Winter Biking

Winter biking in style

To most commuters, 2-wheeled or otherwise, winter cycling borders on an extreme sport, more an endurance contest than a transportation alternative. When the first flakes hit the ground, most people store their bikes (hopefully indoors, come on… you know better) and wait anxiously for spring. Winter is unthinkable on a bike, yet normal – if just a bit more tedious – in an automobile. But it need not be so.
Winter biking is just as fun and it usually gets you places faster – and with substantially less noise, air and other pollution – than the alternatives (just like during the rest of the year). Sure it takes a bit more effort to dress well, take care of your bike, and to get confident riding on snow, but it is well worth a try.
One of the first concerns is what to wear; a valid concern, as frostbite is nobody’s friend. Avoid the urge to overdress. Just like the rest of the year, your body will warm up during a ride. Hell, you might even break a sweat. It is better to start off a little cool and add on an extra layer than to be peeling off sweaty layers at -20C. Speaking of layers, a wind-proof shell and an insulating layer over a thin layer of wicking fabric on the skin will do just fine. Avoid cotton next to the skin; it will soak up all your sweat and make you feel clammy. That also applies to socks.
On the topic of feet, your particular climate will dictate the type of boots that will be appropriate. Montreal gets pretty slushy, so Sorels or similar, well-insulated and waterproof boots are quite popular. Not everyone will need chunky boots rated to -74C, but biking shoes really won’t do because they are designed for ventilation, not insulation.
The layering approach can also work for your hands. Use polypropylene liners, medium-weight gloves or mitts, topped off by wind-proof mitts. You can mix and match layers depending on conditions. And don’t forget neck and head gear. A thin, wind-proof balaclava fits perfectly under a helmet once you take its padding out. You might also want some eyewear to cut the freezing wind and the glare.
Now that the fashion crisis is resolved, you can move on to preparing your bike.
Moisture and road salt (a mere 4.9 tonnes of which are dumped annually on Canadian roads) are no friends of bikes. Grease all nuts and bolts, seatpost, stem, and cables; check and repack all bearing assemblies (headset, bottom bracket, hubs, and pedals). You can use sections of tubes to cover vulnerable areas like the headset cups and seatpost to prevent moisture from leaking in.
You might want to use a set of inexpensive parts during the winter or have a separate bike for winter cycling altogether. Go for larger, metal pedals instead of plastic ones, and friction shifters instead of rapid-fire or other fancy/complicated shifters which are more prone to breakage. Don’t forget the fenders, either home-made or store-bought. They should be adjusted to leave enough room to accommodate all the slush that will be building up as you ride.
Wet, salty, gritty slush leaves your bicycle dirty, but also washes away lubricant, so oil often – daily, or several times a week. The parts that need oil most are your derailleurs, chain, and the pivots of your brakes. Motor oil will do for everything except the chain, for which you are probably better off using a thinner oil, even if such an oil will need to be re-applied regularly.
Check the bearing assemblies (headset, bottom bracket, hubs, and pedals) monthly, clean your frame, hubs, and rims weekly, and check every few weeks that the seatpost – especially if aluminum – has not become seized in the frame. If your bike will not have time to dry indoors, leave it outside; bringing a still-wet bike out into the cold exposes you to the hidden risk of ice forming on parts – even cables – possibly rendering them inoperable. Consider also: rust never sleeps, but sub-freezing temperatures will slow it down considerably.
On the selection of tires, there is much debate. You are best off with narrow, yet somewhat knobby, tires. While the wide knobby tires look more fitting, they have less weight per square inch on the ground and don’t cut through the snow as well (not to mention the mess they make in your house). Optionally, you can use studded tires, store-bought or home-made. (See http://users.rcn.com/icebike/equipment/tires.htm for more info.) However, studded tires don’t have a particularly long life on pavement; they are well suited for use on ice, though, if ice is all you have.
If this is your first winter biking, take some time to get comfortable with it. But also consider that your ‘mastery’ of cycling expires when you take your first step away from the bicycle, even in ideal summer conditions. Start out in a park or on a small street and get to know the different kinds of snow and ice and how to handle them.
Above all, when riding in winter brazenly prefer bare pavement to the unknown surface under snow at the edge of the lane.
More general advice: watch for changes in temperature, in either direction, particularly when the temperature is very near freezing (0 C/32┬░ F); use your back brake in preference to your front brake; take turns more slowly and more upright; avoid smooth surfaces such as metal manhole covers or painted crosswalk lines; avoid intersections where cars skid to a halt or do jack-rabbit starts; watch for black ice, ice patches under fresh snow, or water over ice; test out your traction on different terrain by lightly applying the rear brakes; and, if you are unsure of, or uncomfortable with, the conditions, go a little slower or take another route. And have fun.

This article is released under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Creative Commons license; originally published in Carbusters Issue 21.