Mike Segar/Reuters

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:

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.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Environment

    Britain's Next Megaproject: A Coast-to-Coast Forest

    The plan is for 50 million new trees to repopulate one of the least wooded parts of the country—and offer a natural escape from several cities in the north.

  2. The White House is seen reflected during a rainy day in Washington, D.C.
    POV

    The City That 'This Town' Forgot

    Washington, D.C., is home to a huge concentration of reporters. Why do they miss the stories happening in their own city?

  3. A small accessory dwelling unit—known as an ADU—is attached to an older single-family home in a Portland, Oregon, neighborhood.
    Design

    The Granny Flats Are Coming

    A new book argues that the U.S. is about to see more accessory dwelling units and guides homeowners on how to design and build them.

  4. Transportation

    To Measure the 'Uber Effect,' Cities Get Creative

    Ride-hailing companies are cagey on all-important trip data. So researchers are finding clever workarounds.

  5. Design

    Black Urban Design in a 'Changing America'

    "The city is the black man's land," reads one capsule in an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its curator explains why design is a critical part of the post-1968 urban and suburban landscape—and the museum itself.