Winter Cycling

Don’t let the weather stop you, check out these benefits and resources to Winter Cycling

  • Traffic and commute time is almost always the same
  • A peaceful ride though freshly snow-blanked parks is a nice exhilarating way to start and end your work day
  • Year-round exercise!
  • A real sense of brotherhood/sisterhood when you see those other tracks in the snow
  • Very cold days and snowstorms are memorable, but there are actually not that many in Calgary’s dry climate

Clothing

Body?

  • Dress in layers!!!
  • The choice of whether to buy cycling-specific clothing or just wear what you have is a matter of personal preference and depends a great deal on how concerned you are with aerodynamics or fashion, and also on when, where, and how far and how fast you ride.
  • It’s also very handy to use general-purpose winter clothes like soft-shell skiing pants/jackets and long underwear over or under your “normal” clothes.
  • Wind-proof layers are important as the temperature drops.
  • Down to -5°C, a pair of dress pants and long johns will keep you warm enough.
  • Avoid cotton since it retains moisture and will make you feel clammy.
  • A scarf (or winter cycling jacket with tight-fitting neck) is also nice to have and can make a big difference, especially is there is a breeze.

Goggles?

  • There are mixed reactions on eyewear.
  • Fogging is an issue, especially below -15°C.
  • If you wear cycling glasses, clear lenses are suggested.
  • If you feel more comfortable in goggles, then double lens goggles are recommended as they will help reduce the chances of fogging.

Hands?

  • During the milder parts of the season, any kind of glove on your hand will do.  As the temperatures drop you will need to start wearing a real winter glove.
  • Coldness will vary by individual, but in general below -5°C you will need a full-on winter glove to ride.
  • Lobster mitts are a popular choice for a little extra dexterity.
  • Pogies that attach to your handlebars and over your brake and shift levers–you slide your already gloved hands in there. The benefit of pogies is that they allow you to avoid the need for bulkier winter gloves which some people find cumbersome, especially if you are concerned with being able to get your phone from your pocket or adjust your zipper.

Feet?

  • Probably the one part of your body that is likely to get cold is your feet.  Wind is the big culprit here.  Solution: keep wind out of your shoes or boots.  A simple plastic bag sometimes will do the trick.  For the most part a good pair of leather boots and wool socks will keep you warm in the Fall and early Winter.  (It’s best if the tongues are stitched in, as this helps to keep the wind out.)
  • Two pairs of thin socks are better than one pair of thick socks.  Too thick of a sock in your shoes actually does more harm than good.  If your feet are squeezed into your shoes, the blood flow will be constricted and you will get cold feet.
  • If you are considering buying new footwear specifically for cycling, get them one size larger than you would normally. This will help keep your feet from getting squished and allow you to wear thicker socks or multiple pairs of socks.
  • You can also look at replacing the insoles of your boots/shoes with a thicker insulating insole.
  • If you ride with clipless pedals, a pair of neoprene overboots will help keep the wind out and may save you from having to buy a pair of winter cycling shoes. Make sure the toe spikes are in good shape; having worn, blunt spikes will not help you if you have to put your foot down suddenly.

Bike?

  • Winter is hard on the chain and cogs with a lot of gunk collecting on the drive train, especially when the temperature is near freezing.
  • Clean your bike frequently, removing the salt and sand (hot water in a watering-can works well). You will also want to ensure that you oil your chain more frequently in the winter.
  • For brakes, you might want to consider hydraulic disk brakes as they are less likely to ice up.\
  • For Fenders,  front and rear fenders are a great accessory to minimize the salt wear on your bike while also saving your back and shoes from the muck.
  • For Lighting,  in the winter you will often be riding in the dark, and at a time when there are lots of cars on the road.  There are two ways to think of bike lights: those that make you be seen and those that help you see. You likely won’t find that you need to use lights to see in the dark since street lights and pathway lights are very effective.  If you want lights that act as headlights rather than identifiers then don’t go cheap.  Do yourself a favour and spend money on a good set of lights.  For the purpose of lighting to see the ground better choose a light that is at least 150-200 lumens — this should be sufficient for most out-of-town rides. A 400+ lumen light will let you got fast down Big Hill at midnight.

Rear lighting is a little more straightforward and affordable.  A simple seat post or rack mounted light, either solid or blinking, will do the trick. Don’t use the “turtle” lights except as emergency backup. There are good strobe-style lights for under $10. Having more than one rear light is a great idea, as they break, fall off or stop working.

Batteries die more quickly in the winter so always carry spares or choose a light that is easily rechargeable such as one that plugs into your USB port so you can be assured that you’ll have good strong light every day.

Light Recommendations:

  • Easily rechargeable front light
  • Simple rear light
  • 200 lumens minimum (if needed for vision more than visibility)
  • Adjust lights to avoid blinding fellow cyclists (especially 200+ lumen ones)

Studs or No Studs

Whether to outfit your bike with studded tires (“studs”) is also something that comes down to personal preference. Some people have never needed to use them, others swear by them. Your comfort level on snow and ice will likely influence your decision, especially if it is your first season riding in winter conditions, as will the conditions of your commuting route. With the exception of days when it is actually snowing, many pathways and roads are generally clear of snow and ice within a day or two of snowfall — and generally there aren’t that many snow dumps in Calgary in the first place. In that case you may hardly ever need studs. However, if your route takes you along neighborhood streets or uncleared pathways, you’ll face more icy conditions. Additionally, if there is snow lining your route, a Chinook followed by a cold night will almost certainly mean black ice in spots.

Studded tires are expensive, and run between $60 and $85 or more each. If you choose to get only one, you want it to be on the front wheel. If your rear tire skids, you can usually get the bike under control easily, but if your front wheel slips out from under you, you’re almost guaranteed to go down.  Many seasoned commuters think that two studded tires is the way to go. Reduce the tire pressure in the rear tire (to between 20-60 psi) when conditions are icy, as this maximizes the grip. If you’re planning on being an “occasional” winter rider, don’t get studded tires: just choose your alternate transportation method on the really icy days.

Studs are superior on ice, but in the case of Calgary, we are more likely to encounter packed snow than ice. Non-studded winter tires (a tire that looks like a winter tire for a vehicle) will perform well on snow and comes without the the noise and added friction of a studded tire.  If you’re going to go with studs, err on the side of more studs, rather than too few (e.g., two rows instead of one). Carbide (rather than steel) will be more expensive but generally work a little better and last a little longer.

Tire Recommendations:

  • Studded or not is a personal preference, depends on general conditions of your route
  • For non-studded tires, buy a tire that looks like a car winter tire
  • For studded tires, a balance between grip, noise, and drag must be individually determined

Cautionary Note:

Ice does occasionally become a problem in the spring when warm days melt snow banks and ice sheets form across the pathways. The water freezes at night and turns into “black ice” in the morning.  Be sure to note these wet spots on your ride home and use caution the next morning, especially if it is still dark on your ride in.

How to Ride in the Snow:

Unfortunately the best place to ride in the winter is right on the street.  Cars are natural snowplows.  The busier the street, the clearer it is.  This is a double edged sword in that in order to ride on the clear path, you have to ride amongst the cars.  If you are riding on the road do not compromise by trying to ride on the snow covered shoulder.  Riding there can be very tricky and it is easy to lose your balance and veer into the lane you have left open for cars (or worse, crash).  Instead, it is your right to take the lane, and you should. On heavy snow days you may have no other option but to use the sidewalk in places (legally, you are required to dismount on sidewalks, of course). Citizens are generally better at clearing snow from sidewalks before the city does the street — side streets and many “designated bike ways” may never get cleared.

You should try to avoid roads where there hasn’t been a lot of traffic.  Cars pack down the snow, but do so unevenly and often not well enough to support skinny tires.  This makes it difficult to accelerate and to hold a straight line, and of course can be dangerous when there’s traffic.  Also, on less travelled streets, a glaze tends to form after a few days.  This can be very slick, but is usually obvious.

On the pathways, bikes will generally wear a line into the path if it hasn’t been cleared already.  For the most part this is the best place to be, but if you feel uneasy riding there (or are the first out after a snowfall), un-tracked snow is usually not very tricky, it just requires more effort.

Riding Recommendations:

  • Stick to more heavily travelled roads for a clearer path
  • On heavy snow days the sidewalk is sometimes the safest option
  • Don’t ride along the snow covered shoulder between the worn path and parked cars/edge of the street (take the lane)
  • When in doubt, the un-tracked snow is often less tricky, although requires more effort

Parking

If you don’t want to use the ample outdoor bike racks within the city’s core because you are worried about winter wear or the possibilities that your bike may be stolen and your company does not offer bike storage, there are options to rent covered bike storage space. A standard rate for year round bike parking in the downtown is around $150. You can find more information on bike parking at http://bikecalgary.org/parking.

Final note:

One big benefit of cycling in the winter, and something to always keep in mind, is that there is no rule against stopping at any given café, deli or watering hole to warm up.  It is a very comforting feeling knowing that you can easily stop, get off your bike and open the foggy glass door to busy voices for a cup of hot tea, coffee, or merlot.  Once you are sufficiently warmed up and satiated, you will be ready to continue your journey without complaint.

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