Ohhhh crap. Winter is coming soon, but the biking season is not over for Mr. One Wheel Drive! No way.
People shake their heads. They say that it’s crazy to bike in the winter: it’s too cold. It’s too dangerous. They say that because they never tried it. If you think about it, it’s crazy to go out at all in winter for anyone. But we manage to make the most of it, and some of us even enjoy it
You know what’s crazy? Wasting time being stuck in traffic:
In this video by Heather Shearer, riding along Hunt Club road in rush hour, she passes a net 144 cars in a short ride.
That’s once you get your car out in the first place, which can be a challenge:
There’s the scraping the frost off of the windshield, which alone takes 10-15 minutes. In that much time I’m half way to work.
The most difficult thing about winter biking is breaking your old habit. Yes, winter is cold. Yes, it’s dark. To bike in the winter is just like biking in the summer except that it’s more slippery, it’s dark, it’s cold, but it’s still darn tootin’ fun. None of these are barriers to prevent you from biking; they are just factors that you adapt to. Embrace the winter.
There are extra challenges in winter that need to be overcome:
- Loss of traction
So, do I get cold?
I don’t. I dress for it, it’s not hard; I move, generate my own heat, keep comfortable, and blaze past all the car clowns that are stuck alone in their cars waiting because some idiot who still has all-season tires ended up in a collision blocking everything. The challenge is actually to keep from overheating and sweating.
In Ottawa the coldest that it gets is -25C, which is pretty darn cold. Lots of cars won’t start when it gets to those temperatures. What it takes is air flow management, and making sure that you don’t have any exposed skin. You want to create your own Personal Comfort Bubble (PCB) that goes where you go, surrounding and protecting you like a nice down quilt.
Making a PCB means being not too hot, not too cold, and never wet. Breathability is super important, but balanced by letting all of the cold air in to your PCB.
Here’s how I dress, from top to bottom:
- Bike helmet with helmet cover. The helmet is like a thick styrofoam cup; it insulates your head quite well, but if air flows through it then it’s useless, hence the helmet cover. Good helmet covers have something on the back to which you can attach a light. The helmet cover also keeps snow off, ideally with a peak on the front to keep snow out of your eyes.
- A headband which goes below the helmet, to cover my forehead and my ears. Try a few to find one that doesn’t slide down over your eyes.
- Goggles. I usually ride with clear goggles because it’s dark when I ride to / from work, but I have a few pairs that span the dark to light range. Goggles keep your face warm by covering your skin, and also keep snow / winter spray from getting into your eyes
- Neoprene face mask. This is probably my favourite piece of equipment. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, my face never gets cold. It also helps to keep salt spray out of my mouth, which can get kicked up by the cars and tastes as salty as ocean water.
- Gore-tex shell. Get yourself a really good jacket, at a really good discount. I got an awesome Patagonia shell from zappos.com. Seriously, if you pay full price for a winter jacket you’re a sucker.
For warmer weather (-5 and up) I have a windbreaker that has lots of vents.
Quality wool sweaters are also good for warmer temperatures, around freezing. A good wool sweater will keep out the wind, and shield you from water, with the risk of looking dorky.
- I have a few different sets of mitts/gloves that I wear from +10 degrees down to -25. I used to always get the very cheapest gloves that I could, until I didn’t; and then I’ve always spent good money on them. The difference was incredible. Not all expensive gloves/mitts are good, mind you.
- Cheap nylon pants. Enough to cut the wind and shed falling snow, but still breathable.
- Sorel Caribou boots. These have lasted me 20 years of daily use and are still waterproof and awesome. I’ve had to replace the lining once, but the rest is still in great shape. I treat them with wax once or twice a year to keep them in top shape.
A tip about keeping your hands warm: Your body shuts off circulation to your hands when they get cold in order to keep your core warm. This means that once your hands get cold, they tend to stay cold, even when your core warms up. What I do is once I’m hot and sweating, I swing my arms around in big arcs, and the centrifugal force pushes the blood back out to my fingers and that warms them back up. Now, because I’m hot all over, the hands stay hot.
Under all of that I just wear whatever I’m going to wear indoors anyways. Nothing special. I don’t buy into all this talk about layering. Sure, maybe if you’re going trekking out in the country all day. In the city, what person is going to stop in the middle of the road to strip off their jacket, remove a sweater, put the jacket back on, and keep going? Not me. The secret is proper air flow management. Little things like tucking your shirt into your pants can make a big difference in apparent temperature, or loosening your cuffs a little bit and unzipping your jacket’s vents. In extreme cold I’ll wear a scarf around my neck under my coat’s collar to keep the hot air from flowing out.
Won’t I fall?
It’s normal to be afraid of falling when biking in winter. And yes, it’s more slippery than the summer. In 15 years of winter biking, I’ve fallen once, and I’ve also fallen once in summer, so for me, both are as dangerous.
Traction isn’t actually a big deal, because the pavement is bare most of the time. Believe it or not, there are people out there that think that cycling shouldn’t be legal in winter because it’s too slippery. That’s because they drive 5,000 pound SUVs that handle like a drunk pig on ice. Take a look at the first two videos above, and you’ll see that the roads are bare. In the third, when there is fresh snow, it’s magical.
Spend $120 on a good pair of studded tires. They help a lot. Some winters I’ve ridden mountain bikes with knobby tires, and they’ve been ok. The front wheel is the most important for stability, if you are going around a corner it’s not a big deal if the back tire skids out (it’s kind of fun to do, actually) but if your front tire slides then you will most likely fall.
When cornering, try to keep your bike upright as much as possible. Instead of leaning your bike, lean your body over (motorcycle racers do this). Keeping your bike upright helps to maintain as much tire contact with the road as possible, and also will help you keep control when you slide.
As long as your center of balance stays above your wheels, you won’t fall. The more your bike is tilted, the more likely it is to slip out from under you if you lose traction. If your bike is upright, then even if you lose traction, the bike is more likely to slide sideways but not slip out from under you because you can maintain that vertical plane of balance.
One danger to keep your eyes open for is frozen ruts. The worst are in front of bus stops, where the buses drive through the slush to make deep ruts and then the slush freezes up. If you’re not careful you’ll get knocked onto your ass in a second. The wheel gets into the rut and the bike is shoved to the side, and even if you steer into tilt it won’t help. It pays to be more assertive in winter and stick to the bare pavement even if you have to go more into the lane. If the motorists get angry, tell them to go demand that the city clears more bike paths and then you can get out of their hair.
Speaking of paths, there’s a great map of winter-maintained cycling routes that was created by Heather Shearer. And of course, the site you’re looking at has a crowd-sourced map of current biking conditions.
When the going gets hairy and your bike is jiggling around under you, it helps to shift your weight back. The more weight there is on the front wheel, the harder it is for it to climb over whatever obstacle it hits, and the more it gets pushed to the side. Leaning backwards helps the front wheel to ride over obstacles and helps you keep going straight.
The video above gives an example of some of the toughest conditions, traction wise. Snow fell recently, some of the streets are freshly ploughed, others not yet. At 22 seconds you have someone randomly getting out of the their car. At the beginning, the cyclist is keeping to a bare trough, and at 36 seconds she is staying in the track pushed down by the car in front. Notice also that none of the cars are going that fast; when there’s fresh snow, bikes actually have better traction than cars. The bike is a bit squirrelly, which is normal, but will usually come back to you. No need to panic.
If you look closely when she’s stopped, you’ll see that she’s riding with studded tires. These only help on ice; in snow they make no difference.
Also you see that the snow banks extend well into the street. That’s normal. If you want to winter bike, often there’s times when you’ll have to be a vehicular cyclist in Ottawa. Sadly, many of the bike paths are not cleared, and where there is a bike path on the side of the road, they usually just end up as snow storage in winter. I hate it. It helps to tell yourself that drivers are sitting in their nice, heated cars listening to their radio and if they want to hurry they can just go around you. You don’t need to get out of their way. It also helps that if you’re biking in winter in or after a snowstorm then drivers think that you’re a total badass and give you respect. That said, the reality is that a lot of the time, traffic is STUCK when there’s snow, and not going anywhere at all, so they are actually holding you up.
Regardless of the conditions (snowy or clear) it’s a good idea to drop your tire pressures. If you’re a pressure weeny you can tinker with this depending on the conditions, but I just set my pressure at 20 psi with the first snowfall and leave it there until the snow is gone.
What about the dark?
In winter it gets dark earlier, and on top of that, people’s windows are usually not properly cleared. It’s critical to do all you can so that people see you, and that you can see around you.
Lights are cheap – get many. I have a dynamo hub that powers my headlight and taillight, and it is great. I’m all in on team dynamo. I also have a couple of spoke lights to be better seen from the side. Finally, I have some ridiculously cheap headlamps from Costco – $12 for a pair and 210 lumens each.
I’ve also seen people mount cheap USB-charged lights on their handlebars, pointing backwards. This lights you up, so that others can see you better. One year, I got a cheap string of battery-powered outdoor Christmas LED lights and zip-tied it to my bike, and it was great. People loved it.
What about my bike?
Your bike will endure a lot of abuse over the winter. Salt and sand will get everywhere and wear everything down. For ten years I had a bike that required very little maintenance: aluminum frame, internal hub gears, and roller brakes (not disc brakes; disc brakes are good, but for winter, roller brakes are best). The hub finally went on that one and since then I’ve been trying out various things. This winter I’m riding a cheap mountain bike that I got for $40 and will likely throw out come spring.
You must get fenders. All kinds of slush and spray will be kicked up from your wheels, salt, sand, and guck. Make sure to give yourself enough space between your tires and fenders for snow to build up.
It’s hard on things if your bike goes between indoors and outdoors, unless you have enough time for your bike to completely dry out (like if you have an indoor heated garage that your bike can stay in all day). The problem is that the snow will melt and you get water in and around your brakes, pedals, dérailleur, and hub and then when you go back outside it will freeze again and can be dangerous. If your components do freeze, pouring hot water over them can help, just be prepared for them to freeze up again (although things will rarely freeze while they are in motion).
There’s a secret car wash in the NAC parking garage that is cheap and great for washing your bike off. I like to go from time to time to give a quick rinse to my bike. You can just ride in.
Always do a brake check before you get too far to make sure that they aren’t frozen.
Keep your pedaling cadence high and keep some extra power on tap for busting through snow banks and other obstacles. One thing I like to do when there’s a tight corner is to squirt some power to the back wheel which will help it slide around and let you turn tighter.
I mentioned previously that leaning backwards will help, but if the road is smooth snow and there is no ice, it can help to lean forward to give the front wheel a better chance to dig in to the snow. When I do this I usually stick my foot out just in case.
In the video below they show just how great winter riding can be.
But work is too far to ride!
If you’re worried about falling, or things are looking dicey, just get out on the nice days when the pavement’s bare. That’s totally allowed. If work is too far, you can still bike to get groceries, toodle around the block, or go the movies. There’s still a lot of other opportunities to get out in winter.