All about winter commuting

You might have heard that we’ve been getting quite a bit of snow here in the Boston area. Snow can be tons of fun to play in and ride in, on the road and off. Especially with the recent popularity of fatbikes, “gravel grinders”, etc, there have never been so many ways to go out and play in the snow on a bicycle. 

But with the havoc all this snow has wrought on Boston’s transit system, I thought this would be a good time to write about how and why to just go about your regular business around town on your regular commuting bike. 

The first question people always ask me when I tell them I get around entirely by bike is always, “but what do you do when it snows?” The answer is that I mostly do the same things I usually do. And that actually, the worse the snow gets, the greater the advantages of getting around by bike! 

snow piles with bike

How could this be true? For starters, you don’t have to dig a bicycle out of its parking space. Even when bike racks get buried, you can usually find something to lock up to, whereas finding a clear parking space for a car can be a real problem. If the snow gets worse while you’re out, at the very worst you might have to walk your bike some of the way, but you won’t actually get stuck. You won’t be stuck behind someone else who’s stuck, and if the traffic gets completely blocked you can carry your bike around it if you have to. When traffic slows to a halt, it will still slow you down substantially if you’re on a bike, but not the way it will stop you in your tracks if you’re in a car. 

Walking is difficult because sidewalks may not be cleared well, or you might not be able to reach the corners. Buses are slowed down right along with the rest of the traffic, and standing still at a bus stop or train station in the freezing cold for long periods of time is way, way worse than riding or walking where at least you’re moving enough to stay a bit warmer. 

And all that’s without even mentioning the disastrous mess that the neglected, antiquated public transit system around here has become because it just couldn’t cope with the barrage of winter storms we’ve had. The entire system has shut down completely a number of times, it has been running on badly curtailed schedules, and looks like it isn’t going to be able to restore normal service for another MONTH. Needless to say, a bicycle is much more reliable. 

But… is it safe? My own opinion (and this is just my opinion based on personal experience, not a scientific study and your mileage may vary as always) is that for the most part, when there’s snow on the ground it’s probably no more or less dangerous than riding around town any other time. 

The exception to that is actually during and immediately after a big storm. I’ve heard a number of people say they’ll mostly ride around town in the winter, but don’t during those times for safety reasons. To me, this is backwards. Those are the times when I really do think that it’s actually SAFER than normal, because there’s no traffic. There are snow plows and you have to watch out for them and stay out of their way, but if you’re paying attention that isn’t too hard. It’s certainly easier than staying out of the way of every road-enraged nutcase on a cell phone during normal rush hour. Your risk of a minor spill at a low speed onto a relatively soft or smooth surface is certainly higher, but your risk of getting doored, right-hooked, t-boned, sideswiped, etc, by someone going fast is much, much lower. 

Case in point: This road is normally full of enough traffic to make it the bane of my existence on a normal day. These photos were taken right after snow storms, at times that would usually have a fair amount of traffic.

boston ave no traffic 1 boston ave no traffic 2 evening rush hour 

In fact, I find that the worst driver behavior happens when the roads are getting clearer and things are starting to get a bit more back to normal; that’s when people are losing their patience with the road conditions and want to drive just as fast as in good weather, but there’s still enough potential for snow on the road that they can get into trouble because of it. 

One other thing to point out that has become a big issue this year (although it usually isn’t to this extent): At this point, the snow piles in many places are taller than an adult, especially at corners and next to driveways that have gotten shoveled out. So that means that you can’t see what’s coming out of corners, driveways, side streets, and in some cases even parking spaces. People have to advance way past the normal stop line in order to see if the coast is clear. This makes it a really, REALLY bad time to hug the right side of the road. At least on a bicycle you’re up a little higher and can see a little better than most drivers can, but with a lot of these piles, you’d need an extra-tall tallbike to be able to see over them. So take the lane and be alert.

But what about the road surface? Don’t you slip?

This is my street. It's been awhile since we've seen much of the pavement surface!

This is my street. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen much of the pavement surface!

Road treatment for snow varies widely from city to city. In the Boston area where I live, they’re generally pretty good at keeping the roads plowed. It’s fairly rare that I find myself actually floundering in deep powder.  That said, they’ve been pretty overwhelmed this year, so while the roads are generally perfectly passable by bike, they’re down to a fraction of their normal capacity, so there’s not a lot of room. See above about why you do not want to have to drive around here right now.

They’re even doing a better job than they used to of keeping bike paths clear and passable. Bike paths are often more likely to have slippery and icy patches than roads because they don’t get as much sand and salt, and they don’t have cars to melt ice and sweep snow to the side. But on the flip side, they aren’t crowded and the only other people you see using them are the experienced riders who are out all year and are generally reasonably polite. No rollerbladers, strollers, kids, or crowds.

Neatly plowed Minuteman Bikeway

Neatly plowed Minuteman Bikeway. In this photo, there’s still enough of a thin coating of snow over whatever ice is underneath to have good traction. You wouldn’t want to race a crit over it, but for cruising on a deserted bike path it’s just fine.

Edit: What do you do if the entrance to your bike path has been plowed in?

But yes, it can be slippery. Studded tires help quite a bit, and are a good idea. But they’re not required. If you need to go somewhere and don’t have studs on your bike, or you just never get around to putting them on, that doesn’t have to stop you. My own strategy with my commuter bike is to use parts that can take a beating, and never bother with cleaning or adjusting anything except when it wears out. I’m far too lazy to change my tires for the winter so I never bother with studs, and I’ve been out riding and getting where I need to go every day, including during every single snowstorm we’ve had this winter. I’m not necessarily recommending this strategy – studded tires are made for a reason and they do what they’re supposed to do. They aren’t a panacea, but they help.
For what it’s worth, my commuter bike is a fixed gear, and I really do think that if you’re used to riding one, it really does help give you more control over the back wheel when traction is iffy. It could be just me, but I feel way more secure riding on iffy surfaces with a fixed gear than with a freewheel. (I do use a front brake… don’t be one of those brakeless idiot people!)
Also, skinny tires aren’t the end of the world. In some cases they even sink through more than wider ones. I’m not recommending them; just saying that they aren’t an excuse. 😉

riding in snow

In any case, here are some tips for riding on snowy city streets:

• First and foremost, realize that it’s going to take you longer than usual, and slow down. Actually, this is good advice if you’re driving in the snow, too. On top of that, sometimes it’s just a slow, hard slog to push your way through snow, kind of like how running on sand is hard work. And it gets harder when snow gets packed up under fenders and brakes and so on, too. Just relax and be patient, and you’ll get there.

• Let your forward momentum keep you going forward. The wheels can slip around a little without taking you down as long as you don’t freak out and overcompensate. Stay loose, pedal smoothly, and don’t lock your elbows.

• If you have to ride over a patch of actual ice, do not try to slow down, speed up, or steer while you’re actually on top of it. Keep going at a steady speed in a straight line and you can make it over just fine. That means that if you are going fast, slow down BEFORE you get to the icy patch, not while you’re on it.

• On uneven/unpredictable surfaces like packed ice and snow, it’s helpful to get more weight onto the front wheel. This helps keep traction in the front, and helps it cut a little farther in. You can do this by leaning farther forward, or by getting out of the saddle. Incidentally, it does not necessarily mean putting more weight on your hands; if you lean forward your center of gravity moves forward and puts more weight on the front wheel, regardless of whether your upper body is being supported by your hands or whether it’s being cantilevered against your pedaling force. 

• Just like a car can drive up a slippery hill as long as the wheels are turning slowly and steadily but will slip and slide back down if you get impatient and try to accelerate, the rear wheel of your bike can spin out if you stomp on the pedals. Apply force evenly and slowly, depending on how much traction you have. 

• But in some cases, your best bet is to just use your momentum to plow through. In particular, when a snowplow or someone digging out their car has left a big pile of snow across the road, you can usually just shove through it, even if sometimes it looks like you can’t.

• Take the lane. Take the space that you need. Light yourself up like a Christmas tree, especially when visibility is bad. But be polite, and do your best to stay out of the way of plows, road crews, utility workers, etc, so they can do their jobs.

• Lower than normal tire pressure might help, as long as you can ride gingerly over hidden bumps and holes.

• Watch for potholes! They get worse and worse in the winter, and they’re often hidden under the snow or slush so they’re hard to see and new ones pop up all the time. Here is a picture of old trolley tracks and cobblestones under the road surface; these tracks have not been used in nearly 80 years:

Hoo boy, do we have a bumper crop of giant potholes this year!

Hoo boy, do we have a bumper crop of giant potholes this year!

 The next question is what to wear. I won’t say too much on the topic because especially where transportation riding is concerned, you’ll get a different answer from everyone you ask. But in general, layers are good. My personal approach is as follows: In the winter, my normal everyday outfit is black cargo pants with a flannel button-front shirt, sometimes a vest or sweater or fleece, and insulated/waterproof work boots. I wear a non-insulated jacket and add layers under it as needed. For temperatures below around 20°F, I like to wear some variety of long underwear. On the bottoms I prefer something along the lines of cotton or flannel pajama bottoms rather than tights or leggings, because they move with my pants better than a tight layer against my skin that tugs at my pants. On the tops I wear technical undershirts (which I always look for on sale) or T-shirts, or sometimes both. For gloves, I’m a bit weird – my hands generally get warm when I’m riding as long as my core is warm; I usually wear a pair of those stretchy one-size-fits-all acrylic knit gloves they have at pharmacies for $2 down to around 30°; down to around 10-20° I wear two pairs of them. When it’s colder than that, I either wear three pairs or resort to “regular” winter gloves. I like the knit cheapo ones because they make it easier to do things like get my keys out of my pocket, and because they let sweat evaporate.

I wear a hat with earflaps and a good brim under my helmet (like you can make from this free pattern, or from this kit). When it’s below, I dunno, 10°F I like a very thin balaclava in addition. I usually wear clear glasses, especially if there’s a lot of driving/blowing snow. Although one day, I was leaving the Dill Pickle shop during a blizzard and had forgotten my glasses, so I cut out a piece of the clear vinyl normally used for cuesheet windows and shoved it under my hat. It worked so well I’ve used it a few more times since:

vinyl glasses 
For most people, figuring out what to wear takes some trial and error. And it depends on how clean and polished you need to look when you get where you’re going. But you can probably put together enough layers from what you already have to get yourself around, between regular “street” clothes, bike clothes, ski or other activewear or whatever. And at least you don’t have to dress quite as warmly to bike around town as you do to wait for a bus that might be 45 minutes late.

So, now that you’ve figured out how to ride and what to wear, what do you do about the mess? Winter riding is really sloppy. There’s no way around that. There’s sand and salt all over everything. 

slushy mess

That stuff gets caked on like cement and makes a big mess when it melts. Aside from trying to knock off as best you can before bringing the bike inside and putting down a tarp to park on, one way to clean off some more of it is to use a pesticide sprayer. Keep a sprayer full of water inside the front door and use it to hose off the worst of what doesn’t come of just by bouncing the bike or kicking at the crank arm. A word to the wise, though: don’t do the spraying on the front porch, unless you want to go ice skating down the stairs!

The conscientious mechanic in me would tell you that of course sand and salt are terrible for components and frames and that you should meticulously clean your bike after every ride. Well, that’s fine for a nice bike that you ride for fun on the weekends. But when you just got home after a long day at work, you’ve got emails to answer, groceries to put away, boots to take off, etc? Umm, no. You do your best to not make a mess, maybe squirt some lube on the chain from time to time, and maybe give it a good cleaning when spring comes. Or not. This is another good reason to choose simpler, more robust drivetrains for commuter bikes. You can get away with all kinds of neglect on a fixed gear, singlespeed, internally geared hub (depending on the model and its seals and so forth), 6-speed freewheel with friction shifters, etc. Go for sturdy, inexpensive parts and figure you can just replace them at the end of the season if you need to, although you’ll also find that those drivetrains can tolerate a lot more wear before becoming unrideable than 9, 10, or 11-speed ones. Grime and corrosion maybe don’t exactly make for a smooth, whisper-quiet drivetrain. But remember about how no one’s going anywhere fast anyway. 

So, to make a long story short: You can get around town by bike in the snow. It has its annoyances, but in many ways it’s still better than any alternative, and it helps stave off cabin fever. Be patient, be careful, be polite, be persistent. Sometimes it’s a slow, messy slog, but it beats the heck out of waiting for the bus or digging out a plowed-in car. 

P.S. As an aside, you may have noticed the yellow panniers in all of these photos. This is a new city pannier model that’s in the works, and will be available this spring. Stay tuned for more on that!

P.P.S. Folks keep asking me why my front fender is so stubby and doesn’t have a mudflap. It’s only because the fender broke awhile ago and I never got around to fixing it. So, not for any good reason. 😉

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