You’ve made the move to bike commuting, or even just to use your bike occasionally for short-trip errands. Congratulations, and thank you on behalf of Mother Earth! You think to yourself: “I’ve actually learned to love this! My clothes are just a bit looser than before. And I feel that bit better when I arrive at work and more prepared to take on the day! But, (sigh) now it’s winter. I guess I have to put the bike away…”
Good news! We Canadians take pride in being a hardy bunch. It’ll take more than a little bit of snow to stop us from getting on our bikes!
Which Bike is Best for Winter Cycling?
First, if you are fortunate enough to have a choice, which kind of bike to use?
This isn’t the time to bring out that sleek racing bike with narrow slick tires. Besides, safety and comfort dictate that we take our time that little bit more when riding in adverse conditions, no different than when driving.
If you are lucky enough to live in Hamilton (hamilton.socialbicycles.com), Toronto (bikesharetoronto.com) or another city blessed with a bike-share program, the added weight of those bikes tends to make them excellent for all-weather commuting. If not, don’t be afraid to use a bike with a bit more heft during the winter months. Knobby (mountain bike or cyclocross) tires are better than slick racing tires. Remember, it’s grip we are looking for, not speed.
Winter cycling can be hard on a bike and its components: particularly the drivetrain and brakes. For those of you who, like me, tend to ride hard and put our bikes away dirty, this is a great opportunity to change that habit. A rinse of your bike, even just with a spray bottle now and then can help to prevent the accumulation of salt and grit, both of which shorten the life of parts of your bike.
While you’re at it? Slightly reduce the air pressure in your tires, bearing in mind that if you store your bike indoors, taking it outside will already cause the air pressure to drop slightly. This will help to increase the size of the contact patch of your tire on the road, and therefore the grip.
Make sure to lubricate your chain and grease other moving parts regularly. Not only will this help to protect your components, but riding with a clean, lubricated chain also makes pedalling smoother, and minimizes those mysterious creaks and grinds. Plus, a well-maintained, cleaned and lubricated bike makes every day feel like a NBD (new bike day)!
Although they can be difficult to find and are an added expense that not everyone can bear, consider riding on studded tires. Even on cold, damp, exposed roads, let alone on snowy and icy days, studs can make a remarkable difference not only with traction, but also with your confidence.
What to Wear for Winter Cycling
Your choice of clothing can serve to not only make your ride more comfortable, but also to make your ride safer. Not being distracted by cold feet or having your vision obscured by windy or snowy conditions allows you to focus best on the task at hand, which is to arrive at your destination safe and sound.
Think of the first parts of your body to feel the cold. Make your hands, feet and face a priority. A good pair of winter gloves can be perfectly suitable for winter commuting, whether a “lobster claw” style, or even mittens. You can even buy large handlebar mitts surprisingly inexpensively which are lined and remain on the bike, allowing you to slip bare hands inside to make it easy to brake and shift gears. For your feet, neoprene shoe covers are great at providing protection from wind and wet, but if those aren’t in your budget, believe it or not, a couple of large Ziploc bags on your feet, inside your shoes or boots, can make a huge difference.
Finally, if at all possible, invest in a pair of ski goggles that fit well with your helmet. Dress in brightly coloured and/or reflective layers, and remember that when moving at speed, the wind is what will make you feel coldest, so bear that in mind when choosing materials to wear while riding. And, thoughtfully choosing what to wear can help to make you more visible to other road users, who are experiencing the same compromised vision that you would be if you weren’t wearing those ski goggles. Right?
The Importance of Safety Lights
Finally, remember lights! Winter darkness morning and night makes it even more important to use a strong white light on the front of your bike and red light, preferably flashing, on the rear, even two or three of each. The law requires it up to a half-hour after sunrise and starting a half-hour before sunset. In fact, winter visibility makes it a great idea to use your lights all the time to make your riding as safe as possible. Just remember to charge them at home at night, and at work during the day!