Contrary to what many believe, cycling can be a year-round activity, provided the rider takes some seasonal precautions. The adverse conditions cyclists encounter in winter all can be described with four-letter words that, depending on their severity and the preparation a cyclist has or has not taken, could result in a cyclist uttering other, less socially acceptable, four-letter words. Here is a short guide on how to keep yourself comfortable and safe on a bike in winter.
DARK: We are coming up to the shortest day of the year - on December 21 we will have less than eight hours of daylight. That means most commutes will take place in the dark. Visibility is key: see where you are going and be seen by others.
During a conversation I had last week with Inspector Donnelly of Newtownards PSNI, he mentioned being contacted by a driver about this topic. The driver said, “As a regular road user on the Portaferry Road between Greyabbey and Newtownards the dangers of confronting motor vehicles with defective lighting becomes a daily occurrence/hazard during the autumn and winter months. Motorists appear to be unaware that they have only one working headlight or are using wholly inappropriate fog lights that blind oncoming motorists. These motorists choose to ignore their responsibilities in making sure their motor vehicles are road-worthy."
That is a good point well made. I would add defective rear lights, brake lights and the inappropriate use of rear fog lights to that list.
The driver goes on to point out, “On a road safety issue, why are so many cyclists wearing dark clothing instead of wearing fluorescent clothing that makes them visible to motorists on the Portaferry Road?”
I have wondered that myself and offer the following explanation:
1. Cyclists wear black bib tights because the roads in winter tend to be very mucky. Any colour other than black will not come out clean once washed. However, there is no reason why black bib tights should not include reflective zippers at the lower thigh or reflective applications on the thighs. Failing that, MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) could make themselves much more visible by adding a high vis garment to their cycling wardrobe during times of poor visibility. This does not have to be expensive: Halfords have a good range. One of their £4.50 vests can serve as a windbreaker. Buy it in a size smaller than you would normally wear and it will even be aero!
2. Many cyclists don’t realise that dark clothes make for good camouflage gear. The wearer will simply disappear against the background of a hedge. The solution to this is two-fold: wear some high-vis and make sure you ride with both your front and rear light switched on - even during daylight hours. I have been using an Exposure Strada light for the past 10 years. These lights are expensive but are extremely well-made and can be serviced by the manufacturer if they ever go wrong (mine hasn’t). Keep an eye on their outlet store. I can also recommend Lezyne lights. While their “repairability” is not as good as Exposure’s, theyr are cheaper and spare parts availability is excellent should you need anything (I'm speaking of personal experience). That often is not the case even with expensive products (I’m looking at you, Cycliq!). Consider supporting a local company, SeeSense from Newtownards. Their lights’ USP is that the rider has the option to provide anonymised data insights that cities and B2B clients such as bike-share operators and eco-conscious employers can utilise to enhance cycling safety and infrastructure. SeeSense has offered ANDCCG members a 20% discount on all full priced lights using the code ANDC20 at checkout. There is also a 30% discount available for indiegogo supporters of their AGILE bike light.
Install your front light with care to ensure that not only can you see the road surface in front of you but also that you do not blind oncoming traffic. Check that your rear light isn’t obscured by a saddlebag, your rack or your panniers.
COLD: Riding unprepared in the cold is thoroughly unpleasant: your extremities need to be protected. From the top down, consider adding a high-vis helmet cover. Put a skullcap on. Wear a buff around your neck. Layer up: base layer (merino is best), long-sleeve jersey, wind and/or waterproof cycling jacket, at least one pair of gloves (perhaps add a pair of oversized mitts in temperatures much below zero), fleece-lined bib tights, some warm socks (ski socks are cheaper than cycling socks and just as good at keeping your tootsies warm). When I’m out riding in temperatures below 0ºC I wear insulated cycling boots, if it’s really cold I add shoe covers. Top tip: take out the inner soles of your cycling shoes and put some duct tape over the screw holes, then replace the inner sole. This will keep cold air and water out.
DAMP: even on a dry day the cold can cause damp on the roads. If the temperature is around freezing that combination could lead to black ice. Black ice can be invisible and on two wheels will lead to a crash if you are trying to turn. If you encounter it, keep your handlebars straight! Tyre choice is critical in winter. Make sure you ride something with added puncture protection to counter all the grit being thrown down. Continental now makes winter tyres for bicycles with a compound that works much better in temperatures below 7ºC. Spiked tyres are great for black ice and on snow but they are very noisy. Horses for courses and all that… I have linked Conti tyres, but Schwalbe are also worth considering. Shop around!
RAIN: Riding in the cold while it’s raining can be a miserable experience. It can be made bearable by keeping your head dry (helmet cover - aero, or umbrella - not aero), your body/hands/feet warm and dry (water-proof jacket). Don’t forget that you will get wet from above and below: the falling rain and the spray that your tyres throw up can get you soaked in no time. Install some decent mudguards and make sure they are both wide and long enough to cover your tyres. Avoid riding through puddles as much as you can. Not only will you stay dryer, you will also reduce the likelyhood of crashing by hitting a pothole hidden by a puddle. Also stay well clear of white lines and drain covers: both are extremely slippery in the wet.
SNOW: Having commuted in London in snowy conditions, first by motorcycle and then by bicycle, I can report that it can be an enjoyable experience - but only if you have tyres that are up to the job. Slick tyres are useless (especially on a motorbike…), you will want knobblies. Keep your bike as upright as possible as you turn, ride with a low cadence, accelerate gently and you’ll be OK. Riding a bicycle on snow can feel a bit otherworldly because the normal road noise is swallowed up by the snow. Another plus point is that traffic is lighter and travelling slower.
Just keep an eye out for icy patches if not using spiked tyres.
Stay warm and be seen!