Based on a primer by Tom Wolf, Saskatoon, SK, winter 2010.
Winter cyclists. We see them out there. Those super hardy over-achievers. Young and flexible, impervious to cold, indifferent to hazard, and incognito behind their goggles and scarves. Winter cycling is surely not an activity for your average mortal.
But wait. Perhaps our assumptions are unfounded. Is winter cycling really a “nutty endeavour”?
There are only three key things that set winter and summer cycling apart:
- It’s colder in the winter,
- paths have snow and ice on them,
- and it’s dark when we come and go from work in the mornings and late afternoons.
All of these can be managed to varying degrees.
The Basics – clothing
Canadians know how to dress for the weather, and putting this knowledge to use for winter cycling requires no special education or investment. Most important are one’s extremities, and the degree of protection depends on the temperature and the expected length of exposure. Remember to add your cycling speed to the windchill.
Legs and torso are easiest and least critical – layering and breatheability are important, though. Face, hands, and feet are more critical. Hands and feet can get colder cycling than walking or skiing, because they are doing less. We recommend well insulated boots and gloves or mittens. For the face, complete coverage may be needed, and neck tubes, or balaclavas and ski goggles work well. Scarves add a nice touch, but be sure they don’t hang loose near moving parts!
Overall, cyclists usually feel warm because their bodies are working. It’s important to stay dry, so being able to easily unzip to cool off rather than getting sweaty is critical.
The Basics – bike equipment
Most of us use mountainbike type frames in winter because the wider tires are most stable in anything more than a dusting of snow. And most of the studded tires are for mountainbikes. Having a low top-tube, a ‘mixte’ or a ‘ladies’ frame is nice, so you can get both feet on the ground if the bike tries to slip out from under you.
The biggest challenge when winter biking is maintaining good traction on the front wheel, and to a much lesser degree, the rear. There are two solutions that work together.
The first is bike handling skills. Knowing how fast one can enter a turn, or how ice differs in its grip, is a matter of experience and trial and error.
The second part of the solution is getting a proper winter tire. Opinions on the right tire, and what it should cost, differ, but it is safe to say that you will get what you pay for. Look for knobby rubber that stays flexible when cold. Metal studs are important, and more studs on a tire are better. Harder stud materials are also better, as these last longer on pavement. Riding experiences with winter tires can range from a specific tire making very little difference at all, to one providing traction on ice that is actually equivalent to what you’d expect on a gravel road.
Having a good bike-lock that works smoothly helps a lot, because often the coldest part of your ride is when you take off your mitts to fiddle with locks and keys. One solution is to wear thin gloves inside your mitts you can keep on for the fine finger-work. Perhaps a better solution is simply to park indoors… And don’t forget to lock those expensive tires!
The Basics – safety
All winter riders should expect their bike to slip out from under them when least expected, even if it never happens. Helmets are recommended, and special winter versions are available. Ski helmets are insulated, provide ear cover, and hold ski goggles well. But it’s also very important to choose cycling routes that are less slippery, and to avoid roads that are either heavily travelled or narrow. When on a road, occupy a car wheel lane. Cars will still be able to pass, and you stay off the slipperier parts of the lane. Bright reflective clothing can help with visibility. Front and rear lights are essential, and new LED versions are both cheap, bright, and long-lasting. Having two sets of lights at each end of the bike is well worth the investment in case one fails, and the modern lights often simply quit if battery power drops even a little in the cold.
Cyclists love gear, and there’s no shortage of equipment that makes life easier on a bike in the winter.
The most important equipment for winter riding, and the one in which an investment pays dividends. In recent years, tungsten-carbide studs, factory embedded in softer winter compound rubber with widely spaced, deep lugs, have made a significant difference. Priced up to $200 per tire, this investment is well worth it, even if the tires cost far more than the bike. The hard carbide tips will pay for themselves over several winters.
Keeping your feet on the pedals is synonymous with having control over your bike. Platform pedals with set-screw studs provide excellent foot contact, and avoid snow and ice buildup.
Brake pads ice up easily, and stopping power goes down fast. New pads that self-clean easily and have a softer compound will help. Teflon-coated cables resist freeze-up and have smooth action even in the cold. Hydraulic brakes may need an oil change.
Many winter cyclists have recognized that their shifting sometimes fails. Frozen slush can prevent the derailleur or cables from functioning. One solution? Stop shifting! Choose a gear you’re happy with and stay there. For purists, single-speed conversions give you a bike that offers much simpler mechanics, and a single, well-chosen gear is all you’ll need 99% of the time.
Go easy on the pedals first thing on extra cold mornings because the freewheel mechanism may not be fully engaged and you can find yourself pedaling forward and going nowhere. This can cause damage if the pawls are partly engaged when you apply torque. Some cyclists avoid this problem by using lighter hub grease in winter.
Those Scots knew what they were doing. Pound for pound, wool offers superior insulation, moisture wicking, and easy care. Any athlete will appreciate that wool doesn’t assume nasty odours after a little sweat, and modern wool products are comfortable and last a long time. Try a thin Merino layer on your legs, torso, or head, you’ll never go back.
Location Location Location
Saskatoon has some of the best winter cycling because we get a minimum of slop, slush and rain. Most of our winter, fenders are unnecessary. Our cool dry sunny winters, if you can handle the chill, are a cyclists dream.
The Bottom Line
Ask a winter cyclist why they do it and their answer will probably include the following points: It’s warmer and cheaper than driving and often faster, plus there are the benefits of exercise. Invariably, drivers get into cold cars, clutch a cold steering wheel, and squint out a small clear section of their windshield in the morning and evening. They pay for parking some distance from their office door and have to walk on slippery surfaces to get there.
Cyclists dress for the weather, warm up quickly, burn calories, and park for free close to the door. Once they remove their goggles and scarf, you’ll recognize them as your average citizen. The difference? They have a bounce in their step.