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BRION O’CONNOR | ON THE MOVE

Here’s how to gear up for cold-weather biking

Photos by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Jessica Mink of Roslindale is ready for winter cold as she bikes along the Neponset River Greenway Trail.

By Brion O’Connor Globe Correspondent 

The Norwegians have an expression that New England cyclists embrace: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” That’s especially true during our notorious “shoulder seasons,” the months just before and after winter.

Most locals know to prepare once Old Man Winter brings heavy snows and bone-chilling temperatures. But in the months before winter, too many of us head inside prematurely, when all we need is better gear to combat a biting breeze or chilly rains. Cycling is particularly tricky, given the pedaling-induced wind chill that accompanies riding along at 12 to 24 miles per hour.

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However, late fall and early spring offer great cycling opportunities, provided you’re properly equipped. In my five decades of pedaling, I’ve stretched out my season to an almost year-round endeavor, thanks to advances in cold-weather gear and the bikes themselves.

“When I talk to other cyclists and hear about the time they spent on their indoor trainer watching TV, I love to say that of the 9,000 miles I rode this year, 9,000 of them were outside,” said Eric Carlson, who regularly commutes into Boston from Amherst, N.H. “I get to be outside and not stuck on a train, and it helps me avoid winter sicknesses.”

Mink says her hands are the most vulnerable to the cold; she uses neoprene Bar Mitts on her handlebars.

Roslindale’s Jessica Mink, a dedicated bike commuter, concurred. “It’s fun to show up places and have people be surprised that I bike,” said Mink, who rides roughly 5,000 miles annually. “But that happens to me all year, especially if I’m wearing a dress and heels.”

So what precautions are necessary to pedal in inclement weather? Lexington’s Richard Fries, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group MassBike, said smart cyclists make changes to their bicycles as well as their wardrobes.

“Equip the bike from the ground up,” said Fries. “Start with bigger, softer tires, and you must have fenders. Add lights — like lots of lights and reflective stuff — and your bike is ready.”

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A good lighting system allows you to not only see better, but more importantly, to be seen. I’m a proponent of flashing lights, front and back, at all times to ensure motorists don’t miss you.

Many cyclists opt for a separate “foul weather” rig, similar to skiers keeping old pairs of “rock skis” for the rugged spring season.

“I have a dedicated bad-weather bike,” said Carlson. “It’s an old titanium cyclocross bike with full fenders, mountain bike pedals, and lights. I have two sets of wheels — one with studded tires and one without — so I can swap in the morning based on current conditions. Studded tires are amazing, but they’re heavy and roll slowly.”

Like your car, bikes need proper maintenance for optimum performance.

Mink doesn’t let winter keep her from riding.

“With bad-weather cycling — especially in very cold conditions — you don’t want to have a mechanical, so upkeep is important,” said Carlson. “The hardest part is on a crappy, slushy, salty day, I still need to wash and relube the bike when I get home, and have to carefully watch the parts for wear. I don’t want a broken chain or brake cable at 10 degrees, since it’s too hard to fix.”

Savvy cyclists also modify their riding techniques. Rain can transform benign objects — such as metal grates, railroad tracks, and raised, reflective paint lines on sidewalks and road shoulders — into greasy hazards. Puddles are especially dangerous, because they can hide potholes. If your bike is equipped with rim brakes, your stopping power will be compromised, so be cautious. Disc brakes are a big advantage in wet weather.

Next up is what to wear. Extremities are the most susceptible to the cold, since they’re the farthest from your heart, and require special attention.

“The classic mistake is to overdress the core and underdress the ‘five points’ of the head, hands and feet,” said Fries. “When we overdress the core, we become wet with sweat and then get colder, not warmer. Three layers are all you need: a wicking base layer, a thermal layer, and a breathable, windproof shell.”

Carlson said he looks for “clothing with wind-block material in the front, but breathability for the back. I often bring a very lightweight jacket I can toss on over all layers as a wind block, a replacement beanie so after one gets sweaty and freezes I can swap it, and a spare pair of gloves.”

“On a bad day, all body parts get cold, but my toes seem to suffer the most,” he said. “This year I’m trying some winter riding boots. They look like Sorels with a cleat attachment for the pedals.”

Wool socks and shoe covers, or winter-specific cycling shoes, will protect your feet. If you’re commuting by bike, bring a change of socks for the ride home.

“And don’t forget to stuff your wet shoes with newspapers to be ready for the next ride,” said Fries.

Mink said her hands are the most vulnerable.

“I’ve tried all sorts of theoretically warm gloves, but after a few miles on even insulated handlebars, my hands get cold,” said Mink. “I use neoprene Bar Mitts on my handlebars, which cover my gloved hands with space for brake levers and gear shifts under them. I currently layer two or three pairs of gloves, with wool inside and something waterproof on the outside.”

For your head and neck, Fries recommended “a proper winter cycling hat with ear flaps and brim” that will fit under your helmet, and a good neck gaiter that can be adjusted to cover your face.


If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at brionoc@verizon.net. Please allow at least a month’s advance notice.