Last month, Alicia Valenti wrote about her tips and experiences bicycling in the winter as a Minnesota transplant. “I got into summer biking and then didn’t want to stop once it got cold,” Alicia told me recently.
Like Alicia, I’m a transplant who didn’t want to stop biking once it got cold, partly because biking — even in the winter — is faster for me than riding the bus.
I have a love-hate relationship with bicycling in the winter. It’s peaceful, and I love to see the landscape coated in snow. On the other hand, I am afraid of slipping. I also dislike the extreme cold and getting pummeled by snowflakes during a snowstorm.
Still, this will be my third winter of bike commuting. I’ll review what you need to wear, talk about the bike I use and discuss how I pick my routes. I’ll also provide some resources and advice on how you can prepare to bike year-round.
Layer Up and Have the Gear
I don’t care what people say about not needing a helmet while biking. You must wear a helmet. I wiped out for the first time as a winter cyclist earlier this year in Bemidji, shortly before I was to enter a roundabout with heavy and fast-moving traffic. The ground is icy during the winter, which means you will slip and fall at least once. You may also get hit by a careless driver. Wear a helmet.
During my first year winter biking, I forgot my helmet some days, and I survived, despite my commute taking the Hiawatha Trail and Washington Avenue. But don’t chance it. If you can’t afford a helmet, Nice Ride may give you one for free if you attend one of their upcoming events. If you’re a Lime member, you can get discounted helmets through Bern.
Keep your head warm: I know winter bicyclists who wear skull caps, which conform to the shape of your head and have flaps to keep your ears warm. I wear a SmartWool knit cap when the temperature is between 10°F and 50°F. It’s served me well. When the temperature is between 10°F and 20°F, I’ll also wear a Buff Merino wool multifunctional head wear as a neck gaiter. Between 0°F and 10°F, I’ll wear a balaclava. Below 0°F, I’ll wear a balaclava, a neck gaiter over my mouth and a knit cap over my balaclava.
Make sure you can see: Don’t wear glasses when you wear a neck gaiter or balaclava. Your glasses will fog up and then ice up because your breath is being redirected toward your eyes. This happened so frequently during my first winter bicycling that I had to ride without glasses, which is difficult because I have myopia and astigmatism. I got contact lenses last year when I lived in Bemidji, and I will continue using them this year.
Like Alicia, I recommend snow goggles. I never used them in the past and remember times when my eyes froze and bulged. Recently, I bought a pair of Smith goggles from REI. They fit over my glasses and have a mirrored lens, which supposedly will help me see better in the dark. So far, my goggles have kept my eyes warm.
Protect your lips: Lip balm keeps your lips moisturized and less likely to chap in dry and cold weather. I recommend one with beeswax and shea butter.
Play around with body layers: Start with the base layers. Uniqlo makes excellent baselayers that use proprietary technology to generate heat when you sweat. I usually start wearing them at around 50°F. By 20°F, I’ll wear the warmest heattech baselayer they have. Over that, I’ll usually wear:
- A dress shirt
- Fleece, merino or cashmere sweater
- Fleece jacket
- Down or heavy jacket
Don’t worry too much about your legs. I wear Uniqlo heattech long johns, along with whatever pants I generally wear for whatever I’m doing, like work or hanging out with a friend. Between 20°F and 40°F, I’ll wear 1.5x heattech long johns. Below that, I’ll wear 2x heattech long johns. On days when temperatures drop below 5°F, I’ll also wear snowpants.
Protect your hands: Apply lotion on your hands before you put on your gloves. I go between three gloves depending on how cold it is. I currently have a Manzella glove I got three years ago that has 200 grams of Thinsulate. I don’t use bar mitts, although people have told me they’re comfortable to use.
Keep your feet toasty: I’ve never had to wear wool socks since moving here from California, likely because I wear boots that are extremely warm. They are bigger than my pedals, and my feet have slipped while I’m riding. But they serve the purpose. In addition, I wear bamboo socks as well as Uniqlo heattech socks. On extremely cold days, I wear alpaca socks over my existing socks.
Light up the night: You want to see what is on the road and allow drivers to see you. So add lights if your bike doesn’t come with integrated lights. Minnesota law requires you to have a headlight visible for up to 500 feet from the front, as well as a rear reflector that is 100 to 600 feet visible by a driver using low beams. Every bike shop sells bike lights, and some local government agencies and advocacy organizations will give them out for free. You may also want to buy a Halo Belt, an integrated light and reflector that you can wear around your body. I’ve had one for six years and it makes me highly visible.
You Definitely Don’t Need a Fat Bike
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a fat bike. In fact, depending on where you ride and how fast you want to ride, you might not even need studded tires. Some cyclists choose to maintain a year-round bike. Others have a burner bike they use exclusively for the winter.
Until I moved to Bemidji, I had only one bike (I now have two). Two years ago, before I decided to bicycle in the winter, I purchased a VanMoof M2 bike. It looks exactly like the late Nice Ride neighborhood bikes, except it’s painted silver and has seven speeds and a chain guard. I later upgraded to a double kickstand. After I rode it for the first summer, I swapped out the front tire with a mountain bike tire. A year later, I did the same with the rear tire. My bike also has dynamo lights and an internal hub. Internal hubs are easier to maintain. The lights come in handy because I have a bad (but improving) habit of forgetting my bike lights at home.
This year, I outfitted it with a rear rack. I was involved in a car crash last year, and it became painful to bike with a load of heavy groceries on my back. Now, I can save most of my energy just for riding through a snowstorm.
Today, my summer bike is now my winter bike. I’ve since shipped my Public Bike, which was stored in San Francisco, to the Twin Cities. That is a more traditional seven-speed derailleur bike that I use during the fair-weather months.
Not sure about the best bike for winter? You might already be riding one; it might just need a few upgrades. Minnesota has great bike shops throughout the state that can help with that or even help you find the right steed. You can also go on Craigslist.
Your Summer Route May Not Be Your Winter Route
The best summer route may not work during the winter. Your go-to side street may be covered in ice and slush. In Minneapolis, some bike lanes placed adjacent to the parking lane are buried in slush. In certain parts of Minnesota, some recreational trails — like Grant-In-Aid trails — are converted into snowmobile trails in the winter.
Stick with the trails, if possible, which in Minneapolis, at least, are plowed. If a trail is inconvenient, stick to a street that has a buffered bike lane; these are more likely to be plowed than striped bike lanes. If neither of these options work for you, consider the following when you decide which streets to ride:
- Is the street the first to be plowed after a snowfall of three inches or more?
- How much traffic does the street get?
- How fast do drivers go?
- Is there a bus route on the street?
- Does the street have a bike lane? If so, are there points on the street where the paint disappears?
- Perhaps the most important question: What are you comfortable with?
In Minneapolis, the first streets plowed are part of a network called “Snow Emergency Routes.” These are identified with a blue street sign. In St. Paul, these streets are identified with signs that say “night plow route.” The policy differs by suburb. For example, Maplewood prioritizes plowing “heavily traveled” routes and does not plow “secondary streets” to the pavement for environmental reasons. Meanwhile, Hennepin County maintains a database of all snow emergency plowing policies by community.
If you don’t live or work near a priority street, you may wish to ride on a bike boulevard. Use a side street as last resort. Keep in mind, though, not all of these streets throughout the state are plowed in a snowstorm. They can get icy. Proceed with caution.
If you live in rural Minnesota, county roads with shoulders might be an option. The shoulders are wide enough to serve as a de facto bike lane. Be wary of points where the shoulder disappears and you may need to merge into traffic. Also beware of snow.
Finally, consider doubling your commute time. When I was in Bemidji, a 10-minute ride from home to my placement site by trail became a 20-minute ride by rural-road shoulders, three heavily trafficked roundabouts and a left turn that forced me to yield to oncoming traffic. My commute time took longer, too, because I have a hard time riding through strong winds. My bike has a hard time traversing snow on the ground, and I was wearing a lot of clothing and carrying a backpack.
What’s Your Backup Plan?
Riding in the cold can be unbearable. The strong winds may make it harder for you to bike. You may start to feel tingling pins and needles in your toes and hands. Last year, when I was living in Bemidji, I gave up riding my bike at -15°F because I found it uncomfortably cold and hard to breathe. That’s when mass transit may be an option.
The Twin Cities has Metro Transit and four suburban providers. Every vehicle, be it bus or train, is equipped with bike racks. Most can handle up to two bikes. Some Southwest Transit buses can handle up to three bikes. The 100-series light rail trains (PDF, scroll to Page 29) on the Blue Line can handle up to four bikes. If both racks are full, Metro Transit and Maple Grove Transit may allow you to bring your bike on board, at the operator’s discretion.
Take note, however, that the bike racks won’t fit all bikes, including fat bikes, recumbents or cargo bikes. Sometimes, a bus driver may turn you away because the bus is full or will be full down the line. I’ve heard people ask if Metro Transit will procure three-position bike racks or racks that handle fat bikes. Drew Kerr, communications specialist at Metro Transit, says they are “not actively considering three-bike bike racks or hardware that would allow bikes with wider tires to be placed on a bus bike rack.” Kerr urges cyclists to contact customer relations if they have feedback about how bikes “can be better integrated into the transit network.”
TransitLink serves those who live outside of the Metro Transit service area, or in an area that has service only during rush hour. TransitLink operates on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in all five counties. It also operates on Saturdays, but only in Hennepin County communities on the eastern end of Lake Minnetonka. Most TransitLink buses are equipped with bike racks, according to Kerr. For those that aren’t, “the customer is allowed to bring their bike aboard the vehicle and stow them in the back,” he says. Most buses can handle up to three bikes on the back of the bus when a wheelchair is not onboard. Beware, though: TransitLink may suspend service if the weather is severe enough.
Metro Transit also has a Guaranteed Ride Home program, which will reimburse rides up to four times a year in an eligible emergency — which includes you having to leave work early or stay late. The program does not cover bad weather, Kerr says, though it could cover your ride if not having access to a bike forces you to leave work early to get home. You can participate even if you don’t ride transit frequently. So long as you bicycle, walk, carpool or vanpool to work three times a week, you are eligible.
A transit system serves almost every county in Minnesota. The larger cities in Greater Minnesota — Duluth, Rochester, Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, St. Cloud and Mankato — are served by a fixed-route transit system. All of these agencies have buses with front-mounted bike racks that accommodate up to two bikes. Some Fargo-Moorhead buses are equipped with three-position bike racks. However, not every agency will allow you to bring your bike onboard if all the racks are being used, so plan accordingly.
|Agency||Bike Rack Positions||If Racks Are Full||Notes|
|Duluth||2||Take next bus|
|Rochester||2||Store in ADA area|
|Fargo/Moorhead||2-3||Take next bus|
|Grand Forks||2||Take next bus|
|Mankato||2||Take next bus|
|St. Cloud||2||Store inside||Requires permit|
Outside of these cities, you will most likely need to call ahead for a ride. The hours that agencies operate differs widely, from only operate during the week to once a week or once a month. Some agencies may offer Saturday service. Not all of these systems allow bikes on board, so ask before you reserve a ride. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) created a map where you can identify which organization operates transit in your area.
Still Not Confident? Practice, and Find Support
Minnesota has two seasons, it is said: winter and road construction. In the summer, communities in the state chip-seal roads in order to extend their life. The process involves spraying heated asphalt on the ground, followed by dumping and compressing aggregate onto the ground. For about two weeks, the aggregate will be loose. Ride on it for practice. It’s similar to biking on slippery, snowy roads.
If you’re still unsure of yourself, fear not! The state is full of resources to help you with the challenges of winter biking.
If you identify as a femme, trans or cis woman, non-binary or two-spirit person, Grease Rag is a space specifically for these folks to talk all things bicycling. A group called FOR US BY US is spun off of the original Grease Rag and is a space exclusively for folks of color who identify as femme, trans or cis woman, non-binary or two-spirit. Both groups facilitate skill-shares and group rides.
If you have the skills but still don’t feel confident riding in the winter because of something beyond your control (lack of infrastructure, for example), get involved with local advocacy organizations. In the Twin Cities, there’s Our Streets Minneapolis, Safe Streets Save Lives and the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition. If you want to get involved with Safe Streets Save Lives, e-mail Tim Pate to be added to their mailing list. In Greater Minnesota, there’s also Albert Lea Area Cyclists, Pedal Fergus Falls, We Bike Rochester, Bike Fargo-Moorhead, Greater Mankato Bike Walk Advocates and Bike Bemidji, to name a few.
Not sure if a bicycle advocacy organization is near you? The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota has the resources and staff dedicated to point you in the right direction, or even help you start a bicycle advocacy organization in your community.
Remember, Winter Biking Can Be Fun
Don’t get me wrong, climate change is important! But I am equally interested in the experience of winter biking, in riding during the cold and snow for the sake of it. I am not an expert in winter biking, and neither is anyone else. I am just sharing my experiences as a winter rider who moved to Minnesota from another climate.
You may be reading this piece because you are nervous about winter biking and want some advice. Experimenting is how people like us grow. Forget failure. See this as an opportunity to try something new and evaluate whether winter biking is for you.
Without experimentation, I never would have gotten into winter biking. Proceed with caution, and have fun riding this winter!
I so appreciate these articles. I’ve been biking year round ~7 years, but this is my 3rd “serious” winter, commuting from SE Saint Paul (near Woodbury) to near downtown Saint Paul. I still fear it every day, at least at the beginning of the year. My confidence grows the more I bike, and I DO practice on weekends and nights in my own neighborhood (some roads badly plowed, other really good plowed roads), all throughout all snow storms in the winter.
Anyone live in SE metro? I’m willing to be a winter bike mentor.
Some time back, another writer here bemoaned the idea that cyclists need “specialized gear” (or clothing). You know, like a simple bike helmet or reflective vest.
Maybe that goes out the window from November to April?
This all sounds fairly complicated. Like I need to take a class. Your mileage may vary.
There’s definately different opinions out there. Some people seem to think anyone should be willing to bicycle 20 miles in zero degree weather in a blizzard because, you know, it’s just a matter of spending hundreds of dollars for specialized paraphernalia and a half hour each time putting it all on. These recent articles at least don’t try to be judgmental, they’re more like “if you choose to do so, here’s how to do it” without being judgmental on people that switch to a heated car or bus.
Personally I just wear a pair of bike gloves. I may or may not wear a helmet depending on the situation (chain of lakes with all the other bicycle traffic it’s a good idea. The Elroy-Sparta trail with crushed limestone it’s a good idea. Someplace like the Brown’s Creek Trail that’s new pavement with little traffic I don’t see the need.
Twice I’ve been to bicycle events (the 66th Street cycletracks open house and the Nokomis-Mississippi River Regional Trail grand opening) where the event invitations didn’t specify that a helmet was required. I made the choice to not wear one (and turned out to be the only one not wearing one nor did I wear lycra) to make a point that the point of these projects is to make bicycling more safe and accessible and that if bicycling on them is still perceived as dangerous than they’re not a win.
Yeah, the nylon shorts, I uh, don’t really get it.
I guess I’d have to say I’m a fair weather biker. If the bulk of the pavement is dry, I’ll bike. As someone who actually wears Carharts for work and not just to look like I work with my hands, that’s often what I wear for cold weather biking.
What keeps me from biking more in the winter is the long nights combined with icy spots. Yeah, I know I can get studded tires, but I’d only get a marginal benefit from them. I’m just not going to ride through inclement weather.
I hate/love winter biking. It sucks in the moment on the bad days, but knowing that I’m doing something that so few can’t/don’t want to, gets me motivated. Plus on my commute, after new snow, I see bike tire tracks in the snow EVERY time. So there are other winter cyclists even if I never see them or know who they are. They motivate me regardless.
The only “special” equipment that I’ve bought (besides long underwear which I’m glad to have for hiking outside) is ski goggles. I don’t ski, so I consider it special. However, I also use those for outdoor cold-weather hikes. It didn’t dawn on me to get stuff like this for general outdoor recreation!
Biking in the winter helps me appreciate winter more. This winter was harsh when it started early November, but I’m not phased by the upcoming cold temperatures (the snow is another story because I live south of Battle Creek, so hills, particularly downhill, is still a challenge for me). And oh wow, each spring is SOOOOOO delightful, even though it was already my favorite season….
I’ve been winter biking for more than a decade and feel there is no need for specialized gear. I get a lot of my cold weather riding clothing at Mills Fleet Farm – if it’s good for construction workers it will likely work for me! My favorite for a long time now are fleece tights with a skirt. I layer fleece tights ($10 at Fleet Farm) over wool skirts. Chopper gloves are cheap and super warm, too. A wool sweater and a wind breaker goes a long way.
There are a few things I’ve bought that would count as specialized (like studded tires), but I stagger those purchases over time.
Hmm. I don’t think I’ll try the tights over skirt thing.
Wait. Fleece tights layered OVER the skirt???
I’ve been cycling during MN winters for 35 years. I rode through the ’91 Halloween blizzard without specialized equipment (when I was a young man), but good equipment removes skill from the equation, and is really not that expensive. A helmet is like a seat belt or an airbag; hopefully you don’t need it, but it will save your brain if someone (or you) makes a mistake. The same is true with studded tires and many bike lights; they will keep you out of the ER, and thus save money. Flannel-lined jeans are just as warm as pricey bike tights, and not subject to ridicule. Winter cycling is a means to reduce traffic congestion. During the worst winter weather, I travel on a residential streets, below 10mph, and pass thousands of cars stuck in the parking lot known as the interstate.
Do you have any tips for fitting your VanMoof with fenders AND your MTB tires? I added studded tires to my VanMoof, but now the original fenders do not fit. 🙁 I could add the splatterguard kind, but would prefer something more substantial.
It depends on how wide your tires are. My mountain bike tires are 26×1.75, and they barely clear the fenders.
On Wednesday December 11th, MPR host Angela Davis will be interviewing a few winter commuter cyclists. This session is from 11am-11:30am, and interviewees will be LIVE. Tune in! I’ll try to find the recording and share it later.
How fun! Will you be on?
Why, yes! No clue who else will be. Excited!!
Last year I went for an hourlong ride in -40F windchill, and even went out for a brief ride the next day when the WC was -50, just to test my gear. I wore a lot of stuff, but I proved to myself that I could still ride in the worst the Twin Cities could dish out, without getting cold.
These last two days I showed myself something even more important: I could ride comfortably in -15F windchills, without putting on a whole bunch of specialized (and sometimes expensive) gear. I didn’t need my snow pants, or ultra heavy duty Sorel boots that are hard to walk or drive in, or even goggles (I wear glasses).
All I needed, besides base layers I wore indoors during the day, was this: a good jacket, an extra middle layer, a pair of ski gloves from Costco, a balaclava also from Costco, some medium-duty insulated boots, and heavier-weight long underwear beneath my jeans. None of these items are expensive except the jacket and boots – but if you are going to survive a MN winter getting around by foot, bike or bus you are already going to have a good jacket and boots.
And yes, that’s right, I commuted in the same jeans I wore in the office. Never done that in really cold weather before, and since it was too cold to be slushy they didn’t get wet. My commute was less than 20 minutes so I didn’t get too sweaty, so obviously this won’t work for people with longer commutes, but this will work for me. I’d been frustrated that my fancy Levi’s 511 Commuter jeans weren’t lasting any longer in the saddle than regular jeans, so I’d recently bought a pair that fit slightly looser in the leg (in my case, switching from Levi’s 505s to 550s) that could accommodate the extra thickness of long underwear.
So for me the bottom line is I can be comfortable riding through almost all of MN winter – I think, any day that isn’t so cold they close schools – without having to gear up excessively. Last year I mostly avoided the days where the wind chill was below zero, but that’s a lot of days. This year I won’t be doing that.
I can’t imagine using just a single studded tire. While it might feel like sticker shock when one sees how much they are (though my “really good” ones are ~$80 each), I can’t see why one would risk not having 2 studded tires versus having a more confident ride. But I don’t understand why a lot of people make the decisions they do (mostly people who aren’t particularly bike-friendly).
I too don’t wear anything special. My biggest problem is that I’m not a small woman (height and width) and it’s hard to find any women’s clothing that fit, and most men’s clothing is a bit more narrow in the hip/thigh area, so I REALLY struggle to find comfortable winter clothing. I did find really warm snow pants at Costco last year for under $40 and am delighted by that! But I can’t wear them with a ton of thick layers underneath. I do start to feel marshmallow-like.
I fog up my glasses, but I see a lot of other people do too. I’m going to mess around with my balaclava today and see if I can find the right layering to prevent the warm air from going into my goggles. I know what to do in concept but it doesn’t work the same way in reality. “Good thing it’s super cold out right now so I can mess around on a non-commuting day to figure it out.” (Current temp & wind chill: 0F).
Fellow winter riders/wanna-be winter riders: don’t give up. We all struggle getting things right. And no one “just becomes” a winter rider. It takes going through all of these little lessons before we get it right. Or sometimes never get it right but get it “good enough.”
I can’t tell you how proud I am of myself every spring being a winter bike commuter. It’s NOT easy. I want to quit every day. But I grow a bit each day, learn about myself and about others, every day I bike. And I savor spring SOOOOOO much.
About studded tires: I regularly run into people who ride all winter without them. Good for you. I can’t comprehend it (I’m a very experienced mountain biker with pretty good balance – but have had a few falls on ice), but if you can make that work that’s great. But I often sense some macho bravado/defensiveness in it. Please don’t be doing this just to prove something.
If you’re not ultra confident keeping your bike upright on the Twin Cities’ bumpy street ice, there’s no shame in it. I know studded tires aren’t cheap, but they can be had for most wheel sizes for around $150 a pair. That’s a bunch of money for some people, but is a lot cheaper the X-ray or MRI they’re going to do on your separated shoulder at urgent care.
Personally, I upgraded last year to the Nokian Extreme 296 studders (about $200 for a pair, on sale). Lighter-duty studded tires are probably fine if you mostly ride on bike paths near the U or along the parkways, but I often find myself riding on rough, lumpy, slick streets. Icy ruts, thick chunky snow churned up by cars and plows, and the other realities of Twin Cities streets really pushed the limits of the medium-duty Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires I was using. Putting on the Extremes was better than getting a new bike: though they roll a bit slower on pavement than the Marathons, they chew through and grab on to almost anything I can encounter on the mean streets. From my understanding the Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pros perform similarly. These tires aren’t completely unstoppable (nothing is) but they come surprisingly close.
Honestly, I think there will be a point where I will eventually get studded tires, at least for my front wheel. I do get spooked at slippage at times.
Bought a new bike, turned the old one into my winter bike and put studded tires one it. I’m much more willing to winter bike now.
I don’t really understand the theory behind studs only in the front, though.
The idea behind studs only in the front is that the front is much more important for staying upright. It can make sense where slick conditions are infrequent and relatively modest. Since studded tires add a lot of both weight and rolling resistance, only using one can have some real benefits. That said, I personally use both here in Minnesota, where slick conditions are not modest and bumpy, rutted ice can still kick your rear tire out from under you if it has minimal traction.
I did run a front studded tire for most of the 15 winters that I bike-commuted in Portland. Snow isn’t particularly common there (a handful of times a year usually) but frost is quite common, especially outside the central core. I commuted from Portland to Beaverton for 10 years, where it’s typical to have 30 or more frosty mornings a year. A front studded tire made it safe enough for me to confidently handle the 500′ descent on lightly frosted roads into the valley. A rear studded tire would have given me little additional benefit, except in the rare events when we had serious snowfall (and on those occasions I did put on a studded tire on the back, too).
This was a happy accident that a Monday PM call for winter bike commuters turned into an 11am Wednesday live interview on MPR, and especially made me very happy to be sharing the booth with fellow Saint Paul Women on Bikes Spokeswoman Lori (she goes by Comotrekker on social media).