10 things to know about biking at -55F

I rode my bike at -55F today so I decided to write 10 random things to know about -55F cycling…

1. Gears and brakes

As the temperatures begin to dip and around -15F you’ll start to notice the mechanics of your bike messing up, and at -55F your gears and brakes will suffer dramatically. My first year of winter riding I was stuck in one gear the whole winter, and my brakes wouldn’t work. However, you can improve the performance of your bike to lower temperatures with some lubrication.

2. Lubrication

Most moving parts on your bike will begin to feel sluggish without proper lubrication.

It’s a good thing to properly grease your bearings in your winter bike with a low temperature grease. I would avoid greases specifically made for bikes because they tend to stiffen up faster than some other greases out there. The best grease I’ve used is Lubriplate Mag-1.

I originally started with WD-40 for my chain and it worked well, but then I heard something about WD-40 being bad for bike chains and stopped using it. I now use whatever cold weather bike oil I can find, and they don’t seem to work as well.

3. Plastic components

As temperatures drop plastics will become brittle and tend to break. I’ve had several pedals break when it’s below -30F and now use metal platform pedals for my winter commuting.

Other components which can be plastic to be careful of are: water bottle holders, indexed cable housing, toe clips, and others you might have.

4. Tires

Tires are important for stability on the bike and an overall comfortable ride when on snow and ice. Wider tires with large gaps between the knobs of the tires work best in snow conditions, and studs help on ice. I’ve heard of people assembling chains for their bikes, but I can’t imagine it being a comfortable ride on pavement.

Keeping your tire pressure low will help the tires grip the road better and float more on trails. I have my tire pressure on my mountain bike around 10psi during my winter commutes, but I’ve noticed it depends on the type of tires I’m using. There are times on very soft trails I can go down to 5psi and have it feel great.

I don’t know if it’s unusual, but I’ve never had a flat in 1000 miles of winter cycling (3 years).

5. Clothing

Choosing clothing for such cold rides can be tricky because if you dress too warm you’ll begin to sweat and then you’ll begin to get cold, or if you don’t have enough gear on you’ll become cold too.

I wear 2 sweatshirts and a jacket shell on my core. I make sure the jacket has a waist band to reduce air from coming in from the bottom, and that it can zip up over my mouth.  I avoid hoods because they seem to scoop cold air into my jacket when I ride – it’s extremely uncomfortable.

My arms would be warmed up with the jacket and sweatshirts if they can tighten around the mittens and create a sealed cuff (or else you’ll have cold air rushing into your jacket).

To keep your hands warm at -55F it’s important to wear a waterproof mitten and have pogies on your handlebars. Move your fingers a lot to keep warm blood flowing to them!

Your face will freeze if you don’t have any protection on it. I always wear a warm wool hat, face mask, and goggles. I also zip my jacket up over my nose and mouth so I’m breathing warm air from my core.

I don’t wear as much gear on my lower half because my legs tend to run hot on the bike. At -55F I’m comfortable with a pair of cold weather skin-tight running pants underneath a pair of blue jeans. I would suggest others wear snow pants.

6. Goggles

I have found out that most winter sports goggles work fine for winter cycling. I always go for clear lenses which won’t fog from my breath. The goggles also prevent my glasses from fogging when my breath escapes my coat.

7. Footwear

Wool socks and warm lightweight boots are best. I used old combat boots I found at a thrift store and would rarely have cold feet. Remember that the heavier your boots the harder it will be to pedal… I would not suggest boots rated for -100F which give you 2 inches of clearance from the ground!

If your feet get cold it doesn’t hurt to get off your bike and run for a bit.

Also, wiggle those toes!

8. Lights

Lighting on your bike is a must for winter cycling and is often times required by law. You should check applicable bike laws before you buy a light.

I ride with a headlamp and a handlebar headlight on the front of my bike. The headlamp will shine where I am looking (it’s nice to know if I have any visitors coming out of the woods next to me… hello moose!), and the headlight will shine where the bike is going.

In the rear I have 2 mounted red tail lights. One of them blinks and the other one does not. My personal thought is it’s a little easier for people to notice a blinking red light, but it’s easier for people to see the cyclists movement with a solid light.

9. Traffic

In Fairbanks Alaska the bike paths are not maintained nor navigable so winter commuters share the road with cars, often times the snow isn’t plowed far enough to the side of the road to have an adequate shoulder, and with only 3 hours of daylight most of the riding is at night. This is often a turn-off from winter commuting, but it shouldn’t be.

I have found more people are aware of cyclists in the winter than in the summer. Cars will switch to their low beams when they see you approaching, they’ll slow down, and give you more than enough space.

I prefer to do my winter biking in the dark, because when people begin driving their cars at extremely cold temperatures their windows fog up and often times they’ll barely be able to see the road. In daylight my lights aren’t as visible and don’t draw attention so the driver may not be able to see me. At night the lights are easily visible through the foggy windows.

10. Beer

When you’re on your way home you can begin to think you have a nice “warm” beer in the refrigerator with your name on it!

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6 responses to “10 things to know about biking at -55F

  1. Great article! The lowest temp I’ve ever ridden in was -20F (I live north of Chicago and it seldom gets colder than that).

  2. Good advice on riding at (ultra) low temps! For those of you who dare to just give it a try. Like pushingmiles said, if it’s -15 or warmer, your bike should be fine without much modification, especially if you store it inside before you ride.

    • Hey. Thanks for the comment! I’ve actually heard if you’re going to commute in extreme low temperatures you should store your bike outside unless you can give it enough time to completely dry, or else you can have some water freezing in unwanted places when you take it for a spin… This was a suggestion from a local bike shop who test cold weather capabilities of bicycles. I, however, haven’t ran in to any trouble with my cold weather bike when bringing it inside.

  3. Wow, this is truly amazing. Such great tips for riding in such cold temps! Good luck riding the rest of this cold season!

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