The annual update: How to ride your bike in winter

my bike
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ My new bike, ready for winter

It’s beginning to feel like winter, and yesterday was my first ride of the season with snow on the ground. That means it’s time for the annual “How to ride your bike all winter” post. Last year we listed Yvonne Bambrick’s 12 (not so) secret benefits of biking through the winter to encourage readers to try it; they include saving money, staying healthy by staying away from all those sneezing straphangers, and of course, “ It makes you feel like a bad-ass to know that the cold can’t beat you.” I thought about that yesterday as I slid around corners and froze my nose.

The danger of these kinds of posts is that they end up being like REI’s crazy one here, from their very first point on how to build up to it slowly: “Drive halfway to work, park and then ride your bike the rest of the way” They then go on about layering in Merino wool, buying lobster clawed mitts ($80 when I last checked) and using different bikes (the author uses a gear-less track bike in winter). All fine ideas if you have a garage, a car and like shopping at REI.

Keep it simple.

Our usual advice is to keep it simple and dress as you would for walking, with a few tweaks; here is an earlier update, Ride your bike in the city all winter or the more thorough 2013 version. On the really cold days and longer trips I dress pretty much like I would for going snowboarding; a couple of layers with a waterproof shell, all stuff I had already. I use my snowboarding mitts (and have no trouble handling the gears or brakes) and goggles too.
bike lane toronto

On a bike in winter, you should do the bright thing

Most bike lanes in Toronto where I live are door prize lanes like the one in the photo above underneath that truck, a few feet between parking and the car lanes, and as soon as the snow comes the cars are pushed out to where they fill the bike lane or worse. This means that I am riding in the traffic lanes among cars full of drivers who are not thinking about cyclists. It’s the time of year where I am extremely careful about having bright lights front and rear, a helmet (with a light on it) and I keep a yellow vest in my Pannier. I also plan my routes around quiet streets and the new protected bike lanes that the city promises to plough.

Don't flash the headlights

bike light© via Next City

This year I am keeping my white headlight on solid rather than flickering/flashing mode; Josh Cohen wrote a fascinating article in Next City where he quoted studies that concluded that “they make it harder for other road users to judge your speed and distance.” LED lights are a lot brighter too:

Flashing bike lights make for a terrible experience for other bicyclists unfortunate enough to be nearby. Again, at best it’s merely annoying. Anyone who’s sat at a red light on a popular bike route can attest to the fact that it’s frustrating and uncomfortable to have a powerful flasher going off right in front of you as you wait for the light to turn green. At worst it can be dangerous.

Tips from Cycle Toronto

Jared Kolb, the executive director of Cycle Toronto, has suggestions for winter riding that were published in a local newspaper. The important ones:

Protect your extremities: Your core will stay warm from the exercise but your fingers and toes need extra protection. I once rode a long distance on a very cold day and another extremity almost froze; I now sometimes put on an extra pair of shorts.

Don’t swerve: Kolb recommends treating such potentially hazardous conditions like black ice and gravel by maintaining a straight direction without swerving. “So long as you ride safely in a straight line you’re good to ride right through winter,” he said.

This is tough; cyclists don’t swerve on purpose. But the basic principle is correct: try to go straight, don’t go too fast, and hope that your bike is properly sized so that you can put out your feet and have them touch the ground.

Clean your bike: “your ride will accumulate grit and salt, which can corrode chains and the finer parts of your bike. Kolb recommends a thorough cleaning at least once every two weeks.” I can show you the bill from my last spring tuneup, including a new chain, cables, repacking of bearings, I could have bought a beater bike with the money. This year I am following his advice.

And finally, Jared’s most important recommendation: Know your limits.

While some cyclists will ride in any kind of weather, Kolb recommends most people err on the side of caution. Kolb suggests people take alternate modes of transportation in severe winter storms.

We are trying to get more people out riding their bikes, not have a competition to see who is the most bad-ass (Yvonne already won that). So if you are not comfortable doing it on a particularly bad day, don’t. This year is likely to be a mild winter and there's likely "plenty of opportunity all season long to enjoy a nice, crisp ride."

The annual update: How to ride your bike in winter
Every year we tweak the list a bit as we learn from others; here is the latest.

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