Winter Bike Commuting

by Fred Oswald, PE, LCI #947

Headlight Info.

Bicycle headlights cost from under $20 to over $200.  If you ride off road in the dark, you may need an expensive, multi-beam, high-power system.  For commuting on smooth, well-lit roads, 3 watts may be adequate but 6 watts is better (for conventional incandescent lights).

If a handlebar-mount light cannot not “see” over a handlebar bag, rig another mounting system.  A small flashlight is handy for repairs in the dark and can serve as a backup headlight.

I have used a Union generator headlight for several years.  The headlight mounts under the handlebar bag, where the front reflector used to be.  A second Union set provides a replacement generator and a second independent light system.

The extra headlight unit upgraded with a more powerful 6W bulb runs off a rechargeable lead-acid battery that goes in the water bottle cage.  The battery (6 volt, 4 amp-hour), was designed for emergency-building lights.  It is a bit heavy but rugged.

New light emitting diode headlights are more efficient than traditional light bulbs — makes batteries last longer or allows lighter batteries.

Winter brings new challenges to the cycling commuter.  The cold weather requires keeping hands, feet and especially ears warm while not overheating elsewhere.  The solution is layers of clothing with ventilating zippers.  Wool or synthetic clothes will not trap perspiration that would make you cold.

A breathable wind shell over a wicking fabric works well.  Lined nylon running pants with leg zippers can keep legs warm.  Elastic sewn on the right cuff helps keep it away from the chainring.  An ear band or balaclava under the helmet will keep your head warm.  Below freezing, wear liner gloves or mitts.

In really cold weather, keeping feet warm may be difficult.  Neoprene shoe covers will help.  A cheaper alternative is overshoe rubbers.

To protect both yourself and the bike from salt splash thrown up from wet roads, get fenders.  If fenders do not extend low enough, add homemade flaps made from a material such as from a plastic milk jug (see photo below).  Check the Icebike Web site for more winter tips.

A special winter hazard is black ice.  My worst fall was in a place where the road looked clear except the blacktop was just a little “too black”.  Some cyclists use chains or studded tires for ice.  Others wait for dryer roads.

Another problem is visibility.  In the early morning or late afternoon you may be invisible to a motorist dazzled by low sun.  Be wary.

Winter commuting usually means riding in the dark, at least one-way.  Don’t even think of riding at night without a headlight!  Bright clothing and reflectors are not enough.  Some people use a flashing strobe for a headlight.  This is a good supplement to a standard headlight but not enough alone.  Follow the standard “color code”:  white in front, red or orange in back.

A strobe (flashing light) on the back of the bike will help motorists notice you but is not so good at providing depth information to following drivers.  I supplement the small standard red rear reflector with both a 3″ amber SAE auto reflector that is 8-10 times brighter plus an LED strobe.  If you mount the reflector off to the side it is less likely to get caked with mud thrown up by the wheel.

If you are caught in the dark without lights, don’t try to sneak down the sidewalk.  Walk your bike home! Reflectors and reflectorized clothing alone are not enough.  To understand why, read John Schubert’s surprisingly interesting explanation.

Finally, the salt and wet grit are tough on bearings, chain and wheel rims (abrasive grit imbeds in the brake pads).  Better bikes have seals to protect wheel bearings (but re-grease in the spring).  You should lube your chain every week or so and learn how to measure the wear (sometimes incorrectly called “chain stretch”).  Once a chain wears so it is about one percent longer (1/8″ on a 1-foot ruler), it will be damaging your casette cogs.  It should be replaced before then.

A serious bike commuter will want more than one bike to cover different situations.  You may find it useful to have a light road bike for fast riding in good conditions, a sturdy steed that can handle panniers to carry clothes, etc. and a “clunker” with fenders and knobby tires for bad weather and winter.  Having more than one bike saves you from being late for work if you find a flat tire or other mechanical problem in the morning.

There are many benefits to winter commuting.  One of the biggest is maintaining fitness year ’round.  You no longer have to “get in shape” in the spring.  You experience the delight of spinning past frost covered trees on a crisp winter morning.  And it is fun to tell your shivering co-workers how hot you got on that bitter, cold day.

© Copyright 2004-2015 Fred Oswald.
The author is a certified Bicycling Safety Instructor and a professional engineer in Ohio.
Material may be copied with attribution.
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Minor update 10/30/15