Bicycling for recreation generally leads to riding in groups for motivation and friendly competition, but longer distances and commuting tend to weed out some of the crowd. Often times you can find someone to ride with - but not always. In fact, a large percentage of my mileage each year is spent in complete solitude and this is the norm for many commuters and long-distance riders. Even when commuting a short distance to work, through town, I can find myself out well out of view and out of ear-shot on the county trail system. Traffic is the "natural enemy" of the recreational cyclist, which can put you in isolation on-purpose while looking for that perfect, quiet route. You can be off the beaten path yet still very much "close to town" in any of these situations. Add in the harsh conditions of winter and you can begin to see the potential for less than ideal scenarios to arise.
I don't want to further this culture of fear we already live in. (Too late?) We all already know that bicycling is an "inherently dangerous outdoor activity". Society at large has "taught" us through various "scientific" studies and "research" that we're constantly at risk of dying some horrible death, or at least moments from being injured no matter what we're doing. Wear a helmet. Wear sunblock. Ride smart. Check your tires. Don't over-tighten. Grains of salt. What I'm talking about here, however, can be a legitimate concern: crashing, bonking, getting lost, running out of water, having more flat tires than supplies to fix them, having a major mechanical problem during a ride - they can happen without warning at the best of times for the most well-prepared rider. Despite all that, bicycle riding is fun and the benefits far outweigh the risks. You can't foresee every problem - nor should you get bogged down trying to. Any cyclist should have the knowledge and skill to fix flats, fix minor mechanical issues, and get moving again -- but there are other things you can employ to stay safe that don't involve your gear or your bike at all.
The scenarios are as endless as your imagination - but don't get so hung up on them that you find the need to prepare and pack for anything possible. Carry the same things you always carry - but know how to use what's around you if needed. Can you make a splint? Can you make a fire? Do you need to? Do you know how to get back to town? Can you walk? Will you be okay if you have to simply stay put? Sure, sure - the chances of anything major are very slim; but the majesty of a long solo ride through beautiful scenery can hide the dangers that await you if something goes awry. Paranoid? Yes, perhaps I am - but consider that I might be paranoid enough for both of us, and take heed. I've been on the bad side of scenarios like this, so being prepared may prevent you from having to endure the same. Simple orienteering, light survival knowledge, knowing your limits, knowing how to effect your survival without technology. Remember, this has nothing to do with equipment so much as it has to do with employing your mental preparedness and knowing that you have a safety net in place.
There are plenty of outdoor survival resources available on the internet, so I won't delve into that subject here. Further, you know the things already touched on in the post about winter clothing, so this post is a mild extension that talks about something we often forget as cyclists: Having that safety net in place. Assuming you have already made all the other preparations necessary to enjoy winter time (or ANY season) riding, you should always have a system in place to monitor your safe return. Many a survival story has unfolded simply because of lack of communication. It's a hard nut to crack: feeling independent as a adult and as a cyclist, an adventure-minded individual not having to be accountable for your activities has to take a backseat here - even if you tell only one person, just communicate. That's the hardest step.
In this day and age, there's almost no excuse. Social networking, email, text messages, GPS tracking, mileage tracking websites, or the simple buddy system work marvelously and should be taken full advantage of. Make sure the person you have for your safety net is responsible, someone that will check their messages or is ideally already in that habit as part of their job or lifestyle. The people in your safety net don't need to be on-call, or the person that will pick you up if something happens - make that clear. They don't even have to be cyclists. Family is an obvious choice. If it's a friend, have an up-front conversation with them over a beer or coffee, and set expectations. Don't put too much burden on your contact people. Let them know your ability, your limits - and make it a big envelope so as to avoid confusion: setting boundaries so that if you go out for a ride and expect to be back at 2:30 and your contact person doesn't have an email from you at 2:45 they don't hit the panic button and send out the National Guard, for example.
If you are already in the habit of posting your ride results to a social network, have that be your conduit. "Headed out for a quick 50 miles to Smalltown and back".... then, later, "an awesome ride today". Simple, succinct, done. Be creative - but make it transparent, easy, effortless. The trigger mechanism for your safety net should be something to the effect that if you haven't been heard from by sundown, then someone out there starts to try your cell phone, and so-on. Even if it's a false alarm, it builds a network of accountability that could potentially come to your aid someday.
Plan a route: Often times I am hard on myself for not being spontaneous enough - but as the miles get longer and longer in the course of training, it becomes harder to simply meander: I have to have a route planned, something to stick to even if it is a loose plan. It's very hard for me to simply "go out and ride", or "show n go". When it comes to riding solo, however, this is a good thing - and any route plan should be communicated to your network as part of your "departure" message. Include an image of your route or a list of towns you expect to hit. No-one has to look at it - but it's there if needed. If you are spending an hour plotting a route on your favorite mapping website or program, share that link with your network. Don't think of this as being tied to the route, however - you still have freedom. Even if you decide to meander during the ride and take a side-road, everyone still has an excellent general idea where you intended to be, and there isn't a search-party in the world that will just "stick to the map". Even if you don't know the route - have a general direction of travel and communicate it. "Headed to Cycleburg", should be enough: your network knows where you live, and there are only so many ways to get from your home to your destination and back. If the worst should happen, they can figure it out. If you decide en route to alter your plans, however, be sure to communicate! Update from the road, "Headwinds stink, turning north to Geartown." Stay connected.
Technology is catching up. Only a few years back I had to get in the habit of turning off my cellphone during longer rides to conserve battery, and I was constantly in and out of coverage areas. These days, phone run-times are longer and coverage is better. You have to try a LOT harder to get truly isolated around here. Is any of this a real issue then? Probably not --- but it is remarkable how isolated you can feel only a few miles from town when nobody in a car will stop to assist you while you fix a flat tire. Being hot and sweaty on the side of a road in frigid temperatures isn't apparent at all to someone flying past in an automobile - they'll just think "crazy biker", and keep going. While there is still a lot to be said for the kindness of strangers, you have to be realistic. Blow a tire on a rural downhill, drift off the steep shoulder and into the brush below - you can be mere feet from the road, yet completely invisible to passing cars. If you have a $1.00 reflective mylar emergency blanket in your seat-bag, you may never need it --- but you'll be infinitely glad you brought it should that rare, rare hand be dealt to you when you're miles from home, with a double flat and jammed chain, in the rain, 30 minutes before dark. Make sure your phone is "findable" by enabling GPS features (if applicable). Keep your phone turned on, call for help - if GPS isn't an option, one of the first steps search and rescue will use involves triangulating your signal. Even if YOU don't know where you are, the professionals have the tools to find you.
Finally, the obvious "safety in numbers" - the original social network: ride with a friend. Try to plan something - riding with friends always trumps riding alone, from many angles. The same rules apply, though -- make sure family or friends know where you are headed, especially if the conditions are questionable. Never assume that someone else in the group will do this for you. Redundancy is good. Event riding can be a good thing - especially if it's well supported. There will be sweepers, roving SAG, and course marshals that will make getting lost a difficult prospect. However, even in those situations there can be miscommunication and crosstalk - so at least make sure someone in your network knows where you're headed on that special Saturday morning.
There is no "off season" - but safety is always in-season.