Ride your bike in the city all winter

My bike
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter's ride

A few weeks ago I was asked why I wear a long woman's coat when I ride my bike in winter. I wondered what she was talking about, and was told that in a post I wrote that's on MNN (now fixed), I said:

I wear a rather nontraditional winter coat for cycling. It's long black wool tailored women's coat. I love it and it works for me on my upright dutch bike that has skirt guards on the rear wheels — it's not for everyone though.

I do not wear a woman's coat, and do not ride a dutch bike with skirt guards; over the years since the late lamented Planet Green closed, posts that we wrote for them have bounced around a bit and perhaps got a little cut and pasted with a post by TreeHugger April, who is comfortable in a woman's coat.

However it did make me think that perhaps it is time to have a fresh look at the subject of winter riding. My views on winter biking have changed over the years as well; as cycling becomes more mainstream, more ordinary, I think it important to stress that you don't have to dress that differently for cycling than you do for walking around in winter.

There's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

It's ridiculous to suggest piles of expensive technical gear for what is essentially transportation; it scares people off winter biking. But you do have to dress properly, as you would when walking in winter. The big difference between clothing for walking vs cycling is the fact that your body cools differently. Walkers need a warmer coat; the exercise of cycling warms your core up pretty quickly. I find that my normal winter coat is just too warm, and tend to dress for late fall or early spring: a sweater and a lighter jacket.

mitsIn my pannier: overmitts and rain pants./CC BY 2.0

It's the extremities that matter on a bike.

However, your extremities get a lot colder and you can't put your hands in your pockets very easily. Lots of winter cyclists recommend lobster gloves; I think spending $85 on a pair of single-purpose gloves is overkill. I keep a pair of shell mitts that I had for snowboarding in my pannier; when my gloved hands get too cold I stick them on top. . Also in the pannier is a cheap pair of waterproof pants that I normally use for hiking. On really cold days they cut the wind and help protect certain male extremities that are very sensitive to cold. I wear my hiking boots as winter boots and a scarf, instead of all these gaiters and balaclavas that the dress-for-success types wear. I have a thin running toque that fits under my helmet.


There is absolutely no question that this guy is going to be less likely to be hit by a speeding BMW on a dark night than I am. With those lights he can probably see into the next state, and with that jacket he could get a job on a road crew. But I really have come to believe that if you tell people they have to dress like this to ride a bike, then they are just not gonna do it. His gear and lights probably cost more than most people's bikes.

bike lane Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But that doesn't mean we should dress like ninjas and go without lights. I have lights front and back, reflectors on my wheels and I do wear a helmet in winter. This year I may wear a jacket with a little more visibility; I tend now to favor streets with bike lanes, and this is what happens to them in Toronto in winter. So I am pushed into the driving lanes with all the cars, and frankly, am more nervous there than I used to be. Perhaps a little bit of hi-viz will make me more comfortable. But that is the important thing is to wear what makes you comfortable, not what scares you away from biking.

City of gtorontoCity of Toronto/Public Domain

The door prize

Unfortunately most drivers don't have these stickers on their windows. Not only that, in winter they are all bundled up in hats and scarves and don't turn their heads as easily. They don't park as close to the curb when it is full of snow. They haven't cleaned their windows properly. They don't expect cyclists to be out there. I believe the risk of getting the door prize is far higher in winter, and am extremely careful riding near cars. I try to look in their side mirrors, I ride more slowly for more reaction time, and to compensate for the fact that rim brakes do not work very well in winter. (if you have disc brakes, you can try Mike's crazy twist tie thing) I keep my front light on during the day time for higher visibility.

orontas bike lube photo


Winter is hard on bikes, especially if your city uses salt to deice the roads. Clean and lube your chain regularly (I use the wonderful biodegradable Orontas products that look and feel like they are from a high end spa). Make sure that your brakes are properly adjusted and that your lights are charged. Carry a spare light just in case.

As I have learned from Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, the best way to make cycling safer isn't to dress up in day-glo, but to get a whole lot of people doing it, to make it part of the culture of your community. The safety is in numbers. So as Martha and the Vandellas noted, "It doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there."

Ride your bike in the city all winter
It's not that hard, and you don't need a lot of special gear. Just go out and do it.

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