I’ve a long experience in winter commuting and mountain biking. From my days growing up in the snow belt of Ontario with a meter by Christmas, and our ever-so-fun ice storms to the frozen north of Ontario (roughly the same latitude as Holland) and the weeks of -30 weather to my years of riding in the rain in Halmstad, just following the light beam ahead of me, dreaming of Spain.
Cycling in the winter is one of the few cures to the winter blues, one of the few ways to stay sane while the Covid-19 numbers shoot up higher each day. But without the right gear, cycling in the winter sucks.
Waterproofs – As is said by a Swede looking out a window, “There’s no such thing as bad weather…” A good set of properly waterproof jacket and rain pants are simply the most important thing for commuting. Something loose enough that you can layer, but not so loose that you get blown away in a heavy gale. Be careful here, as it’s easy to want Gore-tex and blow your entire budget at one shop. Gore-tex isn’t always the answer, it works best in the cold of the north. A cheaper coated nylon jacket and pants will do well enough and costs 1/4 the price.
Gloves – If your hands are wet and cold, nothing else really matters. On wet days it’s smart to have a spare pair of dry gloves in your bag, so you can change for the ride home. In my experience, there is no such thing as ‘waterproof’, just different levels of water resistant.
Footwear – For commuting, a good pair of hiking boots will do the job. Just make sure that your rain pants fit over the boot so that the boots don’t become a pool of water. For longer rides this is tougher, there is no perfect answer, but a layered winter cycling boot with an additional overshoe might be the right answer. Feet, like gloves, are most likely going to end up wet on a long winter ride. Your feet are sweaty, but one solution is a VBL or vapour barrier liner, which is a very fancy word for a plastic bag. If you wear a liner sock, a plastic bag and an outer sock you will at least have warm, wet feet for a day out. Pay careful attention to your feet on cold rides, frostbite can be serious.
Lights – Lots of lights. Light your bike like a god-damned Christmas tree. Powerful, randomly flashing lights front and rear are proven to help drivers see you. Remember that even the most remote gravel or mountain bike ride can meet with mushroom pickers or hunters. I’m a big believer in having a large set of lights for rides, as a wrong turn can end up with you riding in darkness, and a smaller, emergency set of lights in case the large lights fail. If the lights aren’t USB rechargeable I wouldn’t even bother.
Mudguards/fenders – They aren’t sexy, but neither is the ‘raccoon’s tail’ of mud and water splattering your pants. Mudguards that reach the road are even more important, they don’t splash and spray the people you are riding with. Wet pants you can change, but riding partners are a lot harder to replace.
Hat and neckwarmer – In the times of Covid you are probably tired being told to cover your face, well, one last time. Use a neckwarmer & under-helmet hat to keep you warm. These are two pieces of gear that pack small, are easily taken on and off, and are super important. A second, dry toque (winter hat) in a baggie in your back pocket can make the difference between life and death if you get a flat. Plan ahead.
Base-layer – It’s important to be well dressed with a breathable base-layer. However, the classic mistake is to be too warm. “Cold in the parking lot, warm on the trail” is what I always say. A top tip for long rides is to keep a second undershirt in a plastic bag somewhere on your person. If you hit a cafe or fikapaus on a cold day, you can change your shirt and keep dry for a while, and more important, warm.
Chain oil – I’ll avoid using the word, ‘lube’, as it sends the more immature into chuckles. Oil your damn bike after every ride. Give your bike a quick spray with the hose, grab and old rag, oil your chain briefly, and wipe it down with the rag. If you are commuting, it’s not realistic to wash your bike after every ride, but it is your duty to keep and eye on it.
Winter tires – Most people don’t give much thought to tires on a bike, but they make a huge difference. There are two types of winter tires, studded or plain. Studded tires are amazing on snow and ice, they’ll keep you upright and safe while others are painfully crashing around you. They are incredibly slow on regular roads, and tough to change. Another option is a softer rubber tire with winter grip, slower than your regular tires, but much quicker than the studs. For the rich? Have two sets of rims, one with your studs, one with regular winter tires!
Food – Your body burns something like 20% more calories in the winter, add to this the greater possibility to get a flat tire with all the extra crap on the roads and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t really matter what the snack is, but always carry something in your back pockets, touring or commuting!
Emergency Kit – You can carry this in your back pocket, your saddlebag or one of those handy bottle-tool-box dealies. You want to carry 2 spare inner tubes, a large multitool, some metal tire levers (rubber gets harder in the cold, plastic becomes brittle), micropump or C02 cannister & device, quicklink that matches your chainspeed.