The Agony and the Ecstasy of Winter Biking

Jan 26, 2016

Three winters ago, I became a year-round, all-weather bike commuter: no more taking the bus when it rained, snowed, or polar vortexed. I would wake up, layer up, and roll my bike out the door.

I received lobster claw gloves and knee warmers for Christmas, then bought a cheap balaclava online. With long underwear over knee warmers and cycling shorts, thick socks, and boots, I was ready and away I would go!

None of this has been perfect:

Sometimes, I would take a trail which turned into icy, snowy single track. Sometimes, paved trails would be icy and the bike lanes would be filled with snow from the plowed roads, forcing me to take the lane.

Emma's eyes and nose are the only visible parts of her face. The rest is covered by a helmet and balaclava. Glasses have water droplets.
January 2015, in a parking garage after my snowy ride.
Emma Wimmer

And I remember many frozen toes and fingers, wind biting my face, even through the facemask, and glasses fogging up. Or overdressing in too many layers, sweating once I’d warmed up ten minutes into the ride, and arriving to work a soggy, shivering mess.

Then there was the time when I forgot how to brake on an icy hill. Using both brakes made my front wheel skid. I pitched backwards, hit my head, and busted my glasses in the process. I survived my little jaunt, but had to buy a new helmet.

One nasty morning on the east coast, they didn’t even send out the snowplows. And they didn’t cancel school or other activities. We were expected to go to work! 

Outside we ventured. Many bike commuters decided against riding, thinking the bus would be a safer option. Or, they drove. I rode.

On a hilly part of my commute, the buses couldn’t make it up the hills and slid backward on a 3% grade. I passed a dump truck sliding backwards on another hill. Then I braked wrong again, (it’s hard to not grab that front brake when your nervous) and fell into fluffy snow right by an elementary school. My bike ride was so slow, I showed up an hour late, safe and happy.

A bicycle locked up with a small layer of snow.
First snow in Missoula, November 2015
Emma Wimmer

Now that I’m in Montana, I’ve accumulated even more winter bike gear, including bar mitts and studded tires that I didn’t put on right away. “I’ll put them on after the first snow,” I thought to myself.

It snowed. And on a fateful Wednesday on my way home from the grocery store, studded tires at home, loaded down with beer, cuties (the citrus), and a few other groceries, I slipped on a big patch of ice going through a roundabout.

I fell to the left while my bike went to the right, and landed in a belly flop, knocking the wind out of my chest. The car behind me stopped, luckily. I stood up, picked up my bike, and went to the sidewalk trying to breathe deep. I cautiously rode the sidewalk up to the main street and took a trail the rest of the way home.

photo of a bicycle focused on the bar mitts
Geared up for winter! You can’t see it, but there’s snow on the ground, beyond our sheltered bike parking.
Emma Wimmer

That weekend, I spent a couple hours switching out my winter tires for the studded tires I’d had for a while, but never used! It took long enough (tight tire beads — gah!), but later that day, I went on a nice, two and a half mile cruise around the neighborhood, testing them out, seeing what they did and didn’t do.

Of course, now it’s not going to snow anymore, sorry Montana skiers, but I’m ready, if it does, and proud to be a year-round, all-weather bike commuter.


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Dee johnson February 4, 2016, 10:07 AM

Bravo! I have been bike commuting all year round for three years. I live at 6000 feet and use studs. I've biked in -18F and stayed warm, horrendous summer headwinds and lived, beautiful full moon mornings and flourished. Nothing beats the 6 mile morning commute and return in the evening.

Brad January 27, 2016, 4:54 PM

I, too, am a year round commuter. I've been riding for 7 years and have adopted a lot of changes to make my ride more comfortable. The best I've found is to ride fixed gear (with front and rear brakes) however I seldom use the brakes on ice or snow. I find that I can totally control my speed and stops with the fixed gear configuration. This eliminates skids and slipping. I can ride downhill on ice and never have to touch my brakes. I switched to fixed gear and will never go back, at least in winter.

HappyBilly January 27, 2016, 2:58 AM

16 years without a car, riding 365, days missed none, now 1 fatbike for fun with my hybrid on studded tires for city use, in Montréal, welcome to the newbies

Fergie Meek January 27, 2016, 6:21 AM

I bought a fatbike last Fall after a few terrible winters here in northern Indiana and I have been commuting all winter so far - and loving it! Fatbikes really are lifesavers in the winter, I have been posting photos on my blog.

Jeff January 26, 2016, 2:18 PM

I'm doing my first winter commuting and bought a pair of studded tires. They work extremely well going over long as I'm not turning. Found that out the hard way the other day. Fortunately I wasn't turning very fast and caught the fall with my foot. Issues I've had with extreme cold (single digits and below) include freehub freezing, moisture freezing inside my ski goggles, and oddly enough overheating because I have to wear my ski jacket. I typically wear two thin layers and a Gortex windbreaker when it's 10 and above.

Dana January 26, 2016, 12:08 PM

Here in British Columbia cars are required to have winter tread by start of October and off by end of March. It's mostly because of the mountain passes that stretch across this province. I decided to observe the same rule for my bike despite being at much lower elevation. They are technically winter tires and even on cold pavement they are an improvement over all season/summer bike tire tread.

I've been riding 2 winters in Nelson, BC after giving up personal vehicle ownership and it can be treacherous. The studded tires have been a great investment. This year I also added BarMitts to my arsenal.

I also prefer the bike over the bus.

Happy riding.

Scott Hood January 26, 2016, 10:56 AM

Hi Emma. Always great to hear about another winter warrior. I commute into DC on a daily basis. Unfortunately my winter bike was stolen so I make do on my road bike. Makes for some interesting rides, but I can proudly say I only missed 3 days last year. Keep on rolling!

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