How do I enjoy winter biking in Chicago?
September 22, 2015 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I tried biking through the Chicago winter in the past, and was just miserable. How can I make it enjoyable?

Ten years ago I biked to work all through November, and all through January. And it was miserable. Then I got a flat tire, chained it in front of the El, and never went back. I was so unhappy and cold that my subconscious preferred to like my bike rust away to nothing rather than ride again.

But! It's ten years later, and I think I want to try again. How do I survive? I'm not worried about the safety conditions (when it's snowing or icing too heavily I'll just take the El), I'm more worried about freezing. And then showing up to work all sweaty.

Should I try a motorcycle helmet? Would that help?
posted by Squid Voltaire to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (26 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Lobster gloves, bar mitts, ski goggles. That is what I use. I warm up usually, but don't really get sweaty (my commute is 4 miles) but if I do, I usually shed my skinmost layer and get through the day just fine.

Also, it's so beautiful out there in the winter.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:21 AM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, I should have added that it's a seven mile commute to work.

Crush, are you in Chicago, too? If so, it's good to hear that it's possible! (:
posted by Squid Voltaire at 9:29 AM on September 22, 2015

I don't bike to work year round but I do stay outside year round in Chicago more than most people maybe so I feel slightly equipped to answer this. And I may try biking through the winter this year.

Proper layering is the most important thing. If you're cold, you're doing something wrong. Where are you cold? Fix that spot.

First thing you must have is a wicking base layer. You will sweat but you want this moisture to not be on your body. Once you get wet you're done. Merino is what I've gone with - it wicks and takes a lot more moisture and doesn't smell as quickly. When you start getting wet you just rub it back into your insulation. The downside is it's expensive. Cotton gets cold when it's wet, wool and synthetics stays warm (but synthetics can smell awful).

Next, pay attention to your extremities, toes and fingers. Layering again is the most important part here. I use 2-3 gloves. Merino socks, a shoe and then a shoe cover. There are glove things that attach to your handlebars that look pretty warm to me. Haven't used them myself. All skin bits need some sort of covering, but you want a way to vent or shed layers once you heat up from moving. I really liked having a thin balaclava I could roll up once I started moving. Really, I almost never feel cold in the winter after building up my layering system, but I did have a ton of laundry.
posted by mike_bling at 9:30 AM on September 22, 2015

Basic layering is a base layer, insulation and then a windproof or waterproof shell. But really there is no reason to be cold in the winter, it's pretty much a solved problem. It does cost money and is basically the opposite of 'fashion', but spread out over a few years with some strategy to your purchases it's fine.
posted by mike_bling at 9:33 AM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

1. Good materials. Synthetics, wool, fleece.
2. Something windproof for when it's very cold. I've actually gotten away with a polypropelene base layer, a thick wool sweater, and basically a windbreaker - down to single digits in Minneapolis. That all relies on...
3. Keeping the extremeties warm. Good wool socks. Some type of mittens - I like the $20 trigger mittens that you can find in army surplus stores (or amazon). Neck gaitor. Good hat. Giro makes a merino wool hat with ear flats; I pair that with a wool neck gaitor pulled up to my nose and over my ears for extra coverage.

If you start out slightly cold you'll warm up as you go and you won't oversweat it.

Absolutely not on the motorcycle helmet.
posted by entropone at 9:34 AM on September 22, 2015

Echoing that this is all about gear. I was just about to plug that Giro Winter Cap mentioned above, along with a neck gaiter and either lobster mitts or bar mitts. Base layers too -- merino underwear is amazing and worth the splurge.

Once it gets slushy I tend to wear waterproof pants & usually a waterproof shell daily, along with base layers. You'll want to start out wearing an outfit that leaves you a bit chilly for the first 15 minutes or so, then it will even out and you won't get too sweaty.

Lights matter more in winter I think; I use mine in daylight too.

For shoes, you can get protective waterproof shells. Most are made for cycling shoes but there are a few available for street shoes too. But to be honest everyone I know just uses short wellies if not using cycling shoes, especially since the shoe shells can tear easily.

Other than that -- the big thing to remember is that you'll often be going slower due to wind, so you need to plan accordingly. But it is very doable!
posted by veery at 9:43 AM on September 22, 2015

How do you keep your glasses from fogging up (and the fogged glasses from freezing up)?
posted by bentley at 9:57 AM on September 22, 2015

yes, I bike year round in Chicago. Twice last year I wore my ski jacket, but usually, I just wear my regular short wool overcoat (I often have to leave the office for meetings and need to look like a lawyer, so I wear a regular coat). Typically, I layer wool (tank tops, leggings) under my business clothes, put on my coat, wool beanie, helmet and boots and go. When it's exceptionally bitter, I add more wool (a hoodie, a pair of wool sweat pants, a balaclava). My hands are honestly the only part of me that gets cold. I have wool glove liners and windproof gloves, but my hands stay cold (I have this problem skiing too and it's much warmer where we ski than it is in Chicago).

Definitely make sure you're slightly cold standing still when you first walk out the door or you will overheat before the first mile.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:00 AM on September 22, 2015

Pogies! They're the best.

My winter commute is only a mile and a half, but it's in Fairbanks, AK, so maybe that makes up for it? But I don't bike below about -10°F---colder than that and the bike just doesn't really want to go.

My gear is
--studded tires
--lightweight gloves (so your hands don't freeze when you have to take them out of the pogies)
--fleece jacket
--winter coat over the fleece (light or heavy, depending on the conditions; I bet in Chicago you could get away with one of these (which I have and really like, and works great to about 10°F), but you might want something more water resistant
--fleece hat under my helmet
--neck gaiter pulled up over my mouth and nose and ears
--steger mukluks, although I don't know how well they would do in Chicago, because I don't think they'd be fantastic in the wet (it would be worth talking to the folks who make them, though, because seriously, these are the best boots ever. I can walk to work when it's 40 below, and then happily wear them all day in the office.)
--snow skirt
--wool socks. Smartwools are good, but so are other wool socks. But I don't wear anything else anymore, even when it's not particularly cold.

I have friends who wear silk long underwear to bike to work, and then change out at work, but I haven't felt the need. I also haven't bothered with making sure I'm wearing particularly technical clothes---underneath the stuff I listed above, I'm likely as not to be wearing a cotton shirt and jeans (even though, I know, "cotton kills", but I'm just not going that far).

Oh, and I have a front light, and a rear light, and a blinky light on my jacket, and some fun LEDs on my font tire, although they don't look so cool as in the promotional pictures, and I really want some of these.

(Mind you, it's super-dry in Fairbanks, and we get very little precipitation, so you might want to add a set of waterproof shell pants. If possible, make sure you get the kind where you can zip and unzip a bunch at the ankle/leg, so you don't necessarily have to take off your shoes/boots to get your gear off!)

I used to bike in contacts in the winter, but I hate contacts, so now I just take my glasses off and deal with everything being blurry. It's not ideal, but it's better than wanting to claw my eyes out. I've heard there are neck-gaiter things that have directional spouts that help, and I've also heard really good things about ski goggles, but I've not tried either.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:01 AM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ski goggles don't fog. I don't know how; I don't know why. My rain goggles (horse racing googles) sometimes fog, but in years and years of skiing and winter biking, my ski goggles (various pairs in various price ranges) have never fogged. I don't wear glasses or contacts, however.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:04 AM on September 22, 2015

Oh, and if there's more than a little bit of snow on the ground, you have to gear way, way down if you don't want your tires to shear sideways. And if it's slushy, slow way, way down. I crashed my bike hitting an unexpected patch of slush from when they'd salted some ice. Boo.

And wear a bike helmet!
posted by leahwrenn at 10:11 AM on September 22, 2015

One thing I did was to wear a ski helmet that was rated for biking too (I ski as well so it made sense). I tried wearing a hat underneath my regular bike helmet, but it wasn't as warm and it didn't feel as secure.

I also tried wearing those dry-fit shirts as the base layer, which I think worked pretty well, but I'm not that sweaty and I tended to err on the side of being cold at the beginning of the ride and warm by the end.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 10:24 AM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I biked year round in Chicago for 3 years, 15 miles each way (bucktown to elmhurst, on Diversey/Grand/streets parallel to Grand past the Des Plaines river):

On the coldest days I wore:
• Neck Gaiter (cheapo REI kind)
• Wool/Fleece beanie under my helmet (don't remember what kind)
• Glove Liners(!)
• Thick Marmot ski gloves like these
• Fleece lined tights/long underwear (I had some nike running tights) under shorts.
• A patagonia merino wool base layer (probably the most important part!)
• A fleece mid layer
• A Patagonia guide jacket shell. It was important that the jacket, mid layer and base layer all zipped because believe it or not it could get a little steamy and it was good to be able to unzip a little bit to let some steam escape especially if it didn't end up being quite as cold as expected (this gear would be a bit too hot for say a 20's day but is perfect for 10-12 degrees IME)
• REI expedition socks if it was super cold, hiking socks otherwise
• Shoe Covers. I didn't wear these specifically (I wore clip-in cycling shoes) but these help so much with the wind and moisture.
• I wore regular cycling glasses, not ski goggles, and between the gaiter and beanie could cover up my whole face so there was hardly any airflow onto my eyes from the outside.

Whew! That was my getup for the absolute coldest days I would ride (5-15 degrees, below that I'd do a shorter ride down to the metra where it wasn't as important to get everything right since the ride was 20 minutes instead of 60). When it got warmer I'd sub out the fleece lined tights for some patagonia capilene tights, ditch the fleece mid layer on top, and wear a thinner beanie. Having a jacket that zipped was great to help regulate. If it was raining/slushing I'd wear waterproof shell pants but I definitely preferred the tights+shorts for comfort/ease of motion.

Advice about being a bit chilly when you start is just right.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 10:49 AM on September 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Lots of us Chicagoans bike in winter! For me personally, the condition of the roads is much more of a deciding factor than the cold for whether I choose to layer up and hop on my whip or just take the boring old bus.

Tiny Fix Bike Gang (self link, founded by me and another Mefite Juliet Banana) has a number of articles about biking in the winter in Chicago specifically. The most comprehensive is probably JB's Epic Tiny Fix Guide to #Bikewinter, but look around for other articles on staying warm, staying upright, and deciding whether to ride or bail.
posted by misskaz at 10:59 AM on September 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is so great, thank you all!

I'm still a little worried about my face-bits. What's wrong with a motorcycle helmet? Is it just overkill?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 11:00 AM on September 22, 2015

Nthing all the above. I commute year round on bike in Ottawa and as of last winter have no minimum temperature to stop biking at (it used to be -25°c, but thanks to a REALLY cold year last year I realised that I wouldn't be biking at all if I quit at that temperature). My approach is pretty similar to those above - long underwear base layer, then regular clothes over top, adding extra layers as the temperature drops, all below a large-ish lightweight outer coat that accommodates layers underneath it (mine literally has no insulation, but is really just a windbreaker). I keep as much of my skin covered as possible on the coldest days, but wear glasses instead of goggles.

I also use a winter sports-specific helmet that has fewer holes than the sportier type helmets (something like this) and a merino wool knit band ear warmer and I find that that keeps my head pretty warm through the whole winter because I'm not trying to make up for cold air attacking my head through the holes.

I also find it helps to remind myself I'm not alone out there, even though some winter days I don't see many others biking. To psych yourself up, you might want to check out Frostbike by Tom Babin, which is about how he started and learned to love winter cycling in Calgary, Alberta. There's also Winter Bike to Work Day, which will be in February.

And many winter cycling communities are active on Twitter, so there's always good tips/commiseration on there. My city also does a Winter Bike Parade, which is fun and gets people together. It keeps me warm on the coldest days knowing there are others in my city doing the same as me. That and my totally fashionable winter biking ensemble (this day was -25°c and -39°c with windchill).

This will be my sixth winter and I like it more each year as I figure out how to make it as comfortable as possible - and when I'm not comfortable, I hop off and walk to a point where I feel comfortable again and then get back on.

How do you keep your glasses from fogging up (and the fogged glasses from freezing up)?

I find doing a wash with vinegar just before you leave will keep them clear for a to and from commute.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:01 AM on September 22, 2015

Also, take this as a testimonial and anecdata: Riding a fixed gear bike was a revelation to me after wiping out on patches of ice when I started to pedal after coasting on my geared bike. The constant feedback from the bike about whether you have traction makes it much easier to avoid wipe outs.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 11:02 AM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and although it's shorter now, my bike commute used to be about 10 miles each way, West Roger's Park to downtown. It can be done!

I wouldn't wear a motorcycle helmet because it reduces your peripheral vision, and is heavy and would be uncomfortable to wear. In the winter I wear a Bern "skater-style" helmet because it is warmer than a typical road helmet but is still the appropriate size and weight for biking.

The glasses thing has always been a challenge for me. Typically I just wear my regular glasses and try not to breath through my scarf in a way that directs my breath upwards and fogs the glasses. I've found with my regular prescription glasses they usually only fog up when I'm stopped at a light; while moving the air flow seems to keep the fog from being an issue.
posted by misskaz at 11:06 AM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

A balaclava will protect your face, neck and head from the cold all at once, and weigh nothing compared to a motorcycle helmet. I do use my ski helmet if it gets below 15 degrees (less ventilation holes and good ear coverage) but I've done 10 below with a regular helmet/balaclava combo. I bike in Maine year-round and my first winters were about seven miles each way as well. Everyone here is covering the basics - wicking, layering etc. I will say that pogies/handlebar mitts made a huge difference for my comfort when I finally added them since everything stayed warm for me except my fingers.
posted by mikepop at 11:06 AM on September 22, 2015

Also, since my gear situation has changed over the years, I currently wear:

1. Wool (Icebreaker) or "heat tech" (Uniqlo) base layers.
2. Something warm middle layer - fleece or wool jacket/sweater or sometimes a Uniqlo ultralight down jacket, and winter running/cycling tights.
3. Windproof outer layer - only needs to be windproof; currently wear either a Patagonia running rain jacket or an REI rain jacket/trench if i want something to be able to wear walking around during my lunch break. (This is my biggest dilemma winter commuting--you don't need heavy layers to bike to work, but then if you need to walk around downtown during the day it's more convenient to just have one heavy coat to grab lunch.)
4. Feet are covered in wool socks and waterproof/windproof boots; nothing cycling-specific, just things that aren't too stiff or tall to comfortably move in but will keep my feet warm and dry.
5. Hands are winter cycling gloves (like these) and only if it's really, really cold do I switch to lobster gloves, but I seem to have warmer hands when I ride than a lot of my friends. It's funny, I'm freezing cold indoors but I guess I heat up quickly when I'm moving. Be wary of that--you don't want to dress too warm because then you'll sweat and get cold while you're sitting at stop lights. It's better to be chilly for the first 10 minutes than hot and sweaty for the last 20.
6. Head/neck is a merino wool buff (soooo versatile, by far the best head/neck solution I've found!) and a wool cycling cap with ear flaps on top of that, plus the winter helmet I mentioned above.

Most of all, my advice is slow down and have fun!
posted by misskaz at 11:24 AM on September 22, 2015

This is my biggest dilemma winter commuting--you don't need heavy layers to bike to work, but then if you need to walk around downtown during the day it's more convenient to just have one heavy coat to grab lunch.

I solve this dilemma by keeping a nice-ish coat at the office so I don't have to worry about what I wear into work.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:43 AM on September 22, 2015

Most motorcycle helmets fog up like a mofo, and this is when you're just sitting there letting the bike do all the work, in like October. Maybe a pinlock face shield could handle winter biking, but I'd be pretty impressed.
posted by gueneverey at 12:07 PM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Torso: Merino wool base layer + windbreaker shell (preferably waterproof and breathable)
Legs: some sort of thermal layer + track pants (or whatever u like). Gortex layer instead if you want waterproof
Socks: merino wool/smart wool.
Shoes: thermally insulated, preferably waterproof. Add waterproof gaiters for extremely wet weather.
Gloves: I prefer something along the lines of these
A good neckwarmer/buff
Face mask - something like this
Skullcap like this
Regular toque worn ontop the skullcap
Cheap pair of ski goggles.

This combination has served me well in Toronto, where I bike year round. I find that unless it's extremely cold, the single base layer + shell is sufficient for my torso. Add a mid layer if necessary. Also, in general merino wool needs washing less frequently than most synthetics.
posted by spacediver at 12:11 PM on September 22, 2015

I also bike commute year-round in Chicago.

The only things I would add are that last year I picked up a big box of those hand-warmer packets to stick in my mittens and toes of my boots, and it was the best idea ever. My hands and feet almost always get cold no matter what, though.

Smartwool balaclava is my other favorite thing, warm but light enough to breathe through. I loosely wrap a scarf around my head/mouth on colder days.

Lots of chain lube and cleaning, a good tune-up before and after winter. Winter is rough on bikes.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 3:26 PM on September 22, 2015

I winter bike in Boston.
If your face gets cold, consider neoprene or such. The difficulty with the helmet you proposed is that there may not be enough ventilation: in the winter, condensation and sweat are your enemy.
posted by troytroy at 6:15 PM on September 22, 2015

I bike in Toronto year round. If you're concerned about keeping your face warm, I think the combo of a bike helmet (with or without a thin beanie underneath) and a neck gaiter will work very well. A balaclava will cover your entire face, but if you find it too constricting (as I do), you just won't bike at all with it. A gaiter pulled up over your nose will almost certainly keep you warm enough.
posted by maudlin at 10:02 PM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Spotify vs. iTunes vs. Rdio vs. Google Play vs....   |   quick! should I go home and check on my dog? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.