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Things to know about biking in Chicago during the winter

Winter Biking
Jeremy Stark/Flickr

"You're nuts." I get that a lot when people learn that I ride my bicycle daily during the winter, to and from work. I certainly don't see it that way. As I rode from my Logan Square home to my office in the Loop on February 2, the day after the big Super Bowl Blizzard, I easily cruised past numerous drivers spinning their wheels to extract vehicles from huge snow drifts and miserable people shuffling their frozen feet while waiting for late CTA buses. I felt sorry for them. If only they knew what I and other winter bike commuters know. Dealing with the weather is not as hard as you think. Seriously, you will arrive at your destination warm, dry and clean if you abide by a few simple tips.

Dress smartly. You need to dress warmly without overdoing it. No expensive, techy clothing is necessary. One mistake newbies make when first riding in cold weather is to wear too much bulky clothing. Multiple, thin layers of clothing is the way to go. Each layer traps a bit of warm air while letting moisture escape, creating nice, dry insulation. A heavy parka is not a good bet. You will end up sweating too much and arrive feeling clammy and miserable. 

Install fenders on your bike. This is a must for winter biking, unless you do not mind arriving wearing a suit of road grime. Ideally, the fenders should cover as much of both the rear and front tires as possible to catch as much muck as possible. They need not cost a lot money. A decent set will start around $30. 

The key to not getting hit by a car is to be visible. It is dark a lot in the winter. Being visible means riding with lights and brightly colored or reflective clothing. It also means riding predictably. Illinois law requires bicyclists to ride at night with a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet from the front and a red reflector on the rear that is visible from 100 to 600 feet away. 

You can ride safely on slippery roads. Substantially reducing your tire pressure helps. You will want to reduce the pressure far more than you think. The other thing you can do to better your ability to stay upright in icy conditions is to ride with studded tires. 

Beware the sun. The sun often vanishes for such long periods during the winter. When it does appear, Chicagoans rejoice. But the sun can pose a real danger to cyclists. With ice and sun on the road producing a mirror-like effect, glare from the winter sun can be blinding, which means that drivers may have a harder time seeing you.  

You are not alone. During the first week of February, Chicago saw some pretty brutal winter weather. Yet I've been impressed with the number of people biking through it. It is comforting to see others riding. If you are contemplating winter riding consider reaching out to others who do so for more tips and support. 

Start slowly. Try biking to a nearby store instead of driving. Rent a Divvy bike if you don't have one of your own, or feel that your bike is not up to snuff for winter weather riding. Winter biking should not be drudgery. With a little planning and understanding it is a fun and efficient way to get around Chicago.

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Comments

2 comments
Todd S

Lights, lights, lights!  I've lost count of how many times I know for a fact that a driver saw me because of my lights and chose not to pull out onto the street.  As for warmth - I always tell people...first mile is a bit chilly, but you quickly build up warmth.  Last additional tip - if you're like me, your eyes get quite teary in cold wind...ski goggles are excellent protection, but get them as clear as possible (not tinted) or you'll find night riding in the winter to be dangerous (pot holes are hard to discern from wet pavement).

Ondreij S

Thanks man. It helps me to be reminded of the smart way to go. I ride during the winter in Chicago and, quite honestly, enjoy it as much as skiing in the Rockies. And yeah, as many people know, it can be pretty nerve-testing, so remembering you're not alone, for me, helps a lot. Even a small/short ride makes a big difference.