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Winter Riding

I started cycling when I was a student in New Mexico. Without a car, I used my mountain bike to get around town and to class on time.  It was at a local running race I met Virginia, who thought I would enjoy triathlons. She lent me a 56cm Schwin road bike. It was way too big (I ride a 52cm).  Nevertheless, it got me started. I loved riding in Las Cruces; lots of quiet roads around pecan orchards and chile fields. Not to mention the mild winters (no rain, no snow, no frosts, no cold temperatures to deal with….)  When I moved to Portland for work, I didn’t own a rain jacket, or even a long sleeve cycling jersey for that matter. I’d never heard of shoe covers or booties. Or even know you could set up a dedicated bike for riding in the rain.  Over a few years I got an education in how to ride in Portland through the winter months. It took a couple of seasons to figure it out. And even now, over 15 years later, every year I seem to learn something, discover a new product, or find ways to mentally deal with riding in the rain. 

Service your “Good” Bike Winter time I hang up my “good” bike and dust off my rain bike. Before putting my good bike away for its winter hibernation, I take some time work on it (or at least my favorite shop, Cyclepath, does!) so it will be ready to go when that nice spring weather hits us.  I know this seems a long time away; but when spring rolls around you’ll be thankful you have a bike ready to go. Here is a list of things to do:

Check brake pads and replace if they are worn. New Chain (it’s a good idea to replace the chain at least once a year.  Over time it stretches, and it will wear the cogs out so that it won’t shift as well). And it is cheaper to replace a chain than worn out cassettes or cranks.  Believe me….Wash bike and check frame for cracks, especially around the welds.  Cracks in paint can be actual cracks in the frame, have your shop check out any suspect areas. Check wheels for loose spokes and for cracks around the spokes as they enter the rim, and also check the breaking surface.  If the braking surface is wearing down and is concave, think about getting another wheel. Have the headset and bottom bracket checked, they may need an overhaul. Replace cables and cable housing.

Winter Riding There’s no doubt about it, equipping yourself and your bike to ride in the dark, cold, and rain can make your winter riding days more enjoyable and safer. 

STAY WARM & DRY – you use up a lot of energy trying to stay warm. Here are some tips to help.

Base layers: I like wool (Icebreaker), Arm warmers and Leg warmers, Vest, Socks (I like wool or Showers Pass waterproof Crosspoint Socks) Rain Jacket, Thermal windproof Jacket. Some of these items are expensive, but they last. Consider it an investment. (I’ve had my EtxeOndo Jacket for going on 7 years and it still works well).

Booties and Gloves (On long, wet rides consider carrying a second pair of gloves to change into). Helmet cover or tape up the vents.Head band to keep your ears warm or a skull cap or full balaclava. If it isn’t that cold, I wear a Cap under my helmet to keep rain/spray out of eyes.

Clear lens or orange lens glasses.

For those that really struggle with the cold, consider using an embrocation; a warming lotion.

BE SEEN – Always assume that you are invisible. This helps me ride more defensively.

Bright clothing is great during the day. However, a bright yellow jacket at night looks grey.Reflective clothing is better at night. Look for jackets with plenty of reflective detail (make sure you don’t cover up that reflective detail with a camelbak or messenger bag. Another option is a reflective vest. You can buy reflective ribbon from sewing shops. This can be added to booties, back packs, etc.  Studies have shown that moving parts stand out and catch driver’s attention. I’ve added reflective tape to sides and backs of booties/shoe covers.

Add reflective tape or plastic strips to bike frame and fenders. Plastic strips can be found at most bike shops.

Tail lights and headlights. These are not just for evening commuters. During the day, on very overcast gray days or foggy /misty days, tail lights help others see you easier. I like the Light and Motion brand. They are bright, light in weight, and rechargeable. Made in USA too.

Safety in numbers; Ride with a partner. It can be easier for cars to see two bikes rather than just one.

Choose your route wisely. Opt for low traffic streets, wide streets, well lit streets, roads with bike lanes, or bike paths. Living in Portland there are a few good resources available for maps. One of my favorite maps uses a color coded system to show you which roads are low traffic, have a bike lane, etc. And here is another great map for Washington County.


Fenders are a must. They keep down spray from the road. If the road is wet, and you don’t have fender, you will get wet and cold in a heart beat. If you ride with a group install a courtesy flap too (a courtesy flap is an extension on the rear fender to further eliminate spray off the back wheel.  This prevents the person riding directly behind you from getting soaked from your rear wheel spray. It can be as simple as a flap made of duct tape or a bolted on piece of plastic. Rainy day make some great reflective mud flaps.Most group rides will not let you participate on wet days unless you have full fenders. 

Check your tires for wear. Don’t wait until you have a series of flats to replace them. For winter riding I like wider tires (25-30 mm) and ones with “built-in” liners are much less susceptible to flats.  The Specialized Armadillos are a great winter tire, as are the Vittoria Randonneur. Always carry 2 spare inner tubes, tire levers, a pump (or co2 cartridges), a patch kit, and an Allen wrench tool.  I have a saddle bag big enough to carry all this stuff.  I have an equipped saddle bag for each bike so I don’t have to keep switching.   Despite low temperatures you still need to eat and drink.  It can take a lot of energy to keep warm (up to 10% of your energy output while riding on a cold day can go towards just keeping warm). Make sure you have enough supplies to see you through your ride.Warm-up slowly. Carry a cell phone, cash (just in case money) and route maps.Tell a friend or family member where you are riding.

BE SMART: Your own Comfort Level

Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to riding in inclement weather. If you and your bike are adequately equipped, the question comes down to whether you feel the conditions are safe. Some useful guidelines are as follows:

Avoid riding early morning when it is typically colder (let the frost/ice patches melt). Avoid riding late afternoon as the light is fading. Black Ice is a thin layer ice covering the road. It looks like a wet pavement. Avoid it if you can. If you must ride over black ice, do the following:

-Slow down before you get to the ice. -Ride straight and coast across it. Keep smooth and relaxed. Avoid turning, braking, or accelerating. -Look for ice in shaped areas, bridges etc. If you do have to brake, look for dry areas and use your rear brake only. -If I doubt, dismount and walk.

If you are struggling with riding outside here are a couple of things you can do:  

Switch your schedule around. If you are fortunate enough to have a flexible schedule that allows you to be selective when you ride, watch the weather reports for the better days. Find riding partners. With a commitment it is a whole lot easier to deal with the weather.  Misery loves company, right? Split the difference. Ride inside on rollers or a stationary trainer for 1 hr and then outside for 1-1:30 hrs to give a decent ride time.

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