Layers essential for winter biking

Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Layers for winter biking are essential. Certain wheel treads can be helpful, too. (Kit Doyle)

It's not often cyclists in Southeast Missouri have to deal with the ice, snow and slush associated with winter, but the low temperatures in the cold months and the occasional winter storm do require them to be prepared.

Bikes aren't just for sunny summer weather. There are those across the country who so love cycling that they ride year-round, pretty much regardless of the weather.

Patrick Koetting bikes from his home near Capaha Park to his job at Cape Bicycle Cycling and Fitness Inc. every day. For him, cold weather is all about layering.

"It's better to overdress than to underdress," Koetting said.


Keep your hands warm with a biking mitt like this "lobster glove."

Wear layers and clothing that breathe. Dress so you're cool before you start riding. It may be cold outside, but as you pedal through snow and cold rain you are going to heat up and sweat. For the base layer -- the clothing closest to your skin -- stay away from cotton because it will feel wet and cold. You need something that will wick sweat so you don't get chilled when you stop.

The second layer is for warmth.

"Wool's the best. Cotton is bad," Koetting said.

The outer shell should be waterproof and durable; something to break the wind.

For footwear, some swear by the same style of "clipless" racing shoes they use during the fair-weather months -- the kind of shoes that lock into the bike's pedals. If you go that route, get some neoprene booties to wear over the shoes and help keep out moisture and cold. Different companies make simple toe covers or full booties with holes at the balls of the feet so the shoe still clips in and holes at the heel "so you don't fall over when you walk," Koetting said.

For gloves, look for something that will keep out the moisture and cold but also let your skin breathe -- similar to a ski glove. One option is the "lobster glove," so called because it looks like a big claw. You could also use weatherproof "bullwinkles," or "pogies," which resemble oven mitts and go over the handlebars. You slip your hands into them.

Besides a helmet, you'll need something over your head to keep in body heat, something that fits under your helmet. A beanie or a headband that wraps around the head work well. In extreme temperatures, Koetting uses a balaclava -- a full face mask.


Make sure you are visible to motorists. Get a headlight that can be seen from a distance, and a blinking taillight that's also bright. In fact, consider getting more than one taillight. Put one on the back of your helmet and attach others to various places on your bike. Light yourself up like a Christmas tree.

Slow down. Snow, sleet or rain makes it take longer to come to a stop than on a dry road. If it doesn't feel safe, stay off the bike.

When you come to an intersection, make eye contact with motorists getting ready to pull into the street to be sure they see you.

Adapt your speed and riding style to the conditions. Powdery snow can be easy to ride through, but it depends how much there is. If there's ice beneath it, the going can be tricky. Snow packed down by a snowplow can be fun to ride on, but again, be on the alert for ice. Riding through accumulations of wet snow can be exhausting. Gear down and spin through it.


Winter is brutal on a bicycle. If you want to ride on a regular basis in bad weather, acquire a "sacrificial bike," something cheap that you won't weep over when it breaks down.

Riders in the Pacific Northwest have "rain bikes" for winter's long rainy season. Some of the bikes have old steel or aluminum frames, come from a junkyard or were bought for a song. Some are sturdy mountain bikes or bikes built for cyclocross.

A rain bike needs fenders, or else rainwater and wet muck will splash all over your back -- and into the face of anyone riding behind you.

In regions where winter is more snowy than rainy, foul-weather riders also tend to choose old clunkers, mountain bikes and others that can take a beating.

Cycle Werks employee and avid biker Kellan True said disc brakes are better than rim brakes because they won't get clogged as easily by the salt and debris left on the roads after a winter storm.

"It can do some damage to your bike," he said. His other advice: "Ride a wider tire."

"The wider stance of the mountain bike, with wider tires, helps give you stability," said Mike Gerke, who operates a pedicab in Green Bay, Wis.

Whether you are riding in snow or rain, choose a durable tire because in the winter there's more junk on the road that can slice a tire. Many riders choose mountain bike tires for snow because of their knobby tread. For added traction, you can buy them with studs.

Associated Press writer Terrence Petty contributed to this article.

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