If you’re a fair-weather cyclist, you might only commute by bike or take a recovery spin when the weather is warm and clear. It is possible to enjoy your commute on a cold day if you’re prepared for the weather, but at what point is it just too cold? How cold is too cold to ride a bike?
For the average recreational cyclist, 40°F (4.5°C) is a good cut-off to deciding if it is too cold to ride a bike outside. Enthusiasts and bike commuters often ride in 5°F (-15°C) and below, which requires some special preparation. Ice, snow, wind, and wind chills can make riding a bike in lower temperatures difficult, more dangerous, and potentially bad for the bike.
The better winter-specific gear you invest in, the colder temperatures you will be able to tackle with ease. These are some of the most important ones:
- A good merino wool baselayer like this one. Merino wool is excellent for regulating temperature and wicking away moisture.
- Winter cycling gloves. You hand is exposed to wind as you ride, and this can cause your fingers to freeze. Lobster gloves, like the Pearl iZUMi keep your fingers together and warm on long-cold rides.
- An inexpensive skull cap is going to keep your head warm, and fits easily under your helmet. This was a true game changer for me in freezing temperatures.
- Bar Mitts. I use my bar mitts in extreme cold weather. They’re so good at keeping the wind off my hands that I don’t even need my warmest gloves to keep them warm.
- Studded tires. Icy patches can cause your tires to slip. Studded tires, like these from Shwalbe, give you excellent grip even on the slippiest of ice.
- Good, thick chain lube that doesn’t get washed off easily. This keeps your drive train moving efficiently and prevents it from rusting. (You still need to maintain your chain though)
In this article, we’ll talk about why below 40°F is too cold to ride a bike for recreational cycling for most people and what you can do if you really need or want to ride a bike in colder weather. There are plenty of factors to consider, and we’ll talk about them so you can decide if riding below 40 degrees is right for you.
If you are a bike commuter or an enthusiast who would like to ride your bike in the winter, no matter the weather, you can read my ultimate guide to preparing for cycling in the winter, which includes tools, accessories, and pro tips to make sure that both you and your bike are prepared for the challenge.
Important factors to consider
Technically, you could ride a bike in just about any temperature. However, for most people, riding in the cold is not safe or enjoyable. There are a number of reasons you might not want to ride your bike outside when the temperatures drop below 40 degrees F.
We all know that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But the ground can take a lot longer to warm up than the air. So even when the air temperature is above freezing, it is still highly possible to have ice on the ground, especially in areas that don’t get much sunshine.
I took a spill on my sturdy gravel bike when I hit a surprise patch of ice. It was March, and the weather was a pleasantly warm 50 degrees F. But because that section of the trail didn’t see the sun, there was still a sizeable icy patch that I just couldn’t avoid on my ride. I was lucky to have only skinned my elbow and bruised my hip when my tires slid out from under me, and I went down at a relatively slow speed. At high speeds, though, the injuries could be much worse, especially if you are riding in traffic and not on a trail.
If you want to ride your bike in temperatures below freezing point, consider using studded tires on your bicycle, as they prevent your bike from slipping out from under you. They are well worth the price.
These tires allow you to ride with confidence even on icy roads, knowing that you don't go down like a sack of potatoes when taking a turn.
Riding at temperatures above 40 °F will make it much less likely that there will be ice, but you’ll still need to be careful. Slow your speed or get off the bike and just walk through any ice sections when in doubt. The more days below freezing temperatures in a row, the more likely it is to have ice patches. Black ice is hard to see, and the smooth surface it creates is the most dangerous.
Even in the cold, you’ll likely sweat from riding hard, whether you are commuting or doing an intense workout. Once you begin to sweat, your body cools. Damp clothes combined with cold air, especially below 40 °F, make hypothermia even more of a risk. Hypothermia can be severe, even causing cardiac arrest and death.
To prevent hypothermia, you need to ensure you have the proper clothing and watch for early signs of trouble. Early signs of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering or shaking and abnormal clumsiness, such as having difficulty using a zipper or shifting gears. If you notice these symptoms, you’ll need to find a way to warm up immediately before severe hypothermia sets in.
If you don’t have the right clothes to wear, keep your workouts inside on the trainer.
Damage to Your Bike
Another reason to avoid riding outside below 40°F is that it could cause damage to your bike. Many types of
In the winter, your grease will be stiffer, and your bearings might even freeze, making it hard to turn your cranks or even coast. Of course, riding with cold bike parts means you’ll go at slower speeds, but you’ll be putting out more effort.
Also, road treatments such as salt, cinders, or other types of chemical treatments to prevent ice can be harmful to your bike by causing corrosion to the drivetrain and delicate parts. If the air and ground are freezing, you could potentially have ice build-up on your bike, making it difficult to shift and brake (especially if you have rim brakes).
If you do ride outside in the winter, you’ll want to make sure you thoroughly clean and dry your bike to prevent damage and ice build-up.
How to prepare for cold weather riding
If you live in a colder region, fair-weather cycling might be a very short season. If so, you might find yourself riding in colder weather. So how can you protect yourself and your bike from the cold?
Wear the Right Clothing for Your Weather Conditions
You’ll need to think specifically about what weather conditions you’ll be riding in to make the best gear choice. Too many layers, and you’ll be too warm, which means your extra sweat will pose the risk of hypothermia. Too few layers and you’ll be too cold, also putting you at potential risk of hypothermia.
You’ll also need to make sure you wear the right type of fabric. For example, wool makes a great base layer because it wicks away moisture while keeping you warm. You can find a great article with guidelines on how to dress for every temperature here.
Ride the Right Bike
If you are going to be riding through messy cinders, snow, or even ice, you don’t want to ride your expensive aero bike with super skinny wheels. Instead, you’ll probably want to ride a less expensive bike so you won’t be so upset when it gets damaged by riding in the cold.
A gravel bike or even a mountain bike is an excellent choice because you can fit wider tires with a gnarly tread to help you over the slush and snow. If you have to commute in deep snow, you may want to consider a fat bike, although these take much power to pedal.
You’ll probably want to have disc brakes for extra stopping power because wet, salty conditions can quickly dissolve the pads on rim brakes. Also, you may want some lower gears to help you push through rougher conditions, and fenders will prevent mud and water from splashing up the back of your bike and onto your clothes.
If you have doubts about your ability to ride in the cold or about whether or not it is safe, your best bet is to keep your workout indoors and find another means of transportation. Save your outdoor rides for fair weather.