Cold, dark, and stormy—winter riding is here.

It’s a rainy afternoon, and I’m pedaling home from work. Riding through Seabright toward Live Oak, I see a younger cyclist in jeans, a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, and a  backpack, riding on a bike that looks too small for them. I wouldn’t describe their facial expression as “stoked” since there was a fair level of what I could only assume was weather–related disdain, so maybe “soggy” would be a better description. It reminded me of my early days commuting by bike around UCSC as an undergrad, woefully unprepared for wet and wintry weather. I kept pedaling and, only a few blocks later, came upon a family with a young kid dressed head to toe in rubber rain gear, jumping in puddles, and screaming in delight with each splash. Watching the kid jumping in puddles with such unbridled joy left me with a big grin for the rest of my ride home.

As I got home and hung up my rain gear, thinking about these two scenes I’d ridden past, I was reminded of the common Scandinavian expression “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.” This very expression is what guided me from being a soggy rider to being a content rider in all seasons and in all conditions.

So why bother riding in the wintertime? Why not just hang the bike up until the buds of spring are out, the days are longer, and the air is warmer? While the conditions change, the reasons for riding remain the same. You are still free from sitting in traffic; you are getting movement and exercise on your way to and from work or other destinations; you’re saving money; and, of course, you aren’t emitting carbon along the way.

In general, Santa Cruz has mild winters, and except for a handful of storms each season, you can ride year-round with some consideration and planning.

Winter Riding Clothing

Everyone is a little different. Some folks wear shorts year-round, while others do not leave the house without a down jacket regardless of what month it is. The key to winter clothing is that it comes down to personal preference, physiology, and sensibility. The other key is layering and, most importantly, having both an insulative layer and a wind–protection layer. Aside from these basic physical requirements of clothing, take stock of your body, bike, and gear to make sure you have reflective elements on them. Pro tip: the more reflective material you have, the more reflective you are = the more visible you are!

For the last several winters, my tried-and-true attire has been leather boots, wool socks, pants, a shirt, a sweater, a down jacket, and gloves. Keep in mind my commute is only 3.5 miles, so I avoid getting into territory that might require different attire. But what about when it rains? I have a rain jacket, rain pants, and a $10 pair of rubber boots that keep me dry.

One bit of information worth sharing is that for the last two winters I’ve been commuting primarily on my electronic cargo bike. There are some hidden benefits to having an e–bike that weren’t shared with me or appreciated by me when I purchased the bike. Having an e–bike changes the game for riding in the rain. It’s easier for me to regulate my body temperature, and if I use the right amount of pedal assist, I can prevent overheating and sweating inside my rain gear. Previously, I would ride with full rain gear, and if I rode for more than 15 minutes, I would start generating enough body heat that I’d start to sweat under my rain gear, making the notion of being waterproof moot.

I know many folks, including coworkers, who have longer commutes and prefer to ride in bike–specific gear or other athletic clothing and then change into work clothes upon arrival. When I had a 10-mile, one–way commute, I followed this prescription and brought a spare change of clothes with me. It’s important to experiment with what works for you, but if you want a good overview of gear, here is a great article from Bicycling that can get you started.

Winter Bike Setup

Heading into the winter season, it’s important to take this change of riding conditions into your maintenance and gear replacement schedule. Fresher tires with more traction are more important during this time of year. Brake pads should be fresh or close to full thickness in order to ensure full stopping power as well as help address the faster wear that occurs with brake pads operating in wet and gritty conditions. Also, despite how you might feel about them, fenders are your friends. They help keep the water, debris, slurry, and grit from rainy roads more contained and help prevent a skunk stripe of mud from going up your back. Your drivetrain, comprised of your chainrings, chain, derailleurs, and cassette, will see some increased wear and tear as a result of wet conditions. Wet conditions bring more grit and water into your drivetrain, which can cause rust and additional friction, making your bike slower and less efficient.

Bike lights can be relevant year-round, but they are especially critical during the winter months with their shorter daylight hours and occasionally overcast or stormy conditions that reduce visibility—both for you to see and for other road users to see you.
Many of our local bike shops have stocked up on winter riding essentials, so if you are late in getting your bike ready for winter, stop by one of our awesome local shops to get outfitted. But just remember to bring a mask!

Winter Riding Skills

Days are shorter in winter, pushing typical commute windows (especially on the way home) into low–light to dark conditions. Debris on the roadway is also much more common, as storm runoff tends to carry glass, rocks, mud, and vegetation to the edge of the road, which is where we tend to be riding. Slick roads necessitate more anticipation with greater lead time to ensure you have enough time to slow and stop with less traction. And visibility is poorer in wet conditions, so defensive riding is even more important.

Once again, this rings true year-round, but especially during the winter months, it’s critical to use as many means as you can for communicating what you intend to do to other road users, including hand signals, eye contact, headlight use, and, in some cases, vocalization. Just as we are experiencing more hazards on the roadway, we also expect cars to respond to road conditions, and we need to give space accordingly. We recommend identifying lower–traffic routes to ride (like the new Westside Rail Trail) and attempting to ride at off-peak hours to avoid the busiest times for car traffic.

This outline is a good starting point to help you think through winter riding, but always feel free to reach out with specific questions. We are here to help!

Photo credit: Josh Becker