By Lauren Caselli
In September 2012, I moved to Montana from New York City. I had lived in the Big Apple for five years, and Washington, DC for four years before that, and had never owned a car in my whole life. But after 10 years in big bustling cities, I was ready for a change. A slower pace of life, a lower cost of living, and big, tall, gorgeous mountains called my name.
However, when I showed up in Bozeman with two suitcases and wide eyes, I never even thought of purchasing a car. I hadn’t needed one in almost 10 years, so why would I need one now? Instead, I bought a bike and proceeded to bike every day between September 2012 and July 2013.
I’ve since purchased a car (in August no less!) but I still try to bike whenever I can. Not only do I save money on gas (I only spent $35 in gas between October and November 2013) but it’s actually sort of nice to bike around when the snow is on the ground. Here are some of the best tips I’ve come up with to make your winter biking experience a little more pleasant.
Get the Right Bike
My first winter bike was a $99 hybrid mountain/town bike from a second hand store. It was PERFECT for riding in the winter. It was heavy, the tires were wide enough, and if I fell on a patch of ice, I never had to worry that I was ruining my bike. If you are just using a bike for commuting, I’d say get an inexpensive one, have some basic maintenance done on it to make sure everything works (a sticky chain and poor brakes are the most common failures when I ride), and ride it a few times to get used to its idiosyncrasies before you start riding it in snowstorms.
Get the Right Clothes
The tolerance that I have for winter biking is 100 percent based on how warm I am. That said, I’m not one to worry about looking fashionable when I’m on my bike. My winter biking outfit consists of regular things from my everyday wardrobe: fleece lined leggings or two pairs of medium weight leggings, Sorrel’s Kate the Great snowboots, a heavy yet breathable sweater, down vest, my long down coat, a fleece lined hat that fits under my helmet, and the heaviest gloves I have (not mittens; it’s hard to brake when your fingers aren’t free). And while you probably will get a little warm while biking, I’ve found that when I’m stopped at a stoplight or coasting down a hill, I’m glad for my extra layers.
Some people swear by all performance wear, and that’s fine. But if your goal is to just get around town once in a while for some exercise or to run a few errands without wasting gas, I’d say just wear whatever keeps you cozy and dry.
Purchase a Pair of Fenders
This was the best advice I was ever given. In the winter, I kick up all kinds of muck, from snow to sand and dirt, to ice. Before I got fenders on my bike, I arrived to work one day with a stripe of muddy water up my back. Fenders, specifically a back fender, will keep you dry and happy and less likely to get discouraged while biking in the winter.
Invest in Some Studded Tires
I actually haven’t ever purchased studded tires, but they are on my Christmas list this year. Studded tires are just like snow tires for your car. They make braking a little easier and grip onto the slushy snow to keep you from swerving. While not entirely necessary, if you’re new to winter biking, they might make your experience a bit more encouraging.
Get a Good Helmet
And don’t be afraid to replace it if you’ve banged it up a bit. I’ve gone through some helmets while biking in the winter. Not because I’ve totally trashed them, but having a good helmet on my head that doesn’t have any dings or scratches in it gives me peace of mind while I’m braking on a particularly nasty patch of ice.
Learn Some Basic Bike Maintenance
Or, make friends with the guys and gals at your local bike shop. Biking in the winter is really hard on your chain (it gets wet and is exposed to elements like salt that can corrode it), so make sure you’re wiping it off after every ride. Also, try to store your bike inside or under something covered if you can. Not only will you prevent the chain from freezing and being finicky, it’s no fun to jump on a cold/wet seat at 8am.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fall
Because you probably will, at least once. I was so nervous about falling that I tried never to ride on icy roads. And then, one day, I slid through an intersection on a busy road. I got up, brushed myself off, took a moment on the sidewalk, and then biked VERY slowly home. Because I was so bundled up and because there was a layer of snow on the road, I didn’t get too hurt, but it made me a lot more cautious while braking in falling snow. Plus, I got over my fear of falling and stopped worrying about it every time I biked in less-than-ideal weather.
Stay Light on The Brakes
Braking in the winter is the biggest hazard, even more than other cars. When approaching an intersection, start slowing down early. I always try to coast to a stop and then put my foot down when the bike is going slow enough to stay balanced. Almost all of the spills that I’ve taken are because I’ve hard-braked on ice and my tires skid. Just like driving, give yourself more time to get places when you’re biking to ensure that you can get there safely.
Consider the Distance
The farthest I’ll go on my bike in the winter is 3 miles. Beyond that, it’s just too much outside time when the temperature is below zero. The point of trying to bike in cold weather isn’t to just save money, it’s supposed to also be fun. If I’m not feeling strong, I either stay home or I drive. No point in pushing myself just to save a few dollars.
Lauren Caselli is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in wedding and entertainment writing living in Bozeman, Montana. When not doing wheelies in the snow, you can find her practicing or teaching yoga, defending the Oxford comma, or drinking English Breakfast Tea for dinner (the rebel!). Say hi on Twitter or Facebook!