that wicks moisture/sweat away from your body, keeping you warm and dry. Earl at Revolution advocated for the wool base-layer, and I couldn’t agree more. For my big present this holiday, I’m asking for Merino wool long underwear (e.g., this product from Smartwool).

3)         Hands / Wrists

Hands are difficult to keep warm during the winter commute. Our spindly digits are blasted with cool air, yet we need to preserve manual dexterity to work brakes/gears. In general, people love split finger gloves, like those featured here. My husband and I use these (pogies) bar mitts. They look silly, but they really buffer your hands against the elements. Plus, I only need to wear a pair of thin gloves when riding, meaning that it is easy to fiddle with bike locks and keys without having to fumble about with puffy gloves. Finally, one poll respondent suggested tying a handkerchief around the wrist for runny noses!

 4)        Feet

 There are many insulated boot options out there. However, I have to advocate for Steger mukluks. My friend, Katie, recommended these to my husband, who suffers from Raynaud’s syndrome (vascular issue that causes painfully cold extremities, sometimes resulting in frostbite, digit loss, etc.). Mukluks are the only product (we’ve tried special socks, boots, neoprene shoe covers) that keep his feet warm.

A footnote on winter bike tires

Since arriving in Madison, I have heard a myriad of opinions on the optimal winter tire. Many have told me that skinny bike tires are good in deep snow, whereas studded tires are best on ice. I use studded tires during the worst time of the year. Its true, wider, studded tires aren’t great in deep snow and they are slow, but if ice prevails where you live – they really safeguard against slippage! Of course, if you have a set of beater wheels, you can mount studded tires on it for winter riding, and keep your nicer hoops with regular tires for less salty and harsh conditions. This takes some of the hassle out of swapping tires each season.