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Part 2: Winterize You + Your Bike

Part 2 of a 2 part series on winterizing yourself and your bike. Read part 1 on how to prepare yourself for the elements.

In this blog, Aaron Ritz, who is on his tenth year of winter cycling in Philadelphia, adds his tips and useful habits for winter cycling. Aaron has been biking for transportation all of his life, including snow and ice covered roads in Iowa, Minnesota, as well as Japan. Aaron lives in South Philadelphia and enjoys his 20 minute commute to Center City in all kinds of weather.  Fun facts about Aaron’s winter riding: he only missed one day of riding to work because of weather—freezing rain that left a quarter inch of ice on the road in the winter of 2011 saw him take the subway. His low-temperature bike commute record is -11 F, set in Iowa.

For many, the cold, dark months of winter are miserable. Continuing to commute by bicycle, or even starting to commute by bicycle, can help you battle your way to spring. Winter bike commuting does require preparation and planning. Fortunately, GoPhillyGo has created this two part series blog on how to winterize you and your bike for safe and warm winter commuting. To learn how to properly layer for your bike ride to work, please refer to part 1. This second part will explain how to winterize your bike and maintain it throughout the winter. Below we will discuss proper bike lights, winter bike tires, fenders, and keeping your bike clean.

Bike Lights

With the shorter days and longer nights, many drivers expect there to be less or no cyclists on the road, so it is important to be extremely visible. In Philadelphia, it is required by law for cyclists to have a front white light and a rear red reflector. A rear red light will increase your visibility even more. Today, most bike lights are LEDs (light-emitting diode) which are less expensive, more rugged, smaller, longer lasting and more efficient than halogen lights, the old industry standard.

Lights are measured in lumens, which is the amount of light emitted per second. For comparison, a low-beam headlight on a standard car is 700 lumens and a high-beam headlight is 1,200 lumens. When determining lumen intensity for your bike commute, consider how well lit the area is in which you are riding. Is your commute urban along lamp lit streets? Or, is it on unlit roads or trails? In the former, the priority of a cyclist should be “to be seen.” “To be seen lights,” sometimes called safety or emergency lights, come in the range of 50 - 200 lumens. These lights usually have one constant lighting mode and multiple flashing modes. Safety lights are small and have rubber mounting straps which makes them easily detachable. Be sure to take them with you when locking up outside. They are powered either with built-in USB rechargeable batteries or replaceable batteries.

When riding on unlit roads, you not only need to be seen, but you also have to see the road in order to spot potholes, debris and any other hazards. A front light with lumens ranging from 400 to 800 lumens will assist with this. Higher-powered lights usually have a wide beam that allows other road users to see you and a narrow beam to light the road ahead of you. These lights are often larger and need to be mounted with a bolt and bracket or a strap that come with the purchase. They are powered either with built-in USB rechargeable batteries or replaceable batteries.

If you want even more visibility, attach an extra light to your helmet or backpack. Bike specific packs and jerseys often have a dedicated loop for attaching a tail light.

If you are looking for a more environmentally friendly light and never want to worry about batteries, you can install a dynamo light. A dynamo is an energy-generating hub built into the front wheel of a bicycle that generates power to your bike lights when the wheels are in motion.

Sidenote: Studies are starting to show that very bright flashing lights are actually less safe, as it makes it harder for other road users - drivers - to judge where you are and how fast you are moving. Bright flashing lights can also have a negative effect on those with photosensitive epilepsy, so keep the light steady!


During winter, the roads often become covered in salt, debris, slush and icy patches. Light weight racing tires can really take a beating in these conditions, and potentially become unsafe. A standard road tire that is a bit wider and with flat protections, like a layer of kevlar imbedded into the rubber of the tire, will make it harder for glass and other debris to penetrate the tire and cause a flat. A tire with inverted tread pattern is known to give decent traction if you encounter some light snow and supplies rolling resistance on the occasional slippery patch of road. When you see snow or ice in the forecast, you will have to decide whether to hop on SEPTA or invest in winter cycling tires and maybe even a more specialized bike.

It can be very dangerous to ride on snow and ice without specialized equipment, but if you really want to do it, a fat bike or mountain bike for large amounts of snow is the way to go. Riding in heavy snow can be a lot of fun, but be prepared to fall into the fluffy stuff from time to time!

Aaron's Tire Tip: For the true fans of all-weather riding, a pair of studded tires is great. You won’t honestly get to use them on a regular basis in most Philly winters, but the traction on packed snow and ice is truly confidence inspiring.

Front and Rear Fenders

Front and rear fenders are your first line of defense in keeping your bike dry and free from all the bad stuff on the road like grit and salt. If you have disc or cantilever brakes with fender eyelets on the chainstays, your bike will most likely fit a full fender set that fits over the front and back tires, giving maximum protection against wet and snowy days.

For bikes with dual-pivot brakes and/or no fender eyelets on the chainstays, purchasing clip-on fenders that mount to the fork on the front wheel and the seat stay on back wheel are your best bet on staying dry through the winter.

There is also the mountain bike style of clip-on fenders, also known as a micro guard, which is a very minimal strip of plastic that attaches to the seat post. These are not great for super rainy days, but they protect against puddles and are good for commuters who have short rides through light rain. Micro guards can be easily folded up and stored in backpacks or purses. Detachable fenders do not cover the wheels as much as full length fenders. All clip-on fenders can be taken on and off easily, so when you lock your bike outside, remember to bring them with you!

Bike Care

In Philadelphia, the biggest risk to a bike in the winter time is road salt. Over time, salt and grit builds up in the brake pads, rim sidewalls and fenders causing the mechanical components of your bike to wear out. It is important to be diligent with routine maintenance and care during the winter months. You don’t want to get caught on an icy patch with dicy brake pads (which wear out very quickly in poor conditions).

Aaron's Bike Care Tip: If you can’t find a place to wash down your bike, it may actually make more sense to leave bikes in cold storage—garage spaces and outdoor parking are usually less secure from theft, but dragging a drippy, salty bike inside the house can be a problem in a lot of places, and by simply keeping the accumulated snow frozen in place on your bike, you prevent salt water from dripping into the frame or components. 

Clean your bike and lube your chain frequently. After a wet and salty ride, you should clean your bike while it is still wet or else the metal components will start to rust. All you need is warm soapy water and a brush. Chain lube should be applied to a clean, degreased bike chain. So, it’s best to lube after cleaning your bike. Lubricating helps to protect the drivetrain from excessive wear, corrosion and rust. Wet lube is best for wintery wet conditions.

Aaron's Chain Lube Tip: My personal favorite is called Rock ‘N Roll Gold. Despite the lame name, this lube is great for all conditions of riding since it’s solvent base rinses off road grit and lubes the inside of the chain rollers.  In a pinch WD-40’s original lube is an OK lubricant and is good at displacing salty water on the bike parts. The real benefit is that it’s affordable and available nearly everywhere. 

Have Caution

When the snowy and icy conditions are headed to town, be cognizant of the forecast. If cycling in snow or ice is not for you, opt for SEPTA or another transportation alternative instead. If part of the day is clear, use Indego one way. Always bring $2:50 in cash or your key card just in case you’d rather have your bike ride the bus or need to leave it somewhere.

Plan for alternate routes. Bike lanes are often rendered useless by the snow plows that push the snow and ice into them. The snow and ice gets compounded over time, taking days, weeks or months to melt. Trolley tracks may not appear to be wet or icy, so tread carefully when crossing them at any angle or avoid them all together.

Do not ride next to the curb. It is another area where snow, ice and road debris accumulates and gets compounded. Look for a clear path and take the lane if you need to. Philadelphia law, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s website states, “ … bicycles are entitled to ride in the middle of the lane. You do not have to hug the shoulder. Bicyclists are not required to ride in a bicycle lane just because there is a lane on that street. Reasons not to ride in a bike lane include preparing for an approaching turn, passing a slow bicyclist, or avoiding debris in the bicycle lane.”

Carry a repair kit and bike tools with you. If you have installed winter tires, makes sure your repair kit is up to date with the proper tube. If you are a Mid-Atlantic AAA member, free roadside bicycle assistance is now available on streets, though not on mutli-use trails.  

Make changes to how you carry items. Turns can become slippery when it’s wet or icy, so avoid unbalanced weight. Opt for backpacks or ensure that panniers are evenly weighted.

Wear a helmet!

During the first 2 to 5 minutes of your winter bike commute you will probably be wondering, “This is crazy! Why am I doing this?” But, soon (especially if you have read part 1 on layering for winter bike commuting), your body will be warmed up, those thoughts will pass and you will be thinking, “Why isn’t everyone doing this?!”

Written by Erika Reinhard who is a former Sustainable Transportation Outreach Coordinator for the Clean Air Council.