Winter Cycling in Winnipeg can be Successful and Rewarding
by Kevin Miller (December 2013)
I started seriously riding a bicycle at age 16, but for my first 21 years of cycling I only rode from early April to late October. Then in 1993, I decided to continue cycling for transportation throughout the winter. It has turned out to be a very successful and rewarding experience.
Winter cyclists are warm. They do not curse the cold because they dress for it and are active in it.
Contrary to what many people think, winter cycling can be very safe. On most days, residential streets are nicely hard-packed (which studded tires love), and conditions on arterial streets are almost summer-like. However, if arterial streets are slippery or traffic is heavy, I cycle exclusively on residential streets, a bike path, or slowly on a sidewalk because I don’t trust motor vehicles’ lack of traction. I think that most motorists, including the police, are glad to see a winter cyclist riding slowly on the sidewalk when streets are slippery or busy. The few pedestrians don’t seem to mind either, especially since I always call “excuse me” as I approach (at walking speed), and “thank you” if they move to one side. I am very careful to always ride on the “proper side of the street” sidewalk so that drivers exiting lanes and driveways will see me coming, and I’m extra careful at all intersecting roads, lanes, and driveways. It takes longer to get from A to B, but driving and busing are much slower on slippery winter days too.
Winter cycling can save you the cost of a monthly bus pass. If you drive for personal transportation, you’ll save a lot more than that. Also, you don’t have to scrape windows, you don’t have to wait for the engine to heat up, parking is easier, and you feel good about the obvious fitness and environmental benefits of your “green active transportation” choice.
In order for winter cycling to be successful, your clothing and equipment choices must work. I’ll tell you what works for me.
If you participate in other outdoor winter activities, you’ll know what to wear: a perspiration-wicking undergarment, an insulating layer, and a wind-proof shell. Vary the insulating layer from multiple layers of fleece or wool on the coldest days to nothing on the mildest days. If you’re nicely warm during the first minute, you’ll probably be too hot after five minutes. If you hate being cold for the first few minutes, raise your heart rate by doing a few minutes of push-ups or sit-ups indoors prior to getting on your bike.
I wear eyeglasses, I cannot wear contact lenses, and my eyes are sensitive to wind, so I have to overcome fogging and tearing problems. I apply a glycerin-based soap like Pears to my eyeglasses to control fogging. Downhill ski goggles prevent tearing, and mine have a battery-operated fan to keep my eyeglasses completely clear. Combinations of a balaclava, ear muffs, ear band, neoprene mask, and neck tube prevent freezing skin on colder days and sweating profusely on milder days. And covering up big vents in your helmet with tape or a helmet cover can be helpful.
Your hands are exposed to the wind and not generating heat, so ski gloves only work on mild days. For the coldest days, I apply antiperspirant to my hands to minimize sweating, and use multiple pairs of well-insulated mitts. I also have to flex my thumbs occasionally. Snowmobile gauntlets or cycling pogies are also options.
On milder days, light boots with thick wool socks should be fine for platform pedal users, and cycling shoes with thick socks and booties can work for clipless pedal users. For the coldest days, my old system consisted of antiperspirant to minimize sweating, a thin perspiration-wicking sock, a pair of very thick wool socks, and a pair of breathable boots with thick insulation, but I was then forced to use a platform pedal, and my toes got cold because push-down-only pedaling with soft soled boots restricted blood flow. I had a pair of clipless pedals with a platform pedal on the other side), so I could still use clipless pedals on the milder days. Then I devised a 6-layer vapor barrier footwear system that has allowed me to use clipless pedals on very cold days.
If this sounds too expensive, consider that many of my rides are fairly long, and I view every ride as a challenge of self-reliance. If your ride time is shorter, you may not need all the high-tech clothing I need. Also, based on the clothing you currently own, you should be able to determine your lowest temperature comfort point; if the day is colder than that, you can choose not to cycle. As you gain experience and purchase a few other clothing items, you should be able to extend your temperature range.
I use an older, quality mountain bike with a spring suspension, fenders for sloppy days, and Nokian Mount & Ground W160 studded tires that are great on hard-packed snow and helpful on ice.
It’s a multi-speed bike for many reasons:
- Obviously, significantly more pedaling effort is required when riding through snow into a headwind than is required when riding on dry pavement or hardpack with a tailwind.
- Many of my rides are 45+ minutes.
- As I’ve gotten older it takes me longer to recover from hard exercise, and I don’t want to be so physically wasted from winter cycling that I don’t feel up to skiing or running or cycling tomorrow. When cycling for transportation, both summer and winter, I select the gear that allows me to expend the amount of effort I want to expend. Sometimes it’s harder and faster. Often it’s easier and slower.
There are a number of different makes and models of studded tires that bike shops sell, including their “home-made” models — or you can make your own. There’s a test of 9 commercial models on Pink Bike, but be aware that their test is very heavily weighted towards traction, which is very important, but so is high puncture resistance (especially during the winter) and low rolling resistance.
My spring suspension works well at all temperatures, and I appreciate it when hard-packed snow is rough. Note that the seals on an air/oil suspension can fail or be damaged on the coldest days.
By using a very light lube during the cold spells, my bike performs well at very low temperatures. However, at milder temperatures, especially on sunny days, salty slushy slop can quickly cause steel parts to rust unless the bike is well-lubed with a much heavier oil or grease, or you clean and re-lube all parts frequently. An alternative is to use a beater bike on the sloppy days.
The sun rises late and sets early in the winter, so lighting and good reflectorization are very important.
If this sounds like too much bike maintenance and/or too many expensive upgrades to your bike, you can simply choose to not cycle on days when the salty/sandy/slushy crud is likely to inflict a beating on your nice bike and/or on days when the streets or sidewalks are too icy or snowy for your bike to handle. I personally do not cycle on days when a fairly significant snowfall has occurred because I know the arterial streets will be extremely slippery, and riding on side streets, pathways, and sidewalks will be extremely slow. I also know that most of the streets and sidewalks will be plowed/sanded and in OK shape by the following day.
- Green Action Centre — Cycling through winter
- MEC — Winter Cycling.
- Natural Cycle (PDF)
- Winter Cycling Federation
- Winter Bike to Work Day
- Toronto: Bike in the Winter
- Bicycling Life