Winter cycling gear 2: Keep pedaling through the winter with these items

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Sylvia Hook

Last week we talked about what to put on your body when you ride during the winter months. Now let's talk about what to put on your ride!

winter cycling gear Offbeat HomeConcerned about biking during the harsh winter months? A great way to get recommendations on gear is to talk to the folks at your Local Bike Shop (LBS), ask whether they have experience commuting through the winter, and if so, what sorts of things they like. If you're already commuting in wet weather, you probably have some of this figured out.

Here are the pieces of gear my husband and I use to do our winter riding…

Winter bike
My bike, coming home from grocery shopping on a lightly snowy day.

A bike

Since salt tends to rust things more quickly, it's usually best to ride a "beater" in winter. If you have a cheap bike kicking around, you can probably make it work. If you're in the market for a bike to ride in the winter, however, here are a few things to consider:

  • Fewer parts to go wrong. My winter bike (similar to this, but with fewer gears) has a 3-speed internally-geared hub; my husband has a single-speed. By having fewer parts out in the elements, we're reducing the number of things that are likely to break.
  • Space for winter tires and fenders (more about those later)
  • A way to attach a pannier rack (more about that later, too)
  • If you have a large budget, you can buy disc or drum brakes and a dynamo hub, but those are a little more spendy, and certainly not necessities

Tires (or tyres, if you're British)

If you're going to bike in the snow and ice, a good pair of tires is pretty much essential. They're not cheap (unless you compare them to car-ownership), but they're what keep you from wiping out if you hit a nasty patch. The old standard for winter biking is studded tires, which have little metal studs to grip better on ice, so you don't fall over. Unfortunately, they're also super-heavy and slow you down on cleared roads.

Continental has started making a winter tire that the guys at my LBS love — it isn't studded, but they swear it grips just as well as studs do, and it's much faster on dry roads. Price-wise, they're about the same as studded tires — about $80 per tire. My husband and I will be trying those out this winter; we'll see how it goes.

Fenders

Fenders serve two purposes: they keep road gunk from hitting you, and they also protect the drive-train of your bike. If you'll be riding through salt-slush, having a good long pair of fenders can make things last longer. For even more protection you can DIY mud flaps for the ends of your fenders (or, if you're DIY-challenged, you can buy some)

Lights

Front details
Front light and fender.
Unless you're only going to be biking during daylight hours, you'll need lights. It gets dark early in winter, so if you're commuting by bike, odds are you're riding home in the dark. If you'll only be taking well-lit city streets, you can get away with fairly cheap lights that let others see you, but don't do much to light up your surroundings. If, however, you're taking any unlit or poorly-lit paths, or country roads, or riding anywhere that doesn't have enough street lights, then you'll probably want to spend the extra on a front light you can see by.

We've been reasonably happy with our Planet Bike Blaze 2 Watts, but for our winter bikes, we're upgrading to Busch & Müller Ixon IQs, which also have the ability to charge off of dynamo hubs, so we can later upgrade them if we want. Keep in mind that battery-life is reduced by the cold, so if you buy a battery-powered light, you should expect to recharge the batteries sooner than you would in summer.

Rear details
Tail light, fender, pannier rack, and panniers.

Pannier rack and panniers

While not strictly necessary, since it is possible to bike with a knapsack, if you're planning to carry anything with you by bike (e.g. laptop, books/papers, groceries, extra clothes), a pannier rack and panniers will make it much more pleasant. They also make transporting heavy things safer, since they keep the centre of gravity much lower than a knapsack would. Depending on your riding stance, the straps on a knapsack may also cut off the circulation in your arms, which is less than ideal. Most LBSs carry a selection of racks, and many have a variety of panniers as well. Panniers run the range from relatively cheap without many features up to super-nice expensive ones with figurative bells and whistles.

My husband has a pair of Axioms (now discontinued), I love my Arkel Bug (which converts to a knapsack, and has an optional laptop sleeve and rain cover), and we're also borrowing some other Arkel panniers from my family. Arkels are expensive, but super-well-built, so they'll last and last. My parents also had some panniers from Cannondale which they used for their honeymoon, and until the panniers died 15 or 20 years later.

Pogies

Completely optional, and verging on clothing, pogies are wind and water-resistant pouch-things that attach to your handlebars, and help protect your hands from the climate. They add an extra layer of warmth, and take some burden off your gloves to keep your hands warm and dry. Depending on what your winters are like, they may be overkill, or they may be a near necessity. You could always get some part-way through the winter if your hands are freezing.

Expensive extras: If you want to go all-out

  • Dynamo hubs powers your lights as you ride.
  • Disc brakes put the braking-surface at the centre of the wheel, instead of the edge. In theory, this reduces potential for ice-buildup on the braking-surface, so you can stop better in nasty conditions. In practice, I've never had trouble with my rim brakes.
  • Drum brakes have a braking-surface on the inside of the hub — the same reasoning as disc brakes, and easier to convert a bike that was intended to have rim brakes.
  • For super-crazy conditions (think off-roading in multiple feet of snow), some people like "fat-bikes," which have super-wide tires (4–5") — but those are in no way necessary for commuting, and also cost thousands of dollars. (A girl can dream, though, k?)

Okay, I've had my say — now it's your turn. What's your favourite gear for winter riding?

  1. Preliminary report on the tires: we haven't had deep snow or significant ice yet, but on light snow and the slipperiest patches I could find, they've performed beautifully. On dry roads, they're a huge improvement over studded tires — they're faster, and so much quieter!

  2. I can attest that the Bar Mitts work amazingly well – I commuted to work all last winter on my bike (in Chicago) and they were lifesavers!

  3. I live in northern Germany and ride my bike to work, rain or shine. Over here, dynamo lights are mandatory and fenders and panniers pretty much standard. Well worth having! Just yesterday I transported my little Christmas tree home on the rack! (Though I did have to push the bike)
    I am looking to get a new bike soon because my old one was destroyed in an accident (cars suck), and I will probably spring for one with disc or drum brakes. Being lazy and a daily biker, my bike lives outside year-round. Last winter we had a long cold spell and I was forced to ditch the bike when my brakes kept freezing! The old bike also only had hand brakes – I think I'll go for one with a pedal brake because they seem less susceptible. And that also frees up my right hand to hold the dog's leash when she comes with me 🙂

  4. This post is amazing since I'll be immigrating to Canada next year and I love biking. My current area isn't prone to snow and I've been wondering how the hell people cycle in snowy conditions. We used to joke about bike snow tires with my husband. And bam, here they are. This really is a thing in some places of the world. I can't wait to bike on snow with snow tires 🙂

  5. I biked into the office on slicks yesterday (after 3+ inches of snow). Took it over to the shop during my lunch break and got the Continentals. I can say after a direct compare-contrast that they're definitely worth it! Much better on corners, and I could really feel the wheels sticking to the pavement. Things froze over quite a bit last night and they did well on the ice this morning too.

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