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Q&A

How do I safely ride my road bike in the winter?

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It's November, and in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is fast approaching - and with it, the rain.

As a cyclist, I do occasionally enjoy taking my road bike out on the roads and just pedaling, without the added technical challenge that mountain biking involves. However, I've as yet not done this in the winter, because I'm a bit concerned about safety.

Even when it's not actively raining, the roads are often wet and slippery, and filled with small rocks that get washed across the asphalt. Heavy cloud cover means less visibility, both for me and any drivers on the road.

With this in mind, how can I prepare safely for a winter road bike ride? This includes bike preparation - lower tire pressure? - and personal preparation, such as clothing, as well as actual riding advice

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I started commuting by bike last year because of Covid and have kept it up all year around ever since - even though I live in bike-unfriendly Sweden where cold, snow, ice and compact darkness is to be expected.

Always use a helmet, obviously. In any weather. Apart from the obvious, here are misc tips & tricks from my personal experience of winter biking last year:

  • The safest and best solution is to get studded winter tires and change to them when temperatures are getting close to freezing.

    Depending on how handy you are what bike you've got, changing them yourself might be easy or complex - you might need help from a bike mechanic. I have an e-bike myself with lots of gears, so changing tires isn't trivial. A tip I got from someone was to only change the front tire to studded, since that's the one easiest to change and also it is harder to dodge a slip of the front tire than the back tire to prevent crashing.

    This is pretty much the only option if you wish to keep going no matter the amount of snow and ice. If you aren't using the bike for commuting but just for the occasional trip, it might be overkill.

  • Lower the saddle so that you can reach down with your feet against the ground quickly, in case the bike is slipping. For this to work, you need double hand brakes and good shoes. I did this last year and it saved me from crashing plenty of times, so it's my best advise. I'm not sure how feasible this is on a mountain bike though, since the pedals sit higher above the ground there.

  • A good front light is pretty much mandatory (and required by law in many countries).

  • Water on asphalt isn't much of a concern. Sand and pebbles are however just as dangerous as ice. Always take it slow when going through sections with pebbles. Generally, always go very slow downhill or when turning. That's where you are by far the most likely to slip.

  • Always brake with both wheels and not just one of them. And keep your hands on the brakes pretty much always, it improves your reaction time a lot.

    I'm not sure how much of an impact tire pressure really is, but I'm not pumping the tires that hard during winter. Obviously having the broad tires of a mountain bike will be a big boost - my own bike is more of a racer so it's far from ideal for winter roads.

I haven't crashed yet and I'm reading for winter #2 - fingers crossed.

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In terms of visibility, it's wise to have fallbacks. Wear a hi-vis jacket; carry spare batteries for your lights when possible; and check your local laws about wearing lights on your person. You can see when your front light is failing, but your rear light is behind you and probably below your saddle, so it's easy to miss that it's failing until you dismount. Many jurisdictions allow you to have a second rear light clipped to your hi-vis jacket: this gives you a fallback in case the main one fails, and also gives a higher position which can be visible from further. But there's variability: I know that in the UK a body-mounted rear light must be set to flash, but I have vague memories of another country where it had to be non-flashing, and I think there may be some where it should be green instead of red. You're also going to want to try to fix it to yourself in such a way that it's pointing behind you, rather than up or down, when you're in your primary cycling posture.

My experience is more urban, to get from A to B; I get a hint from the question that you're cycling in rural areas for pleasure, so this second point may not be relevant. In my experience, junctions are the biggest worry for visibility. My penultimate crash was into the side of a car whose driver pulled out of a side-street with only a quick glance for a car's headlights and didn't register my bike's single headlight. In rural areas a single light should be more visible, because it's not lost against the glow of streetlights.

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I should mention the terrain (1 comment)

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