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Here’s why you should bike year-round in Chicago

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Yes, even in winter

A woman on a bike rides through a snow street in Chicago. Getty Images

Recently, I committed to the idea of becoming a year-round biker. I imagined this meant forcing myself to bike through the sleet, sludge, and ice that a Chicago winter can bring. What I’ve learned so far is that year-round biking isn’t about toughing it out as winter warrior.

I always imagined that all winter bikers were hardcore dudes and that I needed to adopt a hardcore mentality, too. The truth? Winter biking is for everyone: families, beginners, and casual riders.

I’m lucky enough to live near streets with decent biking lanes, so it’s often the quickest way to get where I need to go. Plus, it’s free-ish since I own my bike and good for the environment. If you’re interested in figuring out how to successfully bike through Chicago’s winter, the experts below will give you all the advice I wish I had starting out.

What to know if you’re just starting out

“It’s not all or nothing; riding on the beautiful cold-but-sunny days is a great way to start!” —Elsbeth Cool, owner of Four Star Family Cyclery

“Nearly every person that bikes in winter has a boundary or limit. For some it’s a temperature, for others it’s ice. Trust your gut. Your safety is paramount. Choose to bike (or not) based on your confidence and have a backup plan. There is no shame in locking up the bike and hopping on the train.” —Rebecca Resman of Chicago Family Biking

“The biggest obstacle is in your mind,” —Alex Wilson, executive director West Town Bikes

“For the vast majority of the winter in Chicago, the road surface conditions are dry—similar to what they are the rest of the year.” —Ted Villaire, communications director at Active Transportation Alliance.

The perks of biking in winter

“I could sound really altruistic and say I love biking at any time of the year for the way it connects me to my community, it’s good for the environment, etc. All true. But I mostly love biking because: I’m a tired parent with a lot going on, it’s fast, saves my family a ton of money, it’s super efficient, I don’t have to look for parking or sit in the pick-up/drop-off line, and I can skip the gym (because who’s got time for that... not me).” —Elsbeth Cool, owner of Four Star Family Cyclery

“One lovely snowy day, I was stopped at a light and a fellow bike rider said, ‘It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?’ I fully agreed. I got to my doctor’s appointment and the first thing she says to me is: “Isn’t it miserable out there?!” She drove. When you’re on a bike, you feel like you’re a part of the city, not just stuck in traffic trying to get somewhere. You see so much more.” —Lindsay Bayley, senior planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

“The ego boost when people hear that you bike places in the cold is super validating (and makes you feel like a badass.)” —Rebecca Resman of Chicago Family Biking

“A real sense of accomplishment on days that it might be particularly cold or snowy. It’s tough to get around by any mode in these conditions, but for me, when I’m on a bike, it seems like a real adventure! I also really love being the first to ride through fresh snow in Humboldt Park near where I live. It can be very picturesque and serene.” —Alex Wilson, executive director West Town Bikes

What gear you need, what can you do without

“You can often substitute other sports clothing instead of bike-specific gear. Lots of times running, skiing, and snowboarding gear is more available and affordable.” —Alex Wilson, executive director West Town Bikes

“Fenders are a must through the winter. This will keep your butt and feet cleaner. But it will also keep the bike cleaner. That salty slush is corrosive to the drivetrain of the bike.” —Kevin Womac, Boulevard Bikes

“For my approximate five-mile commute, I typically just wear my work clothes. It’s easy to dress in wicking layers for the cold; I prefer a silk or wool base layer, a wool or fleece mid-layer, and then a windproof outer jacket.” —Elizabeth Adamczyk, organizer of Ride of Silence

“What you wear to stay to warm will vary with your riding style, intensity, and how long you commute. I bike slowly, ride upright, and have a relatively short commute (3.5 miles). That means I can wear whatever I would be comfortable walking quickly in.” —Lindsay Bayley, senior planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

Must have gear: Snow pants! They are my number one requirement for winter riding. I picked up a pair at my local Salvation Army a couple of years ago and they changed my life.” —Carol Maher, Active Transportation Ambassador and Far North Side biking advocate

“Some folks like ski goggles. I think that’s a bit extreme. I like my prescription glasses, or sunglasses. I also wear safety glasses if it’s real nasty.” —Kevin Womac, Boulevard Bikes

How to do it with kids

If it’s really miserable, we can put our 5-year-old into the cargo bike with the rain cover. But her ride to school is only a quarter-mile, so we can get through most weather.” —Lindsay Bayley, senior planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

“When you live in a place like Chicago, you can spend six months of every year hating winter and being miserable, or you can embrace it. I tell my kids ‘we’re not made of sugar!’ all the time—nobody’s going to melt. It’s so good for our bodies and souls to be outside, moving and active, every day even if the weather stinks. My kids have learned to be resilient and embrace the change in seasons—sometimes they’re tougher than me!” —Elsbeth Cool, owner of Four Star Family Cyclery

Cool’s kids also answered our questions—so what does her 5-year-old think of winter biking? They said, “Sometimes it’s cold but when we get home, we get hot chocolate. I like that we can stop and look at ducks in the river.” Her 8-year-old prefers it over the car because “there’s no pollution.”

Ways to stay safe in winter weather

“For me, biking slowly is the way to go. I stick to the main streets that are plowed better if there’s snow and ice. Sometimes that means I have to walk my bike down my street to get to the main road.” —Lindsay Bayley, senior planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

“We plan our routes to avoid high-speed traffic whenever possible and favor streets that get plowed and salted regularly. If you’re ever lucky enough to make the first set of tracks in the snow up on the 606, it’s pretty magical!” —Elsbeth Cool, owner of Four Star Family Cyclery

“I’m a retiree, so don’t have daily commutes, but do ride pretty much every day to go to the gym, community meetings, or errands. I find that drivers are much more considerate and mindful of bicyclists in the winter. I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘Who is that crazy woman riding her bike in the winter? And I’m glad it’s not me!’” —Carol Maher, Active Transportation Ambassador and Far North Side biking advocate

“Be seen on a bike! Lights and reflective gear both on you and your bike. I like to use a mirror on my bike to make it easy to see what’s behind me.” —Alex Wilson, executive director West Town Bikes

“Lower air pressure in your tires allows the tire to make better contact with the road. Combined with a tire that’s got some texture/relief will improve grip and keep the bike upright in snow or slush or gritty, sandy intersections. If you find yourself on ice suddenly, don’t panic. Allow the bike to slow by itself (no brakes). Best to get over it and don’t turn.” —Kevin Womac, Boulevard Bikes

Best hacks for winter biking

“A Divvy bike is great if you don’t want to muck up your own bike on those slushy, snowy days. And you can always change your mind about riding home if the weather gets worse later in the day.” —Lindsay Bayley, senior planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

“I like to have an arsenal of gloves. A pair of liner gloves helps extend the range of another pair, and can be worn alone when it’s only chilly.” —Kevin Womac, Boulevard Bikes

“My family has been car-free for 10 years. I didn’t start out as a hardcore winter biker; we really worked up to it through several winters and a lot of standing waiting for the bus thinking, ‘hmm, we could have already been there if we’d biked!’ A big shift for us was when we finally bought a cargo bike with a weather cover that allowed our kids to stay warm and cozy even on the coldest days.” —Elsbeth Cool, owner of Four Star Family Cyclery