Thanks to GoBikeBuffalo for this fine winter weather cycling guide, which is just as applicable here in Manchester as it is in Buffalo.
Having a bike that can travel through slush and snow and salt and ice is important. There are quite a few things you can do to protect your bike from the elements.
One method that will eliminate a lot of hassle and worry is to just get an inexpensive, sturdy mountain bike that you don’t care a whole lot about to ride through winter.
Tires: Skinny tires actually slice through fresh snow quite well, but aren’t so good through really wet snow & slush, ice and uneven surfaces (icy, worn, pock-marked roads). Thicker, knobbier tires are better for winter conditions. Letting just a little bit of air out of higher-pressure tires (~75 psi+) will give your tires a bit more surface area, making handling on ice and through turns a little bit easier.
Some people have gone so far as to get studded tires or make their own snow-tires with zip-ties, which aren’t great for normal road use but are excellent for the snowiest of days.
Fenders are great for keeping snow off of your legs and back. Finding ones that fit your front wheel that don’t get clogged with snow and ice may be a challenge, but covering your back wheel is really simple (clip-on fenders, ~$15-$20 at most bike shops).
Gears: While having multiple speeds is convenient, cables and derailleurs can get clogged with ice, slush, salt and grit. It’s generally not a problem to have a multi-speed bike in the winter if you routinely clean your bike, but having hubs with internal gears or even riding a single speed will make things a lot simpler and more reliable.
Cables: Break cables and shifter cables are often exposed to the elements. The best set-up for winter (and just about any weather) is to have protected cables, especially for areas on the underside of the bike that are going to get covered & clogged with ice, salt and grit.
WHAT TO WEAR
It’s all too easy to freeze your butt off while riding in winter, but it’s just as easy to overheat.
Warm clothing in layers is a must. If you get too hot you can remove a layer or two, and if need be you can add layers. Wool/SmartWool or similar socks, boots/waterproof shoe covers and thick, warm gloves and hats are very highly recommended.
My comfort zone is starting off the ride feeling comfy or even a little cool, warming up about half-way through and arriving at my destination a bit warm. If you’re freezing half-way through your ride you’re probably under-dressed, and if you’re all hot and sweaty half-way through you’re probably over-dressed.
Avoid wearing cotton undergarments if possible, especially if you’re going to be outdoors for a bit: they collect moisture which can at some point get very cold and make riding miserable. Wool, synthetics and any fabric that will wick moisture away from your body are recommended. Also, materials that “breathe” or have ventilation are great to allow excess heat to escape. (Bringing an extra t-shirt can be helpful for when you get sweaty and need dry clothes.)
Wear your helmet.
On really sunny days the reflection of sunlight on wet surfaces and fields of white snow can be blinding: shades or ski goggles help a lot.
For really cold days you want to cover as much exposed skin as possible. Balaclavas/full face hoods are great, but can often lead to overheating (and foggy glasses or goggles). Many people prefer scarves as they are more adjustable.
And remember… no matter what temperature you’re riding in it’s important to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE
Planning your route ahead of time will help tremendously. Do your research: find out which roads are plowed often, have relatively clear bike lanes, have tons of traffic or very little, etc.
Think about geography and topography too: Which direction are you heading? Think about which direction the wind typically blows. Is there a section of your route that goes uphill or downhill, making it harder to commute when it’s slushy out?
Pay attention to weather forecasts so you know what to anticipate on your commute. Will you need to bring an extra layer of clothing or change your route?
Keeping your bike clean and well-tuned is great all year round, but is more of a necessity if you want to keep pedaling through the winter months.
Brush snow and slush off of your bike before bringing it inside. Not only will it keep your floors from getting filthy, it will prevent salt and grit from getting caked onto your bike and rusting the metal. Brushes that are sold to wipe off cars also work well for bikes. (I got one at RiteAid for ~$4) Also, putting down a few layers of cardboard where you store your bike will help absorb melting slush and keep your floors relatively clean.
Take a rag and clean off your cables and chain regularly, including derailleurs if you have them, applying lubricant such as Tri-flow.
*Caution: It is recommended that you DO NOT USE WD-40 on your bike. “WD” stands for Water Displacement, and it may actually cause moving parts such as your chain to dry out. There is no consensus among bike aficionados on this topic, but there is a lot of information and discussion on the web regarding this issue. The company that makes WD-40 now makes WD-40 BIKE© specifically for lubricating bikes.
Clean your bike frequently to make sure the salt is removed. A good wipe down with a rag and soapy water or light cleaner will do the trick. (Sometimes we get a streak of warmish weather in the winter, and whenever it gets above freezing temperatures I’ll often clean my bike without fear of freezing.)
Now that you’re bundled up on your winter-ready bike and know where you’re going, you need to take precautions to make sure you stay upright.
Patches of snow, slush or ice: At some point you’ll be riding and you’re going to encounter an unavoidable pile of slush or patch of ice in your path–Keep Calm and Cruise On. Stop pedaling and coast through the rough spot; pedaling when there is very little friction can cause your wheels to spin and destabilize you, and tensing up may not allow you to quickly react and adjust to any sliding or fish-tailing. (Sometimes I’ll even speed up a little before I hit a thick patch of slush or snow and stop pedaling in order to build up more momentum to carry me through.)
Note: This is for patches of slush or ice on a relatively clear road. If the roads are completely covered in several inches of slush you may have to (a) just pedal your heart out, try to stay upright and hope for the best, or (b) find another mode of transportation.
Turning: Do it slowly and carefully, anticipating that you may slide a bit.
Lights: Every bicyclist should have lights year-round. Stop by QC Bike Collective if you need some. Bright and blinking are the most visible; they’re not just for night riding, as they’ll help others on the road see you in snowy, reduced-visibility conditions at any time of day.
Hand-signals: Again, you should use signals as much as possible throughout the year (whenever it is safe for you to do so), but in snowy conditions it will help others see you and where you intend to go.