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winter biker in the Loop, Chicago
Photograph: Page Light Studios / Shutterstock.com

6 essential tips for winter biking in Chicago

We asked experts about how to stay warm and keep you bike in good shape.

Zach Long
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Zach Long
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There will always be brave Chicagoans who don't mind jumping on their bikes when winter arrives, bringing with it frigid temperatures and the occasional deluge of snow. And with many folks ditching trains, buses and rideshares right now, the number of people bearing cold winds and dodging piles of slush on their bicycles seems to have only increased this winter.

"I have seen more cyclists out on the Lakefront Trail than I have any other year," said Half Acre Cycling club member Haley Engle, who uses the Lake Michigan-adjacent path to commute 6.5 miles from Wrigleyville to her workplace in the Loop. Engle began commuting by bike upon arriving in Chicago almost nine years ago as a way to save money, eschewing the expenses of car ownership or frequent rides on CTA buses and trains. She's continued to ride—no matter the season—because she finds commuting by bike to be a "rewarding, enjoyable and peaceful experience."

Riders interested in learning more about pedaling in the winter have turned to local bike shops like Bucktown's BBF Bikes, which hosted a well-attended winter cycling clinic via Zoom in November. "We have a lot of people coming in and looking for winter riding gear," BFF Bikes co-owner Gillian Forsyth said, noting that her shop's mechanics have been "unprecedentedly busy" during this winter season.

If you're among the increasing number of Chicagoans considering bundling up and navigating the city's streets and trails on two wheels in the coming months, we've assembled some tips provided by experienced winter cyclists.

1. Invest in fenders

A good pair of fenders won't just help protect you from getting splashed with the slush that often lines Chicago streets (and piles up in bike lanes) during the winter—they'll also help prevent some of that muck from getting caked on the rest of your bike. Fenders are the first thing that Forsyth recommends to her winter cycling-curious customers at BFF Bikes, whether its a simple rear-mounted clip-in fender that keeps the splatter off your back or a pair of full or partial fenders that can be mounted over both of your wheels, providing additional protection.

2. Try to keep salt off your bike

One of Chicago's first lines of defense for keeping roads and paths free of ice is salt, which has a tendency to coat your bike and eat away at components. The best remedy? Giving your bike a bath to wash off the accumulated grime. Engle told us that she takes off a wheel to put her bike in the tub every few weeks, noting "the key equipment for bathtub washing is a removable shower head on a hose." If you're trying to keep your ride out of the bathroom, follow Forsyth's advice and use a bottle of water and some soap to quickly spray and wipe down your bike after returning from a ride.

3. Gear up to keep yourself warm and dry

Perhaps the most intimidating aspect of biking during the winter is exposing yourself to conditions that are frequently cold and wet. "Hands and the feet are the most important things to keep warm," Forsyth said, recommending that regular winter riders invest in a pair of warm socks and lobster gloves, which group your fingers together (like a lobster's claw) to increase warmth while still allowing the dexterity needed to shift gears and operate your brakes. If you find yourself rolling through a lot of puddles during your rides, Engle suggests purchasing waterproof shoe covers and waterproof cycling pants that are fitted so they don't rub against your bike and have vents to increase breathability.

4. Don't forget about maintenance

While you don't necessarily need to take your bike in for the kind of tune-up that many cyclists traditionally have done in the spring, you should take the condition of your bike's various parts into consideration when riding in the winter. For those with brakes that use pads (as opposed to the increasingly common disc brakes), Forsyth advises riders to consider getting a fresh pair of pads to prepare for cold-weather commutes and the slippery conditions that can make coming to a complete stop a bit more challenging. You might also want to get some grease to keep your bike's chain lubricated, because as Engle puts it, "That's what's going to create a layer of protection between your bike components and the salt and the wetness."

5. Learn how to layer

Even if you're not ready to buy a balaclava or some specialized winter biking gear, you can stay warm during your ride by embracing layering. "Wear two pairs of gloves, wear a thick pair of socks, wear three jackets if you need to—and if you get too hot, unzip one of them," Engle said, explaining that layering clothing you already own is an efficient (and affordable way) to confront the cold. You'll likely warm up as your heart rate increases during your ride, which means that you can easily strip off some layers and stash them in a bag if you overheat.

6. Make safe choices according to the conditions

Even experienced winter cyclists can get intimidated by slippery patches of ice or the prospect of riding through a layer of unplowed snow. "It just takes practice, it can be a little bit nerve-wracking," Engle said about pedaling through precipitation during Chicago's colder months. If you encounter conditions that you're uncomfortable with while on your bike, it never hurts to change course to avoid them—particularly along the Lakefront Trail, where sliding on some ice could send you careening into Lake Michigan (you've seen the news helicopter videos). And when it comes to protecting your noggin if you do wipe out, wearing a helmet is never a bad idea.

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