Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Want to keep cycling when it’s icy? Here are some practical tips.
Even for many dedicated bike commuters, cycling in the worst parts of winter can be a step too far. For those of us who approach any physical activity with mixed emotions, the sight of snow on the ground is a perfect excuse to find any other way to get around. But still, in cities where cycling is common, bike lanes stay busy even when the snow is piling up.
Witness, for example, this image of commuters pedaling their way across a bridge in Copenhagen:
Today it was windy and -10 in Copenhagen, NOT nice weather for riding bicycle. However when you build SAFE bikeways, #AllAgesAbilities, people of all ages and abilities do ride bicycles to school & work. Thanks @Copenhagenize for image. pic.twitter.com/YELKCRJPxw— G_Penalosa (@Penalosa_G) January 5, 2018
This isn’t just a Copenhagen quirk. While Amsterdam’s relatively temperate winters often only experience short bursts of snow and ice, cycling in freezing temperatures is common across Scandinavia, even in cities close to the arctic circle. If they can do it, surely there are ways you can prepare to bike through the next cold spat, right? To find some practical tips for safe winter cycling, CityLab turned to Anna Luten, the Global Development Director for the Bicycle Mayor Program. Here’s what she recommends:
Lower your saddle
Simply lowering your center of gravity is likely to make your bike far less wobbly, a small change that can make it far easier to manage icy patches. A lower saddle also makes it easier to manage any risk of skidding, says Luten, because you can use your feet to keep your bike balanced. “If your feet can sit flat on the ground, you’ll be far more stable and less likely to slip.”
Let some air out of your tires
An ever-so-slightly saggier tire will give you more grip on a slippery road surface, Luten says. Some Scandinavians go for special winter tires, with die-hards using spiked versions that can look a bit Ben Hur at first glance. That may well be a step too far for most, who are probably fine with a standard fat tire. Icy weather may indeed be a signal to leave your skinny-tired racer at home, however.
Watch the snow
A dusting of fresh snow can prettify a grimy curb—and that can actually be a problem for a cyclist. Simply put, you have no idea what lies beneath, be it rubble, grates, or garbage. Accordingly, it’s best to cycle a little bit further from the curb and avoid any snow banks. Bear in mind that any road surface that glitters will likely be slippery even if it appears dry.
Get out your ski gloves
While everyone bundles up when temperatures drop, the combined warmth and flexibility of a good ski glove makes an especially big difference on a bike, where a chill wind can quickly rub your knuckles raw. There is indeed a whole wardrobe of winter gear specially tailored to cyclists, but people who don’t want to change clothes when they arrive at their destination might still consider bumping up their cold resilience by wearing a mask that covers their head and mouth—or maybe just a scarf worn ninja-style across the face. Oh, and wear a thermal layer. You won’t regret it.
Keep your bike clean
It’s only when you find yourself cycling through grit-laden slush—that can easily spray the seat of your pants—that you fully realize how worthwhile it is to get a bike with proper mudguards on its wheels. But while road grit is great for helping tires get a grip, it can be corrosive. It’s not a bad idea after cycling on snowy roads to wash your bike down with warm water at the end of the day, just to make sure all that salt doesn’t risk rusting your bike up.
Bearing all this in mind might tempt you to give cold-snap cycling a miss—but getting around in icy weather is a little more complicated no matter how you do it. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that driving or walking will stop you from skidding around. If done carefully, winter cycling really can be pleasant, even practical.
“Winter days can be so beautiful to cycle on,” says Luten. “When you’re out on the road you’re often the only person around. It’s also surprisingly reliable. In cold winter there are often delays on public transit. On a bike you may ride slower than normal, but at least you have clearer idea of how long it will take you to get from A to B.”