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Go Outside: The Winter Cycling Edition
Everything you need to know to discover the joy of biking year-round.
Here at Go Outside, we (Annalise and Cailynn) agree on a lot when it comes to exploring the great outdoors. But one thing we continually do not see eye to eye on is winter cycling.
Cailynn loves it and highly recommends it! Annalise is less enthused. She attributes her sour attitude to a winter biking incident six years ago, in which she took a big spill down a steep hill in the dark enroute to work and ruined one of her favourite pairs of pants.
Anyway, those diverging attitudes have led to a few conflicts over the years (like the time we took a chilly bike ride to a controversial Calgary circle and Annalise was, in Cailynn’s humble opinion, a grump).
But with recent mild weather in Calgary, combined with relatively clear pathways, Annalise is open to trying out winter biking again, and her kind sister Cailynn is here to help. Here’s Annalise’s questions about spending winter on two wheels, answered by Cailynn.
What type of bike and tires do I need?
I keep things simple and ride the same bike year-round, my beloved three-speed bright yellow commuter bike (that is one of my best Kijiji finds ever). For my first few winters biking, I rode my dad’s very old mountain bike, because my vintage cruiser I used the rest of the year wasn’t quite up for the job. Some people swear by fat bikes; it’s really up to you which bike you use. Note that winter can be hard on bicycles, so an older bike works great.
As for tires, I ride with two studded tires during the winter, but some people prefer only one studded tire, and some people ride with none. If you go the studded route, you can put on studded tires yourself or pay to have a bike shop do it. I stopped changing my own tires years ago and now pay someone else to do it. My overall winter biking philosophy is it’s easier and warmer than you think.
Cailynn’s first winter ride
Is falling inevitable? Is ice inevitable?
Hmmmm. This is my eighth winter riding, and I’ve only had one big fall that I can recall, which was due to ice, and maybe a few minor ones I’ve forgotten. So in my view, falling is mostly avoidable but ice is inevitable, especially in Calgary. However, going back to my winter biking philosophy here, there are some easy tips to keep in mind when it’s icy.
What are your tips?
First, studded tires. For me, they have made a big difference when it comes to my confidence with riding when it’s slightly icy. Second — watch for ice. I definitely ride slower and more cautiously in the winter, because there are often more hazards like snow and ice on my route than in other seasons. Third, if you do encounter ice, do not brake aggressively. (This is what led to my one big fall on an icy patch going downhill, which sounds similar to what turned you off winter cycling all those years ago, Annalise.) Just like you would in a vehicle on ice, be gentle with braking pressure, don’t over-correct your steering and try slowing down before any turns.
And remember my mantra, it’s easier than you think! While it’s tricky to ride over a big, scary patch of ice, it’s usually pretty easy to get off your bike and walk around it. I do this often, because I’m more confident on ice on my feet than on two wheels. For a few more tips, I recommend this short video from Tom Babin, who also wrote the great book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.
What should I wear?
Layers, layers, layers! Because I’m all about keeping things easy, I use the same clothing I wear x-country skiing and winter running. If it’s cold, I typically wear merino wool socks, winter boots, merino wool long johns, soft shell pants intended for x-country skiing, a merino wool base layer long sleeve, sometimes a down vest if it’s really cold, and a mid-weight jacket. I always wear a merino wool buff and a really light merino wool toque that fits under my helmet. If it’s really cold, I’ve found wearing my ski goggles — and occasionally even my ski helmet — makes a big difference.
This inexpensive pair of ski googles makes a big difference on a cold or blustery day.
On my hands, I layer a pair of light gloves, then mitts, then a waterproof shell mitt on top. As you can see, the trend here is merino wool and layers, as that’s what I’ve found keeps me warm. I recommend you experiment and find what works for you. Often it’s your feet and hands that will need the most attention. For a deeper dive on warm hands and feet while winter cycling, check out these tips from winter biker extraordinaire Doug at Coldbike.
Now I get to work and am sweaty? Square this for me please.
Ideally you shouldn’t be arriving sweaty, because you have layered properly. Just as you practice “be bold, start cold” when hiking and skiing, try the same for winter biking. You might be a little chilly at the start of your ride, but you’ll soon warm up.
What do you like about winter biking?
The big thing is I love biking, and winter biking keeps me biking all year round. Instead of parking my bike for 4+ months, I still get to go outside and pedal. I was intimidated by winter biking at the start — it seemed like there was a lot to know, and a lot of extra considerations. But I really haven’t found that to be the case. Yes, you need to wear a few more layers and ride a bit differently, but overall it’s pretty simple to go out on your bike and experience the same joy bike riding always brings.
In fact, I often find winter biking brings me more joy. There’s something magical about moving through the cold and snow on a bicycle and getting to truly experience all that winter offers.
In Calgary, there’s even a few options for a bike+ski!
Have you noticed more people on the pathways in winter in recent years?
Yes! I have noticed more people winter biking, and bike counters in Edmonton and Calgary back that up. FYI, a great way to meet this lovely community of winter bikers is at Coffee Outside, which is a regular early morning meetup every Friday that simply involves coffee and camaraderie. Find details on when and where Coffee Outside meets in Calgary and Edmonton, and learn more about this movement here.
Is there anything else I should know?
A few final thoughts for you: The hashtags #yycbike and #yegbike on Twitter are also great places for winter biking tips, and even regular pathway reports. And note that I’ve found daily winter biking brings insatiable hunger, so follow your own advice when it comes to winter snacking. That’s it… now you just have to get studded tires, layer up and go outside for a ride!
P.S. International Winter Bike to Work Day is this Friday! Also, Bike Calgary is celebrating winter biking this Saturday, with rides, goodies and prizes (details here). And if you live in Edmonton and are new to winter cycling, you may qualify for a free set of studded tires via the WinterCity Studded Tire Challenge.