As I write this, it’s snowing outside, which is lovely from my vantage point in a cozy warm office. But I’m feeling a bit like a slug because I just saw a winter bike commuter forging ahead through the falling snow down 6th Avenue in Denver. She (he? It was hard to tell.) was all bundled up, taking the ride at a safe pace, and generally looking awesome. I imagine that biker getting to work, unbundling, and making his/her co-workers jealous over his/her fitness level and general awesomeness.
Bike commuting in Colorado is fairly common in the summer, but it drops significantly in the winter. Not only does it seem like it would be a freezing-cold experience, but it also seems unsafe. Right? Well, not necessarily… especially the freezing-cold part.
Think about when you ski or sled. How often do you have to strip off layers because the effort you’re exerting has warmed you up to comfy – even uncomfortably warm – levels. The same can be true for winter biking. As for the unsafe part: you can stay safe while winter biking in Denver, too. The key is in planning ahead, wearing the right gear, and giving yourself time.
In fact, so many people in Denver commute on bikes during the winter that we made a Top 5 List! Bicycling.com ran an article titled, “5 Cities with the Most Badass Winter Bike Commuters,” and Denver made the list, along with New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle.
Studying articles like this, and a few others that I found, can help you understand what the pros do to prepare for their winter bike commutes. Here are some tips I gathered.
This is going to take some trial and error, so be patient with the process. On your first foray out into the white wilds, you may discover that your toes get cold. So, then you need to investigate ways to keep your feet warmer. Or you may find out that your favorite summer commute route isn’t frequented by winter plows, so you’ll have to find a new route. Consider this an adventure and a learning process.
You Don’t Need an Expensive Bike
Most of the articles I read said you don’t have to invest in an expensive bike for winter commuting. Adding proper tires to your existing bike may do the trick. In fact, a Minneapolis bike commuter in this article recommends having one studded tire for additional traction. If you’re a rookie on ice, you may want pretty knobby tires for added traction.
Can you bike commute in the winter on an e-bike? Certainly! However, one of the most important protections from the cold when you’re bike commuting in the winter is the body heat you generate from your effort. So, I recommend setting your e-bike to a difficult’ish level so that you build up body heat to keep you safe from the cold.
Pro tip: a clip-on rear fender will keep your back dry on sloppy days!
Get the Right Gear… for YOU
Don’t read an article about winter riding gear and run out and buy everything on the list. Instead, think about what you already know about your body. Do your fingers get cold easily, but your torso overheats easily? Then get really good, thick mittens but don’t add as many long-sleeve layers. (A friend of mine says that, when biking, you should “dress for the second 15 minutes,” meaning you should plan to be cold when you start but within 15 minutes, your body will be warm, and you’ll be glad you don’t have 18 layers to remove.) Generally, moisture-resistant fabrics will be beneficial, as well as wool socks.
Find the Right Route
As mentioned above, you may need to alter your summer biking commute route due to plowing paths. On heavy snow days, you’re going to need the help of a pre-plowed route to get from A to B. The city of Denver has some pretty handy GPS tools to help you track the city’s plows, and they take bike lanes into consideration when making their plow plans. At the end of this article, I will paste Denver’s Winter Bike Lane Plow Plan for easy access.
Find a Riding Buddy
Even the most motivated winter bikers can have a hard time looking out the window into a freezing landscape and thinking, “Oh, yes! I want to bike through that!” If you have a riding buddy who is meeting you at a pre-designated corner at a pre-designated time, you’ll have no choice but to gear up and get out!
Denver and Colorado both host Bike-to-Work days, which are great ways to inspire a team from work to bike together. Sadly, there was not a lot of commuting for work at ALL in 2020, so these events were postponed and delayed. Denver’s was held on September 22, but I’m not sure what turnout was like. I’ll keep you posted on their 2021 plans as I learn of them.
Be Safe, and Buy Insurance
Finally, I wouldn’t be a very good personal injury attorney if I didn’t also talk about safety. Cars are less aware of bikers in the winter, and visibility can be pretty awful in a storm, so always slow down or stop at intersections, make eye contact with drivers, and behave as though they do not see you. Bike defensively.
Also, buy the proper car insurance! What? Car insurance for bike commuting? Yes! I just wrote an article about this, but in a nutshell: most drivers will not carry enough insurance to pay for your medical bills if they hit you. You need to protect yourself. Don’t even leave your house on your bike without contacting your insurance agent first.
I hope this article inspires you to take the first step toward winter bike commuting! Do you have other pro-tips? Text me here: 303-388-5304.
Most of Denver’s on-street bicycle lanes are located on roadways with stripes; these are the streets that are routinely plowed every time snow accumulates. Crews will make every effort to plow through the bike lane to the curb whenever possible; however, during swift, heavy snowfalls, bike lanes may become snow packed. These snowy/icy conditions may linger in the bike lane several days after a storm depending on temperatures, particularly in shady locations. Call 311 or use Pocketgov to report problem areas.
Throughout the winter season, people on bikes should be prepared to ride in a shared lane condition, utilizing the outermost lane available and may consider alternate transportation options based on health, ability, weather conditions and equipment. People on bikes may need to consider alternate routes and utilize the city’s trail system. People are also encouraged to winterize their bikes and have the right tires for navigating winter conditions.
DOTI plows the city’s protected bikeways and many pedestrian bridges. Denver uses a smaller plow for the protected bikeways that has a broom attached, as well as a material spreader that can drop liquid deicing material as appropriate, based on weather conditions. Our snow program aims to address each protected bikeway at least once per 12 hour shift, if there are no obstacles, such as vehicles parked in the bike lane. If there is a lot of snow to push, it will take longer to complete snow removal operations on the protected bike lanes.
Off-Street Bike Trails
Denver Parks and Recreation maintains the City’s network of off-street bicycle and multi-use trails. Any snow accumulation on a trail greater than one inch will be plowed to the channel side (or down slope side) within 12 hours after the end of a snow fall event. Snow that can’t be accessed by machine will be removed manually. Ice accumulation on the trail will be treated with gravel and/or environmentally safe chemical products.