Cycling Safely in Winter

Featured image source: biketoworkblog.com.

Cycling has experienced a popularity explosion within the past year. Whether due to the spike in gasoline prices or an increasing desire to live a more “green” lifestyle, one thing is for certain; there are definitely more people on bicycles.  In the midst of an especially snowy winter, conditions for bicycling in New Jersey are becoming more challenging.  However, this is no reason to put your bicycle into storage until spring.  Whether one is an experienced cyclist or a novice, with a little care and extra precaution, cyclists in New Jersey should be able to continue riding safely throughout the winter season.

Follow the Rules and Regulations

To bicycle safely in winter, as at any time, it is necessary to take State rules and regulations seriously. Doing so can greatly reduce the risk of bike crashes. In 2012 and 2011, New Jersey had 14 and 17 bicycle fatalities, respectively, compared to 7 and 10 bicycle fatalities in 2007 and 2006, respectively.  In 2012, 2,355 bicycle crashes were reported in New Jersey. (Source: Plan 4 Safety). This may be due to an overall increase in bicycling.

Key rules and regulations to follow include riding on the right side of the road with the flow of traffic and obeying all traffic laws as they pertain to cycling.  In New Jersey, a bicyclist has the same rights and duties as motorists and must, for example, stop at red lights and stop signs.  For more information on bicycling rules and regulations, visit the NJDOT Bicycle Regulations webpage here, as well as the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety Bicycle Safety webpage, accessible here.

Dress Accordingly

Proper attire is essential to safe winter cycling. (Source: tandem-bicycle-central.com)

In terms of rider clothing gear, it is important to keep your head, body, and feet warm and secure. Special winter bicycle clothing is available; however most everyday cyclists can keep adequately warm by wearing what is already in their closet.  As with most outdoor winter activities, layering is important to help regulate body temperature.  A jacket should be water and wind proof, and fit snug and high around the neck to minimize cold drafts.  Cyclists should avoid baggy pant legs as they can easily get caught in the chain, spokes or other moving bike parts.  For most pants, simply securing the cuff on the chain side of the bicycle with a clip, Velcro strap or even a rubber band is sufficient.

While wearing mittens may be tempting as they are warmer than fingered gloves, they should be avoided because they hinder safe operation of the brakes and gears. Cyclists must also remember that long, dangling items, like scarves, should be avoided or properly secured to prevent possible entanglement in the wheels or other moving parts of the bike.

Be Aware of Seasonal Hazards

Along with colder temperatures, winter also means contending with shorter days.  While it is preferable to ride during hours of daylight, with longer periods of darkness riders may find themselves riding at night more often. Proper lighting is critical for safe cycling. New Jersey law requires that in addition to any bike reflectors, bicycles must be equipped with a front headlamp and a rear lamp for riding at night.  For more in-depth information about lights and safe cycling at night, see our previous article, “Walking and Biking at Night,” available here.

In addition, certain road hazards are more prevalent during the winter than in other seasons.  Potholes, snow, ice and roadways that stay wet longer can make riding more hazardous in winter than at other times. Simply slowing down and taking extra precautions with such hazards can greatly enhance a cyclist’s safety in winter.

Don’t Neglect Bicycle Maintenance

bike in winter
Bicycle maintenance is especially important during winter months. (Source: theactivetimes.com)

In addition to creating potential safety hazards, snow, ice and slush will make your bike dirtier in the winter.  To ensure safety, proper maintenance must not be overlooked in the winter.  Specifically, plan to clean and lubricate moving parts (especially the chain) more often to combat corrosion and wear.  Road salt is particularly corrosive and should be cleaned off immediately. Rinsing a bike with warm water should easily remove most of the salt.  Also consider installing fenders which help to protect not only the rider from excess road grime, but also critical mechanical parts of the bicycle as well.

Many cyclists advise putting away your newest and nicest bike during the winter and riding an older bike in its place. An older mountain bike can prove ideal for winter; the fat knobby tires gain better traction in snowy conditions and can handle rough road conditions better than narrow road tires.  The general nature and purpose of an all-terrain, mountain bike may make it a better choice for winter’s less than ideal road conditions.

Enjoy the Ride!

Remember, the start of winter does not have to bring an end to cycling. The demands presented by winter cycling can be overcome and with some extra precautions and an increased focused on safety, bicycling in winter can prove to be a positive and enjoyable experience.

Note: Updated from article originally published in the NJ Bikes and Walks Newsletter, Vol. II, No. 2.

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