Road Rules for the Four-Season Bike Commuter

Expert tips for staying safe on the winter streets

Now’s the time when many fair-weather bike commuters pack it in for the season. You don't have to be one of them.

For advice on riding in the cold months, we reached out to Massachusetts-based Belmont Wheelworks, recently voted one of the best bike shops in the country by our readers. We spoke to Wheelworks co-founder and part-owner Peter Mooney for tips on staying safe when the temperature drops. Also see parts one and two of this series: What to Wear and Your Winter-Ready Bike.

Temperature: “The very first thing I do in the morning is go to the kitchen and look at that little thermometer pasted to the window” said Mooney. “You’ve always got to keep your eye on the thermometer. One minute water is no challenge at all, and the next it’s frozen and will put you on your butt in short order.”

A few things to keep in mind:

Keep an eye out for “that magic 32-degree number,” said Mooney. “Inherently it’s very dangerous to ride on two wheels on ice. There are days where the sensible thing to do is to leave the bike at home.”

 “The places where you get in trouble is where the temperature is doing that flip flop,” he said. It may be sunny during the day when you go out for lunch, but “at the end of the workday and the sun’s gone down, all that melt freezes and you’ve got an ice rink out there.”

 “If you commute early in the morning, the temperature is colder and there will be ice.”

 Also remember: It gets darker earlier, meaning you may have very different riding conditions before and after work.

Encountering Ice: “Remember shady areas,” said Mooney. If the sun’s been out a couple hours and “you’ve been riding along happy as a clam, chances are there’s still ice on the road. You have to make that judgement about, ‘Is that going to be a slippery surface, or is it not?’

“If you end up on ice, don’t apply your brakes abruptly, and don’t turn. As long as you’re going in a nice straight line, not going around a corner, not jamming your brakes, chances are you’ll ride right through it.

“One thing you can do [to test for ice] is if you’re at a stoplight, put your foot down on the road and see if it’s slick.”

Lights and Visibility: “I think [lights] are even more important in winter. You do need to light up the road to give an indication of what’s in front of you. You need to light up yourself and your bike. People are not expecting bikes that time of year. You need more blinking lights, more bright-colored reflective clothing.”

Visibility is especially important because the roads can be narrower: “[Those] 18 inches in the gutter where all us bicycle riders spend all our time” are often piled with snow and slush. In these cases, you may have to ride in the middle of the lane. But beware, said Mooney: “Road rage doesn’t get any less in the winter.”

To Ride or Not To Ride? To reiterate: “There are days where the sensible thing to do is to leave the bike at home. Don’t make a macho thing out of it. If you don’t like the way the roads look, take the bus. You don’t want to end up under the bus.

“The stakes are too high to make a game out of it."


Part one: What to Wear
Part two: Your Winter-Ready Bike