The Cyclist's Guide to Surviving Winter in Wisconsin

I used to hate winter. Thinking about it during late summer or early fall would make my chest tighten up with anxiety. The cold, the snow, the darkness, the joyless three-hour rides on the trainer – I absolutely hated it. Especially after the football season ended.

Gunnar in the snow

It’s taken me almost 20 years, but I think I’ve finally learned how to enjoy the time between cycling seasons. There’s no perfect substitute for warmth, sunshine, and clean, dry pavement, but with some creativity and flexibility, I’ve found that I can make it through the winter and start the following season feeling fit and mentally refreshed.

The list that follows contains things I’ve done (with varying degrees of success) and things I haven’t done yet but am contemplating doing this winter. Some people can keep riding year-round with no apparent physical or mental fatigue, while others need to take a break from the bike in order to stay fresh, so I’ve separated the list into cycling and non-cycling activities.

Keep on pedaling:

Shift gears:

  • Go cross country skiing
  • Go showshoeing
  • Speed skate at the Pettit National Ice Center
  • Do some yoga
  • Get caught up on bike maintenance
  • Learn how to do your own bike repairs
  • Volunteer at a non-profit bike co-op
  • Get professionally fitted on your bike
  • Go to swap meets
  • Drink beer and get fat

This list is by no means complete and authoritative, so I invite readers to contribute their suggestions in the comments. Do you embrace your inner Inuit and pedal right through winter? Do you need a break from cycling and hang up the bike? It would be great for this to become a “sticky” post, so as comments come in below, we’ll update the list. Over the course of the winter, I’ll write follow-up posts on some of these ideas.

30 thoughts on “The Cyclist's Guide to Surviving Winter in Wisconsin

  1. A quick follow-up to my own post. If you would like to suggest a specific business for inclusion in any follow-up posts, please email me at denny dot yunk at gmail dot com. For example – in my post about indoor cycling, I would love to include a list of bike shops and other locations that offer this service. Similarly, I would like to compile lists of bike co-ops, bike-savvy yoga studios, and professional bike fitters for those posts. You get the idea.

  2. Denny, this is only my second year of winter cycling, so I’m still learning quite a bit. I used to ride through much of the winter back in the ’80s, but I was much younger then and able to fend off the discomfort much easier. Fortunately, we have much better clothing and equipment available these days.

    I know this news might be a bit late, but Wheel and Sprocket’s Brookfield location is holding a Winter Cycling Clinic tonight (Tuesday, December 6th) from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
    http://www.mywheelandsprocket.com/bb_website/2011-Dec-WinterCyclingClinic.pdf

    Stay warm!

  3. Get studs for your skinny tired bike and keep the fatbike at the ready. I used to dislike winter riding but for reasons I can no longer remember. Now, the thrill of dressing warmly to head out into the unknown is more fun that summer riding. The extra clothing helps with the times WHEN I fall. I’d like to warn people that there is a chance you will fall while winter riding. Be careful but most of all have fun!

    • Tony, I now advise everyone I know of the health benefits (both mental and physical) of getting fat over the winter!

    • I’ve been winter biking for 5 years now. After the second year, I came to the conclusion that studded bike tires are not necessary and in fact make winter biking more difficult because of the increased friction. 700×32 tires and above are all you need, unless you want to ride over more than 2 inches of fresh snow.

      An HVAC contractor I hired recently pointed out that, in Milwaukee, winter temperatures are above 30 degrees 70% of the time.

      Computraining is also a great way to stay on YOUR bike during the winter, on those off days when it actually snows or rains.

      • I agree that studs are not needed if you stick to the main streets. But if you want to ride on the Hank Aaron State Trail or the Oak Leaf Trail, they sure make it a lot safer. I bought the studded tires after I separated my shoulder two years in a row commuting on the Hank Aaron. Black ice under drifting snow, I go down, and I don’t heal fast anymore. But I agree, they are not needed if you ride the main streets.

    • Nokians (or Schwalbe Marathon Winter) tires are the bomb if you want to ride trails that may have icy patches. They really do make a huge difference when you hit the unexpected frozen puddle hidden under a new layer of snow. They are not really necessary on most urban arterial and collector streets as the salt and plows keep the roads pretty free of ice. Side streets can still have ice though and for me the added sense of security is worth the price in $ and speed.

      • Dave, I disagree. I stuck it out in Madison for four winters without studs. Although I only had one or two spills in that time, I was never particularly comfortable riding even on well plowed streets. Two years ago I broke down and spent the money on some Nokians. Best money I have ever spent on a bike part/accessory! Yes, they are slower due to the resistance, but they make a huge difference in stability. Maybe Milwaukee just does a better job clearing their streets than Madison, but somehow I doubt that.

        • Well, let me say in defense of riding studless (stud free?) on major streets, none of the Milwaukee couriers ride anything but slicks all winter. But perhaps it is not fair to compare mere mortal commuters to professional bicycle couriers ;)

        • I agree with Kevin. I rode through my teen years without studs, delivering newspapers every morning. In more recent years, I fell once each winter on hidden ice. Since getting Nokians, I have not fallen in >5 years. One fall can easily pay for the tires (a new helmet, a replacement for my shredded glove, the hole where my keys went through the fabric of my pants, no to mention the cost of the separated shoulder you mentioned). As you say, there must be a lot more salt in Milwaukee. A tip: carry your keys in a coat pocket, not your pants pocket.

  4. One of the things I really miss down here is the cycling culture in Wisconsin. One quick tip, I used snowboarding pants and gloves to ride in Milwaukee in Winter. It was great as long as the temp was above about 5 degrees fahrenheit. Stay safe and have fun!

    • Mike, don’t forget your (now my) signature London Fog Trench! For about $8 at Value Village, you can outfit yourself with a great long coat that keeps you reasonably dry, covers your legs and has a removable liner to make it work in a wider temperature range. I now have a whole closet full of them in different colors and patterns.

      • Good catch. Also I have found 2 brand new Irish Sweaters, the really neat off white ones, at Goodwill stores. They are amazing for riding in 30-40 degree weather. They are technically called Aran sweaters, and retail, handmade for up to $400.00 and machine made at around $150.00. Got them at Goodwill for $3.99 each. I usually stop at Goodwills because they are also a customer of mine, and really hit the jackpot with these sweaters.

  5. All good ideas. First and foremost winter is a great time of year to ride a bicycle. It isn’t cold enough in Milwaukee I am from Minneapolis. I LIKE COLD I LIKE SNOW. The joy is in your head as much as in your lungs and legs. First have an attitude. If you don’t ride who will? Second find the zen of riding over glare ice, choppy snow or deep drifts at night with wind and snow blowing with temps below zero. Dig deep into your inner warmth and find that one spot on your body that feels so warm. Your hands and feet will eventualy feel ok. Don’t worry about them.

    Watch the beauty of snow falling around you and the silence of your tires as they roll over soft snow. And for the bonus learn to ride better by observing your tracks. What? Yes, find a fresh patch of snow and ride as fast as you can and observe what your tires are doing by cycling back and riding over your tracks. If your tracks are straight and smooth you have good core body. if you can see where the rear tire doesn’t follow the front, you are moving too much and will eventualy fall over. If you are swerving, and not having fun, definitly correct this as you are not in control.

    Try this, when it is below 20, about ten minutes into the ride, open up your shirt and take your gloves off, then ride very hard for ten minutes and see how you feel. If you are frozen and give up, go see a cardiologist, your circulation needs to improve. If you are warm and feel tingly then you are in good shape and layer on by zipping your jacket up. Try getting cold and warming up. Eventually your body figures it out and decides to keep circulating blood to your extremities.

    Know your coffee shops. Nothing better than some hot Java to roll into your gut while you warm up. Besides everyone will stop and talk to you as you drip wet snow from your beard. Don’t have one? Get one, best damn face protection around. Goggles? No way, they fog up and you run into stuff. My solution for – 20 (actual temp) Petroleum Jelly. Smear it on your face, you look pretty strange but you will avoid frost byte.

    Only one last advice, be sure to empty your bladder before you go. Getting through the layers of cloths can be frustrating in emergencies.

    So roll over ice, snow and into the cold. Embrace this most wonderful biking season and by all means don’t let anyone else know about it. We don’t need a crowd. Join me at Tuscobia, or let’s do the Arrowhead 135!! Call me anytime and I will ride.

    • I have inexpensive Oakley ski goggles. They never fog up. I learned that what makes goggles or glasses fog is if your balacava or other face protection does not have a vented mouth. If you do not have vent holes at the mouth, your breath goes up and fogs the goggles/glasses. I have never had fogging since getting a mouth-vented fleece balacava at REI.

  6. So it’s true that I’ve moved where it doesn’t stay cold for *quite* as long as it does in the Great White North, but I’ll never forget my winter-riding roots! One quick tip, especially for roadies: Try mountain biking. You’re moving slower, and if you’re in the Milwaukee River valley or any of the other trail systems with trees, the wind is much less of a factor — I add ~10 degrees to the ambient temperature when I’m figuring out what to wear. Heck, we even did a 2-hour MKE River Trail ride when it never got above negative-2 one year!

  7. Madison and Milwaukee streets must be cleared much better than they are here in La Crosse. I have not yet put my studs on my bike, generally wait till the second good snow, but I will. Studs on urban streets simply take the worry out of riding and not having to see very icy patch. I generally ride 28′s year round but ride 35s on my snow tire. Remember that snow tires are more than just the studs, the tread is much better moving through thick(ish) snow if you ride a skinny tire bike. Finally when you hit ruts, a good winter tire will save you and are much easier to get out of the groove. For less experienced riders they may also be the morale/confidence boost they need to get started winter riding. While fat bikes are cool… I don’t have any use for them other than a few days a year, so investing in snow/studded winter tires makes more sense to me.

    • Hey Tim, I certainly agree that studded tires are a confidence booster. I also agree that FatBikes are definitely a luxury item in our area and much more for fun recreational trail riding than they are useful for commuting. That said, I do plan on giving my Northpaw a try for my commute during the heavy snowfalls this winter.

      • Dave,

        Don’t get me wrong if someone gave me a fat bike I would not toss it in the trash! I would ride that sucker! Let us know how it works as a commuter.

  8. Riding in the winter here in Wisconsin is a definite challenge but I like your “shifting gears” points. There is so much beauty around us in the winter it is totally worth being outside to enjoy it, even if the rides are not super long.

  9. The Milwaukee Bicycle Collective is holding the 3rd Annual Winter Cycling Forum this Thursday (Tomorrow!) at the Riverwest Public House from 6 to 8 pm. Come and learn about winter biking, share your experiences, ask questions and hang out with the great biking community here in Milwaukee!

    From 9 pm to 12 am- afterward is also a dance party to celebrate another year of the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective.

    A suggested $3-5 cover charge is suggested to benefit the Bike Collective and each person gets a raffle ticket (with the option to purchase more) to win great prizes(bike swag and a complete bike) from Cory the Bike Fixer, Truly Spoken Cycles, Dreambikes, Bigfoot Bike & Skate, The Tool Shed, Ben’s Cycle, the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective and Crankdaddies

    We will also have free limited edition winter bike 2011 stickers and the new just released MBC Stickers!

    Snacks will be provided by Classic Slice, Ian’s Pizza and Beans and Barley.

  10. My eyes water a lot in the cold. The breeze from walking to the bus stop is all it takes. I can’t imagine riding a bike in the cold and being able to see. I wear glasses so it seems that goggles are out as an option. Any advice?

    • Hi Karen,

      Lots of people have that problem. It happens to me when it gets really cold. Most people solve it with clear ski or motorsport goggles. They make those so they fit over regular glasses too. An additional side benefit is they keep a lot of your face covered. Pull a hat down to the top of the goggles and pull a turtle fur or scarf up below your nose and you are set for minus zero temps.

    • i bought prescription wrap-arounds, and that’s been hugely helpful, but as Dave says, there are goggle that can go over your glasses. look for OTG (Over The Glasses) google: otg goggles

  11. I’ve been using studded tires for about 15 years now. Streets and paths in Madison do NOT stay ice free all winter, but with studded tires it’s not a problem.

    Sure, studded tires slow me down, but not nearly as much as would a broken clavicle.

  12. I have been biking to work for three years now and I am completely addicted. The past couple of Winter seasons haven’t been bad at all. I ride a cyclocross bike with wider tires in the Winter and have had only one fall in three years. I work at an investment firm in Waukesha (Investors Advisory Group LLC) and everyone here thinks I’m nuts. I sold my car three years ago to force me to have to ride to get anywhere and for me it totally works! Thanks for blog!! Great stuff!

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