Tips for Winter Riding

Through Rain and Sleet and Snow (ok, maybe not snow)....
Tips for Winter Riding

Don't despair as you brave Winter's twin armies of darkness and damp. Heed this adviceĐand godspeed to you all!

TIRES Wider tires are less likely to slip on a bit of gravel. The comparative benefits of different tread patterns is debatable, but you shouldn't ride on slicks because the water needs channels to sluice off the tire. Get puncture-resistant tires, or use a liner. It's easier to get a flat when it's raining because there's more debris on the road. Also, puddles conceal shards of glass, and water lubricates all sharp objects, enabling them to puncture tires more easily.

FENDERS Permanently installed, full-coverage fenders catch significantly more water and grit than clip-ons. The simplest minimal solution is a rear fender that attaches to the seat post with quick-release, which unfortunately renders it easier to steal as well as more convenient to use.

RIMS If you want to get a beater "winter bike" make sure the rims are aluminum, which has greater friction against brake pads than the steel used in many older bikes' wheels.

CHAIN And for heaven's sake, dry off your chain when you come back inside.

CLOTHES THAT BREATHE As for your clothing, if it's water resistant, it might not handle hard, wind-driven rain. Waterproof means that the fabric will withstand heavy water pressure and the seams are taped. Water-repellent just means that water beads on the surface.

Riding at commute speed, you generate about 100 watts of propulsive power, and 400 watts of heat. This totals about four times your resting heat output, and close to half the heat put out by some electric space heaters. All that heat demands breathable rain gear, else your sweating body gets wet instead of cooling off. Fabrics like Gore-Tex breathe some, but not enough, which is why better rain gear has vents and zippers. Thumb loops keep jacket sleeves down. Garbage bags don't breathe, but will do the trick over the upper body for short hops, and they look punky-cool. Waxed cotton offers more old-fashioned elegance, and you keep it waterproof by rubbing on more wax, shoe polish-style.

YOUR HEAD For your head, don a helmet liner or cover, duct-tape over the vents, and sacrifice air circulation. Or wear your helmet unadorned and let some water trickle in to refresh your scalp. On long rides, there's no escape from getting wet somehow. Just remember that we terrestrial life forms originally came from the sea anyway.

LIGHT YOUR WAY And what of darkness? We naturally fear being hit from behind, but accident stats show that this is unlikely. Far more collisions occur when a car turns in front of a bikeĐwhich means that bikes need headlights more than they need taillights. As for reflectors and reflective clothing, they only show when you're directly in the beams, so they won't prevent as many accidents as lights and bright colors such as yellow or light green (but not red, which the eye doesn't easily see in the dark).

Bluish-white LEDs arrived on the scene a few years ago, but the original red LED color is still the brightest. This makes small, battery-powered LED "blinkies" great as taillights, but marginal as headlights. A better choice is a halogen system. For city riding, it's more important to point it up, where it shines in drivers' eyes, so they see you, rather than down onto the road, which is already illuminated by streetlights and house lights. Look for something that puts out at least ten watts.

As for rechargeable batteries, lead-acids are the cheapest, NiCads (nickel cadmium) hold more charge but have "memory" problems when partially charged, and NiMH's (nickel metal-hydride) are the best all-around but also the most expensive. One of these years hydrogen fuel cells will beat them all, but until then you can find a full discussion of comparative battery chemistry and bike lighting systems on William Burrow's bikecurrent FAQ, archived online at

By Paul Spinrad,
with technical advice from Joel Fajans, associate professor of physics at UC Berkeley