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Get your bike — and yourself — ready for winter with a blend of prevention, maintenance and good gear

There's no denying that there's a real joy inherent in winter cycling. You set out, saddle up, and get a new lease on the year's most otherwise dreaded season, enjoying the crisp fresh air in ways that only those on two wheels can truly appreciate.

Photo Credit: blachswan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: blachswan via Compfight cc

There’s no denying that there’s a real joy inherent in winter cycling. You set saddle up, set out and get a new lease on the year’s most otherwise dreaded season, enjoying the crisp fresh air in ways that only those on two wheels can truly appreciate. And then there’s the bemused expressions of passersby, wondering just how tough you really are that you’re biking straight into a near-subarctic headwind.

Admit it, we all love that “Viking biking” feeling.

Still, getting your bike itself ready for winter takes both forethought and elbow grease, with the impact of all that snow, ice and simply the cold itself on your components. A bike unprepared for what winter can throw its way can emerge into spring in rough shape, perhaps after a few — or more than a few — replacements. Mud, road salt and slush can take a toll. Even if only financially, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure when winter riding kicks off.

Here are a few simple tips to get your bike — and yourself — ready to roll in the winter chill, and to make sure it remains protected and riding true throughout the long, cold, dark days of the season.

Keep your steed clean

Regularly cleaning any accumulated muck is the simplest way to keep your bike in top working order, of course, but throughout the winter, it can also be the most laborious. This isn’t spring we’re talking about, after all. It’s not even autumn. During the winter months, slushy, salted roads can mean the accumulation of grit and residue in your parts, which can translate into rust later on — along with all the maintenance headaches rust can bring.

Using a tough brush and a sponge, coupled with a healthy dose of hot, soapy water, is the best way to get winter’s ugliness out of your gears. For added effectiveness, more specialized cleaners or de-greasers is another way to safeguard your ride. Ultimately, it’s not about a top-to-bottom, thorough scouring of every inch of your bike that’s the most important thing — although that certainly helps. As long as the worst of the salty, gritty grime from the streets is scrubbed away, you should be good to go in the cold

Lower your tire pressure

Traction, no doubt, is one of the issues most dreaded by some riders about setting rubber to road in the winter. By reducing air pressure in your tires, however — around 90 psi is a decent level — the tire flexes a bit as you ride, epanding your tread’s footprint on the slippery, wet surface. This has the effect of improving grip on the road, and can even make a rattly ride that much more comfortable in the saddle.

Preparing to ride in winter means preparing for precipitation

It’s not just ice that’s the problem, of course. As you ride through wet, slushy conditions, water can seep into the housing of your gear cables and brake cables. Over time — something we’ve all probably experienced at one time or another — that will reduce the performance of your braking and shifting, and can have a seriously negative effect on your ride.

The trick is to remove the cables, regularly clean them, and squirt some lubrication into the housing. An alternative, on the other hand, is to outfit your ride with lined or coated cables which stay protected from the elements, keeping your gears shifting and your brakes moving smoothly. Like with cleaning your bike after it rolls through the wet winter conditions, the priority is regular cleaning. Nothing accelerates wear quite like dirty, damp conditions, especially in your drive train.

As well, a simple tip is to use a heavier wet formulation on your chain, which can help repel the worst of a snowy, rainy road.

Swap the smooth rubber — and the slicker wheels — of spring for tougher tires

In a snowy, windy scenario, there would be very few things worse than having to dismount and stop by the side of the road, fixing a flat in those decidedly unwelcoming conditions. The best way to avoid that possibility is to invest in tougher, fatter tires. These minimize the likelihood of a flat-causing incident in the dead of winter, but they also have an ancillary benefit: compared with the slimmer, high-performance tires you might be using during the summer months, the bigger, tougher tires tend to be noticeably less expensive. Similar to the effect of lowering tire pressure, fatter tires also allow a rider extra comfort — and comfort can be doubly important in the winter.

Don’t stop with the tires though. Using less expensive aluminum wheels instead of the higher-end carbon wheels of spring and summer can not only save money, they can help you stop better in the tricky conditions. Continental and Schwalbe both make great options for the winter months.

And of course, don’t forget to swap out those brake pads!

Outfit your bike’s handlebars with thicker bar tape

Your hands, like the rest of your extremities, would be one of the first places to freeze in the deep cold of winter. After a while, even with gloves, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re hanging on to a pair of cold aluminum bars while the temperature plunges — something that can make an already cold day feel that much colder. A way around tis is to apply extra-thick bar to those handlebars, providing an extra layer of insulation to keep your hands warm, as well as a cushion for your hands for greater comfort.

When looking for bar tape, look for something that provides more grip in the wet conditions. If you use carbon bars, that extra grip and comfort goes a long way in the winter.

Fenders, fenders, fenders

As you ride along,your tires — especially if you’ve got bigger tires with deeper tread — will deflect the roads conditions backwards, giving you everything from a skunk-stripe of road detritus and slush up your backside to a rather unhealthy saturation of muck in your components. In this case, tried-and-true solutiuons tend to work the best, and nothing protects both your comfort level and your bike’s performance quite like a pair of fenders.

Ideally, full fenders would be the way to go. However, if your race rig won’t accommodate them — and most won’t — there are alternatives that work just as well. Half fenders, like the SKS Raceblade, are a great aoption, while seatpost-mounted fenders also work.

When it’s truly awful outside, something quick and easy to install Ass Savers are a good idea, too. A little protection is better than none at all.

Shed a little light on the subject

… and by “a little,” we mean “a lot.”

Winter, of course, means long, dark days, which can be disastrous when you factor in other vehicles or even other cyclists as well as some slippery, less-than-ideal conditions. When cycling, darkness any time of year, of course, is reason enough to be wearing lights. In winter, though, it’s just that much more important.

Put simply: be seen. It’s one of the most important things you can do for yourself, safety-wise. As long as you have some kind of lights, it doesn’t really matter what you get, although we do have a few recommendations right here.

Get yourself a pair of bar mitts

Yes, they look a little bit goofy. The thing is, though, bar mitts are ridiculously effective in keeping your hands warm in the coldest conditions — even those that might defy the warmth of a pair of ultra-thick, rigid ski gloves. One of their best features, in fact, is how they allow for vastly better finger dexterity in controlling your ride, since you can wear thinner, lighter gloves underneath. These can be found in a variety of sizes, suitable to both drop bars and flat bars.