Do you feel cold just thinking about cycling in the winter? Do you feel unsure riding even when riding in nice weather? Let’s take a cycle through the pros and cons of winter riding to help you decide whether you want to take the plunge into cool world of winter cycling.
Cycling in winter has some unique benefits, such as burning extra calories, potentially beating traffic, boosting your immune system. It also has some challenges, such as keeping warm but not sweating, being aware of road hazards and adopting a new set of riding skills.
Pros Of Cycling In Winter
Keep fitter and burn more calories – well this applies to commuter cycling at any time, but especially in winter one can hibernate, and perhaps enjoy an extra drink or larger hot meal too. So, by ensuring you cycle at least two times per day, you help keep your metabolism high and burning more calories through winter! All without having to buy a gym membership that never gets used.
Beat traffic when the roads are blocked – To me this is one of the biggest Pros – Some of the worst traffic occurs in the winter, especially around snow or heavy rain, often making it slow to go anywhere by car. When you cycle, you have more options to take, so it’s not only possible to pass stopped cars on the roads, but also to take car-free routes. This means cycling can often be quicker in poor weather, especially in urban areas.
Example of a bike friendly path in the Netherlands:
Learn new riding skills and boost your riding confidence – Winter cycling requires you to take more care as wet and slippery roads mean it’s easier to have a crash. At the same time, riding on slightly more challenging conditions will make you be more aware of how to better manage the bike. This means when the sun does come out you will feel even more confident. Also, by continuing to cycle in the winter the extra practice you had over the winter means you simply will be a better cyclist – as practice makes perfect.
Find new cycling routes – By cycling in the winter I often prefer to take routes with less cars, as I feel less visible, and if there is a lot of standing water you can get splashed by cars and trucks too. This means perhaps taking slightly rougher or longer routes, and it encourages you to look out for little short-cuts that perhaps other cyclists take too. You can think, why did that cyclist pop down that lane? If I follow them, will I learn a better route? Or sometimes you can simply find a great path through a forest or park that you simply didn’t consider taking as it’s not the route you would take when driving a car!
Boost your immune system – There is some scientific evidence posted on the Harvard Medical School website and plenty of anecdotal evidence that being that exposed to cool temperatures actually stimulates your immune system. So, by getting out for a cycle in winter can actually reduce the chance you get sick. Remember, you catch “colds” from a viruses, not from the actual cold temperature. A Dutch study showed that the overall health benefits due to the high number of cyclists in the country actually contribute around 3% to the country’s GDP due to reduced number of sick days and lower hospitalization costs!
Cons of Riding In Winter
More dangerous conditions – While we said it is a good opportunity to improve your riding skills, winter cycling does come with added risk due to the sometimes slippery roads and reduced visibility issues with wet and/or dark conditions.
Keeping extremities warm – When it gets cold, especially below freezing, keeping your hands and feet warm becomes a necessity. Your feet and hands may not have much activity when you’re riding, so they get even less blood flow, plus catch a lot of wind.
Easy to overdress – Conversely, as you are doing physical exercise when riding, your body and head may become hot and sweaty, depending on how hard you push. So while you might need extra coverage on your hands and feet, you may need LESS on your body and head. This does depend on how hard you cycle and the conditions, so use common sense here, and for more detailed information you can check our blog specifically on preparing for winter cycling here.
Water and lots of it – Be prepared to get wet. Many people don’t like this as it ruins their hair style, even if you don’t wear a helmet. Plus, your clothes, shoes and bag will get wet. But especially your feet get a lot of spray from the tires. This can be an issue for the unprepared, but at least our skin is water proof. Ideally try to find shower options for after a wet ride. If your work doesn’t have one, ask them to get one! Many governments now offer subsidies to install worker change rooms for cyclists.
Harder to deal with roadside mechanicals – well it might be dark and wet or icy, so it means repairing your bike on the go can be tough and really no fun at all. The best you can do is be prepared, though this for me is the worst part of winter cycling.
There are many pros to winter cycling, however it can be more dangerous, uncomfortable and time consuming if you are unprepared for the weather conditions.
For route finding and testing your clothing and accessories I really recommend making a practice ride, and a rainy Sunday afternoon or evening is actually the best time to do this. There will be less traffic, so you have less stress and can more easily navigate different roads, plus you do not have a time deadline (or a manager waiting for you to be at the office at least), and can enjoy a ride on some streets and parks that you may never have even explored before in your neighborhood.
If you are ready to make the winter ride, or want some more information to help you decide, check the tips below to help make the rider safer and more fun.
Ninja Tips For Winter Cycling
Do some extra maintenance on your bike – the extra water or snow on your gear system, brakes and bottom bracket can cause things to wear more quickly. It’s worth spending some time every few days to grab a plastic lever to just clean off some of the gunge that builds up around those components.
Good wicking layer (merino wool) – we also blogged on recommended clothing here, but having a waterproof and a sweat absorbing layer means that you won’t get a chill with the higher wind speeds while cycling as the sweat has a chance to evaporate. We also saw how to choose the best wicking layer in this post.
Tips to stay in control of your bicycle – One of the most likely ways to crash is when the front wheel skids when braking and it causing you to “wash-out” the front tire – or in regular terms – face plant into the road, so here are four tips to try and avoid that:
Ensure you brake earlier in wet or icy conditions than in the dry – simple to say, hard to think about when you’re in a rush to get to the office, believe me!
It is a good idea to use your rear brake slightly before applying the front brake. This makes the weight of the bike move forward to the front wheel before front brake starts to slow the wheel, meaning the front wheel will have more traction. When riding normally about 70% of the weight is on the rear wheel, so this little trick helps load the front before braking more heavily with the front wheel.
At the same time, when you start to brake heavier with the front wheel keep you weight rearwards on the bike. If the rear wheel lifts this can be dangerous, and also if too much weight leaves the rear wheel it might begin to skid, which could also cause a crash.
For the braking tips, this can be hard to learn, so perhaps practice in a quiet place on the weekend to give yourself more confidence before doing it live at 7am on a Monday morning in peak traffic!
Choose your line – In fact when riding on a road with a lot of car traffic, oil builds up in between the car tires rolling lanes when it drips from the car’s engine and transmission areas. That means the center of the road or lane will have some oil and be more slippery than where the tires roll. It is better for traction to ride in the car tire lane when possible, if you don’t have access to a dedicated bike lane at that point. This is especially important to think about when approaching traffic light stops or round-abouts/rotaries.
Accept that you will be slower on your commuter. Don’t rush, simply build in the extra cycling time to your day, especially if you are taking a different route.