Several of us bike all winter in Toronto which isn’t usually that hard, but this year has gotten off to a very snowy start. Winter cycling can be a bit of an adventure at times. It helps to know a few techniques to deal with the cold, snow and ice. But keep in mind that you can always take a break from riding for a day or two if the weather is too extreme.
Image: house member, Joe, who is an avid cyclist.
Why ride in the winter?
Those who have not tried winter riding may be wondering why someone would do something that seems so risky and difficult. Here are some advantages:
- Saves time. Cycling in the city is much faster than transit and most car trips. I have zipped past many a car stuck in traffic congestion, and because my tires cut through snow I can pass cars spinning their wheels on hilly streets.
- Convenience. When you ride most of year, you get used to the convenience of not having to rely on public transit, or finding a parking spot for your car. I have pannier bike bags for carrying groceries and other heavy stuff. If I were to walk instead, I would have to lug that load around.
- Riding is much better for the environment if your alternative is driving. And no need to worry about clearing snow and ice off your car, buying gas, finding parking, etc.
- If your alternative is public transit, then the biggest advantage is not having to wait for a bus while standing in the cold. And no need to worry about picking up germs in crowded buses or trains.
- Great form of outdoor exercise in the fresh air.
- Many winter days are sunny, dry and beautiful – making for very pleasant riding conditions as long as you dress warmly.
- And then, or course, there is the thrill of a challenge.
Riding tips for snowy, wet, wintery days
- Watch out for black ice. If you hit some, ride straight over it without peddling, turning or braking.
- On compacted snow or white ice I can get decent traction, but I will ride standing up if the conditions feel slippery. This way I can quickly put one foot down on the road should the bike slip.
- Test how slippery the road is. Quickly accelerate your back wheel to see if it grips or slips. While going slowly, try applying your back brake fully. This way you will get a feel for how much traction there is.
- If possible stick to side streets as they are usually more pleasant and safe.
- After a snow fall, main streets may have less room for bikes due to the space taken up by snow banks. If the cars are moving slowly consider taking up a whole lane, or let the faster cars pass, then take the whole lane. Avoid busy streets if possible, especially if they have streetcar tracks.
- Brake carefully, and plan for it to take longer to stop. I am always prepared to put my foot down on the pavement if necessary to help stop. In snowy and wet conditions, pump the brakes frequently to keep rims clear.
- Take corners slower and don’t lean as much as on dry days.
- Avoid bad sections or obstructions in the road. I will sometimes ride on an empty sidewalk for a stretch to get around a particularly icy or slushy section. And it is always an option to get off your bike and walk it.
- Streetcar tracks can be more slippery and icy in the winter (especially after a snow fall). Walk your bike over them, or cycle across at a right angle while keeping your pedals horizontal, standing up and flexing your arms and legs to absorb any shock.
- It is best not to use an iPod while winter riding, or at least keep the volume low. I had an accident last year while listening to an iPod that resulted in a sprained thumb. Because my hearing was distracted, I turned too quickly and slipped when I suddenly noticed a car in my way.
Bike and gear
- Wear a helmet.
- I use a bike with fairly narrow tires (1-3/8 inch). These cut through the snow. Some riders prefer thick tires that may be best for conditions where packed snow covers the entire road. This in not usually the case in a big city like Toronto. Depending on snow conditions, you can also lessen tire pressure to increase traction.
- Make sure your bike has aluminum alloy rims. These stop much better when wet. Brake pads slip on steel rims.
- The nights are longer and darker in the winter. Use front and back lights and make sure you have reflectors, and reflective tape on your helmet and bike. I use a small light in the front with rechargeable batteries held in place by wire and tape to deter theft. No one has stolen it in several years of riding. In the back I have a magnetically generated light.
- Avoid getting water in your brake line. The last few days my back brake froze solid. I brought the bike inside yesterday and took apart the brake cable. There was a bit of water inside the cable liner. I dried it, put it back together and used some waterproof red construction tape to shield the end of the brake cable from the rain. See photo right.
- Get fenders.
- Use basic flat pedals so that you can put your foot down fast if needed. Toe clips are not a good idea.
- You may wish to buy a second junker bike, so that you don’t need to worry as much about corrosive salt or theft, but make sure it has all the above mentioned safety features. A hack bike can be parked more easily as you don’t need to be so rigorous about locking it securely – a big plus should your lock freeze. It is also nice to be able to keep it outside without worrying about it being stolen.
- Keep your bike outside most of the time. It can be inconvenient to bring a bike inside, and it will make a mess as the slush melts. Also if you take a warm bike out in snowy weather, the snow will stick to it more.
- If your bike has become coated in salty slush at the end of a ride, bounce it up and down and/or kick the bike frame to knock off as much slush as possible. Or throw a bucket of warm water at it.
- Oil your chain and other moving parts on a regular basis.
- In case your lock freezes, have a lighter on hand or some de-icying oil. I usually have success using the warmth of my bare hands to thaw my lock. To help prevent freezing, add a drop of oil or graphite lubricant in the locking mechanism. If possible avoid riding in the rain during the winter and keep your bike covered. When locking your bike, position the keyhole so that it is facing down to prevent water getting in.
- Carry extra plastic bags to cover your seat and for lining bike bags.
- I find that it generally feels about 5 degrees cooler when riding due to the increased airflow around the body. This is great in the summer, but riding in the winter may feel colder than when walking.
For my head I wear a helmet cover to block wind, rain and snow. At bike stores you can also buy helmet liners that fit snugly under your helmet. I have a hooded sweatshirt that works well as a helmet liner. When it is really cold I also use a scarf. See right photo.
- I use warm ski mitts for my hands.
- For my feet I just wear my regular shoes. One nice advantage of cycling is that you can ride through puddles and slush without getting your feet soaked. As long as you have good fenders, your feet should stay relatively dry. For the coldest days (less than minus 10 C) I wear boots.
- It can be a good idea to have several layers for different weather conditions and temperatures. I have some rain pants when needed and a warm vest for under my ski jacket. If you anticipate the temperature dropping for your return trip, pack an extra layer in your bike bag.
The City of Toronto has some excellent winter riding web pages with more in depth suggestions. Some of the above tips are based on theirs. See their bike maintenance page for information not covered here.
Bicycling Life has a great site about the advantages of winter cycling, as well as many tips.
Momentum magazine has a good posting called Beware! Frosty Roads Make for Perilous Morning Rides.