If you live and work in Lansing or East Lansing, you've probably got pretty decent bicycling routes, and the roads are usually clear enough to ride in. Roads like Farm Lane, Forest, and other lightly traveled roads are a joy to ride on, and you can't beat the scenery. But even a dedicated summertime cyclist will sometimes balk at the idea of going out in any weather below 40 degrees, which doesn't make any real sense to me.
So why not ride in the winter? Here are some common things I hear.
1) It's too cold out!
Have you ever noticed that you can get hot and sweaty while exercising? Believe me, this is true on a bicycle, even in the winter. Sometimes especially in the winter. If you layer your clothing, you'll never be cold except for maybe the first minute you walk out the door. It's a lot warmer than walking to and from the car in a parking lot, because of the heat your body is putting out from all that aerobic exercise.
You don't need to spend a ton of money on winter cycling gear either. I usually wear a pair of long underwear on the bottom with jeans over top, hiking boots over wool socks, a long-sleeved wool shirt or sweater, gloves with glove liners, and some sort of ear warmers. On the very coldest days, you might need full face protection like a balaclava, but really I've only found that necessary in temps below 15 degrees, or in a lot of wind. The local Playmakers store has some awesome Smartwool gear that I swear by - the light wool wicks sweat, never smells bad, and looks good.
2) It's too icy out!
It rarely is. In Michigan, the streets are cleared pretty quickly in main travel areas of any deep snow, and if it's safe for a car to travel on, then it's safe enough for a bike. Bikes have narrow tires that cut through slush and light snow pretty well, and a set of knobby tires makes things even easier.
As for ice, I don't really run into it very much, and the few times I do, nothing bad comes of it. Just slow down around turns, walk the bike across railroad crossings, and Bob's your uncle. If ice really scares you, there are plenty of studded tires on the market made specifically for riding on ice, or you can even make your own. Personally I've not fallen due to icy conditions (knock on wood), and I ride on regular knobby mountain bike tires.
Lots of people make the mistake of riding on the shoulder or sidewalk, which are rarely cleared enough to ride in. Just invest in some lights, ride in the cleared sections (yes, on the road), and you'll find it's a lot easier to stay upright. The road is actually quite a bit safer to ride on than the sidewalks, but that's a whole other blog post.
3) I don't have the right equipment!
You might actually. Winter biking doesn't take a fancy bike or clothing, you can do it pretty cheaply. I bought a used cheap mountain bike at the MSU Surplus Store for $15. It needed a new front wheel, chain, and a tune-up, but even with all that work and parts it was less than $100. If doing tune-ups isn't your thing, then you could pop over to MSU's Bike Shop and spring for a freshly tuned used bike, or even rent one for a season cheaply. (Disclaimer: I work at the Bike Shop)
If you are serious about commuting, you'll want a set of fenders for your bike to keep the snow from jamming up your components and messing up your clothes. An absolute MUST HAVE is a decent set of front and rear lights, and you should run them day and night for visibility. I prefer Planet Bike's Superflash for the rear, and for the front their new Blaze 2 watt. A blinky mode with a bright LED light helps cars see you for safety, but the cold can drain batteries quickly, so bring an extra set of batteries just in case. Lights seem to be getting better every year, and cheaper too.
4) I still think you're crazy...
Well, I'm not. Winter cycling is a great way to get yourself outside and exercising in these cold bleak months, and it really doesn't take a silly amount of money or expertise to do it. Just invest in some lights, get your bike set up, and wear some layers. For maintenance, the most important thing is to keep your chain well-lubed on a weekly basis with a heavier grade of lube, like Pedro's Syn Lube.
If you decide winter commuting or riding is for you after trying it, you can spring for some accessories to make your ride easier:
- Goggles - nice to have for rainy or windy days. Buy a cheap set of snowboarding or even lab goggles.
- Rear rack and Panniers - I have a set of waterproof Ortlieb Panniers, and they're incredibly useful. Gets the load off your back, and holds a ton of stuff in a waterproof environment.
- Studded tires - as mentioned above, they're not truly necessary, and they're expensive, but some people swear by them. They can't hurt.
So give it a try, and maybe you'll like it. I do - it gets me outside, gives a good workout, and saves a lot of money on gas and parking fees, especially on MSU's campus.