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BikePGH’s thrifty guide to winter commuting

While we really liked and appreciated Larry Walsh’s article in the Post-Gazette about winter riding, we didn’t want to get anyone scared away from giving it a try due to $450 quote on outfitting yourself for the season. Most people won’t have or won’t want to drop that much cash in order to get to work. While yes, dropping $450 will get you the most up-to-date and technologically advanced gear on the face of the earth, many people, including your friends at the Bike Pittsburgh office, commute year round on small budget, and for the most part, with technologically ancient gear. We guarantee that the thousands of bike commuters in equally frigid-yet-bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen, Toronto, and Montreal get by without dropping loads of cash on gear. Granted, nice gear is really great, especially if you’re training in extreme weather conditions, but most of us just need to get to work. Avoid the idea that if it wasn’t made for cycling, it isn’t any good.

Check out Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery for more great cycling comics

We’re going to start from the top and go down to the toes. This list is also assuming that you just moved here from Los Angeles and don’t have any winter gear at all. Most of us in Pittsburgh already have at least some of these items, so just strike it from your list as you do the math.

Head: Keeping heat from leaving through the top of your head is extremely important. Not only must the covering keep heat in, but it must also fit under your helmet (we’re assuming that we don’t need to tell you to wear one). It’s also nice if it does double-duty and covers up your ears. Some really nice models can be picked up for $15-$40, but your $5 Steelers knit cap that you got in the Strip District will probably work just fine on most days. We also liked Larry Walsh’s advice that “helmet vents, wide open during hot weather, should be closed or covered with tape. If the tape reflects light, so much the better.”

Cost: $5-$40 ($0 for Steelers fans)

Face and neck: Balaclavas work great for keeping the wind chill off your face and neck and keeping your nose from freezing. They can also be a bit expensive at $25-$40. If you don’t want to buy one, a scarf will work great at covering up these parts, but make sure that it’s tucked into your jacket because you don’t want the end getting caught in your wheels. Granted, they are a bit bulkier, but most of us have one already. Again, if you don’t have one, there are some nice fleece ones with a beautiful Steelers print available in the Strip for $5.

Cost: $5-$40

Eyes: If you don’t normally wear glasses, on the really, really cold days, the wind chill can make your eyes water up and affect you and your vision. A pair of ski goggles or workshop goggles work well in minimizing this. If you do wear glasses, check out this thread on our messageboard where local cyclists give their tips on how to keep their specs from fogging up.

Cost: $5-$40

The Body (inner layer): One thing that you have to remember is that when you’re riding, you are using your body and creating a ton of heat. A smart cyclist will know how to keep that core heat in, while also being able to let the heat go if and when she gets too warm, which is more frequent than you’d imagine. Avoid overdressing and start out a little cold. We can’t stress enough about how important it is to dress in layers because it allows you to easily regulate your temperature, and by default, your comfort. Long Johns are so important on the coldest of days. If you have wool ones, then you’re set, although sometimes they are almost too warm for most of the winter. While it is nice to have an inner layer, like wool or a synthetic that wicks sweat away, on most rides, regular Long Johns will work fine. Pittsburgh is interesting because pretty much wherever you are live, a commute to Downtown is downhill. So in the mornings you’re doing a lot of coasting, and not creating that much heat and sweat, but on the ride home you’re climbing will tend to warm up. Plan your gear for both situations. It’s better to be stuck with too much and throw the extra layer in your bag, than it is to be with too little and freeze your bum off.

Cost: $20-$100

Body (outer layer): What you don’t want to do is wear your large heavy winter jacket. Not only will this not do a good job keeping you warm while you’re riding, the weight and bulkiness of it will make you tired and uncomfortable. A good fleece that will act as insulation, covered by a windbreaker is all you really need for all but the most extreme conditions. This is also where the price of gear has the largest range. While it is possible to find these items at a thrift store for $5 each (I DID!), if you are buying new, they can get expensive, so expect to spend a minimum of between $30-$50 each. Prices for an outer shell or windbreaker will go up to $200, yikes!!

Cost: $10-$250

Hands: Beside the fact that they are out in the cold and the wind-chill, your hands are also locked in the same position on the bike for your entire ride. This can reduce circulation and you can get really cold hands.

Full fingered gloves made for cycling are generally ok down to freezing, but beyond that you are going to need something warmer.

Getting a pair of glove liners greatly extends both the range and the life of your gloves. Instead of sweating into your nice pair of gloves, you sweat into the cheaper liners, which are also easier to dry out.

Ski gloves work really well for cycling in the winter as there are many similarities between what you require of your hands in the two activities. These are designed with the fact that the hand will be locked in the same position all day too, except around a ski pole rather than an handlebar. Also, they usually have a good grip and have some sort of water resistant or waterproof quality.

There are some nice cycling specific models out there as well.

Just realize in Pittsburgh, you need to deal with wet days more than extremely cold days. I personally have a couple pairs of cheap ski gloves, so that if one pair gets wet, i just put it by the heater and put on the dry pair.

The best rundown of glove options is at icebike.org, the authorities on winter riding.

Cost: $5-$40

Legs: Since you’re pumping your legs when you’re riding, as long as you’re not wearing a skirt or thin pants, they will be fine. Some people swear by wearing leg warmers covered by shorts. Whatever you decide to wear, make sure that your right pant leg doesn’t get caught in your chain. This can be prevented by rolling up your pant, tucking it into your sock, or better yet, getting a reflective velcro strap at your local bike shop. If you plan on riding in wet conditions, you’ll be happier if you have a pair of rain pants. Rain pants are also good for keeping the wind chill factor down.

Cost: $5-$80

Feet Books have been written on the best way to cover your winter riding toes. There are tons of options out there, but many are out of reach for those of us on a budget. The thing is, you need to deal with two main things: 1) wind chill and 2) moisture.

If you are fine with riding with flat pedals, with no toe straps or clips, you have it made. Many lightweight hiking shoes will fill this role and still fit on your pedals. Make sure that there is no mesh or other features on the shoes that will allow cold air to blow right in. What many people do is keep a pair of work shoes and socks at the office or workplace so that they can simply change out of their road salted, wet shoes and socks. On the really cold days, it’s nice to have a pair of insulated shoes.

If you insist on being clipped onto your pedals, there are options as well. For a clipless shoe, they make booties out of the same material as a wet suit to cover up your road shoes and keep you warmed up. These don’t work very well on keeping your feet dry. There are also many companies that make harsh-winter specific clipless boots.

For riding with toe clips and straps, your options are fewer. Most shoes that have wind protection or insulation won’t fit in toe clips. If this is your choice, find a pair of sneakers that are full leather and just suck it up and deal. Again, keep a second pair of shoes and socks at work.

Cost: $40-$240

Your Bike
As far as getting your bike ready for winter, the best thing you can do is get your bike outfitted with fenders and lights.

$20-$40

For other ideas on biking to work that aren’t necessarily winter specific, but are useful all year round, check out our handy “Bike to Work Guide.” The guide is full of ideas on how to bike to work, how to carry stuff, how to dress, etc.

So there you have it, if you have absolutely no winter gear (not recommended for anyone who lives in Pittsburgh, bike or not), consider dropping around $100 to purchase the things that will help you whether you are on your bike or taking the bus.

For the best resource on winter cycling, check out icebike.org. You’ll find tons of useful tips on winter riding and bike maintenance.

9 Responses to “BikePGH’s thrifty guide to winter commuting”

  1. alankhg says:

    Fenders are important in the winter to keep road spray out of your drivetrain. It’s also important to lubricate a whole lot more, especially with salt on the roads! Do whatever to lubricate the chain so it doesn’t turn into a squeaky rust-ball, and protect pretty much everything exposed and steely with WD-40 or something similar– that includes pretty much everything that moves or turns on the bike that needs to continue doing so.

  2. dmtroyer says:

    I would never recommend WD-40 as a chain lubricant. http://bicycletutor.com/no-wd40-bike-chain/

  3. paytonc says:

    One of our intrepid Bike Winter-ites here in snowy Chicago wrote up this great thrift-y guide to BW. Then he moved to California.

    Different people get cold in different ways. I find hands and feet to be a big challenge. For hands, mittens are much warmer and, if fitted correctly, don’t cost too much dexterity (I can still lock up in them). The tried-and-true hobo solution for feet — plastic bags — actually works. To make it look a little less stupid, put them on between sock and shoe.

  4. JohnH778 says:

    WD-40 is definitely no good for chains, though if you have let a little corrosion happen on some of your steel parts, it’s a cheap way to scrub it off. Steel frames really benefit from a spray on the inside with something called Frame Saver; it’ll keep the saltwater that seeps in through the holes in your frame from eating it from the inside.

    Two words for when the ice gets rough on the road: studded tires. You can get cheap ones made by Innova that come as small as 700×35 which aren’t as nice as the big Nokians (and might just fit on your road wheels!), but will keep you from sliding into a parked SUV.

  5. Kramhorse says:

    So when I was young and stupid I would ride all winter on 27 x 1 1/4″ road tires, and despite the ice I’d generally get by ok. I just started regularly commuting again this summer and was planning on riding (carefully) on 700C tires with a modest tread. Anyone else commute all winter on a regular road bike? Am I an idiot? All the winter riding articles I read are suggesting I need ridiculous 12″ wide full knobby tires with metal studs.

  6. sloaps says:

    When the streets are clear or there is fresh snow and no ice, I have no problems with my road bike, but when conditions are subzero temps with black ice I switch to the mountain bike with slicks. I hate taking spills coming down the slopes, but it’s inevitable :'(

    Also, I try to clean my bike with hot water and shop rags at least once a week, to combat the accumulated salts and soil. Simple Green to clean the chain, cogs and crank then apply white lightning wax lube generously.

  7. [...] of our more popular posts over the years is the Thrifty Guide to Winter Commuting.  The post include tips on staying warm and making sure your bike has the most useful equipment [...]

  8. myergin says:

    All of the discussions have been great except nobody has talked about the elephant in the living room of winter bike riding: ice. Having experienced the (?)pleasure of unexpected ice on the road and done a little bit of body surfing I find the possibility of ice more than anything is what limits my bike riding during winter snow season.

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