When my electric cargo bike arrived in mid-November, several people commented on how unfortunate it was that the bike came so late in the season. “You’ll have to wait until spring to see how it rides,” they said. Clearly, these people don’t know me very well because cold, wet, and even snowy weather has never been an obstacle! There is no bad weather for biking, just bad clothing. If you know how to dress, and how to handle a bicycle in slippery conditions, you can ride all year round.
I live in Ontario, Canada, in a town on the edge of Lake Huron that doesn’t get terribly cold weather (most January days are between 14ºF and 28ºF), but there’s a lot of wind and snow buildup. I realize that everyone’s conditions differ greatly, depending on where they live, so I’ll try to keep the following advice as broad as possible. The bottom line is to use common sense and assess the riding conditions daily, as these can change rapidly.
What to Wear
Electric bikes are similar to conventional bikes in that you don’t need to dress as warmly as if you were out walking. Stay on the cool side, even a bit uncomfortably cool at first, following the classic advice, “Never dress for just the first mile.” With the electric assist, however, you won’t get as hot and sweaty as you would on a regular bike, so keep that in mind.
After my very first e-bike ride, which happened to be through a heavy, frigid November rain, I ordered a pair of basic rain pants from outdoor gear retailer MEC. This was a smart purchase that I now use almost every time I leave the house. They’re better than snow pants because they’re light and thin, offering a water- and wind-proof layer over tights. (My colleague Lloyd has said that fenders are sufficient for him and he hasn’t had to use waterproof shell pants, but that’s not my experience.)
For footwear, I just use my Blundstone boots, as they’re fairly lightweight (more so than my regular winter boots) and adequately warm with an insole and pair of wool socks. Some serious riders prefer special riding shoes, which can be weather-proofed by adding a Neoprene overshoe.
Gloves are a must. I use the same old pair of leather gloves I’ve had for years, but a post on Outside Online suggests buying a pair of split-finger mittens, which frees up your index finger for manipulating gears and brakes more easily. This is a smart idea, since mittens are so much warmer than gloves, and I do find my fingers go numb after a while. This might be my next bike-related purchase.
Don’t forget about your head! Just because you have a helmet on doesn’t mean you shouldn’t insulate your head. Choose a thin hat, balaclava, or thermal layer that fits under your helmet. Add a neck gaiter to avoid snow flying into your neck and that you can pull up over your mouth for added protection.
Choose brightly colored clothing. Visibility is more important than ever during the dark winter months. I feel more confident knowing my bike is orange and my Arc’teryx shell is bright red. People can see me a mile away – although this also means that everyone knows where I am at all times (welcome to small-town life) and tells me they’ve tracked my progress around town. Still, I’d rather be highly visible and intact than squashed by a car.
How to Ride
Winter riding requires a slightly different set of skills than in the summer. Generally, you’ll have to slow your speed and be more cautious about pavement conditions, which can change rapidly from dry to wet to icy. If you hit ice, proceed steadily and slowly.
When I took my e-bike on a particularly icy snow-packed shortcut last week, I found that using just the throttle worked better than pedaling with the electric assist, since every time I pushed down on the pedals it caused the tires to spin a bit.
The RadPower team recommends using both brakes to get more braking power. Don’t be afraid of the front brake; it offers more stopping power than the rear. Slow down before making a turn, rather than trying to brake while in a turn. If you need to make a forceful stop, brace yourself against the handlebars and pedals to maintain control.
It’s recommended not to hug the curb when riding in winter. This is “where broken glass, bits of rusted metal from cars, and general road debris build up as the rain washes it to the shoulder. This stuff will make an unpleasant riding experience and can puncture your tires.” Fortunately, cars tend to give cyclists a wider berth in winter – if this is the case in your area, don’t hesitate to occupy more of the lane.
Make sure you’ve got good, strong lights on the bike – at least one big headlight and a red rear light. I like to set my rear light to flashing when riding in darker conditions because it’s more noticeable than when it’s solid. Add extra lights to your backpack, helmet, or handlebars if you can. (I have a friend who rides with fairy lights entwined around the body of her bike, in addition to regular lights; those are hard to miss!)
Tires typically need less pressure in winter than in summer:
“Just like with a car tire, reduced pressure makes a bike tire squish out a little bit and gain better traction. For snowy roads, some people like mountain bike tires for all conditions, others like big, fat, knobby ones to gain even more traction and float over the slush, snow, sand, and grit below.”
Since my RadWagon tires are more than three inches in width, they’re already close to a fat-bike tire, which makes me feel stable and secure.
The battery needs special care in colder weather. It should be stored and charged at temperatures between 50ºF and 77ºF (10-25ºC). Store the bike in a dry place, and if it’s not heated, remove the battery and take it inside with you.
Avoid submerging the bike in water by staying out of deep puddles or streams. You never want to submerge an e-bike, as it can cause damage to electronic components.
You will need to clean your bike more frequently after winter riding. Try to let the bike dry before using a wet brush to remove dirt on the frame, followed by wiping with a rag soaked in chain cleaner. Avoid detergents that could degrade the lubricants on brake pads.
Riding at temperatures below -4ºF (-20ºC) is not recommended in general, so consider alternate forms of transportation on those really frigid days.
Don’t let winter scare you off your e-bike! With the right clothing and riding tactics, you can engage in a great form of exercise that gets you from point A to point B while banishing the winter blues and boosting your energy.
Note: Always read your bike’s owner’s manual carefully and heed the manufacturer’s safety instructions.