According to the calendar, winter officially starts Dec. 21. In Minnesota, however, where low temps were in the single digits in mid-November and the ground is covered with snow, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been using the term “winter” for weeks. Despite the conditions, there are many dedicated people who continue to ride their bicycles every day, whether they are commuting or exercising. The benefits of winter cycling are multiple:
- First and foremost, there is the financial savings. Eliminating gas and parking costs allows one more money for … whatever.
- Secondly, when you work out in the cold, your metabolism rises to keep you warm, in turn causing you to burn more calories.
- Regular exercise boosts your immune system, so you’ll be less likely to catch a cold or flu.
- Regularly engaging in strenuous activities acts as a natural antidepressant, helping you avoid the “winter blues” – technically, Seasonal Affective Disorder – which are caused by a lack of sunlight and aversion to cold temperatures.
If you’re a winter bike rider, or considering joining their ranks, here are some helpful safety tips to keep you on the road and out of trouble while cycling this winter:
Probably the most critical rule of winter bike riding is to be visible. With shorter days and less available daylight, you want to make sure motorists can see you. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), cars with “low-beam headlights will allow you to spot an object on the road about 160 feet ahead. Most drivers need about 1.5 seconds to react.” A 2017 Danish study showed that bicyclists wearing yellow, high-visibility bicycling clothing were at reduced risk for accidents. The controlled trial involved 6,793 cyclists, with 3,402 of them wearing high-visibility clothing and 3,391 without. The cyclists wearing high-visibility clothing had 47 percent fewer multiparty accidents with personal injury, and 55 percent fewer multiparty accidents with motorized vehicles. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925753517313528) What else can you do? Bikewinter.org recommends using “front white and rear red lights and reflective tape and/or clothing to make sure you can be seen from the front, side and back.” A rear reflector and lights that blink can also help motorists better identify you as a cyclist.
Lower the saddle
Lowering your saddle so your feet can sit flat on the ground when sitting on the seat will strengthen your stability and improve your center of gravity so that you can quickly put your feet on the ground when you lose your balance. That’s when you lose your balance, not if. You will lose your balance riding through piles of wet, slushy snow or over black ice, so it’s important to be ready to put down your feet or even dismount on a moment’s notice. If you do fall, roll with the impact and keep your hands on your handlebars or as close to your body as possible. Don’t try to reach and brace yourself; otherwise, you risk a sprain or fracture.
Let air out of your tires
Tires with a little give – that is, tires that aren’t filled to the maximum pressure – will give you more grip on a slippery road surface. That extra give might also save you from a flat tire if you hit a pothole, which becomes even more difficult to see in the winter. An article on REI.com on winter biking suggested decreasing the tire pressure by 20-30 psi. There are plenty of styles of tires to choose from: mountain bike tires, fat tires, skinny tires, even studded tires. Find the style that’s right for you and your bike to traverse the different road conditions you’ll encounter in winter.
Follow the rules of the road
Regardless of the time year, it’s always good to remember the rules of the road and ride responsibly. The NHTSA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree on the following strategies:
- Drive with the flow, in the same direction as traffic.
- Obey street signs, signals, and road markings, just like an automobile driver.
- Use correct hand signals to warn motorists and other cyclists the direction you’re turning or whether you’re stopping.
- Assume the other person doesn’t see you.
- Keep an eye out for hazards or situations that could result in a wipeout, such as toys, pebbles, potholes, grates, and train tracks.
- Stop and look both ways before entering a street.
Wear a helmet
Wearing a helmet would seem to be a no-brainer, but a 2015 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) showed that only 18 percent of cyclists wear helmets – even though research shows that wearing a helmet reduces the odds of a head injury by 50 percent, and the odds of damage to the face or neck by 33 percent. (https://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/pedestrians-and-bicyclists/fatalityfacts/bicycles)