Cold hands, warm engine.
Cold weather presents a number of unique challenges. However, a bracing temperature drop on its own doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hang it up for the year. While those in warmer climes undoubtedly don’t have to worry about these kinds of things, those of us in places that regularly get snow and ice have additional considerations we have to take into account if we want to keep riding.
In previous years, I’ve ridden on New Year’s Day in and around Chicago. I won’t do ice, but cold temps on their own aren’t a no-go for me. That’s an important discussion you need to have with yourself before you make any plans, though. What are you comfortable with? If you don’t like how your bike handles, or you have other reasons for not riding, then don’t. In most cases, no one’s making you, so tuck your bike in for the winter and wait it out until spring. Reasons not to ride in the winter include needing to prove something to anyone other than yourself. If you want to do it, do it—but don’t let anyone else pressure you.
That said, here are some of our best tips for road riding in the winter. Stay warm, stay dry, and keep that rubber on the ground!
Check your tires often
According to the MSF and other basic rider instruction courses, you should ideally be checking your tires every single time you ride. The simple fact is, not everyone does this. I’m not here to judge you about it, but I will say that if you don’t already check every time you ride, cold weather riding is an excellent reason to get in the habit.
A tire pressure check is an absolute must in cold weather. Why? Ambient temperature decreases make the PSI in your tires drop, too. Most bikes have front and rear PSI recommendations on a metal plate or sticker. Be aware that some might have different recommendations for when you’re riding solo vs. carting around a bunch of stuff or a pillion rider, and fill accordingly.
If you didn’t recently put new rubber on your bike, you should also take this opportunity to check the overall condition of your tires. Excessive tread wear, flat spots, or rubber cracking because the tires are ancient are all extra wrenches you don’t want thrown into your goal of a nice, uneventful winter ride. If you discover any of those things, do yourself a favor and put some new rubber on as soon as you can.
You might feel just fine stepping outside briefly in shorts and sandals when there’s snow on the ground. That’s a whole lot different than the feeling you’ll get riding in that same attire on any type of bike when it’s cold. (Side note: how does anyone shift in flip-flops? I’ve seen it in person, and all I can think is OW.)
If you make cold-weather riding a habit, you’ll discover over time and through trial and error what you prefer. Maybe you’re a runner, or a camper, or you utilize technical base layers for reasons other than riding. If that’s you, then you’re in luck—because you already know how toasty those pieces can make you. Good news: They’re great for riding, too. Also, they’re usually packable, so if it’s cold in the morning but warms up later in the day, they’re extremely easy to stash.
Consider investing in heated gear
Words can’t adequately express how much difference investing in heated gloves and a heated jacket liner made for me. At one time, I used to commute about 100 miles every day—and those items absolutely changed my cold-weather riding life. If your bike has enough wind protection, you may find that your lower half is perfectly comfy without the addition of heat. If not, that’s why heated pants and socks exist.
Some gear can be hooked up to your bike’s battery (though you’ll want to make sure your bike can handle it first), while other gear connects to battery packs you can wear to walk around off the bike. Do some research, talk to other riders, and try things if you can to see what you like. It’s not cheap, but good heated gear can last for years. I have some that’s more than 10 years old and it still works very well. I had to replace a heat controller once (cords got brittle due to years of temperature changes and sun exposure), but that’s it.
Be patient with your tires
Remember, if you’re cold, they’re cold. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to bring them inside (although if you want your bike to have a place at your kitchen table, we certainly won’t judge). What it does mean, however, is that they’re going to take time to warm up to optimal operating temperatures.
What does that mean for you? Take it easy and don’t be super aggressive, because even a great and sticky tire compound won’t save you if it’s too cold to work its magic. Chill out (no pun intended) and just revel in the fact that you’re out and most other riders aren’t.
Keep an eye on the weather even more than usual
There’s nothing like a surprise blizzard to ruin your riding plans. If you make it a habit to check the weather both the night before and also again right before you ride, you’ll stand a better chance of being prepared. Obviously, no one can be 100 percent prepared all the time, but getting it right 90 percent of the time bodes better for riding satisfaction than 50-50, right? Right.
Some days are going to present conditions you’d probably prefer not to ride in—like freezing rain. Weather forecasters are definitely not always right, but they can give you a reasonable expectation so you can plan accordingly.