The Truth About the “Dangers” of Winter Cycling

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.


Yesterday I was biking to work, crossing the Lake/Marshall bridge and hugging the right side of outermost traffic lane, since the bike lane, like most bike lanes in the city, has been repurposed for plowed-snow storage until the end of April. A pickup truck passed me with about a foot to spare, drifting into the next lane and almost clipping a truck there. It then proceeded up the Marshall hill, passing other cars in the parking lane at 48 mph, according to the radar sign posted there—18 miles over the limit.

When friends and colleagues see me in my winter-bike gear they usually say something about how brave and/or crazy I am for biking in this weather. It’s so cold! It’s so dangerous! (Online, of course, people delight in the idea of hitting me and long for my death.)

Aloud, I force a chuckle and change the subject. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about biking, at least IRL, because people who talk about their pastimes are apparently everything that’s wrong about this country. In my head, I say: The only thing dangerous about riding in this weather is the same thing that’s dangerous riding on any other day—the way other road users behave toward me. This includes motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists, though the only group that’s capable of killing me with a flick of the wrist or a glance at the cellphone is motorists.

My bike’s tires can handle the snow and ice. My clothing can handle the cold. The only variable I can’t control is how you treat me when you’re driving your car. When you say I’m brave/stupid/crazy, you’re only implicating yourself; my safety is more within your control than mine. My life is in your hands.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

23 thoughts on “The Truth About the “Dangers” of Winter Cycling

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The motorist’s behavior is inexcusable, but you can strongly discourage it by more assertive lane positioning. The lanes on the Lake Street bridge are not wide enough for a cyclists and motorist to exist side-by-side with safe/lawful clearance between the two. There is no benefit to you to “hug the right side”, and no (legal) benefit to the motorist, since they must use the other lane if they want to overtake you.

    However, hugging the right edge gives the appearance that they can squeeze by. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the stuff about “lane control” before, but this video is a great demonstration.

    I know this may seem like it would just make motorists angry, but that’s not been my experience at all. One in a few thousand shouts or honks or passes me too closely. 99.95% pass me respectfully, making a full lane change. Getting “buzzed” is all but a distant memory. I’ve used this on Lake Street, Lyndale Ave, Portland and Nicollet in Richfield, Old Shakopee in Bloomington, and it’s pretty equally applicable wherever you are.

    1. Janne

      Sean, I’m pretty darn good at taking my lane. And I agree that most drivers respect that. However, it’s also true that it only takes one who doesn’t to harm me, and in my nearly two decades of taking my lane, there are hundreds or possibly thousands who haven’t.

      I’ll also add that as long as people riding bikes are forced to use their bodies as a force field to demand the space to pedal around, we’re never going to see the numbers of people riding bikes we’d all love to see. It feels wrong, it’s scary, and it only takes one disrespectful driver to teach someone less confident than you and me that it’s a better place to be than in a car.

      1. Sean Hayford Oleary

        I agree. Lane-taking is not representative of a perfect system, but with our imperfect roads, it’s the best option to manage a system without segregated facilities (or inadequate segregated facilities).

        I have mixed feelings on your phrase, “forced to use their bodies as a force field to demand the space to pedal around”. That is sort of the technique, but then again, the cyclist is literally just driving their bicycle in the same spot a motorist drives their car. Couldn’t we think of it more as using the default space for vehicles, rather than exposing yourself to demand space?

  2. Dave

    Buying a $1600 fat bike doesn’t make ice your biatch. At some point, everyone falls. Nor does the gear you ride make you invincible from windchill. Please don’t play the “innocent” biker card. It comes off as arrogant. There is danger, particularly in weather like yesterday. Say your chain broke and you were really hauling and extremely sweaty, you might have frostbite and hypothermic conditions before you can find help, even in the city.

    Like Sean said, biking style and route choice is also important in the safety of a cyclist. I couldn’t handle the traffic on my summer route and made some route adjustments that take longer but avoid sticky situations. Like you, I have a bridge crossing but thankfully Franklin has a bike lane decently plowed. You have a point in the perception of winter biking being a seemingly incomprehensible for most, but many probably have the same opinion about biking for transportation in general.

  3. Chris


    What about the article suggested they were “playing the innocent biker card?” Suggesting that a truck going way over the speed limit and nearly hitting a biker, then a truck in the other lane was out of line does not come across as arrogant…

    Having a fatbike makes winter commuting a lot safer. I have ridden road bikes, mountain bikes with studded tires, and fatbikes. The fatbike is by far the most stable, safer option.

    How often does someone get frostbite or hypothermia while commuting by bike?

    I am overall confused about your agenda? I am all for safe winter biking, as I am also for safe winter driving. I have to say I agree with the author that the main concern of bikers is motorists, whether it be winter or not. There have been too many close calls when I was observing the laws of the road.

    1. Dave

      “My bike’s tires can handle the snow and ice. My clothing can handle the cold. The only variable I can’t control is how you treat me when you’re driving your car.”

      This and the title “The ‘Truth’ About…’ My agenda is I think the author’s tone is condescending and I don’t care for it. Biking and cars have a symbiotic relationship. Ultimately your choices are as important than the drivers. I think the author comes off as ignorant thinking that a fat bike and warm clothes or the only things that make your ride safe.

      If you don’t think the dangers of frostbite or hypothermia is real, talk to me when you have a break down, or fall on the ice and hurt yourself. I am not saying it’s common, I am just thinking like an average person. Good planning and emergency planning is a lot more important than winter. A breakdown has a lot more potential consequences than in summer. 10 minutes of exposure can cause frost bite and bikers and generally under dressed due to the obvious need to regulate body temperature.

      The fat bike comment was just because I’m jealous I cannot afford one :-).

      1. Andy

        And how many people driving their cars are getting to work with two layers of gloves, several thermal layers, jackets, booties, etc.? When someone breaks down in a car in winter, they are at a lot more risk of freezing than me on my bike, ready for the conditions. On long rides, I pack a compressible down layer too, just in case.

  4. Jake MohanJake Mohan Post author

    The photo accompanying this article is misleading; I did not ride a fatbike to work yesterday. I rode a single-speed with studded tires, which is arguably even more effective than a fatbike, at least on ice. I never meant to imply that a fatbike and warm clothes make me invincible. In fact, my point is the opposite: they make my ride safer, but won’t make a bit of difference if a dangerous driver slams into me.

    I know I’m mortal, and Mother Nature has devised an infinite number of ways to kill us. But it’s statistically more likely that I could be killed or injured by a motorist, not the snow. That’s the crux of it: The perceived danger of winter cycling (and cycling in general) is, to a great extent, attributable not to cycling itself, but to the behavior of other road users. I can only draw from my own experience, but I have never injured myself by falling down in the winter, and I have never experienced frostbite, because I have figured out what to wear. If things get really bad, I am rarely more than a five-minute ride from a place where I can go indoors and warm up.

    While things can get slippery and uncomfortable, I’ve never felt endangered by my riding surface or the wind chill. I have fallen a shockingly rare number of times, and have injured nothing besides my pride. A lot of that has to do with luck, and I’m grateful, but I’m also a very cautious rider. I plan ahead and carry lots of gear and heat packs, and I always have an emergency plan. I control the variables within my control, as best I can.

    But none of that will help me if other road users aren’t also responsible, and while I’ve never had a close call due to ice or slush, I’ve had plenty due to motorists driving dangerously. If I plummet from the Lake Street bridge or careen into the path of an LRT train because I’m riding irresponsibly or hit an unlucky patch of black ice, that’s on me, and I promise not to try and play the innocent-cyclist card from beyond the grave.

    The reality is that 99.9% of the threats I’ve experienced while cycling aren’t intrinsic to the act itself, but to the behavior of those around me. So yeah, I’m going to keep speaking up about that. There’s nothing condescending about asking other people not to kill you.

    1. Dave

      I appreciate your thoughtful response and addressing the points I raised. I disagree the perception that cars are 99.9% of the danger. You have experience choosing the correct warm, visible clothing, a safe, fast and well maintained route route, proper equipment and time of day to ride. As someone new to winter riding, this experience is invaluable. With this experience, I would think you could influence your safety by making wise choices on the road. You are a veteran, the danger factor is lower for you. For novices like me, or total newbs like your co-worker, perception might be different.

      “Cars man, why????” has a place. Clearly the dude/gal in the truck was an idiot and you were right to call him out. That said, I would actually argue that a majority of cars in Minneapolis are respectful and safe with cyclists thanks to positive advocacy, and that number grows every year. Calling out the jackasses is not going to win that battle. It feels similar like the folks who say “ALL CYCLISTS RUN RED LIGHTS AND CUT ME OFF AND HOLD UP AND RUIN EVERYTHING AND I WANNA KILL EM”, like your twitter posts. Speaking up about the shitty drivers will get you so far. Putting that energy towards the bigger pictures of policy, awareness and facilities seems to me like a place an innocent biker might better spend his or her time.

  5. John Bailey

    Dave — I can’t even find the slightest hint of condescension in his article. As for frostbite and hypothermia, I suppose if someone were joy riding on a trail by themselves on a day like yesterday with a cotton t-shirt and no gloves than yes, their poor planning and preparation would be silly and unnecessarily dangerous. But the dude is on the Lake Street bridge which is a pretty direct route to lots of stuff. I don’t where the author had to go, but I strongly suspect he was getting where he needed to go in a direct a path as possible. I bike accident resulting in frostbite or hypothermia seems highly, highly unlikely on that section unless, I suppose, it were the middle of the night.

  6. BB

    Failing down is not the same as getting run over by a car.

    Its a big misconception cycling is unsafe. Motorists are unsafe.

    I don’t consider falling down and breaking a bone as unsafe. Because that would mean walking is unsafe.

    I think it would have helped if they said they had a cell phone.

  7. Megan

    I somewhat agree with Dave on the tone. If the author didn’t use words like ‘only,’ for example “the ONLY thing I can’t control” “The ONLY thing I can control,” then the tone would have come across as less arrogant. An arrogant biker (which is what the tone suggests in my opinion) isn’t what I would want representing my biking community, so maybe that’s where Dave’s coming from? However I do think the message is clear that motorists need to be extra careful no matter what the weather.

  8. Chris

    Well Megan, when they come up with mind control devices that enable bikers to control the behavior of drivers, then the author would not use those phrases…

  9. Tom Wald

    Growing up bicycling in Minneapolis, 1983-1999, on rides that were difficult for one reason or another, I would compare the relative dissuading factors of getting on the bike: rain, heat, snow, exhaustion, cars, hills, malfunctioning derailleur, bike maintenance, theft, cost, hair, distance, wind, pedestrians, buses, dark, ice, time expended, wet ground, inadequate sleep, fog, dogs, and others. There was little competition: the worst factor was nearly always the behavior of people driving cars. And anytime some other factor was stronger on a particular ride, e.g. rain, the presence of cars, and the poor behavior of people driving significantly compounded the other factor.

  10. Ross

    I think the primary thing that scares me about winter biking is the darkness. In the dark to and from work.
    That and in the summer most motorists expect bikers. Not so in the winter.

    1. Buglady

      Biking in the dark is great fun if you have a really good set of lights – and with LEDs and lithium-ion battery technology improving at the pace they have been recently, it’s crazy how cheap, bright, and long-lasting bike lights are now. You can get 500 lumens for $50 Canadian.

      Drivers also tend to give you a hell of a lot more room when you have said crazy-bright lights. I am pretty sure a lot of the drivers I encounter think that I’m a remarkably wimpy motorcycle.

      A string of battery-powered Christmas lights wrapped around the top tube blinking away gets me even more room. (I am open to the possibility that everyone thinks I am dangerously insane. That’s okay :D)

    2. Andy

      The benefit of riding at night is that we are blatantly visible. During the day, we’re just another little thing along the road. At night, with a taillight, we’re visible way down the road and will get the attention of other road users much earlier.

  11. Mark Syme (@MarkBikeFanatic)

    If only the elements were all that we had to contend with, most cyclists would be very happy indeed. It seems to me that European countries with a massive cycling population also have winter – and it snows too! (not the the Aussie version of not quite so hot)

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