Advice for Safe and Comfortable Winter Biking

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Overcome your fear of winter biking by experimenting and changing what doesn't work, and by simply getting outside in the snow.
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“Frostbike,” by Tom Babin, recounts Babin's experiences with winter biking through several countries and contains valuable tips for anyone who wants to cycle year-round.

Frostbike(Rocky Mountain Books, 2014), by Tom Babin, offers new approaches to winter cycling to the hesitant bicyclist. Over years of research, trial and error and more than his share of snow and ice, Babin discovered an unknown history of winter biking and a new generation of two-wheel technology to make riding in winter safe and fun. In the following excerpt from “Tips for Winter Cycling,” Babin recommends what changes you should make to your bike, what clothes you should wear and what kind of attitude you need to enjoy winter biking.

Since I first started cycling in winter, some of the most consistent questions I have encountered were the practical ones: how do you do it?

My answers have varied over the years, but I have come to a few conclusions, and while they may still be subject to change, hopefully they add up to some practical tips for anybody interested in winter cycling. They may not turn you into a die-hard lover of winter, but this advice has worked for me and I feel comfortable passing it along.

There is, however, a caveat to go along with what I suggest, which may sound like a cop-out but I mean it sincerely. The best advice I can give on how to ride a bike year-round is this: figure it out for yourself. There is much variance in climate, cities and cyclists, so strategies that work for one person may be totally meaningless to another. I live in a climate prone to freeze-melt cycles, for example, so one of my major concerns is ice. That means studded tires work wonders. If you live in a climate with consistent winter temperatures below the freezing point, however, you may rarely encounter slippery spots, so studded tires may be needless. That said, here’s what may be applicable elsewhere.

The bike

Use fenders.

Use lights. For many people, the shorter, darker days are the most difficult part of winter cycling. Reflectors alone don’t cut it. LED bike lights these days are cheap and ultra-efficient. Buy some for the front and back of your bike, and maybe your head — headlamps work well.

Use studded tires. Winter tires are a must for your car, so why not your bike?

People in North America don’t like to hear this because we tend to like having specialized gear for every job, but you don’t need a special bike to ride in winter. Use any bike you want, but wash it regularly. If your garden hose is frozen or shut off in winter, take your bike to a car wash every once in a while. A dollar’s worth of spray will work wonders. If there’s no car wash nearby, fill up a bucket in the kitchen sink and scrub your bike down every week or two.

If you are determined to have a second bike for winter, you don’t need to spend too much money on it. In the slushy climate I live in, in which sand, salt, grit and meltwater come together like a corrosive smoothie, I’ve ruined a handful of bikes through rust. To prevent that, I’ve learned to avoid riding any bike that I care about in the winter. My current winter machine is a 20-year-old aluminum-framed mountain bike that I picked up at a used bike shop for $50. I stripped off the gears, the front and back derailleurs and anything else that might collect junk, and turned the bike into a single speed using a $10 conversion kit. It’s not perfect — one gear can be tough riding on hills — but it’s worked for me.

If you hate cleaning your bike, buy an old used mountain bike, ride it until the components are dead, then strip them and start over with new parts. If that costs too much, go to a wealthy area of your city and troll the back alleys a day or two before garbage pickup. You’re bound to come across a discarded bike that you can get working after a little maintenance. If the rich area of town doesn’t work, go to the poorest. The neighbourhoods in the middle tend not to work. Look for an aluminum frame, because it’s lighter and won’t rust, and don’t get too attached to it, because your lazy cleaning schedule may end up killing it.

If, however, you are the type of cyclist who needs top-end gear, I understand. We’re all gearheads at heart. Read on.

If you want to ride a top-end bike for recreation, go for a fat bike. The extra-large tires are fun to ride, and will keep you entertained all winter. They work on road or off, and adjust to all kinds of conditions, from moderately deep snow to slush. Fat bikes open up a whole new season of possibilities. These bikes also work for commuting, but may be too slow and expensive for your needs.

If your primary goal is urban riding or commuting, consider buying a European-style all-season bike if you can afford it. There are many models that include internal gears to keep out the elements, disc brakes and lights powered by hub dynamos that generate electricity from the turning of the wheel. In the right climate, this kind of bike can provide years of safe, predictable, all-season riding.

If you can’t afford that, or feel like a dandy riding it, there are a couple of things you can do. First, get over yourself. You look fine. But if price is a problem, consider a single-speed or fixed-gear bike. They have fewer parts to collect snow, moisture and, consequently, rust. Fixies offer more control than single-speeds but don’t allow you to coast down the hills, and they take some practice to ride.

If your commute is too long or hilly for a single-speed or fixed-gear — my ride to work is about 15 kilometres, and I’d say that’s about the farthest you’d want to go on such a bike — look for a bike with the fewest gears that will get to your destination. I’m of the opinion that most commuter bikes these days are loaded with three or four times more gears than you actually need. Most bikes I found in Europe had three or six gears, and that was more than enough to get around a city.

The clothing

The Internet is full of advice on what to wear when cycling in the winter. Most of it is useless. Here is all you need to know: dress warm and dry. Whatever you wear to keep warm while walking, skiing or sledding in winter will work just fine. The only special equipment you might need will be one of those bands that wraps around your ankle to keep your pants away from the bike chain, although a five-cent elastic band works just as well.

Wear one layer less than you’d wear if going for a walk. You’ll warm up as your body starts to move. In fact, you should be a little cold when you start your ride. If you start out too warm, you’ll end up arriving at your destination looking like you just emerged from a sauna. It’s easy to underestimate the heat-generating powers of your body.

If you are commuting to work and arrive too sweaty, try wearing fewer clothes, but finding the sweet spot between too cold and too warm can be tough. Another option is to slow down. It’s not a race. If you find this impossible, consider using a different commuter bike. Speedy bikes make you want to go fast. If you want to go slow, try a slower bike. You likely won’t take significantly more time to get to work, and you’ll save time because you won’t need a shower when you arrive.

Keeping dry is also important. The best thing you can do to keep water off your body is to install fenders on your bike. If it’s an especially wet day, you may also find the need to wear a thin, waterproof outer layer, but such clothing tends to be hot and will make you sweat, which will defeat the entire purpose of trying to stay dry. The solution to this problem is to slow down.

Your attitude

If the biggest hurdle to winter cycling is ourselves, that’s also the easiest thing to fix. Here’s a little advice on getting over yourself and your fears.

Just try it. If you’ve been mulling over a winter bike commute or recreational ride, but are wary about it, just go for it. If it doesn’t work, so be it. If it does, congratulations: your life will be better.

Approach winter cycling with an attitude of experimentation. If something isn’t working, change it. Years later, I’m still constantly adjusting things. Part of the fun is finding things that work.

Forget your machismo. One of the biggest obstacles facing urban winter bike commuting is the perception that it’s only for crazy masochists. This isn’t the case. Riding a bike in winter doesn’t need to be tough. It is not an extreme sport, so don’t act like it is. Resist the urge to brag.

Don’t be a zealot. If you can only manage to bicycle commute one winter day a week, or only hit recreational trails when the weather is mild, don’t think of yourself as a failure. You are not competing against anyone or anything. If you’re in the midst of a cold snap, take the bus. Just make inroads where you can. Every little bit you can do will make you a happier, healthier person.

Get realistic about the weather. In nearly every city I’ve looked at, people tend to exaggerate their winter. Most cities have many more mild winter days than extremely cold ones. Remember, when looking at a weather forecast, the predicted low temperature usually happens in the middle of the night when you are fast asleep in your warm bed. You’ll be riding in warmer temperatures than that and you’ll probably surprise yourself by how warm you’ll be once your body gets moving. My biggest winter biking challenge isn’t staying warm; it’s staying cool enough that I don’t sweat.

Don’t fear the snow. Snow is usually only a problem if it’s several feet deep and hasn’t been plowed. If you do slip and crash into this kind of snow, you’re more likely to laugh than injure yourself. Remember, snow can be fun. It can be a lovely experience to ride through a snowfall. I’m convinced laying fresh tracks is a primal human instinct because it feels so good. Fear the ice, but be realistic about it. Ice is a danger, but in most places it is easily avoided. Stay alert and ride around icy patches. If you must cross over ice, stay straight and upright and don’t touch your brakes. If there is a lot of ice on your ride, studded tires are an easy, relatively affordable solution. They work. Use them. Be wary of road snirt. Snirt is a mixture of snow and dirt (hence, snirt) pounded by passing cars into a brown mixture with the consistency of mashed potatoes. While it may appear harmless, it can be deadly. It tends to float on top of packed snow, and will move your bike in sudden, unpredictable ways that never end well. Even studded tires are no match for some snirt. Avoid it at all costs.

Get outside. If you still think riding in the winter is a loony idea, try to get outdoors in the winter a little more. Go for a walk or a jog. Go skiing. Go ice-skating. Play pond hockey. Sled down a hill. As long as you dress accordingly, you might be surprised at how manageable winter is and how much fun you are missing out on.

Reprinted with permission from Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling, by Tom Babin, and published by Rocky Mountain Books, 2014.

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