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How To Ride Your Bike Safely in Wet, Cold Winter Weather


In San Francisco, we are lucky enough to have a mild winter that still allows us to ride to work without facing snow and ice; however, we do get gray days and plenty of rain, and the wet, cold conditions we face when riding our bikes in the winter do mean that most of us still have to adjust our riding style a bit in order to stay safe and healthy out on the roads.

In this post, we’ll talk about some of the biggest hazards you need to look out for when riding your bike in the winter and how to keep yourself warm and healthy in colder conditions.

Darker days and decreased visibility

In the winter, it gets darker much earlier and many cyclists end up end up doing at least one leg of their commute in almost complete darkness.

Darkness means a lack of visibility — both for you, and for drivers on the road.

Keeping yourself visible is extremely important as a cyclist, and it takes more than you might think to help drivers notice you. Even on a slightly overcast day without bright light, a cyclist without safety lights and brightly colored clothing can be missed by a driver who isn’t paying close attention. And when you’re riding in the dark, a cyclist on the side of the road can be almost invisible.

It is actually against the law not to equip yourself to be safely visible in California. Here is what you need to make sure you have the following:

— Lights: At night a white headlight visible from the front must be attached to the bicycle or the bicyclist. CVC 21201(d) and CVC 21201(e)

— Reflectors: At night bicycles must have the following reflectors:

  • Visible from the back: red reflector
  • Visible from the front & back: white or yellow reflector on each pedal or on the bicyclist’s shoes or ankles
  • Visible from the side: 1) white or yellow reflector on the front half of the bicycle and 2) a red or white reflector on each side of the back half of the bike. These reflectors are not required if the bike has reflectorized front and back tires. CVC 21201(d)

Any additional reflective gear you can add — whether it’s a bright yellow reflective vest, reflectors on your helmet, or reflective stickers on your bike frame/pedals — will only help keep you safer and more visible.

Wet roads and metal surfaces

Every cyclist knows that hitting unexpectedly wet pavement or dirt can result in a complete wipeout with very little warning. And in winter, the odds that you’ll hit a dangerous patch of wet road increase greatly with rain and snow.

Things get even more dicey when you add into the mix the many metal surfaces that cyclists have to traverse every day, like train tracks, sewer grates, and manhole covers.

Caitlin Giddings of Bicycling.com shares tips for safely mavigating each of these winter wet metal hazards:

  • Railroad tracks: After checking for trains, cross the tracks at as close to a 90-degree angle as you can and ride straight across without turning. ‘Sometimes this requires a swerving or repositioning action,’ [Cascade Bicycle Club community education program manager, Josh] Miller says. ‘If so, be sure to scan and only do so when traffic is clear.’
  • Manhole covers: Avoid riding over these if at all possible. Not only are they often slippery, but they can also be sunken or raised with hard edges that can cause flats. If you have to ride over one, ride straight and don’t turn or brake.
  • Sewer grates: These gaping nightmares are best avoided and good reasons to not hug the curb while riding. ‘Sewer grates share the hazardous qualities of other metal fixtures, but depending on their design, can be even more hazardous,’ Miller says. ‘Some sewer grates can trap your tire and cause a crash that way.’ If it’s too late to take evasive action, ride across perpendicular to the grates.”

Riding in the rain

Riding your bike in the rain is never a ton of fun, but it can also be dangerous because rain usually means decreased visibility for drivers and more challenging riding conditions for you.

When it first starts raining, the roads are especially slick because oil residue from cars is mixing with the rainwater to create a slippery film. This is eventually washed away by the rain, but can make riding especially challenging.

One of the hardest things to do in the rain is to take corners safely. To turn on a slick road, push firmly into the pedal on the outside of the turn when it is in the lower position. This will help counterbalance your lean into the turn and help your tires grip the road, which will help you stay upright.

Another important tip for riding in the rain is to avoid sudden braking or stopping; with a wet road, your tires will have a hard time with sudden stopping and you might end up skidding out or falling over if you don’t slow gradually enough. Riding on well lit roads and keeping a light on the front of your bike can help you see hazards and turns with enough time to slow down properly on wet surfaces.

Finally, always wear as much rain gear as possible if you know it’s going to rain during your ride. The drier you can stay (don’t forget, if your clothes get wait and you don’t have a spare set, you’ll still be in wet clothes at your destination too) the less likely you are to catch a cold from being out in the elements. You can find cheap solutions to raingear, if the weather catches you by surprise; for example, you can put a shower cap or other plastic wrap over your helmet to keep your head dry, or use plastic gloves on your hands.

Be prepared and equip yourself and your bike with the essentials for riding in the winter

When you’re riding in the winter, it’s important that you do everything you can to keep yourself healthy and safe. This means bundling up so that you don’t get too cold while exposed to the elements (layering your clothing, but also using gloves and earmuffs to protect parts of your body that are normally exposed from the cold conditions), and wearing waterproof gear whenever possible to avoid getting soaked in the rain.

You should also keep a mini-repair kit with you on your bike at all times. Keep a spare tube, CO2, and tire pump with you, as well as a multitool for minor repairs. You don’t want to get stranded in bad weather with no way to keep moving.

If you’re really concerned about bad weather, make sure at least one person knows what route you are taking and roughly how long the ride should last, so you can check in once you are safely at your destination. That way, if you don’t check in within a reasonable amount of time, you will have someone who can send help to your location.

Riding in the winter isn’t always pleasant, but it can be safe and practical if you are prepared and ready for what the roads hold. When in doubt, over-prepare and give yourself extra time to get to your destination, and you’ll enjoy a smooth ride to work while still getting your daily exercise and skipping out on traffic.