A Not-Quite-Perfect Commute

A Lonely Bike Commuter

I had a fantastic ride home last night. It was crisp and clear, probably in the low 50’s, not a cloud in the sky and not a leaf moving. The sunset was spectacular and the full moon was rising just as twilight set in. Traffic was light and I mapped a route that takes advantage of our lovely bike lanes and off-street cycle paths. The only thing that would’ve made it better is a few more bike riders on the road. It seems when the temperature drops this time of year, ridership plummets right along with it. The good news is that there’s plenty of wonderful riding available right on through the year (at least here in sunny NorCal); all it takes is a little preparation and a few cold weather clothing items you probably already have in your closet.

Traffic was light and I mapped a route that takes advantage of our lovely bike lanes and off-street cycle paths. The only thing that would’ve made it better is a few more bike riders on the road.

Around here, winter is the best time of year to wear street clothes while biking because you don’t perspire so much. I commute in my work clothes all winter and just add a couple of layers on top when the temps drop below 45F or so. Fleece vests are great for this approach because they keep your core toasty without restricting your upper body and arm movement. I’ll often add a full fleece jacket or a breathable wind shell on top of the vest if needed. And if it’s really cold, I’ll add a wool base layer under my dress shirt. The idea is to remain flexible and adjust your layers based upon the specific day’s weather conditions.

Along with adding layers, I also wear a wool cap with ear flaps under my helmet. If it gets down below freezing I’ll replace the wool cap with a full balaclava. And though I don’t normally wear cycling-specific gloves, a nice pair of wool gloves are a must-have item this time of year. In our relatively mild conditions here in Northern California, I don’t find it necessary to wear anything special on the lower half of my body; a stout pair of khakis or cords provide plenty of warmth for our conditions (I’m showing my middle-aged geekiness here).

Obviously, for those who live in less temperate climates, serious cold weather gear is in order. And there may often be conditions where it’s just not practical to ride a bike (snow and ice come to mind). But even here in California, with our unusually mild conditions, the weather seems to have a dramatic effect on the number of bike commuters on the road. So I’m here to remind my local bike commuting cohorts that, with a little bit of effort, it’s not difficult to keep riding comfortably and enjoying the many benefits of riding a bicycle for transportation throughout the year!

23 Responses to “A Not-Quite-Perfect Commute”

  • Chris Moore says:

    I commute/ride all year. I’ve found my limit in the high single-digits. Below that it’s just too darn cold.

    I have one word – WOOL!

  • Brendan says:

    “And there may often be conditions where it’s just not practical to ride a bike (snow and ice come to mind).”

    I’ve ridden only one winter so far I haven’t found it yet. :)

    Closest I’ve come was like 10 in snowfall while I was at work with a 20mi breeze to create drifts. The at work part is important cause it means the plows hadn’t been out yet (and we even plow our bike paths here). I’m looking forward to the snow. It’s like new single track everyday. Keeps the ride interesting. That and I’m a XC skier, this snowless, warm Nov is killing me.

    The lowest I’ve gone is riding my 14 mi commute at -14F (air temp, not wind chill) and was talking to another rider last night whose done 14mi in the -30Fs. And I never made first tracks on the Midtown Greenway (our wonderful, crosstown, plowed bike path).

    Ice has never been a problem with studded tires.

    I’m sure some Alaskan or Canadian readers have some wicked winter stories to share.

    Looking Forward to Snow in Minneapolis….

  • philbertorex says:

    Here in the Willamete Valley, winter brings rain. Neoprene and wool are essential. Sometimes a snorkel adds a bit of dash to the ensemble.

  • dW says:

    Last winter was my first dedicated attempt to bike commute here in MIlwaukee and I’m looking forward to adding to my percentage of days cycling in the core winter months. The biggest lesson learned last year was that studded tires are a must-have for improving safety and confidence. The temperature really isn’t a factor as long as your dressed for it – very similar to conditions for cross-country skiing. I actually find that I am bothered much more by the evening darkness than the cold. Riding in the dark just isn’t as relaxing because I’m worrying about whether that dark blob up ahead is a pothole, an ice patch or a shadow….three weeks to the shortest day, hurray!

  • Gus says:

    I commute all the year with my e-bike kalkhoff agattu. i was wondering What bike is the one in the picture, it looks really nice? I know that in USA you have bikes that we, in europe, never will see in the streets but i’m looking for my next bike and your tests and pictures give me many advices on what i really want as my muscolar bike.
    greetings from italy and sorry for my bad english.

  • Alan says:


    There’s no need to apologize for your English; it’s far better than my Italian! :-)

    The bike is a Surly Long Haul Trucker. It’s mostly stock, though I made a few modifications including changing from drop bars to Nitto North Roads, adding a Brooks B67 saddle, adding a Pletscher double kickstand, and adding racks front and rear.

    Best regards,

  • bongobike says:


    It’s funny to me that ridership should drop in your area when temps start hitting the 50s. Here in Austin, ridership seems to go up when that happens. The summers are so brutal that the first hint of cool weather brings all the commuter cyclists out.

    I used to commute all year round, but I must admit I’ve been slacking a lot lately for any number of reasons (or excuses). The coldest I have ventured out is 30°F. In the 30s I will wear a full balaclava, tights, gloves, neoprene shoe covers, in other words, the works. But I haven’t done that in years. Nowadays I usually only commute during the mild weather of spring and fall. I have also started commuting in street clothes. I hate the hassle of having to change at the office.

  • Jonathan Harding says:

    I commuted this morning in Charlotte, NC where the temperatures were in the low 30’s. I ride with a mix of athletic gear and cycling specific gear including lined nylon running pants, desente sleeveless base layer, thin polartec longsleeve baselaver, fleece polartec vest, pearl izumi wind breaker jacket, thin ear-warmer, and performance bike knit gloves. I was warm enough this morning, but had cold fingers and chin starting out on my 8 mile commute. This is my first year cycling past the end of day light savings. It very rarely gets below 20 degrees in Charlotte and only occasionally below freezing. It was a great feeling this morning knowing that it was December 1st, and I was on my bike. Unfortunately, I rarely see more than a few other bicyclists out on my commute, and even fewer in the winter months. I am seeing bicycles on bike racks today in Uptown Charlotte, however!

  • Andrew says:

    This will be the first winter I’ll be commuting by bike during, and I’ve acquired a $50 beater mountain bike that, with some modifications, should last me through the winter. So far, the weather here in Southern Ontario has barely dropped below freezing so bike commuting is a total non-issue. I actually prefer snow to rain come winter time; I prefer being cold to soaked and cold.

    We’ll see how enthusiastic I am when I’m dicing it up with traffic in frozen slush at -20C and gusting winds, but right now I’m almost looking forward to it…

  • Alan says:


    “Sometimes a snorkel adds a bit of dash to the ensemble.”


  • Alan says:


    I have the utmost respect for you bike commuters who brave snowy/icy conditions and sub-freezing temps. We’re cry-baby weather wimps here in California… LOL.


  • Iain says:

    This is also my first year of seriously commuting during the winter months, this morning it was -5 degrees C (23 deg F) and its the first time the full balaclava was out. I have yet to cycle the 10 miles to work in the snow but there have been a few dicey icy patches the last couple of weeks. The bike rack at work today was still reasonably full considering the temperature though.

  • Sharper says:

    Just down the hill from Alan, the coldest I’ve had to deal with was 30 degrees on the American River trail. My riding ensemble — bike shorts and athletic tee — hasn’t really changed, but I did add nylon arm and leg warmers, (insufficient) gloves, a thin cashmere knit cap, and a zippered hoodie to the mix.

    I don’t much care for balaclavas, but since I was planning on commuting all year round this year, I stopped shaving around the vernal equinox to get some built-in chin and cheek insulation. It’s worked like a charm so far.

  • Bob says:


    Contractor’s safety glasses from your local Home Depot/Menards/Lowe’s etc.: I got mine after a faceful of salty slush on a fast, icy descent. The high-contrast yellow ones made for hunting are great.

  • DerrickP says:

    It’s that time again! I’m in Lexington, KY and we have wet winters. Yesterday I rode in 38 degree rain. The only thing that drives me nuts is the additional time. It seems like it takes 20 minutes to get dressed for that kind of weather. And yesterday my 12 mile ride in took about 15 minutes longer than it usually does. I think it’s due to all the extra restricting clothing I’ve got on. That’s a lot of extra time to put in. But i’ll keep doing it!

  • Doug says:

    It took me several years, but with some practice I’ve been able to ride everyday all year round in Northern Minnesota. With the right gear and right clothing options, one can ride in any winter conditions. I keep proving that.

    After several years I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t. I never look out the window in the morning and wonder if I should or shouldn’t ride. I look out the window and decide what I’m going to wear today.

  • EricF says:

    Yeah, I’m with dW. Dressing for it is the main thing. I’ve been commuting by bike through the winter here in eastern Kansas for 8 years now, not counting the 5 years that I lived 8 blocks from my job. I was convinced that I could have done that naked in the winter, but never tested it. My current ride is only 3 miles, but it can get cold. I don’t get out the balaclava until about zero F, and I learned that when I do, I can’t wear my glasses because they always fog up. I wear rain pants at 10 F and under for wind blocking. But my most valuable piece of clothing is a little polarfleece ear band that I wear across my nose & mouth, wrapping around my ears and back of my head. I find that I stay a lot warmer when I am breathing through something that will pre-warm the air. Otherwise I just wear what I would for a brisk walk. But if anyone knows how to keep feet warm, I’m all ears!

  • Leon Webster says:

    I rode 7 miles to work in Minneapolis this morning. The temperature was about 29 degrees, but clear skies and only a light breeze. I saw 19 other cyclists on my way to work. I started counting cyclists a few days ago because I was amazed that there are still so many of us about. When I started riding a bicycle to work 30 years ago in Indianapolis, I rarely saw another cyclist. But now we are all over the place, some wearing work clothes, some in lycra. some riding high end utility cycles, some on fancy road bikes, some on old frames reborn as single speeds. It is nice to see so many folks out and about.

  • Alan says:


    “The temperature was about 29 degrees, but clear skies and only a light breeze. I saw 19 other cyclists on my way to work.”

    That’s super. Some of us Californians are, shall we say, cold weather challenged… ;-)

  • tim says:

    Rode today, it was about 30 (f) in the morning. For Cincinnati winters I use a mix of Endura winter gear, thrift store wool sweaters (I have three, each a differnt thickness) booties with winter mtn bike boots, various glove combos and earbands/hats/balaclavas.
    …..The kicker is …… Police cycling pants. I have three pair. They are awesome!, zippered pockets, articulated knees, bomb proof. I put 2,000 winer miles on a pair and they still looked good, including the seat. One pair zip off to become shorts, one pair are lined and I don’t use till it hits about 30 (f). The pockets are great ’cause the wool sweaters don’t have pockets. Plenty of room for a phone, spare hat, wallet, keys, etc.,. When I stop by the bank, or library they are more modest, yet fit great on the bike. I am not an employee or related to them in any way… see: Olympic Uniform. Look at the closeouts. My commute 40 miles round trip.

  • doug says:

    My winter clothes consist almost entirely of thrift shop Pendletons and Army Surplus wool pants. The wool pants only come out when it’s in the twenties, not often in Seattle. My Pendletons are quite varied, some summer weight and others winter weight, to better layer. I also have a collection of various thrift wool sweaters, also of different thicknesses. My jersey supply is miserable — the two Swobo wool jerseys I had lasted less than a year. Not quality gear, to say the least. I have a couple low quality ones.

    I also have a wind blocker top, wool gloves, and two wool caps, one thick and one thin, that fit under my helmet, which is under a waterproof cover.

    Pants wise I wear thick cotton duck work pants that I wear most often. I have thick wool army pants and thin wool slacks for winter day tours.

    I wear regular shoes regardless of weather, but I equip wool hiking socks November to March.

    My raingear is a C.A.T. Oregon rain cape, which is perfect for tooling about town. I used it on a rainy tour once, where it was not ideal. Note that it is not utilized in Seattle as often as you may think — when I lived in Humboldt County, CA, I used it far far more often. Rain in Seattle is pretty light and frequently interrupted by glorious sunbreaks.

    Last winter I rode to work at 5:30am when it was 17 degrees and was comfortable. Not bad for someone Southern California raised!

  • TD says:

    I have a Woolrich parka that keeps me warm enough for winter riding. In fact, a lot of times it keeps me a little too warm. Wool socks (sometimes 2 pairs in the dead of winter) are also essential. My legs don’t get that cold doing my 10 mile commute, and I have a Bern Watts with the snap in winter liner that helps keep the head warm. The problem with Missouri is that the temperature can fluctuate 20 degrees in a matter of hours…so being prepared is sometimes a little tough.

  • s0fa says:

    When I first took the plunge from department-store mountain bike to 700×25 wheeled road bike I was dismayed to find that I could not get adequate traction in more than an inch of snow.

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