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Tips for Cycling San Francisco in the Winter

A major perk of living in the Bay Area is the weather. The region enjoys moderate temperatures year round, making it perfect for cyclists. But as San Francisco bicyclists know, winter months, December through March, often come with rain, which can present its own challenges and safety risks for those on two wheels.

When you see rain or chilly temperatures in the forecast, keep the following tips in mind. Some of the biggest road hazards for people on bicycles stems from the weather, so it’s important to know how to navigate them.

Tip one: Plan and pack accordingly

Weather can roll in quickly, so it’s important to keep an eye on the weather forecast. Plan your commute or ride in order to avoid any dangerous scenarios. In the winter months, despite precipitation, the temperature still hovers around the mid-50s, which typically makes for a comfortable ride. But the rain can add a chill factor, especially if you’re out there for an extended amount of time.

Adding a water resistant layer will keep you dry, and many rain jackets are light enough to stow away in a bag. Gloves are also a must in the winter months, especially because your fingers get colder much faster than the rest of your body.

It’s also not a bad idea to buy winter cycling shoes if you wear them. Usually a snug fit, sizing up can allow you to wear warmer socks.

It’s even more important during the winter rainy months to have all the gear you might need readily available. Afterall, you don’t want to be caught without a tire pump when it’s raining. Keep a mini-repair kit as well as a spare tube and CO2 with you to ensure that you’ll be able to address any problems as quickly as possible so you can keep moving in bad weather.

Being prepared is half the battle. If you’re warm and you have all the appropriate tools, you’re ready to ride.

Tip two: Prioritize bike upkeep

It seems a little counterintuitive to pay extra attention to your bike’s cleanliness during the rainy season, but it’s actually really important. Rain is particularly hard on bicycle components.

A few extra steps can ensure the longevity of your bicycle’s life and help keep you safe on the road. REI gives a few helpful pointers on how you should care for your bike during the rainy season:

Fenders — Fenders protect your tires and you, especially when rain makes it easy to kick up mud, oil and other debris. They’re really helpful for Bay Area winters.

Chain — With the rain comes mud, and that can be pretty harsh on your bike’s chain. When you finish a ride, make sure to rinse any mud off, wipe down the chain and reapply lube. This will keep future rides just as smooth, no matter the weather.

Check lights — More than anything, you’ll want to have good working lights during the winter season. Riding without a light, even on a partly overcast day, can limit your visibility to drivers who aren’t paying attention. Winter months also mean shorter days and dimmer afternoons, so it’s important to be prepared.

California law states you must equip your bicycle with the appropriate lights and reflectors. 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)

Tip three: Beware your route

No matter how many times you’ve taken the same route, winter weather can enhance any bicycle safety obstacles, like potholes, or create them, such as cars parking illegally in bike lanes.

Give yourself some extra time to navigate new hazards or worsening obstacles you may already know about. Take familiar routes when you can and when you do have to travel to an unfamiliar area, prepare by checking ahead of time to see if there are bike lanes, existing bike infrastructure or anything that might put you at any additional risk.

Tip four: Adapting to conditions

The rain can make any ride more difficult. Visibility is diminished – yours and for others around you – so you have to stay hypervigilant. This means your attention should be fully on the road and what’s going on around you. Street surfaces vary and braking especially can become more tricky.

“In normal riding conditions, most of your stopping should be done with the front brake. However, this changes when there’s water on the road,” writes UK-based The Cyclist, which is no stranger to damp riding conditions. “The reduced grip makes it far more likely that you’ll lock up the front wheel if you brake hard, and once your front wheel loses traction, it’s almost impossible to stay upright on a bike.”

Instead, use the rear brake and feather your brakes so that you are stopping more gradually. This will prevent you from sliding and hopefully from crashing or having your bike slide out from under you.

Beyond the slick road conditions, the rain can also wash up gravel into the road. That can be bad news for your tires, potentially causing punctures, and for grip. Take it slow when you notice the road is more gritty. Pay extra care to turns as well.

For city travel, watch out for street markings, which can become slippery when wet.