Learning From My Winter Cycling Failures

I really love biking in winter, as I recently wrote, but I have experienced a definite learning curve.
Here, I have compiled some of the lessons I’ve learned over many years of winter cycling. I would love to hear your mistakes (or “learning opportunities”) too!
  1. Optimal winter routes are not the same as summer routes.
  2. Laboratory goggles are less effective eye protection in subzero weather.
  3. Balaclava-hair is even worse than helmet-hair.
  4. Soup will freeze and burst in your bag at -20 F, and then all your stuff will smell like soup all day.
  5. In St. Paul, the Parks Department maintains the bike paths, so if you want to report an icy or unplowed path, select the “Parks and Trails” category on the See Click Fix website (not “Snow and Ice Sidewalks/Roads”).
  6. Street plows are supposed to maintain on-street bike lanes, but there’s apparently no point in reporting unplowed bike lanes on See Click Fix (“Snow and Ice Roads” category): they never even acknowledge the request, let alone fix it.
  7. Unprotected on-street bike lanes are generally unusable in winter (at least in St. Paul).
  8. Wearing eye makeup can quickly lead to makeup running down your face, because frozen eyelashes eventually melt.
  9. Fully cleaning your bike regularly is a great idea, but at minimum wipe and clean your chain after snowy/rainy rides or it will rust very quickly
  10. More socks aren’t necessarily better, because they constrict your feet (but getting larger sized boots allows enough space for extra socks).
  11. Falling is OK, but if you keep falling over and over, it might be time to turn around and go home.
  12. Bar mitts can fill with snow if you are unlucky in your bike parking choice.

 

Bicycle handlebars with a snow-filled bar mitt attached. Teal bike with basket and picnic table in background

After work one day, I found my bar mitts filled with snow. Now I try to angle my handlebars away from the prevailing winds

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17 Responses to Learning From My Winter Cycling Failures

  1. Melissa Wenzel
    Melissa Wenzel February 11, 2019 at 2:53 pm #

    How do handle the bar mitts with the controller and shifter being covered up? I bought a pair but haven’t put them on yet because of this issue.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 11, 2019 at 3:21 pm #

      My original bar mitts were the medium size and they made it pretty difficult to access the shifter (but possible). I replaced them with the XL version and there’s a lot more room, no issues. Might take a little bit of time to get used to it 🙂

  2. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson February 11, 2019 at 8:04 pm #

    This is very much up our family’s interest currently. My high school senior son has been trying to bike the four miles from home to school all winter long.

    It was going well until the day we got all the ice. He took five spills on the way to school, once was in the middle of the crossing at a busy street. We ended up picking him up at school. His route hasn’t had enough chance to melt much and studded tired was the once big winter bike investment we skipped this winter for him.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 11, 2019 at 8:16 pm #

      Wow, he sounds like an impressive kid! Yes, the ice we got last week has been very problematic. Even with studded tires, I had a lot of falls on one particular hill. I have also taken the bus home from work a time or two when it all just got to be too much. Maybe your son could write up a streets.mn post on his winter biking failures (or successes!).

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell February 11, 2019 at 8:25 pm #

      Very cool that he’s doing that. I’ve only been doing the front tyre on my omafiets the past few years and that’s worked well. Shoreview does a fairly good job of keeping our bikeways clear which helps.

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell February 11, 2019 at 8:19 pm #

    Great post. -20°? That’s some dedication. Our grocery, pharmacy and cafés are about 2 miles and 0 is about my cutoff unless its sunny and no hint of a breeze and then I might ride when it’s below 0.

    Sorry about the soup. One day I’d ridden to Taste of Scandinavia for some soup and salads for lunch and on my way home had to jump a curb to keep from hitting a dog. Soup went everywhere. Fortunately it was summer.

    Fully cleaning your bike regularly is a great idea, but at minimum wipe and clean your chain after snowy/rainy rides or it will rust very quickly

    One of the joys of riding a Dutch bike (http://www.workcycles.com) with a fully enclosed chain (and internal gears & brakes). They go decades in all kinds of weather with little to no maintenance.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 12, 2019 at 10:00 am #

      Now I really want one of those Dutch bikes, that is brilliant. Especially in Minnesota!! I didn’t find -20 to be too bad, mostly wore the same stuff as at 0 but added heat packs in my boots. But without the workout of biking I would’ve gotten cold much more quickly.

      That is another sad soup story, but probably worth it to avoid hitting a dog.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 11, 2019 at 10:13 pm #

    This is a v good list. I also might add:

    Falling is fine as long as no cars are around. It is even maybe fun, perhaps.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 12, 2019 at 7:55 am #

      That is a good addition Bill! Falling is totally fine and big snowy falls are the most fun.

  5. ALF February 12, 2019 at 9:46 am #

    I’ve taken to riding a slightly too-small bike with a step-through frame in the winter, because I find it majorly improves my chances of letting the bike go down without taking me with it. That and studded tires have mostly ended the crashes for me (but my commute is short and I’m slow).

    Agreed on the problem with too many socks. When it’s really cold, the extra layers need to go over the boot–this year I finally got insulated bike shoe covers (ridiculously oversized because they’re just going over regular hiking boots) and they’re awesome, but big old socks slit open down to the heel and fastened on with ankle-biters, while even more ridiculous, also serve the purpose pretty well.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 12, 2019 at 9:55 am #

      These are great tips, thank you. I’ve started lowering my bike seat in winter and that helps a bit with the hop-off-but-don’t-fall maneuver, but when I buy a dedicated winter bike I might get a smaller one. And the outside sock idea is genius, especially since I already have some socks with heel holes in them.

  6. Andrew Evans February 13, 2019 at 2:23 pm #

    I learned twice that a back tire is no match for when a snow plow of some kind finds it. Although my commute was so short that I’d just walk when it got that far below zero. That and I rode up 3rd ave, before there was this nice bike path there, so if the sidewalks were too bad or too much snow, it just wasn’t worth it for me.

    More than likely a person could spray a chain with WD40 or silicone to keep the water out. Wouldn’t be the greatest thing for it, but would be better than salt and crud getting in there all the time. I ended up going to a nickel plated chain and that helped a lot, before the 2nd time my bike got found by someone clearing off the snow by the bike racks.

    Wouldn’t be a bad idea to spray the same stuff on cables too.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 13, 2019 at 2:32 pm #

      Ouch, a snow plow! That’s one I haven’t had to deal with yet (though I do worry when I have to lock up to a street sign in a snow mound).

      Good point about the cables, I did indeed encounter a stuck cable earlier this year. It loosened after letting some lubricant soak in, but I bet I would’ve been able to avoid it entirely if I had done a little preventative maintenance.

      • Andrew Evans February 13, 2019 at 3:35 pm #

        It’s one of the risks of keeping a bike outside. Same goes with parking a car on the street for that matter. The bike was a old 60’s Schwinn Speedster, with a 3 speed rear hub. I could fix it up, and maybe should next summer. The first time I re-laced a wheel was interesting, would be fun to try to do it again.

        But as far as the maintenance, yes, it’s really easy to put off doing stuff, and keep doing so until something gets really stuck (like a seat post), or a cable. Easy enough to keep things lubed up now and then, or use the spray to clean the chain along with protect it from water. Again I’m weighting rust being worse for a chain than silicone or WD vs grease.

  7. Brad Elmore February 14, 2019 at 10:11 am #

    I’m interested in your recommended eye wear. I commute in Worthington, MN, and use visor gogs over my prescription lenses. They work quite well for me, but I still have problems with condensation on really cold days.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness February 14, 2019 at 10:47 am #

      I have an old pair of Bolle goggles that work really well for me (similar to the “Freeze” model on the Bolle website, $29). I almost never have condensation issues, except on a very cold day when I’m stopped at a stoplight for too long. I wear them over a neoprene balaclava, rather than directly against my skin, which seems to help prevent fogging. About once a winter I re-apply some anti-fog goop (“Cat crap” brand… weird name, but works ok).

      I don’t wear glasses, though my glasses-wearing partner also uses Bolle goggles (a different style that’s meant to go over glasses) and generally likes them.

      Other winter cyclists have told me that higher-end goggles like Smith are worth the money because they perform much better in very cold weather (better anti-fog / venting technology). They’re $200+ which is a lot, but could be worth it for good visibility and comfort.

    • Nicole Salica
      Nicole Salica February 14, 2019 at 11:49 am #

      I’ve taken a couple trips with my ski goggles that fit over prescription lenses on:
      skin / balaclava / hat / goggles (imported from italy, but your favorite ski goggles should do fine).
      this doesn’t allow my bike helmet to be very effective, though. just, uh, don’t get hit I guess…?

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