In the Twin Cities, many people who bike embrace the winter months by continuing to ride. If you are already biking, or considering winter biking, here are some tips for dealing with the snow, cold temperatures, and motorists:
Travel slowly when snow and ice are present. Riding a bike on a street can be challenging, particularly when ice has formed, or snow has become lumpy and compacted by vehicles. Ride in bare patches of pavement or non-compacted snow when possible. Take turns and curves at a slower speed and allow longer distances for braking. Be sure to plan for extra travel time. And remember that cyclists have the right to ride in a general traffic lane, which may be necessary if bike lanes have not been cleared.
Ride defensively around motorists. People on bikes are less visible in the winter (with fewer cyclists riding and less daylight), and roads are narrower (when curb-to-curb plowing has not occurred). Always be prepared for motorists to make a mistake. Follow traffic laws and be as considerate as possible. Educate yourself and your friends (motorists and bicyclists alike!) on traffic laws and safety.
Take the off-street trails. Since the Twin Cities has so many miles of trails (84 miles and counting!), urbanites from across the country often suffer from “trail envy.” To top it all off, the Park Board and Public Works Department have policies of clearing snow from off-street trails soon after the end of a snowfall. In most cases, this occurs in less than 24 hours. If you have the choice, leave the grime and compacted snow of the streets behind and head for the trails!
Stay visible. Riding in the winter months means more darkness. Brighten your ride by using headlights, taillights, and reflective clothing and gear. Legally, cyclists are required to ride with a white, front headlight and rear, red reflector at night.
Use an old bike in good working condition. Salt and sand can wreak havoc on your treasured bicycle, resulting in rust and breakdowns. Use an older but functional bicycle in the winter months. Two elements of a well-functioning winter bike include effective brakes and a well-greased chain (wet lube is ideal for snowy conditions). Wider tires with good traction are also essential. Add a pair of fenders to your bicycle to keep street muck from landing on your clothing.
Dress in layers. Just like other winter sports, bicycling can heat up your body rapidly. Apply layers to your torso and legs and be prepared to strip them away as your body warms. A good rule of thumb is that you should feel chilly when you step outdoors – if you’re cozy before you start riding, you’ll likely be boiling when you stop.
Cover your extremities. All of us have experienced the extremes of a sweating torso and numb ears or toes. Don’t ignore your head, neck, hands, and feet when you bike. Comfortable stocking caps, scarves, socks, and gloves (which allow dexterity) should be considered. And goggles don’t just look cool; they’re great eye protection from the cold wind and road grit.
Use transit. When the going gets tough, give yourself a warm break by using the bus or train. All Metro Transit buses and trains are equipped with bicycle racks. Bike commuters are also eligible to sign up for Metro Transit’s Guaranteed Ride Home program, which provides free transit rides or cab fare reimbursement for emergencies (like a snow or ice storm).
Embrace winter. Our identity as Minnesotans is shaped by our weather. Snow and cold temperatures add variety and beauty to the Twin Cities and communities across the state. Riding a bicycle in the winter can be exhilarating and practical. It keeps you in good health, it’s good for the environment, it’s cheap, and at times, it’s even the fastest mode of travel. Enjoy the ride!