Winter Cycling 101

 

Has anyone heard this ?

But you can’t ride your bike in the winter.”

“That’s Crazy.”

“You are going to get killed.”

I hear this from people all the time and it might be understandable as I do live in Edmonton, Canada where winter is spelled W I N T E R, whereas people in Winnipeg spell it the same but add a few !!! as they might be the only folks who see worse weather.

To anyone who is from “The Peg”…I tip my toque to you.

But… we do ride in the winter and some of us ride nearly every day regardless of the temperatures, icy roads, snow, homicidal snow plow drivers, and without regard to those people who think we are certifiably crazy and dodge attempts by family members to have us committed.

We do this for many reasons but for me, it is about getting to where I need to be and most of the time cycling here in the winter is actually quite pleasant and dare I say, FUN !

 

Your Winter Bicycle

The type of bicycle you ride in the winter will be as different as you are as we all come from different places, with different climates, and experience greatly varied road conditions.

If you ride in southern California your tan is probably going to fade a little and you might want some arm warmers and full length tights for when the temperature plummets to 70 F.

If you ride in Portland, Oregon in the winter you will need fenders, rain gear (or a wet suit), and will probably want to add a layer to stay warm on colder days… and if it does snow you will probably have the roads to yourself and won’t have to worry about homicidal snow plow operators because there aren’t any.

For people who ride in the kind of winter that brings to mind romantic  images of blowing snow, igloos, and dogsleds… a dedicated winter bike is often the way to go.

Winter brings rain, dirt, slush, snow, and salt and this is something you want to keep off of you and off your bicycle and for this you want a bicycle that can accept full fenders.

Fenders, (or mud guards) will keep your wheels from throwing as much stuff all over you and your bicycle which will reduce the need for cleaning both after a ride.  Proper fenders will serve to keep the front wheel from throwing stuff into the drive train which will accelerate drive train wear and allow water to be shot up into the head tube which can lead to the grease being washed out of the bearings which will destroy a headset in short order.

If you are not convinced, I need to point out that when you ride through a puddle it is full of more than just water as there are chemicals that leak from cars and this little road cocktail can contain other goodies like feces and urine in the mix.

Should I take a break while you run out and buy fenders ?

I like Planet Bike Cascadia fenders as they come down very low and reduce spray… and they seem to handle -40 without shattering which is something that is important in my world.

I built my Extrabike 8 years ago and it has served me well through every subsequent winter, the longer wheelbase makes it a very stable bicycle and the longtail makes spinning up the rear wheel a little easier when you are slogging through deeper snow.

I have been a fan of internally geared hubs for many years and recently sold my 3 speed equipped winter bicycle to a friend and have now equipped my Raleigh 20 three speed with studded winter tyres.  The little guy sticks to bad roads like velcro and our youngest daughter loves it.

My wife rides a Breezer Uptown 8 that is equipped with an 8 speed Shimano internal gear hub and this has been a brilliant all season bicycle for 6 years in the Pacific Northwest and will now continue to carry her here through our snowy winters.

 

When the roads look like they have just been cleaned by the zamboni I break out “Thumper” which is a Raleigh Safari that I have re-equipped with a set of fixed wheels, Nokian 296 studded tyres, fenders, and a few nicer parts.

 

Wheels and Tyres

There will always be some debate about what wheel size is better for winter riding and will leave this to personal choice as some like road bikes and skinnier road wheels while many prefer mountain bikes or cross bikes which are a little of both.

If you are going to spend any time dealing with icy conditions then it makes good sense to run studded tyres as these will help you retain traction while cars are spinning out and pedestrians are falling down all around you.

There is a wide selection of studded tyres available as this winter cycling madness is catching on and manufacturers are starting to offer more and more off the peg tyres for the crazies who will not be stopped by a little ice.

Schwalbe and Nokian make a nice range of high quality winter tyres; the Schwalbe Marathon Winter is an excellent all around tyre for our winter climate and Nokians are made in Finland where they also understand winter rather well.

Peter White Cycles has an excellent reference page on the commercial tyres that are available.

Peter White – Studded Winter Tires

I have also been making my own studded tyres for many years and besides being cheaper, they can offer performance that is every bit as good and often better than many commercially made tyres.

How To Stud Your Own Tyres

Staying Warm and Dry

When we teach classes on winter cycling this is what takes up most of our time as if you have a good running bike with proper tyres your biggest concern is going to be what gear to use to stay warm, and just as important is how to stay dry from the inside.

Anyone who lives in a  colder climate probably has all the gear they need to stay warm in the winter although the high aerobic activity levels you engage in while cycling often warrant a few adjustments.

Working from the bottom up…

Until the temperatures drop below freezing I can wear my touring shoes (spd) with a thicker wool sock and do rather well, I also have shoe covers I can use to extend that temperature range.

Your footwear should be suitable for the temperatures and conditions you ride in; for temperatures down to -20C my Asolo hiking boots work well and are waterproof, breathable, and warm.

When the mercury plummets I opt for a boot with a -40 C rating, these have an excellent tread compound that makes putting a foot down a secure adventure and if I had to walk because of a mechanical issue I’d be good.

 

You can also improve the insulation level by replacing the insole with a wool felt insole, when I was riding in Portland most people did not know what this was and the combination of the wool (wicking) and another 10-15mm of insulation between you and the pedal makes a huge difference. They cost about $6.00.

I always wear wool socks and they just get thicker in the winter and I often add a base layer sock. Your winter footwear needs to be selected to that even with a thicker sock, or socks,  your toes still have wiggle room. A boot or shoe that is too tight will reduce circulation and keeping your ankles warm goes a long way to keeping your feet warm as this is a major point of heat loss.

Layering is an important consideration in the winter as you want a base layer that will wick moisture away from your body, an insulating layer to retain heat, and a protective layer like a shell jacket and pants to block wind and rain.

There are many technical fabrics out there that do a wonderful job and I like using these on the outside but when it comes to insulating value there are few things better than wool and unlike synthetics, wool does not get smelly and will stay warm when it is wet.

Cotton is the work of Satan… it does not wick moisture and has no insulating qualities when it is wet.

So as we move upward we have those great cycling legs we all have and keeping your legs warm is usually not that hard since they will be busy working and drawing a lot of blood.

One place where cotton is okay (with me) is with denim as it blocks wind nicely on it’s own and with a base layer and a shell you can be quite comfortable. I have some great 200 weight fleece pants that are thin enough to wear under jeans and with this and a shell I can handle some rather severe temperatures.

For the torso and arms some might like to wear a ski jacket that provides a combined insulating layer and a wind and waterproof shell while others like to use a layered approach.

My favourite bit of winter kit is my Canadian army surplus sweater that goes over a base layer shirt and under my shell jacket… I have yet to find anything that keeps me warmer or dryer than this.

People often struggle with keeping their hands warm and this starts at the wrist as like the ankles this is a major point of heat loss. Any glove or mitten should come up to cover this area and be rated for the temperatures you experience.

Like shoes, selecting a glove that is a touch larger will allow you to add a base layer glove and increase the insulation value and if you ride where there is a lot of liquid water you want your gloves to be waterproof but still breathable.

I have had little success with high tech, and often expensive gloves and mittens and for many years have been using wool flip mittens with a heavier base glove made with wool and thinsulate.

When I was riding at -46c this was what I was wearing on my hands and they were toasty just like the rest of me.

 

 

Now we have reached the top and need to make sure we do not suffer from brain freeze.

The toque or knitted cap is a wonderful invention as it does a great job in keeping our head warm and most of us know that this is where most heat loss happens. There are also many good synthetic head coverings that are thinner and work well in less severe conditions.

With cold temperatures we have to consider wind and wind chill so protecting one’s face and ears becomes critical. Some people prefer a simple scarf while others will use technical fabrics that provide full facial protection and keep you from having frost bitten ears. I love my Seirus face mask, it blocks the wind, covers my ears, and goes on and off quicly which is important when you walk into a bank after a bike ride. 🙂

 

 

Ski goggles can provide that extra level of protection and also protect you from the winter sludge that can get tossed up by cars.

My little sister prefers to use a beeswax based protector around her eyes as she does not like goggles and this does provide very good protection which may be important for those who need glasses to see.

For those who do wear glasses an anti fog treatment should help keep them clear and prevent condensation from forming… I hear that “Cat Crap” works very well for this and is actually a real product, that is not made of cat crap.

 

Winter Maintainence

Winter is a harsh mistress and riding in wet and cold conditions will take a toll on a bike if is not maintained while a well maintained bicycle could be run for many seasons without suffering too many adverse affects.

It is always a good idea to start the winter season with a bike that has been serviced and tuned up rather than find yourself stranded because something failed.

Of particular concern is steel and it’s tendency to rust… auto wax can be used to protect the frame and any exposed bits while regular cleaning and lubrication of the chain will ensure that it does not rust solid.

Every moving part should get a little lubrication so the pivots in the derailleurs, brake posts and pivots, and all fasteners should get this to prevent them from rusting and seizing up. Deraiileurs are particularly vulnerable as although many are mostly alloy, most have set screws that are steel and have steel springs.

Suspension forks can be used in warmer climates but find that most do nothing but add extra weight in the winter and tend to lack proper seals for extremely cold and foul weather.

Your winter bicycle will probably function best if it is not exposed to repeated freeze thaw cycles and melted snow / ice can introduce water into places you don’t want it to be, like cable housings and shifters. If have the luxury of secure covered parking this is a good way to go but then, I believe bike theft drops in the winter as even the thieves think we are crazy.

Lighting and Visibility

One aspect of winter riding that is common to most in northern latitudes is that the days become shorter and thee are very good odds that, if you commute, that your ride to and from will be done in the dark. In the darkest depths of our winter we get less than 7 hours of daylight…

There are lights for being seen and lights that will also let you see what is front of you and again, personal preference and conditions will play a role in your choices.

The standard for rear visibility seems to be the Planet Bike Superflash which is a high intensity light that can be set to solid or a seizure inducing strobe. Going one step further, having a rear light mounted on the back of your helmet will greatly increase your presence as this will bring that light higher and more directly in view of other road users.

Modern LED lights have come a long way where a 2 watt LED now throws as much light as a 10 watt halogen and I find either to be sufficient for seeing and being seen. I often run a combination of a 2 watt LED and a 10 or 15 watt Halogen as this covers a greater portion of the visible spectrum and provides a backup in case one fails.

Running a generator light will ensure that you will never have to fret about not recharging your batteries and my three speed winter bike has an integrated hub generator. These (Sturmey Archer AG) are no longer made as my hub dates to the mid 60’s and modern hub generators are actually more efficient and tend to be front hub models.

I am looking forward to being able to stock and supply hub generators / wheels and quality lighting in the near future.

Do be considerate when you are riding at night to ensure that your lights are properly aimed and refrain from using the flashing / strobe function when you are riding in multi use areas as to not blind and greatly annoy oncoming cyclists. I do not fire up the 10 and 15 watt halogens in these environments as they throw a very wide and powerful beam while the 2 watt LED throws a tighter beam with a decent high cutoff.

Mind Set and Attitude

They used to tell me you could not ride in the winter, and then told me that I would not be able to ride when it was -20C and -30C and after I showed up on my bike in these temperatures they said there was no way you could ride a bike when it was -40C.

When I did that a few of my critics were unable to make it into work because their cars would not start.

The coldest temperature I have ever experienced while riding was -46C and when you convert that to Fahrenheit it is “Oh my god that’s cold” and even the most dedicated winter cyclists might start to question your sanity.

It really comes down to finding what you are comfortable with and your cut off might be a certain temperature or certain weather conditions like freezing rain or blizzards.

We have some truly beautiful winter days here and there is something wondrous about being the first person to make a trail in the fresh snow and have also enjoyed riding the trails in the winter on the mountain bike.

There is great solitude and a peace that comes with riding down a trail in the middle of winter when it is you and no-one else but the chickadees.

This is a great video and was taken in Chicago and it looks like the conditions they ride in are comparable to a nice winter day here in Edmonton.

Winter Cycling in Chicago

 

 Riding Techniques

Many people are understandably nervous about riding on snow and ice and on surfaces that may be much rougher than they are normally accustomed to.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give comes from my experiences mountain biking, which can have a lot of similarities to winter riding, and this is to look straight ahead and keep pedaling.

I understand that this advice also applies well to life in general.

A bicycle is most stable while it is in motion and a good number of falls occur while riding at lower speeds while maintaining momentum and keeping a straight line can really improve stability.

When one is riding on ice you can often cover these sections by maintaining a straight line, avoiding sudden changes in speed and direction, and staying light on the brakes.

Relax and stay loose… having a death grip on the bars and tensing your whole body in anticipation of  a fall can lower your responses and cause that fall you were trying to avoid.

For people who have to deal with constantly icy conditions studded tyres really do make a huge difference.

Links

Bike Forums  / Winter Cycling Forum – There is a wealth of information here on winter cycling that comes from cyclists from around the globe.