Chicagoans offer tips to keep the pedals turning this winter


Gin Kilgore rides with her son Miguel Burton-Kilgore. Photo by Martha Williams.

[This article also runs in Momentum magazine.]

It’s November and days are getting shorter and colder. If you live in the Upper Midwest or the Northeast, sleet, slush, snow and ice are just around the corner, so maybe you’re thinking about mothballing your bike for the next four months.

Instead, Gin Kilgore suggests you give cold-weather biking a spin. She helped found Bike Winter, a Chicago-based grassroots organization that promotes all-season cycling, with offshoots in St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. “Winter biking helps you stay active and in the sunshine all year, which is so good for the body and mind,” Kilgore says. “And it sure beats shivering at the bus stop.”

If you normally get around on a European-style city bike, your vehicle is probably well equipped for inclement weather; otherwise it may be time to winterize. Mark Beaver, co-owner of Cyclesmith bike shop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a few suggestions for accessories to keep your bike out of the basement. “Halifax winters are, in a word, changeable,” he says. “We get storms that start as snow which turns into rain and then freezes into ice, so you have to be prepared for anything.”

To keep the cold and wet off your feet, back, and bike, Beaver recommends full fenders with mudflaps. A chainguard is especially helpful for protecting your clothes this time of year. Less daylight means you’ll be riding in the dark more often, so a white headlight and a red rear blinkie are essential. Assuming your city does a decent job of plowing after snowstorms, whatever tires you normally use should work fine. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of riding on snow, consider switching to wider tires with knobby tread.


Use a good headlight so others can see you. 

How you dress is at least as important as what you ride. “You’re not going to have any fun if you’re cold,” says Beaver. “But a lot of items the active person may already own are good for winter cycling.” He recommends investing in a waterproof, breathable jacket and wearing several thin layers on your upper and lower body you can put on and take off as temperatures fluctuate.

Gin Kilgore likes to layer with silk long underwear tops and bottoms. “They’re warm, lightweight, wicking and not prone to being stinky,” she says. Polypropylene and Merino wool undergarments are also great. It’s important to pay special attention to keeping your extremities warm. Keep your hands toasty with ski gloves or mittens and wear a wool or fleece hat or balaclava under your helmet. The Power Cap, a trim, black fleece cycling cap with earflaps by Louis Garneau, is a popular choice. [It’s available locally at Grid Chicago sponsor shop (and John’s employer) Boulevard Bikes.]

As for feet, Kilgore recommends buying waterproof, windproof boots one-half to one size too big to leave plenty of room for thick socks and toe wiggling. Or try NEOS, warm, waterproof overshoes you can wear over fancy footwear.

[For other winter cycling gift ideas, check out Grid Chicago’s Holiday gift guide.]

Staying cozy on a bike doesn’t have to mean bulky clothes or head-to-toe performance outerwear. Dottie Brackett, who blogs at Let’s Go Ride a Bike, offers the following ideas for a “sleek and streamlined” winter cycling look for women. Layer tights over warm, wool leggings, under your favorite skirt or dress. Wool socks and chemical toe warmers allow you to wear your favorite fashionable boots, even if they’re not insulated. Top it off with a thick sweater, a double-breasted wool jacket and a stylish scarf and you’ve got a smart, practical outfit for pedaling.


Photo courtesy of Let’s Go Ride a Bike.

Once you’re ready to ride, if your residential street isn’t plowed yet, walk your bike to the nearest major street. In the saddle, remember to ride a bit slower than usual to maintain control in wet conditions, and stay seated for maximum traction on snow or ice. If you live in a town like Minneapolis with off-street commuting paths that are maintained during the winter, try using these trails as a traffic-free alternative. And if the weather gets to be too much for you, don’t hesitate to put your bike on a bus or train for a well-earned ride home.

Since precipitation and road salt can wreck havoc on bicycles, it’s important that your bike be cleaned and lubricated on a regular basis. Consider attending a winter maintenance clinic at a nonprofit community bike shop. Otherwise, this is a great time to get friendly with the mechanics at your local for-profit store. Since it’s the slow season, they’ll probably be happy to oil your chain, top off the tires and give the frame a quick wipe-down for free, especially if you tip them now and then with homemade cookies or a six-pack of stout.

One of the best things about cold-weather biking is “winter spirit,” the heightened sense of camaraderie you’ll have with other bicyclists who choose to fight cabin fever and celebrate the season. And while winter cycling might be challenging at first, Kilgore promises it gets easier and more fun with experience. “Get tips from lots of other people, check the websites and embrace the learning curve,” she advises. “It might take some time, but you’ll figure it out.”

[To get you psyched for the upcoming winter biking season, here’s a directory of cold-weather bike events across North America:  rides, bike swaps, parties and more that John compiled for Momentum magazine.]

Now in its 13th year, this New York City alleycat and scavenger hunt on November 19 will draw over 100 competitors to race around Manhattan for a good cause, with spin-off events in dozens of other towns. Messengers and other cyclists will scour the aisles of grocery stores collecting food items to donate to a local homeless shelter.

SFBC Winterfest
Over a thousand members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will gather to celebrate the local bike scene at this annual gala on December 4. The party features a local art auction, deals on 25 new bikes, dancing to DJs, beer from New Belgium and, of course, a free bike valet.

Bike Denver Winter Solstice Ride
Festoon your bike with lights and bells and join this social ride on December 22, benefiting the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. The group will visit the Colfax, Congress Park, Capital Hill and Washington Park neighborhoods, known for their festive holiday lighting, and then warm up at a local tavern.

Polar Bear Ride
This New Year’s Day cruise is a fundraiser for Velo City, a nonprofit that teaches New York City youth about urban planning via bicycling. The ten-mile ride starts at 1 pm, rolls up the west side of Manhattan to Harlem visiting urban design landmarks along the way, and ends at a cozy lounge.

BTA’s Annual New Year’s Day Ride
Portland, Oregon’s, Bicycle Transportation Alliance invites you to “Start the new year off right, with a bike ride!” This mellow group ride leaves from the west end of the Burnside Bridge, visits a few of the advocacy group’s recent projects, and ends with cocoa and snacks.

The Polka Ride
On January 27 over 100 cyclists will brave the cold for this annual tradition, gathering under Chicago’s giant Picasso sculpture and cruising ten miles to Lincoln Square Lanes bowling alley to dance to the Polkaholics. Expect to see riders wearing lederhosen and a giant pierogi costume.

[flickr]photo:6345274496[/flickr] Pierogi John and Garth Katner at the Polka Ride – photo courtesy of Katner

Bikes Inside
This bicycle-themed dance party in Vancouver invites you to “Bring your bike in from the cold!” The February event features DJs, live performances and bike photography, art and video; last year’s party included bike polo, gold sprint races, freak bikes for test riding, and an appearance by the B:C:Clettes bicycle dance team.

Zoobomb Minibike Winter Olympics
Freak bikers gather in Portland, Oregon, on February 17-20 for a celebration of the city’s unique “Zoobomb” subculture, thrill-seekers who zoom down the hill by the Oregon Zoo on kids’ BMX cycles. This rowdy weekend of games, races and parties promises to be “big fun on little bikes.”


Last year’s Chicago Cycle Swap at the Pulaski Fieldhouse

Chicago Cycle Swap

Chicago Bike Winter and the Active Transportation Alliance present this festival of gear and know-how on March 3 with dozens of shops, nonprofits and individuals offering great deals, plus presentations on winter commuting, cargo biking and more.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

5 thoughts on “Chicagoans offer tips to keep the pedals turning this winter”

  1. I ride all year. Sleet and ice are not so nice, and deep snow it is hard to go, so sometimes I must get off and push my bicycle through foot or deeper snow. I lose my license in G. Ryan license for bribes into the republican campaign fund, so since 1998 the Sec of State of IL runs me off the road buries me in bureaucracy so I ride a bicycle in rain, snow, sleet, hail, high winds, and tornadoes while G. Ryan is in prison convicted for racketeering, bribery, and extortion.  And I am so lucky that I am not guilty for paying into that fund after G. Ryan’s wife dies adn he is in prison.

      1. I highly reccomend insulated workd gloves- not the leather ones but a basic work glove with thinsulate. Unless it gets to 0 farenheit they work great. Until it gets that cold ski gloves hold too much moisture on the way to work and then are not useable going home.

  2. I’ll share a winter riding tip I learned the hard way.  In fall and winter, when pavement conditions are more likely to be slippery due to wet leaves, ice or snow, take your turns a little slower and stay upright as you turn.  If you would normally lean into a turn, resist that temptation.  It’s much easier to maintain control if your weight is above the wheels.

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