How to bike in freezing Philly weather
How to stay comfortable on your bike all winter-long with these gear and safety tips from Philly bike experts.
Winter is in full swing, but bikers can persevere until snow hits the road. The key to riding through the winter comes down to the proper gear. Think of it this way: Invest in quality options to keep you warm and dry, and you won’t need to spend as much on SEPTA, or gas, for years to come.
After suiting up, winter cycling is all about adhering to a few basic safety principles. Get those lights flashing (front and rear) and put these tips to use to keep you cruising into spring.
The best apparel for cold-weather biking
Use layers with the right materials. “With the right apparel, you can ride in any temperature or any climate, and you can do it comfortably,” said Sean Burger, product specialist at Philadelphia Bikesmith and Main Line Cycles, and a city commuter. “Yes, it’s getting very cold, but there are other places that are colder and people ride year-round — there’s apparel designed for all temps.”
Burger says a good rule of thumb is to find breathable fabrics that wick moisture away from the body while being thick enough to strike a balance between warmth and mobility.
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“I use a lot of merino wool from brands like Smartwool and Ibex,” said Burger. “It transfers the moisture from your skin into the next layer of your clothing rather than soaking it up and leaving you wet and cold.”
Burger’s next choice is synthetic fabric used for a lot of athletic thermal gear by such companies as Under Armour, the North Face, and Patagonia. Like merino wool, the fabric is designed to wick away perspiration, unlike cotton, which readily absorbs it. (Cotton can absorb about 25 times its weight in water).
“Synthetic gear can often be very thin yet also super-warm,” notes Burger.
A wide range of athletic- and outdoor-oriented brands make apparel from both merino wool and synthetic fabrics. Whether it’s fleece, a long-sleeved shirt, or a vest, check the tag before buying.
Don’t underestimate the power of a good-quality jacket. Layering is essential, particularly for longer rides, but investing in a heavy-duty winter jacket will make life easier and more comfortable. Burger suggests one filled with down.
“If you’re going to hit the trail for a couple hours, you’ll want to layer up and get a lighter softshell jacket to throw on top, but for city commuting, an all-in-one winter down jacket is the way to go,” says Burger. “Down jackets are breathable yet warm, even if you get a little damp.”
In temperatures below freezing, Burger recommends something you’d wear on a ski trip. Look for a synthetic-insulated coat that has an inner thermal layer and a wind-resistant outer layer. If you start to get a little sweaty as you pedal, make sure to zip open and get some air five minutes before reaching your destination.
Leggings and cycling tights
Your legs could use an extra layer, too. One of the easiest layers to add to a wardrobe is a pair of leggings or winter cycling tights, both of which can fit comfortably under work clothes.
“Heattech from Uniqlo has been a game changer,” says Ashley Vogel, a regular commuter and former development associate at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “The leggings keep heat in when I’m outside but aren’t too hot or uncomfortable when I’m indoors.”
Uniqlo offers a variety of options for men and women in its Heattech collection, all made from soft material that’s easy to hang out in all day.
For classic synthetic cycling tights, look to athletic apparel brands like REI, Specialized, Pearl Izumi, and Nike.
Cycling hats, caps and balaclavas
Cycling caps and balaclavas will allow you to wear a hat and a helmet comfortably. If you’ve ever tried to strap a bike helmet on top of a thick winter hat, you know that uncomfortable smooshy feeling. It’s also not particularly safe. Fortunately, there are alternatives to keep you warm and protected, and bike experts across the board consistently recommend the balaclava as one of the best.
“Balaclavas are great — they cover your head and neck with this fleece-lined spandex that keeps you warm but is thin enough to fit under your helmet,” says Burger.
A balaclava works as part hat and part scarf, covering the head and face — leaving only the eyes and mouth exposed — as well as the neck.
As an alternative, Burger recommends merino wool cycling caps. Although they don’t double as a scarf the way balaclavas do, many have coverings to protect ears and a short brim to keep the sun out of your eyes.
“Like any other merino wool layer, they work as a thin thermal insulator that wicks moisture away from your body and keeps you dry,” says Burger.
Scarves and buffs
Instead of a scarf, consider merino wool from Buff. Wool headwear from Buff is a well-regarded substitute for a balaclava.
“It’s essentially a big merino wool tube that goes around your neck,” says Bicycle Therapy owner Lee Rogers. “On days where it’s extra-cold, you can pull it up right beneath your nose to cover your face, or you can just wear it as a scarf.”
Gloves and bar mitts
Heavy-duty gloves — regular or “lobster” — are a must. Gloves are mandatory for keeping your fingers from going numb, and there are a few factors to consider when choosing a pair.
“You want to look for something that’s rated for zero degrees or below,” says Burger. “If you can’t find the rating from the glove manufacturer anywhere, then you probably don’t want to buy those gloves.”
His favorite brand of five-fingered gloves is Sealskinz, but he and many other bike professionals also recommend a “lobster” glove.
“They put your last two or three fingers together into a mitten shape, and leave your remaining fingers separate,” says Burger. “This way, you can easily brake and shift, but your littlest finger gets some extra warmth.”
Prone to extra-cold fingers? Try Bar Mitts. People with perpetually cold hands should try Bar Mitts, available at select bike shops and online at places like Amazon for as little as $25.
“They look kind of like oven mitts that live on the bike and are positioned so that you can still use your brakes and shifters,” said Ryan Filson, former manager at Breakaway Bikes, a now-closed bike store in Philly. “Use them with a pair of gloves, and your hands are guaranteed to stay toasty.”
Just like hands, feet are not to be forgotten. Avoid frozen feet with merino wool socks.
“Socks are almost as important as your base layer, and, similarly, you want to choose a fabric that wicks moisture from the body and transfers it out of the fabric,” says Burger.
As with other layers, Burger’s top choice is merino wool, and his go-to brand for socks is DeFeet ($17.99 and up).
“They’re super-warm, but not too thick, so they’ll sit well in any shoe,” he says.
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Steer clear of winter tears with athletic glasses. Even if you have 20/20 vision, glasses could become your new best accessory.
“They keep the wind out of my eyes as well as some of the grit that can get kicked up in the road," says Amanda Woade of South Philly, who wears glasses during daytime and nighttime commutes.
Woade recommends glasses with yellow-tinted night driving lenses. “They keep glare down at night and keep things cheerier on cloudy days,” she says.
Winter bike maintenance
Swapping your tires
Though most experts agree studded winter tires aren’t necessary for basic bike commuting, many advise investing in a set of wider ones.
“Get the biggest tire that your bike can fit, and choose something that’s puncture-resistant,” says Filson. “This can help smooth out the potholes — the streets get pretty nasty during the winter — and maximize traction.”
Keep your tire pressure on the low end of the recommended range. “A lower pressure will give a larger contact area on the road, so when it’s a little slushy, you’ll get a better grip,” says Burger.
Less pressure creates a flatter tire that allows more of the rubber to make contact with the street.
To test that, refer to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure range (usually stamped on the sidewall of the tire), and fill your tires until the pump reading just reaches the lower end of the range.
Cleaning your bike
Give your bike a shower before salt and dirt become excessive. Winter roads are often dirtier than summer roads, so it’s important to clean your bike more often.
“You don’t want salt sitting on any part of the bike — it’s corrosive,” notes Filson.
Filson recommends using a bucket of soapy water to wipe down the frame and to gently clean the drive train (the chain, chain rings, rear cassette, and rear derailleur) with a rag whenever dirt becomes noticeable.
Lubricating your drive train.
A bottle of bike lubricant, available at any cycling shop, should be part of every cycler’s tool kit.
“To maximize the lifetime of your drive train and for a smoother ride, you want to keep everything well-lubricated,” says Rogers. “In the winter, the constant wet conditions cause the chain to get dry even quicker.”
Apply a few drops to the chain while spinning the pedals, using a clean, dry rag to wipe off any excess lubricant.
Fenders are your friend for keeping clothes clean. Wet streets are inevitable during winter, but they needn’t ruin your work outfit.
“Put fenders on your front and back tire,” urges Burger. “They work to protect you from becoming a wet, brown, soppy mess by preventing the water from flicking up onto your pants and your back.”
Use Dry-Slide to prevent your lock from jamming up
Dry-Slide, a dry lubricant available at most bike shops, can help prevent moments of panic caused by jammed bike locks.
“You just put a few drops into the area of the lock where you’d put your key,” says Filson. “You can also use a little bit of regular bike lube. It doesn’t dry up as well, and you’ll need to reapply it more often.”
Important winter safety reminders for cyclists
Always use your lights — day and night.
Never leave home without your lights.
“This applies year-round, but particularly in the winter, when daylight hours shorten. Your rear and front lights should always be blinking,” says Burger. “You should use them during the day, too, to increase your visibility.”
If it’s snowing and you don’t have to ride, don’t
Though cruising through cold temps is entirely doable, cycling through cold precipitation is not advised.
“It doesn’t matter what type of bike you have, it’s not safe to ride through snow,” says Rogers. “You can’t turn like you normally would and the tires skid, so it becomes dangerous.”
When snow is falling, give your bike a snow day and rely on public transportation if you’re able.
In snowy conditions, ride in the tire tracks of cars
If you do decide to set out on snowy streets, Burger says to steer clear of bike lanes and instead center yourself in the tracks that cars have left on the road.
“It’s the safest space for you to be when the roads aren’t clear,” he says. “Everywhere else, there will be snow and slush, and you’ll start fishtailing.”
If you hit black ice, never turn your front wheel
Even after the roads are cleared, a few ice patches often remain. They can be hard to spot and avoid, so keep the following rule in mind in the event your wheels hit ice.
“Never turn your front wheel. Hopefully, you have some room to keep going straight,” says Burger. “Potentially tripod your feet if you think you might fall.”
Use extra caution
Give yourself additional time for each commute and always err on the side of caution.
“The sun’s lower in the sky, and it’s typically dark when people are on their way to and from work. The road conditions deteriorate during the winter, too,” notes Filson. “All of that affects the way people are driving, so you need to be a little extra-aware.”
Ride at a pace you feel comfortable with, and don’t worry about what others on the road will think
Bike experts across the region say that when it comes to winter riding, you should pedal as slowly as you want. Not only will riding at a relaxed pace keep you from overheating, it will also give you time to be extra-observant of road conditions and other commuters.
“Don’t worry about the cars behind you — you have the same rights as all of the cars in the city, so you don’t need to feel rushed and you can, and should, ride in the middle of the lane when necessary,” says Burger.
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