Last night in preparation for the arrival of the first snow of the season, salt trucks were out treating local roads. And today it felt like I got some of that salt in an open wound when I unexpectedly came across this street sign while out on today’s lunchtime bike ride in D.C. Freezing temperatures and less than ideal weather conditions here in D.C. are difficult enough to endure without being reminded of the sunny skies and mild climate in Key West, where today it’s 71 degrees, with zero percent chance of precipitation and a mild breeze coming in off the ocean.
Even in ideal conditions riding a bike year-round in D.C. has its challenges. But riding when it’s snowing, or there is still snow on the ground, can be particularly challenging. Mounds of snow deposited by snowplows clearing the streets can accumulate and create unexpected barriers. Snowdrifts can narrow streets and take away the extra room on the right where bikes routinely travel as they share the road with other vehicles. And melting snow or patches of ice can create unusually slick conditions on roads and bike trails. So here are a few tips to you help stay safe while riding in wintertime.
- If you’re fortunate enough to have options, make sure and choose the right bike. Don’t use that high-end road bike with the thin tires. Instead, go with wider tires, like on a fat bike. The wide rubber will help with traction and stability. If you don’t have a fat bike, ride an older bike. Sand, salt, and grit can clog up and destroy gears and other moving parts. And outfit your bike with fenders and bright lights, and maybe winter tires with carbide-studded tires for increased grip on snow and ice.
- Prepare your bike. Make sure whatever bike you’re using is clean and properly maintained. Keep your chain and gear cassette lubricated for best operation. And if you have a place, like a garage or shed, store it in a cold place. A room-temperature bike in new snow can cause ice to form more easily on brakes and gears.
- Prepare yourself. Protect your core by layering, which is the key to both staying warm and managing sweat in the cold. And keep your hands and feet protected too. Wear gloves or other handwear, and employ insulated footwear to keep your feet dry and warm. Frozen fingers and toes are common issues for the unprepared. Lastly, protect your head. Try to avoid jacket hoods, which can funnel cold air to you as you ride. Balaclavas or tight-fitting fleece or knitted skull caps work best. And consider a larger size helmet to fit over the added insulation.
- Stay aware of road conditions. And follow the path of the plow. If the roads are plowed, this is the best path. Sand, salt, sun, and snowplows eliminate ice and snow from pavement when it snows. Better yet, use marked bike lanes or paths when they’re available and clear. In many major cities, including D.C., bike trails are regularly plowed as well. But wherever you’re riding, stay away from the edges and look for the dry pavement.
- Ride defensively. Drivers are focusing more on their vehicle and the road than they are one you.
- Ride steady. Slow down and stay loose, especially in those slippery stretches. Brake only on the rear wheel to avoid spinouts on slick surfaces. And be more prepared than usual to take your feet off the pedals because it’s more likely for the bike to fishtail or tilt in wintery conditions.
- And lastly, don’t be a hero. Just because you chose to start a ride doesn’t mean you have to finish it. Switch to public transportation should your snowy ride start proving to be too much for you. Don’t be ashamed to abandon your bike ride and hop a ride to where you’re going. Many subway trains and public buses, including here in D.C. depending on the time, allow riders to bring their bikes with them. So ride near public transportation routes and be aware of your bail-out points along the way.
So if you are not fortunate enough to be 1,509 miles away from here in Key West, or in some other warm and ideal location, don’t let the winter weather stop you from riding. Consider the above suggestions, and then enjoy the ride.