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Winter biking: Tips for pedaling through snow and slush

December 1, 2011 By Greg Bump

The benefits of biking to work are well known. It’s good for your health, saves money on gas and parking, reduces carbon emissions in the atmosphere, and eases traffic congestion.

But many bike commuters put away their two-wheelers once the Fahrenheit drops and snow starts to fly. Aaron Crandall, grants and contracts specialist at Research and Sponsored Programs office at UW–Madison, says it doesn’t have to be that way.

Crandall is lead organizer of Madison Bike Winter, which is in its second year. The group takes many of its cues from Chicago Bike Winter, which has been around for a decade blazing a trail through the snowy streets of the Windy City.

“We’re using them as a catapult,” Crandall says.

Crandall isn’t sure how many are in his group. Monthly socials usually draw 15-20 biking enthusiasts. The group’s Facebook page, has received more than 450 “likes.”

“What we’re trying to do is urge people to continue to try biking on the fair weather days we have during the winter,” Crandall says. “A lot of days in Madison the weather is pretty conducive to biking if you dress properly.”

Crandall recommends layering clothing to keep the cold away from your body.  Usually, riders can find what they need in their own closets, he says.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune to buy all the clothes,” he adds.

Also important is to stay dry on days when the roads or trails are slushy. Fenders will help keep some of the spray from winding up on the rider, and inexpensive rain pants can also be found to keep the slop off work clothes.

To keep the face warm, cover it with a balaclava and wear goggles to protect your eyes from the frigid air. Some brands of bike helmets offer winterizing kits that cover ears and vent holes, or some do-it-yourselfers stuff them with towels or rags, Crandall says. Most bike shops sell helmet covers that fit over the top and act like waterproof windbreakers.

For the feet, Crandall recommends a pair of sturdy, water resistant winter boots. When it comes to keeping hands warm, it’s best to select a glove that allows the fingers to stay together. One example is a lobster claw glove, which has slots for the thumb and forefinger but keeps the three outer fingers in one pouch. Whatever the choice in hand wear, it’s important to keep a good range of movement to shift gears on multi-speed bikes.

Crandall does not encourage using an expensive, new bike for winter riding. Salt from roads can cause rust. And while there are proponents who swear by wide or narrow tires for winter riding, Crandall said either type is fine as long as they have good tread. Studded tires are also an option, but at $60 each or more, they may be too expensive for some. If you can afford one studded tire put it on the front of the bike for best results, Crandall says.

Crandall has more advice for avoiding slippage. Take a little air out of the rear tire on snowy days, and be deliberate about maneuvers, especially in icy conditions.

“Learn to not make any sudden movements,” he says. “That’s what causes people to fall, they might make a sudden movement to get off the ice. That’s usually a no-no.”

Lights are essential for winter biking, both on the front and back of the bike, Crandall says, to help motorists see you.

Crandall, who says he biked to work every day last winter, has high marks for clearing bike trails throughout the winter months.

“Sometime I’ve heard reports where bike paths are plowed earlier than the city streets,” he says.

Madison Bike Winter is coordinating a bike to work week from Feb. 13–17 in conjunction with the city of Madison and the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.