Guest Blog – Biking in the ‘Burgh, even in the winter

This article was originally published in the December ’14 issue of The Union Hall Times.  It is republished here with the warm permission of its author:

Biking in the ‘Burgh, even in the winter

By Sara Cole

magwagon - snowbikpic

Photo By Flickr User: Magwagon

“You’re insane.” “I couldn’t do that.” Or, more straight-forwardly, “Aren’t you cold?”

This is what people say when they find out I’m still commuting seven miles by bicycle each morning during the harsh Pittsburgh winter.

While I do feel a bit chilled sometimes, I’m not insane — at least not by any clinical standards — and winter cycling is within the realm of possibility for others who already commute when it’s warmer. That said, I wouldn’t encourage newer cyclists to start commuting for the first time during the winter months. Those who already have a certain level of confidence commuting in more agreeable weather would be surprised at how pleasant winter cycling can be. The keys to successful winter riding are dressing properly, increasing your visibility, and taking extra precautions.

Attire and gear: Dress in layers. You’re going to be colder at the beginning and will likely want the option of shedding some bulk if you start to overheat during your ride. Pittsburgh winter temperatures often fluctuate pretty wildly between morning, afternoon, and evening, so layers will help negotiate the temperature differential between your ride to work and your commute home.

A pair of well-insulated, yet easy-to-grip gloves is one of the most important items. Your ride magnifies the windchill, and you’ll want gloves that make it comfortable for your hands to remain on the handlebars to navigate steering and braking without any difficulty.

I’d also recommend a balaclava, or face mask. Most of them are made of lightweight, Lycra-type material that is both warm and fits easily under a helmet. Because you’re breathing into an enclosed space when wearing a balaclava, it generates and retains warmth around your head and face.

A couple pairs of leggings or tights and thick, ski-type socks should help keep your lower half warm. Others recommend some sort of foot covering over your usual cycling shoes, including using bread bags to keep moisture out, though I’ve never felt the need for more than a decent pair of sneakers. In disgustingly inclement weather, a pair of rain pants does wonders in keeping you dry. Rain pants can be found in most stores that sell bicycle accessories, and usually have the added bonus of being windproof as well as waterproof.

A good headlight and rear light with a flashing setting are clutch. Winter drivers are already distracted, and because it gets dark so early, you’ll want to be visible as possible. Any other reflective clothing or accessories help, too.

Consider investing in waterproof panniers or a small, waterproof book bag to keep any changes of clothes or materials you bring to and from work dry, and if you typically travel on thin road tires, you’ll want to consider swapping them out for thicker, studded tires in the winter — especially if it’s snowy and slushy out.

Routes: The way you ride should also change in the winter. Some of the things you might consider doing in the winter might even seem counterintuitive. For example, ride on well-traveled main roads that you’d typically avoid during better weather. These roads tend to be plowed and salted more often, and the increased traffic flow will also help melt a lot of ice and give you tire tread-worn paths to ride on when many of the bike lanes remain unplowed and icy. You’ll also want to give yourself more time, ride slower and ride more loosely. You can ride more defensively if you’re riding slower, and by not riding in a rigid position, your body absorbs slips, slides and bumps easier. You’ll also fall slower and more gracefully than if you were riding quickly and rigidly. When parking your bike, seek out shelter. There are a number of parking garages Downtown — specifically the ones on Smithfield Street and Penn Avenue — that offer covered bicycle parking to help keep your bike out of the elements while you’re at work.

Finally, don’t do anything that makes you feel like you resent the ride or feel like a bike martyr. This might mean driving part of your commute or putting your bike on the bus one way. It also might mean walking your bike up gnarly hills if you just don’t feel up to it, or breaking up your ride with a warming beverage — I’m partial to stopping at Espresso a Mano on Butler Street in Lawrenceville on my way home. One of the reasons for riding year-round is to enjoy the different challenges and sights each season brings. Have fun and be safe.

Sara Cole is an educator, a connoisseur of delicious treats and a dedicated cyclist.

Photo credited to Flickr user macwagon


  • Vannevar says:

    Every bit of this is true, so much goodness! Most especially the insight about riding places in snowy conditions that you’d avoid in nice conditions. A most excellent post!

  • ostroskyjeremiah says:

    I couldn’t agree more. This is the first year I’m attempting to ride through the entire winter. I generally take about a month break around this time of the year, when temps drop below zero, etc, but my short commute from Millvale to Lawrenceville would be increased four-fold if I wanted to ride the bus, requiring I ride from Millvale to Downtown, and then Downtown to Lawrenceville (genius planning form PAT, huh?). Anyway, all the points made here are great, and for those of you riding real thin tires (my Jamis takes about a 25mm maximum tire width, making it next to impossible to ride any wider tires), lowering the pressure in your tires some will increase your traction some, just watch for bad potholes, etc, as hitting one hard with decreased tire pressure will almost surely cause a flat (or 3 in one week, like for me).

  • edronline says:

    I love my moose mitts. Even with gloves my hands would freeze.

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