How to Destroy (and Care for) Your Bike in Winter

February 25, 2019

I bike commute year-round on a 28-mile round-trip journey just outside of Boston, much of it on the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway. In winter, when snow and ice coat the bike path, I switch from my regular commuting bike to a 29er mountain bike with fully studded tires. And it’s this bike that takes the brunt of abuse during the winter months, as the photo below illustrates.

Ironically, the biggest source of damage to a winter bike isn’t the cold or the often dry air. It’s the road salt that’s spread like candy from a piñata on roadways throughout the region. And all that salt is poison to your bicycle. It gets on your chain, gears, drive train, derailleurs, and more, especially if you’re out in milder conditions where your tires spray salty road puddles all over your bike. All that salt will quickly rust and corrode your bike components, especially the chain. If you don’t deal with it, it will destroy your winter ride.

Photo: Matt HeidIf you don’t properly care for your bike in winter, your chain and gears will end up looking something like this.

After a particularly damaging winter season last year, which included one chain snapping from corrosion, another freezing in place from rust in the months following my winter rides, and an expensive tune-up and rehabilitation at the bike shop this fall, I have been trying to up my winter maintenance game and stave off winter damage to my bike. Here are four things you can do:

Put fenders on your bike, especially the front tire

Fenders help reduce the amount of spray that hits your drive train and other parts of your bike. (They also block filthy spray from getting all over the back of your cycling clothing.) The front fender plays a bigger role in protecting your crank and front derailleur, so if you were to put only one on for some reason, that’s the one to use. Look for fenders that extend farther down, especially down the inside of your front tire.

Wipe down your bike and lubricate the chain regularly

You don’t want road salt to linger on and corrode your bike while it’s parked between rides. Ideally you’d be able to hose down your bike and wash off all the salt that’s accumulated on it, but that’s generally not an option in winter when outside faucets are turned off and hoses are put away for the freezing season. Your next best option is to regularly wipe down your bike with a rag and warm water and apply lubricant to the bike chain.

When it comes to chain lubricants for winter, you’re generally better off going with a ‘wet’ lubricant vs. a ‘dry’ lubricant. Wet lubricants are designed to more effectively repel water, a desirable feature on sloppy, salty rides. Personally I’ve been using Finish Line Wet Lubricant lately, which works fine, though plenty of other options are available.

Spot-target specific components for lubrication

To keep the front and rear derailleurs from corroding and eventually seizing up, I’ve been using Tri-Flow, a specialized lubricant designed specifically for all the crucial pivot points in your bike’s components. Get the squeeze bottle (not the aerosol spray), which includes a thin ‘dipper straw’ that allows you to specifically target and apply to the small spots on your components that need it. Apply it roughly every other week if you’re riding regularly.

Thoroughly clean your bike post-winter

Once the snowy, icy, salty season has passed and you can once again access an outdoor hose, thoroughly spray down your bike to wash away all the winter residue. The last thing you want is for salt to remain on your bike in the months after winter, steadily eating away and destroying your gears and chain. Once it’s clean and dry, lubricate everything one last time before you hang it up for the next winter season. Ride on!


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.