Bicycling is an activity that is both healthful and fun. Cyclists not only improve their fitness and agility by riding, they also get the added benefit of experiencing the beauty and freedom of traveling through the outdoors.
Residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley who enjoy bicycling are especially fortunate. Ours is an area that rewards riders of almost all ability levels and riding styles. From the wooded singletrack destinations of local parks and publicly owned forests, to the roads, paved paths and rail trails of the MOV, there are more possibilities for riding for fun and fitness than most will ever see.
We also have a climate that is generally quite agreeable for cycling—except for that particular span of the calendar commonly known as winter. Across these three months bikes are annually hung in garages or in the back corners of basements until the return of robins and more reasonable thermometer readings.
Some cyclists toil away on indoor trainers or go to the gym during this dark off-time, but sadly, many more seek out the solace that only Netflix, a couch and a bag full of starchy carbohydrates can bring. And after this hibernal hiatus, just before finally saddling up and heading out again into warmer air and the scent of spring blossoms, many bicyclists step onto their bathroom scales and wonder what the heck happened.
Listen carefully: it doesn’t have to be this way.
As a cyclist myself, I’ve always tried to adopt a can-do approach toward winter riding. I figured that with sufficient layers, thick gloves, and a properly stoic attitude anything was possible. But the truth of the matter is this: cold and improperly protected extremities hurt, and being unprepared for winter cycling conditions can not only take the fun out of a ride, it can also be dangerous. Inevitably, the frequency of my wintertime rides would taper as the cold wore on, and it wouldn’t pick up again until it was safe to wear shorts.
This year, I decided to try something different. I asked the experts at the Marietta Adventure Company on Second Street in Marietta about how to go about making cold-weather bicycling not only comfortable, but enjoyable. As long-time advocates of year-round outdoor fitness, they had a lot of great info to share.
Co-owner Ryan Smith, an active winter cyclist himself, took the time to talk about how equipment has improved over the last few years, and to offer tips for staying safe and happy while riding in the cold and snow.
He immediately stressed “the evolution of winter riding equipment over the last five years.” Clothing is now “packaged with temperature ratings for almost every cold-weather condition,” he says, so a rider can be certain of proper warmth for a given air temperature.
As well, footwear, hand protection, and headwear are vastly improved over past offerings. Different shoes and boots are available for progressively colder conditions, and gloves and head and face protection can be had for low temps and wind.
Another innovation, the pogie, has recently come to bicycling from other cold-weather activities. They’re layered and insulated pouch-like covers for either end of the bike’s handlebars. With your hands inside them, you can access the bike’s shifters and brakes, and body heat makes them really quite toasty. Pogies typically have adjustable vents to regulate temperature, and they are revolutionary in the comfort they provide. (My first ride with pogies was in single-digit temps after dark on a windy night, and even though I was only wearing summer gloves, my fingers stayed absolutely pink and warm—it was incredible!)
Smith also recommends “a hybrid bicycle or mountain bike for winter commuting or city riding,” given the variable and generally looser and slicker road surfaces in the winter. He also notes the variety of “tire choices available for winter conditions, including studded tires for icy surfaces.”
As for off-road mountain biking in the cold and snowy season, Smith insists “fat bikes are the go-to option,” especially in the white stuff. These are the monster trucks of mountain biking that have gained quite a following recently, and have tires with widths that approach five inches. These bikes’ traction in slick situations is unbelievable, and they allow mountain bikers to tackle terrain and surfaces with ease that are problematic for a conventional mountain bike. (I own one and I have so much fun on mine, I ride it year round.)
Smith also discussed tips for keeping a properly-regulated body temperature during winter bicycling. He emphasized “moisture management,” especially with regards to clothing. He says to “avoid overdressing and overexerting,” so as to prevent excessive sweating, which can leave a rider wet and at risk for hypothermia later when the pace lets up.
According to Smith, cold weather cyclists need “a thinner, synthetic base layer, an insulating, wicking mid-layer, and an outer, weatherproof shell” for the torso, and tights and either shorts or cycling pants for the legs, depending on the temperature. Similar layering with socks can also be done, and it is important to have winter cycling shoes that fit properly. If the shoes are too tight, this can reduce the insulating properties of socks and can impair circulation, leading to colder feet.
Also, since there’s less daylight during the winter months, it’s good to have proper lighting for your bike if there’s any chance of being out around or after dusk, or if it’s a particularly cloudy day. State law requires lights at nighttime on bicycles in both Ohio and West Virginia. Smith recommends flashing red LED taillights and at least 600-800 lumens of light in the front for safe nighttime travel.
Other considerations include riding with someone else for safety and assistance (or at least letting someone know where you’re going), being able to do basic mechanical repairs during a ride, taking routes with bail-out options should the need arise, and carrying a cell phone in case of emergencies. As well, it’s good to plan for somewhat shorter rides in the winter, since cold weather biking generally requires more exertion.
With the proper equipment, clothing and mindset, it is possible to have excellent winter bicycling experiences. In addition to the benefits of the exercise biking provides, the often austere beauty of the Mid-Ohio Valley during this time of year more than repays the effort needed to safely and comfortably get out and ride. Personally, by following these tips and having the right gear and clothing, I’ve been able to ride more this winter than ever before, and staying warm has not been an issue for me. I hope to see you on the trail.