Nov 10, 2010

Winter Cycling Thoughts and Strategies

The MUP near Silver Springs, Late winter 2010
Winter Warrior

First off, let me confess that I live car-free and ride my bike all year ‘round, including winter, and have come to love the “frigid season”.  Cycling in winter is fun (all that slipping and sliding), you generally keep really warm (due to the extra effort required to pedal in snow and ice), you have the pathways almost to yourself (fair weather cyclists are hiding till spring), and motorists are going much slower (generally) than summer due to the road conditions and often leave more space between themselves and you.

The keys to a successful season of winter cycling are preparation of your bicycle and planning of your clothing choices and desired routes around the city.  More information can be found here at Wikipedia.

Your Bike

If you already have a bike you use for commuting or running errands, you can do a few things to that bike to get it ready for winter.  The most important accessory is a set of full fenders, if you don't already have them. Full fenders will keep you dry and keep the nasty road salt off your bike too. Also, consider giving your bike a pre-winter service to make sure all your cables and drive train are well lubricated and that your brakes are working well. For icy conditions, consider a set of studded tires to prevent/slow down wipe-outs.  If you get cold hands, consider a set of “pogies” - basically covers that go on your bike that you slip your hands into.  And perhaps most important, bright lights on the front and back of your bike so drivers can see you.

Your Clothing

One word for you - Layers! We’ve all heard this before but it bares repeating - layer your clothing for maximum warmth but also the ability to remove layers if you get too warm. Thinner layers close to the skin, thicker layers on the outside. Being really cold can be dangerous, being really cold and damp is even more dangerous! If you have a good ski/snowboard coat, that will probably work for those really cold days. On the “warmer” winter days, you might find it tough to get the perfect combination of layers - just keep experimenting and find what works best for you and your style.

Personally, I find merino wool layers are unbeatable in winter. Although they can be more expensive to purchase then other options like cotton "longjohns" or techie-poly base layers, they are unmatched in their performance characteristics, which include -

- Anti-stink: Wool is natures wonder material and has anti-bacterial characteristics which keeps you from smelling like a sweaty hockey bag
- Moisture wicking: Wool maintains its insulating properties even when it's soaked and is amazing as moving moisture away from your body
- Warmth: There is no better material out there for keeping you warm. There are many different "weights" of merino available. We recommend purchasing some micro-weight base layers and a couple mid-weight mid-layers.

Keeping fingers and toes comfortable can be tough and everyone has different comfort levels. There is no magic bullet here, simply try different combinations of socks and gloves. The “layering” principle discussed earlier is worth trying too.  For those who have the budget, and prefer to be clipped in, there are now companies making very warm footwear. Finally, a selection of toques and neckwarmers or scarves will go a long way to keeping you comfy and if you wear a helmet, covers are available to keep the wind out of those helmet vents.

Your Routes

Here is Calgary we are blessed with a great pathway system - and in winter, the pathway is cleared of snow regularly making it the ideal choice for getting to downtown. (The pathways are almost always cleared before the roads, but shhhhhhhhh - don’t tell motorists!) If the pathways are not part of your cycle route, consider using the following strategies.

- Use the City of Calgary's Park-n-Bike locations to get in and out of downtown.  Not only will you have a great time cycling, you'll probably miss a lot of the usual winter gong-show that is getting out of the downtown on poorly maintained streets.  By the time you get to your car, traffic will be lighter, your day will have eased away, and your daily exercise has been taken care of!  Win-Win-Win!

- Turn on your lights during the day so cars can see you easier.
- Take your space on the road by riding in the right-most tire rut.
- Signal your turns so motorists can anticipate your actions, be predictable.
- Take quieter side streets so you can be separated from heavier trafficked roads if they are rideable.
- Simply slow down and take it a little more easy, especially if you are sharing road space with cars. Ice can be hiding under the snow or that "brown snow" or "brown sugar" can send you to the ground in a heartbeat.

Finally, have fun out there and remember that not only are you having a blast in the snow, you are getting fitter, saving money, and making your community more livable - all by simply riding your bike.

Get out there this winter!  You'll love it!

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