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5 Things You Need to Know About Cycling During a Chicago Winter

Photo by: Sandor Weisz/Creative Commons via Flickr

With 170 miles of bike lanes checkering the city streets, Chicago has long been one of America’s most biker-friendly locales…when it’s warm. But all the miles of bike lanes in the world wouldn’t persuade some riders to hit the streets during a windy city winter, when the average temperature sits at 22 degrees and a ride to work more resembles a polar expedition than a commute.

But you don’t have to be a survivalist to brave the harsh conditions. Here’s what you need to know to ride through a Chicago winter and come out unscathed.

Strike a balance with your wardrobe

The dress code for winter biking might seem obvious at first: bundle up, and then bundle up some more. But it isn’t that simple, according to Jeremy Shaver, a ten-year veteran of winter riding.  Balance, he says, is the real key.

“Staying warm is only just a small part of it,” said Shaver, who has worked in Chicago-area bike shops since 2010. “Too cold and it makes for a very unpleasant and possibly painful ride. Too warm and you will very quickly overheat and begin to sweat heavily, which is a very bad situation to be in.”

Michael Cole, who is biking through his 7th Chicago winter, agrees.

“If you trap too much heat, you’ll start to sweat and the frigid temperatures will cool you down too much when you stop,” said Cole, who lives in Lakeview.

The best way to maintain a nice temperature is to wear layers. The first two layers, according to Shaver, should consist of clothing made of wool, fleece, or synthetic fibers like polyester, as they provide good insulation while transferring moisture well. Cotton, on the other hand, offers little breath-ability and traps moisture onto the skin.

Adding an outer layer is the key to comfort during winter riding, because it protects against wind and water that can cut through clothing like a knife. You may not think you need it, because after two layers, you’ll feel fine standing outside. But they will prove woefully inadequate once you start riding, when, according to Shaver, “it’s the wind that makes things bad.”

An outer layer should be as water and wind-proof as possible and can consist of thermal bike pants, “lobster” gloves, ski goggles , a pair of shoe covers and a jacket.

Prep your tires

Different bikers have different ways of preparing their ride for the winter months.  Some recommend buying snow tires—knobby, studded tires like those found on mountain bikes—which provide increased traction between the tire and the road (a pair cost anywhere between $25 and $200 on Amazon.com) .

But snow tires aren’t worth the investment for everyone. Brandon Stein, who has biked through a decade’s worth of Chicago winters, said in some situations studded tires can lead to decreased surface contact between the road and your tire, which is a recipe for slipping and sliding.

“They collect snow in the grooves and as a result your only real contact spots are the nubs themselves,” he said. “Finding a nice hybrid that has grooves on the side but a smoother contact surface will keep you the safest.”

Shaver has found his own solution to the surface contact conundrum. He buys wider wheels and decreases his tire pressure to maximize the amount of the tire’s surface area that touches the pavement. In warmer months he rides on 700x28c size tires with a pressure of 100psi. But come winter, he switches to a wider size (700x30c) and decreases air pressure by 20 to 30 percent.

Bathe your bike

Winter conditions may be hard on riders, but their bikes don’t get a free pass either. A typical winter ride can cake a bike in ice, slush and salt, all of which degrade the bike’s components over time. When left unattended, you’ll find yourself having to replace bolts, chains, springs, and maybe even the entire bike.

But incorporating a little maintenance into your routine can keep your ride in serviceable condition, according to Shaver, who says he gives his bike a wipe-down every week.

“Use an old brush and some water with a little degreaser in it to clean the chain and cogs up so that all the salt is removed, then apply a lubricant to the chain,” he said, adding that bikers should stay away from WD-40, which isn’t designed to prevent gunk buildup, and instead opt for a bike-specific lube.

And be sure to wipe any debris off the bike’s brakes before riding again, says Stein.

“Ice can build up on them and when you try and stop you might be in for a nasty surprise when the icy pads hit your wheel rim,” he said.

Stick to the main roads

After a snowfall, always ride on the main roads. They may have more traffic, but they are well salted and in better condition than smaller side roads.

“Riding on less traveled streets leads to a greater chance of falling on unseen ice and of coming into contact with cars that are having the same problem,” said Shaver. He added that Illinois law allows bikers to take up an entire lane of traffic.

Bikers shouldn’t be afraid to use that law to their advantage.

“It might seem scary, but you are traffic, so if a lane is blocked you are allowed to take the entire lane until it’s safe for you to get back over all the way to the right,” said Stein.

As for riding on the sidewalk? The sentiment among bikers is nearly universal.

“Never ride on the sidewalk,” said Shaver. “Just don’t do it.”

“Not only is it illegal,” said Cole, “but it’s a potential safety hazard and huge burden on pedestrians who are likely already having a hard enough time walking through a few inches of snow or ice.”

Be visible and alert

Riding can be dangerous year-round, but the slippery conditions and low visibility of winter make safety paramount. Make sure you can be seen by cars; a helmet and front and rear lights are must-haves, but wearing bright-colored clothing and using reflective strips are also recommended (lights and reflective strips go for as low $14.99 and $4, respectively, on Amazon.com).

Sometimes, though, your own eyes can be your best protection. Always be on the lookout for alleys that open onto the road, because a car could be coming through at any time. Drivers and pedestrians may not be paying attention, but you should be; stay alert at all times when riding.

“Alleys, car doors and pedestrians texting while walking can pose great risk winter or not. Keeping my head on a swivel is my best safety measure,” said Andrew Lewis of Uptown, who has braved the last three Chicago winters on his bike.


Watch this video to see an experienced Chicago cyclist show you how to dress for winter rides



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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.