Winter Cycling Survival Guide

As we begin to thaw from our second “polar vortex” (Does anyone else feel like the weathermen are just making this stuff up?) of the 2013/2014 winter, those who brave the elements to ride outdoors all year long are layering up and airing their tires.

Bike-Route-End-croppedA few weeks ago, we discussed some of what it takes to ride outdoors all winter long in these conditions – from quick thinking to the proper gear. As a fellow outdoor (in any kind of weather) enthusiast, I’ll reiterate some of that here, but I also want to touch on safety tips for staying upright and incident-free in any weather.

You see, during the best conditions, cyclists are competing for motorists’ attention. We’re competing against distractions inside and outside of their cars. During the winter months, those distractions are even greater.

In snow, drivers are dealing with visibility issues. In cold, they are dealing with potential black ice. In sleet, they are struggling against sliding. In a lot of winter weather, they do not have the ability to stop quickly. With this in mind, cyclists have to be even more vigilant and even more cautious.

Here I’ve put together all of our winter training advice for you.


Guidelines for Winter Cycling


1. Don’t Leave Home Without

Your brain is your most essential gear and powerful tool. You need your brain from the start, to determine whether conditions are even safe for riding outdoors. Once you make the decision to head outdoors, you’ll need your brain to make all those micro-decisions along the way. Make sure the brain in your head is intact and fully functioning. Wear a helmet. And, if conditions are really awful (Hello, polar vortex!) or if you’re not feeling 100%, consider training indoors.

Cold weather cycling requires your usual cycling essentials and then some. (I’ll cover gear, dress and nutrition below.) Never leave for a ride without your Road ID! In winter weather, especially, make sure you have your mobile phone in a protective case in the event of an incident or emergency.

Are You In Or Are You Out? >>

Cycling essentials >>


Specialized Tarmac Prevail Sugoi RS Zero Jacket Specialized Neoprene Shoe Covers Specialized Therminal EX Deflect Bib Tight Specialized Gloves SockGuy EliteTech Base Layers Bar Mitts Higher Gear Aaron Sherrick


2. Dress Appropriately

Proper clothing is essential. “There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing,” is a Scandinavian saying we use frequently at Higher Gear. And, for the most part, it’s true (except when Guideline #1 dictates it’s not safe for outdoor activities on a given day).

Use scientific principles – like convection and thermal regulation – to help keep you warm from the outside in. Too much clothing is as bad as too little clothing; sweating too much will have you just as cold as too little clothing. Having the right clothing for the current conditions and intensity level of your ride is essential.

Dressing for cold weather cycling and cold weather cycling gear >>



James Little Bicycle TuneUp Bike Maintenance Higher Gear Wilmette3. Check Your Bike

Make sure your bicycle is ready for cold weather activity. A tune-up will help make sure that your brakes and gears are in good condition.

In cold temperatures, even a properly tuned bike can suffer malfunctions. Fluids and cables can freeze up, complicating or eliminating your ability to shift or brake. Warming up a little indoors can heat up those cables and fluids – as well as your lungs – to make sure your bike and your body are ready to go.

DIY bicycle maintenance >>

Is it time for a Race Check or a Tune-Up? >>



4. See

Make sure you have visibility. White-out conditions and blowing snow should have stopped you in your tracks at Guideline #1. But, if we precluded riding in the dark, our time for outdoor cycling would be drastically limited. Thankfully, there are many lighting options available to us. If there may be slippery snow, sleet or ice on the road ahead, it’s especially important to have a bright light, sufficient to see well enough in front of you to adjust.

In any weather and in any light level, it’s important to make sure your eyes – your first line of defense – are protected. At Higher Gear, we recommend cycling glasses with interchangeable lenses or with lenses that respond to light. Cycling glasses keep your eyes protected from debris in the air; shatterproof lenses protect your eyes in the event of a crash.

Cycling lights available at Higher Gear >>

Cycling sunglasses with interchangeable or light-adjusting lenses >>



5. Be Seen

We’ve pointed out that cycling lights are not just for cyclists. If motorists are struggling to see the road, they’re less likely to see you. Being well lit – with a variety of cycling lights at a variety of angles – warns others on shared roadways or paths of your presence. Most lights feature several settings. Brighter lights allow them to see you sooner and make adjustments earlier. A blinking light stands out against other lights on the road and tends to signal a cyclist. Lights in all directions are important; lights that face sideways warn motorists of your presence before they make their right-hand turn.

Volvo Cyclist Detection Car SafetyLights are the best way to catch motorists’ attention. Another way cyclists can stand out is with bright clothing. At the very least, cycling clothing should be reflective. Frequently on grey days, however, cyclists don’t have their lights on, leaving reflective clothing sadly impotent. Bright colors, though, stand out against the monotony of grey, white and black. In the industry, bright colors are referred to as “safety” colors; there’s a reason for that. And we cyclists can benefit from that added safety.

Cycling lights available at Higher Gear >>

The Endura Luminite II Jacket, the perfect cold weather commuter or training jacket, really stands out >>



6. Follow the Rules

Gravity Law RulesIt’s important that we cyclists obey the rules of the road for many reasons. First of all, it’s the law. Period. Yes, we know that it takes a lot more effort for you to get back up to speed than the car at the four-way intersection. But, the law is in place for a reason – namely, your safely. Obeying the rules of the road and following all traffic signs/law, means that motorists can better predict your behavior.

With that in mind, I’ll refresh you on a few rules of the road. As a cyclist, you are considered a vehicle. Ride WITH traffic at all times. (Note for my fellow runners who also share the roads: Runners and walkers are pedestrians who, when on the road, should go AGAINST traffic.) Obey all posted signs. (Yes, this means that one-way streets are meant for one-way travel.)

Just as we appreciate motorists who signal their intentions in advance (Thank you for that right-hand turn signal, so I knew to be cautious when approaching the intersection!), signal your intent, when it is safe to do so. (If the road is slippery, it might be safer to leave both hands on your handlebars.)

Review our group ride rules for more on road riding safety >>



7. Have the Right Tool for the Job

Having appropriate clothing for the weather is only half the battle. Other gear to consider includes your cycling glasses and lights. But, even more fundamental is what you will be riding on. Some bicycles are meant for all-weather cycling. Mountain and cyclocross bicycles have have more clearance under their bottom brackets for going over snow and slush. They also have wider clearance at the seat stays and fork to allow for wider tires.

Surly fat bike bikes winter


Fat bikes are all the rage, and understandably so. Built to handle Alaskan commutes, surely they can handle whatever Mother Nature dishes out to us here in the Midwest!

For those who only have road bikes, we recommended to swap your narrow road tires for cyclocross tires. (Higher Gear’s staff can confirm which tires work with your frame and fork.)

Regardless of your bike, keeping your tire pressure low helps maintain your grip to the ground. For winter riding, our master mechanic (and kamikaze cyclist) Fredo suggests, “If you think the tire pressure is too low, it’s probably just right.” Lower tire pressure means that more of your tire is gripping the ground. You may be working harder, but you’re more likely to stay upright.

Cyclocross bikes are built to handle Chicago’s seasons >>

Get the skinny on fat bikes >>



8. Don’t Neglect Your Nutrition

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In the heat of the summer, we pound the water and electrolytes down easily. But, how much are you consuming during exercise in the cold weather? Unless you’re making a point to stay on top of your nutrition, I’m going to wager that you’re taking in a lot less when outdoors in the winter.

Cold and all the wicking fabrics can make us forget that we’re sweating. But we’re not. Skratch Labs founder, Allen Lim, states: “When we exercise in the cold, we might be creating extra heat, but the combination of sweat, movement, and an increased ventilation rate can create some real problems. Ironically, one of those problems is the loss of even more heat and the risk of getting too cold once we stop exercising because of excess moisture from sweat.”

He goes on to say: “It’s just as important to focus on your food and hydration in the winter as it is anytime of the year with some subtle differences.” Those differences include an increased need for carbohydrates (specifically, glucose) in the winter when our bodies’ “fight or flight” (sympathetic) system is triggered.

Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix Hot Apples CinnammonWhen we’re taking in fewer fluids, it’s important to make sure concentrations are higher than they are in summer. In other words, make your drink mix is more potent. Or, outside your water bottle, look for varieties of nutrition – like GU’s “mid-winter” limited edition options – that offer extra electrolytes and caffeine to speed up delivery of glucose to your muscles.

Because it’s easier to keep your core temperature up from the inside out, Skratch has concocted a cold-weather drink mix that’s meant to be consumed hot. In an insulated bottle in your bottle cage, the call of hot apple cider or green tea will make sure you’re staying hydrated and properly fueled.

GU’s 2014 limited edition Salted Caramel >>

More on cold weather nutrition from Skratch Lab founder Allen Lim >>

The science behind Skratch >>



9. Adapt or Die

Mike Tyson Everybody has a planOkay, barring extreme conditions, Darwin’s theory may be a little harsh here. Perhaps, Mike Tyson’s thought is more appropriate: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched.”

Getting back to guideline #1, your brain is your most valuable piece of equipment. You’ll need your brain to make decisions along the line, beginning with whether to ride outdoors or whether to adapt your workout and stay indoors. Decisions and adaptations along the way may include what tire pressure to begin riding with to what route to take based on road and traffic conditions. As you warm up, you may need to remove or add layers.

There may even be times when you realize you’ve gotten in over your head. Carrying money, a train pass or a mobile phone – all to find an alternate way home – or turning around early are all part of adapting and making smart decisions.

Bike Path Winter CyclingOutdoor cycling in winter presents many challenges. Until Spring, give up the notion of speed and focus on perceived effort or watts. Embrace the fact that you have a unique vantage point – from two wheels – of a quiet and beautiful season that most people bar the doors against.

If you’re at all hesitant to head for the outdoors, Higher Gear welcomes you to join us in the warmth of our indoor CompuTrainer Studio. Come ride with us this winter!


Embracing Winter Training >>

Are You In Or Are You Out? >>

CompuTraining at Higher Gear >>



10. Ride Defensively

One final note about riding (or running) in traffic is less about road rules, but your awareness. It’s advice my husband received from his father when he got his first motorcycle. It takes the adage “Assume motorists don’t see you” one step further. Instead, assume motorists are actively out to get you. (Hopefully they aren’t!) Taking this to heart means being vigilant, going out of your way to be visible, riding defensively and being prepared at all times.



If you decide to venture outdoors in the winter on your bike, be safe! And make sure to stop by Higher Gear to say hi on your way!


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These outdoor training tips were compiled for Higher Gear by our resident fitness guru, Joy Sherrick. Joy and her IronMan husband continue to train outdoors – riding and running – year-round. Keep a look out for them when you’re out on the roads!




Need Help? Have Questions?

Highland Park | 847-433-2453
Wilmette | 847-256-2330

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