If you’re already a bike commuter during the summer, then you’re familiar with many of the safety-related issues inherent in sharing the roads with motor vehicles. Cycling to work in the off-season will require all of your current safety precautions, and a few additional ones. In this article I will discuss some of the safety issues that may arise during the colder months, and how to deal with them.
By the end of summer, you’ll have noticed that the sun starts rising later and setting earlier, so that before too long your morning and afternoon commutes may both be in the dark. This does not have to be a problem, as long as you give careful consideration to how to improve your visibility.
Reflectors – in the summer months, pedal reflectors and a rear bike reflector may be all that you have on your bike, but you’ll want to add more when you’ll be cycling in the dark every day. A jacket with reflective tape on the back and sleeves will reflect car headlights, and make you visible at great distances. For only a few dollars, you can also buy reflective straps that velcro in place around a wrist or ankle. A wrist strap on your left wrist will draw attention to your hand-signals, while a strap on your left ankle will catch the eye of approaching drivers due to the combination of brightness and pedaling motion.
Lights – if you are cycling on well-lit roads, your priority should be to be seen by approaching traffic. For this purpose, flashing lights are best. A white flasher on the front of your bike, and a red flasher on the back, are a good start. You could add a second white flasher on the front of your helmet, and another red flasher on the back of your helmet, just to be extra-noticeable. If you are cycling on poorly-lit bike-trails, then you will want a front light that lights the way in front of you. A strong, non-flashing front light will be best here.
As the weather gets colder, you’ll be able to stay comfortable by gradually adding layers. No expensive cycling clothing is required – if you’re generally active, you probably have most of what you’ll need already lying around the house. See my article on dressing for winter cycling for details on staying warm at any temperature.
Once the snow starts falling, you may need to change from racing tires, to hybrid tires, and on to nubby mountain-bike tires. In most cases, normal mountain bike tires work fairly well for winter riding. If conditions are icy, you may need to move up to studded tires. Note: in my experience, the only conditions that have made cycling near-impossible have been deep soft-granular snow on roads full of car tire tracks – at that point, moving on to the hard-packed snow on most sidewalks works well.