Winter can be hard for commuting cyclists. It’s depressing to think about riding a stationary bike in the basement or going to the gym to keep those endorphins pumping and strong legs going. Natalia Mendez of Freewheel Bike in Minneapolis knows first hand that there’s no need for sorrow—and shares her approach for getting commuter customers ready to ride. You can put the winter blues to rest before they start.
I’m Natalia Mendez, and I’ve been using my bike to get around in all kinds of crazy weather for the past eight years. Although I’ve raced cyclocross, road, and track in recent years, I don’t see my commitment to commuting changing any time soon.
Every year I see the number of fellow winter commuters increasing, even in winters as harsh as the one we experienced in Minneapolis last year. It never ceases to make me smile and wave a gloved hand in solidarity. At the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error with my own winter commuting, but I’m so glad I stuck it out. I learned a lot those first few years, and now I get to share the good stuff with our customers at Freewheel Bike.
Freewheel has three locations in Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, one of which is right on the Greenway, our local bike highway. It’s a great place to stop for snacks or coffee, or to use the public shop, and it’s also the location of our Winter Bike Expo, where I lead a seminar on winter commuting. The other location where I work is just a few blocks from another Greenway exit in an area called the West Bank. It’s close to the bike path, the University of Minnesota campus, and a neighborhood with a growing Somali community. We have a very wide customer base, with about 30 percent of our customers commuting to work in summer—and about half of those people continuing on through winter.
Not a week goes by without someone coming in looking to gain the independence and health benefits that come from regular bicycle commuting. Many of these people intend to ride through the colder months as well, and there are a few things I make sure to mention:
There is no wrong way to commute through the winter.
You can throw studs on your existing hybrid or mountain bike, framesave your old steel whip, or buy a sweet new fat bike. What you do is up to you, as long as you’re having fun and you’re comfortable while doing it.
Bike handling skills in winter can be a little more demanding.
A lot of folks are concerned about falling, which leads me to talk about traction and flotation, teaching customers about proper tire pressure and the many fat and/or studded tire options there are to choose from. Will they mostly ride on hard-packed snow and ice-covered streets, or roll over big ol’ snow piles? Also let them know they may take a spill or two as they get things figured out and that it’s OK! Even the most seasoned commuters fall once in a while.
Apparel is the hardest thing to nail down.
Don’t let your customers get discouraged if it takes them a bit of time to figure it out. Every day is different, so make sure there’s room in a bag or pannier to store extra layers. Staying dry is so important, and full fenders are great for keeping off the slop. Dressing for 10 degrees warmer than the actual outside temperature has prevented me from overheating many times. Help your customers figure out their material and layering preferences, whether wool or synthetics, and caution them to avoid cotton at all costs. Suggest that they invest in a good, packable wind jacket that keeps the chill off and won’t take up much room in a jersey pocket or frame bag when it’s not needed.
Visibility and safety are huge concerns when we have so few hours of light.
I recommend at least 100 lumens of light or more on the front of the bike. If customers have an outlet at home or at work where they can keep an eye on an expensive light, USB rechargeable units are my go-to because they’re easy to keep charged up. Higher-lumen lights running at lower settings last longer if riders have more than a few miles in their route. I also recommend throwing little blinky light sets into their bag as backups in case of emergency. High-visibility vests and reflective tape on helmets, bags, and bike are a great idea for added safety.
The idea of flats in the winter may scare some people.
I recommend keeping a bus pass on hand as a backup plan, and a pair of latex or nitrile gloves in their flat kit to prevent their hands from freezing. This way they can maintain their manual dexterity and aren’t fumbling around in bulky gloves trying to mount a cold, stiff tire bead. Toss a snack in the flat kit too—we burn more energy in the winter and no one wants to bonk or have a low blood sugar meltdown when trying to change a flat in the snow.
Good commuting routes make a difference.
Some people prefer bike trails without cars, so it’s good to find out how well routes are maintained in the winter, and offer up a few options if you’re familiar with the area. My preference is the snow emergency routes or streets that get plowed and salted first, but make sure your customers are comfortable riding close to traffic. In these situations, they shouldn’t be afraid to take the lane. I also try to be courteous to drivers, as many of them are as scared of hitting us as we are of being hit. Eye contact and communication with hand signals is key here.
The biggest off-the-bike concerns I get are questions about storage and cleaning.
I recommend bringing the bike indoors if possible to prevent extra abuse from temperature fluctuations. Set it on a towel or cardboard to catch some of the drips. If you must keep it in the garage, be extra diligent about wiping the frame down, kicking off the slush stalactites, and keeping the chain lubed. Wet or wax-based lubes work well in the winter. Make sure to get an overhaul in the spring, as salt, sand, and melting agents on the street can wreak havoc on a drivetrain, and wear out chains quickly. I’ve noticed I burn through them fast in the winter.
Commuting isn’t racing.
One of the final tips I stress when getting a customer set up for any kind of commuting is to allow themselves enough time to get ready and to ride. Commuting is not racing, and in the winter it’s especially important not to have to push it too hard. Most falls happens when taking a corner too quickly or stopping too fast. Be sure to account for weather conditions. If it snowed four inches the night before and the streets haven’t been plowed, it could really slow down a commute. Also factor in time to freshen up. Unscented wet wipes and deodorant are good things to keep at work if your job doesn’t have showering facilities. Keeping extra clothing and shoes at work is helpful, too, to keep the cargo weight down on the ride in.
Being excited and helpful when future winter commuters ask questions can really allay a lot of their fears and get them excited, too!
It’s reassuring to people starting their first snowy rides to know they have a home base full of knowledgeable staff to turn to for help as they figure out their perfect winter riding setup.