As the temperature drops and the snow piles up, many fair-weather cyclists store their bikes for the season and choose to get around by either car or public transit. This happens to coincide with times when traffic congestion is at its worst due to poor road conditions. So don’t put your bike away! Escape the winter traffic jams and avoid waiting for the bus in the cold -- try out riding your bike in the winter. All it takes is overcoming the fear of cold temperatures and snow on the roads, and a little bit of preparation. If you winterize your bike to the point that you feel comfortable riding on snowy roads and pathways, and wear the appropriate attire, you will find that winter riding can be a very fulfilling experience. Even if you can’t bring yourself to ride in arctic temperatures, our chinooks still leave plenty of days in which your main challenge will be not to get too hot.
- 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
Here are some tips to get you started on riding year-round.
Layering is the name of the game in the winter. Dress in layers and record the temperature. Take a week or two writing down what you wore, how cold it was and how you felt. After monitoring that for a short time you will be able to wake up in the morning, check the temperature and weather forecast and dress accordingly. 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. If you see your bike commute as your daily cardio workout or ride for more than 30 minutes, you probably want to spring for some winter-specific cycling wear; if you just ride a few kilometres and don’t usually go too fast, you can probably make do with your regular clothes. 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. Jackets that allow you to vent them somehow are also good for those days when you’ve worn too much. Generally, you should be able to avoid sweating, at least around your core.
Down to -5°C, a pair of dress pants and long johns will keep you warm enough. If you don’t want to ride in your work clothes, a pair of water resistant cycling pants is a good option. Wool and polyester are great fabrics for all layers. 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.
On really cold days (-15°C and below) you want no skin exposed. The wind created by riding is enough to make a short commute a very cold one on bare skin, which is usually in and around your face. Balaclavas are good for this and also cover your neck which may eliminate the need for a scarf. Instead of a balaclava, a neoprene face mask works as well. The holes in the nose and mouth area help reduce fogging from your breath coming inside and up into your goggles or glasses. 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. There is no widely accepted single solution for the issue of glasses fogging up, but as a general rule the more you regulate your temperature the less fogging will occur.
This sounds like a lot to consider, but there aren’t many days when this is required… and those days are no easy feat on the bus or stuck in traffic either. For example in 2010, there were only 5 days with the High below -15 and 29 days where the Low was below -15. On the very cold days (-20°C and below) dress for battle and in layers, remembering that you don’t want to be sweating under your clothes as this will only make you colder when you are stopped at a light.
In the Fall, early Winter, and during a Chinook, 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. It goes without saying that on the very cold days you should wear the warmest things possible and mitts are best in this situation. Lobster mitts are a popular choice for a little extra dexterity.
Alternatively, you can get a set of 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.
Again, there is no special need to buy cycling specific gloves: regular gloves, or ski gloves/mitts work just as well. Use what you already have and assess your needs. Just remember that you want to keep the wind out of your hands, and that when it’s dark it’s good to have something reflective on your hands or arms so people can see you signalling.
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. During winter snow storms and very cold days, a real pair of winter boots is ideal…and as Canadians we should all have a pair of these in our house already. 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. Insoles like the ones made by HotFeet can make a noticeable difference in warmth. When it's really cold (or if your feet get cold easily), another option is to put a charcoal hand warmer in your shoe or boot. The handwarmers are smaller than the footwarmersand so are a little more comfortable. Make sure you put them outside your socks so you don't burn your skin.
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. The best toe spikes, which should fit any cycling shoe, are the Sidi replacement spikess. They have a much sharper profile than regular ones. You may, however, want to swap out clipless pedals for a good solid pair of MTB downhill pedals in the heart of winter in order to keep your feet on the pedals but also be able to easily get them on the ground if the need arises.
- Dress in layers
- Wool and synthetics are better than cotton
- Keep track of temperature, clothing and make adjustments (you’ll quickly find what works for you)
- Keep all skin covered when the temperatures really drop
- Thin gloves for fall, thick gloves for winter and mitts for the really cold days
- Lobster or pogies are popular options
- Keep the wind out
- Good winter boots are a must in cold temps
- Neoprene overboots are a good option for most winter days.
Do you need a separate winter bike? As winter riding does wear down a bike at a quicker rate you may choose to ride a beater during the winter. Many winter commuters get a cheap used bike for this reason. The main drawback to this is that especially in the winter you want your gears and brakes to work properly, and unless you’re an experienced mechanic this might mean you’re better off with a solid new bike. Single speed bikes are popular as they require less maintenance than bikes with a derailleur, and by riding on a high enough gear the amount of spin on the rear wheel is reduced when on ice. Internally-geared hubs are a good solution if you need gears to get up hills, but don’t want to worry about your derailleurs freezing or getting worn down.
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. It is therefore important to 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.
Especially if you are not using a beater bike in the winter, 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. Keep in mind that if you have fenders and are getting winter tires you will want to make sure that your tires can fit your fender. Snow can collect between your tire and fender so this is also something to take into account when deciding which fender to buy.
Good lighting is a must, since 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
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.
- Calgary Area Bicycle Shops, Mechanics, and Rental Services: http://bikecalgary.org/bikeshops
- Winter Biking Basics: http://www.greenlivingonline.com/article/winter-biking-basics
- Bike Warm This Winter: http://darien.patch.com/articles/keeping-warm-while-biking-in-the-winter
- Cycling Through Calgary’s Harsh Winters: http://www.archive.thegauntlet.ca/story/cycling-through-calgarys-harsh-winters
- Tips for winter bike safety from Fort Collins experts: http://archives.collegian.com/2011/11/03/tips_for_winter_bike_safety_from_fort_collins_experts/
- BikeCalgary winter commuting forums: http://bikecalgary.org/forum/38 including this post on number of cold days