Winter in Boulder typically offers weeks of blue skies and dry pavement, but some days there will be snow and a lot of cold. Riding a bike in winter conditions can add fun, a little suffering (let's be honest), and adventure to your life. Here are some tips to make the most of your winter experience.
Ride the Paths
After it snows, Boulder includes all multi-use paths in it’s “primary” snow clearing response. The city’s Parks and Rec department gets an early start on the Boulder Creek path and CU clears all the campus paths. Multi-use paths will be clear long before the majority of streets, so try taking the paths as much as possible. Most streets with bike lanes will eventually be plowed, but be on the lookout for clumps of snow in the bike lane and be ready to come to a stop and dismount your bike if you have to.
If the surface is bumpy and/or slick, stay loose, keep a straight line, and try not to brake. If you know an icy area is coming up, brake before you get to it and coast over it without braking. If you need to brake on a slick surface, only brake with your rear brake (usually on the right handlebar). If your rear wheel slips, you can still recover, if the front wheel slides out, it’s all over. If they are in your budget, carbide studded tires can make riding on ice safer.
If you are going to ride through serious snow, put your bike in a lower (easier) gear so you don’t get bogged down when the pedaling gets hard. If you typically ride with max air pressure, let a little air out as softer tires are more likely to grip on a soft surface. When approaching rough patches of snow, keep your arms slightly bent and relaxed so you are ready to soak up the bumps.
We have less light in the winter, so be sure to have charged front and rear bike lights. Have reflectors on your bike so that drivers can see you, in the event your lights run out of battery. Colorado law requires a front light and red, rear reflector. Most bikes come with a red, rear reflector on the seatpost, but that often breaks off eventually. Many bikes also have reflectors built into the pedals. If leaving your bike parked somewhere, take at least your front light (the most important light) with you as they are often stolen.
Layer up and consider wearing a windproof, or better yet windproof/waterproof shell over your insulated jacket. A light hat or headband, even a buff under your helmet that covers your ears goes a long way in helping you stay comfortable. On a bike, your fingers and hands face the wind, so don’t forget your warm gloves or mittens. You can make or purchase bar mitts (also called pogies) that attach to your handlebars to give your hands extra protection. Snow or rain pants can help keep you warm, and consider full zip over pants (popular in nordic skiing and in rain gear) that you can easily remove when going inside. Long underwear can work, but your legs may get hot when you are inside and they take more work to remove.
If you wear snow boots, make sure they have good traction so your feet don’t slip off the pedals and cause a serious injury. Platform pedals with an aggressive tread will help keep your feet secure. Smooth platform pedals, on the other hand, are dangerous when conditions are snowy and wet. If you ride clipped in, there are many shoe covers on the market that can make wearing dedicated cycling shoes tolerable in the cold. It’s generally harder to stay warm when clipped in with metal cleats that conduct heat from your foot.
Keep Your Bus Pass Handy
Say you have a mechanical issue and still have a distance to your destination. For this reason it’s good to have a back up plan. You can lock your bike and walk, or find a ride. It’s also easy to put your bike on bus. While, you can figure it out the first time in the moment, you may feel more comfortable after watching someone do it. Keep in mind that the bike racks on buses do have easy-to-read instructions printed on them. Something to note: Always put the bike rack in the upright position after removing your bike (if there is not another bike still on the rack). More importantly, for your safety, ALWAYS tell the bus driver you will be taking your bike off the rack as you exit the bus. Don’t be shy, the driver expects you to do so.
These days google maps presents an easy way to catch the next bus. Just make sure you find the stop on the side of the street that your bus will be traveling.
Maintain Your Bike
The best thing you can do in the winter for your bike is to keep it inside. A bike that dries out slowly outdoors will have a lot of corrosion by the time spring rolls around, especially on the chain and the shift/brake cables. If your bike is snowy, brush off as much snow as possible before bringing it in, then make sure you have mats or something else to collect water under it. On those rare days in Boulder when it’s single digit cold and snowy, it’s actually best to leave your bike outside (locked) for a bit before riding. A cold bike will have less snow sticking and then freezing to it. When your bike chain begins to get noisy, lubricate it with a quality bike lubricant. A "wet" lube will last the longest in wintry conditions.
Have Fun and Be Safe!
Riding in winter conditions can be a blast. The extra challenge presented can make a ride that much more fun. If you don’t typically wear a helmet, well… maybe rethink that for these conditions. Focus, don’t let your guard down, and consider it will take you longer to stop. Avoid riding along heavy traffic when possible. Enjoy the snow, fresh air, and the challenge of navigating the less than "ideal" riding conditions.