In a previous post on winter commuting, I laid out five reasons you should bike to work in winter. Commuting by bike in the snowy months has can be a wonderful experience but it requires some personal preparation, extra thought for your bike, and adjustments to your technique.
Now that the snow is coming down, I find myself digging into memories of past winters to remind myself of the adjustments (I call them the three “R”s) of riding in the snow: Route, Road Conditions, and Rhythm.
In most seasons of the year, I want to take the road less travelled (who doesn’t?); but snow changes the equation. Streets with less traffic are also streets that get plowed last, which means that they will be snow covered later in the morning, and may have packed snow (and probably ice) for several days after a storm.
Riding on rutted ice and hard packed snow can be challenging, especially with skinny tires. On a snow day and for a few days thereafter, you may want to stick to busier streets. That said, you should also consider the kind of tires you are using: wide tires and studded or snow tires generally work very well on packed snow (because they grip), while skinny tires seem to perform well in unpacked snow and even slush (because they cut right through to the pavement). I love riding in fresh, unpacked snow!
When considering your snow route, bear in mind that roads are much more narrow after a storm because plows push snow to the side. Not only might your bike lane or shoulder have snow in it, but the cars parked along the side of the road may also be further out in the road — increasing the door zone or encroaching on the bike lane.
Winter is hard on roads. The daily cycle of freeze/thaw, the scrapping, plowing, and studded snow tires really take their toll; so be aware that potholes can appear quite suddenly — over the course of just a few days. Deep snow and the dark of winter can hide wheel-swallowing holes so have a good light and keep your eyes open.
Some roads are highly crowned, meaning that the shoulders slope steeply toward the gutter. You may not notice this during the dry months, but it can produce a very disconcerting feeling when your wheels start to slip.
Two more R’s: Remember, you have the Right to take the entire lane if needed to ride safely and avoid road hazards.
It’s one of those circle of life things: different seasons have different rhythms. In winter bears hibernate, trees shed leaves, and bicyclists ride more slowly.
In snowy conditions, plan to ride slow, steady, and smooth. Avoid sudden emergency starts, stops, and turns by planning ahead. Keep your head up (if it is snowing, you should wearing glasses to keep the snow out of your eyes) and anticipate turns, stops, and the behavior of others.
Wet, slushy, roads mean reduced stopping power and extended braking distances for you and for cars ahead and behind you. I suggest using the front brake as little as possible in slippery conditions; a sliding back wheel is unnerving, but a sliding front wheel is potential crash.
Expect your ride to take more time so you won’t be stressed about time. Nature doesn’t keep the same schedule in winter and neither should you.
As with everything else, experience is the best teacher, and every winter day is a new challenge and experience. By paying attention and being flexible, you can develop the ability have a rewarding and enjoyable commute all winter long.