Does it snow where you live? Have you tried winter cycling? Do you want to?
Portland, Maine published its first-ever Winter Cycling Guide recently. It is on the city Web site as both an interactive document and a downloadable PDF. I was one of several people who advised on the content. CyclingSavvy got its logo included on the cover page (YAY!).
This Guide is the latest result of collaboration with the City of Portland I’ve been lucky enough to have from time to time. Two long-time city staff members are CyclingSavvy graduates. One of them recommended me to teach our classroom session to about a dozen of their city park rangers last summer.
The guide focuses on three major considerations of winter riding: Lighting Conditions, Preparing Your Bike, and Preparing Yourself. I summarize the first two topics here, with some commentary. I’ll cover the third in a second article, but I encourage you to read the entire guide for all the details.
As I write this in late January, the sun is setting around 4:30 PM. A commuting cyclist in New England is typically riding in the dark from the fall time change to the spring time change, in the morning or the evening or both. Lights are crucial to safety for months.
With the popularity of fat-tire bikes, even fat tire e-bikes, winter recreational trail cycling is only increasing in popularity too. Lights are obviously essential not just to be seen, but to see on a dark trail through the woods!
Maine law requires a white front headlight, a red or amber light or reflector facing backwards, and reflective material around the feet. Obviously you can do more . I wear a yellow retro-reflective windbreaker most of the year, and my panniers and other gear usually have reflective bits. I am very satisfied with a front generator hub I had my bike shop install in 2022. It provides adequate lighting and never needs charging. I carry external lights as a backup, or for areas where it’s really dark and I want the extra brightness. But forgetting to charge them is no longer a deal-breaker!
A Bike for Winter Cycling
With all the slush, salt, and sand on the roads after a storm, many cyclists go with a sturdy bike that they care less about than their summer bike. The winter bike can have studded tires, without swapping them (or wheels).
In recent years, I have taken the opposite approach. I use my main commuter bike all year round. It’s a hybrid with an 8-speed internal gear hub and hydraulic disc brakes. Most of my daily route is on connector and arterial roads. They are clean and dry except during and just after a storm. The simple drive train and brakes keep maintenance to a minimum. Usually all I have to do in the spring is to replace the chain. (Every few years, I bring the bike to the bike shop to bleed and replace the hydraulic brake fluid and have the hub relubricated.)
There are also two schools of thought on tires for winter cycling. Fat tires are great for a surface of packed snow; studded tires need to be somewhat wide just to accommodate the studs. For roads with only a bit of snow, however, thinner tires cut down through to the road surface better; wider tires will tend to skate over it. I must admit that I have yet to find any tire, even studded, that doesn’t fishtail in greasy, brown 3-inch-thick tire-rutted slush! (Though I haven’t tried studded fat tires yet.)
Tons more online resources on winter cycling are just a search away. On this site, CyclingSavvy graduate Josh Stevens has written about his years of experience commuting year round in Michigan. Other articles focusing on road conditions may be found here and here. CS Instructor John Allen also maintains the Sheldon Brown cycling site. He provides another good overview there.
It is very possible to cycle all winter, regardless of your latitude, with a little bit of know-how and some experimentation. We hope that this helps to empower you in your effort. Please drop us a line with your winter cycling stories!
Credit for riding photo: Mary Brooking
Credit for hub photo: Keanu4, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, edited