Cycling in Winter

Cycling in Winter: Tips from the Halifax Cycling Coalition

Halifax is not Copenhagen, where cyclists enjoy plowed, well defined, and segregated bike lanes (we’re working on it!). In Halifax cycling in the winter can be a bit tricky and a bit messy — but that doesn’t mean it’s just for the hardcore cyclists! With a little extra attention to your riding technique and some consideration of your clothing and gear choice, you too can ride your bike year-round!

The decision to do winter cycling is not all or nothing. Start out by extending your season — ride a little later in the fall and start a little earlier in the spring. And, you don’t have to ride every day — ride on the nicest days and then gradually push yourself to ride a little more often. You’ll soon find that there really aren’t that many days where you really don’t want to be on your bike!

Choosing the right bike for cycling in winter

On days with no precipitation and clear roads, but cold conditions, the most important consideration is your attire (see “Clothing” below). Snowy or icy conditions on roads and paths, however, are cause for more consideration. It is important that your bike is in safe working order year-round. In winter, pay special attention to your tires, fenders, and brakes.

Tires: If your bike has the clearance to mount a wider tire, go for it. The wider width and greater surface area of the rubber will provide much better traction. Studded tires work great on ice and snow, but are not recommended for clear pavement. Lowering the air pressure in your tire slightly will help as well, but it will also make you ride a bit slower.

Fenders: Wet and salty Halifax winter roads mean that fenders are a must! Full coverage fenders offer the best protection for both your bike and your clothes. Look for fenders that go down to the chain stay (past the widest point of the wheel) and are wider than the tire. A mudflap is a great addition to help keep the mess off the person behind you. Even if you don’t care about getting soaked from your tires be considerate of those riding around you.

Brakes: Drum or disc brakes are ideal for wet or snowy conditions as they will not clog up with ice and snow. Rim brakes will still work but may require more stopping distance. Know what kind of brakes you have and slowly test your brakes on ice and snow before merging onto busy roads. Don’t forget that using your front brake on ice can cause you to wipe out! If it is icy, it is best to use your rear brake only.

Many people who use bike shoes and clipless-pedals (where your shoe clips directly to the pedal) will switch to regular platform pedals for the winter as these will better accommodate winter boots. A final useful tip is to lower your seat a little bit. This will lower your center of gravity and allows you to more easily place your feet on the ground if your bike slips on ice or snow.

“Winter Beater”: Halifax loves road salt. Some winter bicycle riders choose to leave their favourite steed at home when cycling in winter. To keep riding they scavenge for a beat up old bike worth perhaps $50. Key considerations for seeking out a winter beater are wide tire mounts and ability to mount fenders, as discussed above. If you get a winter bike, you don’t need to be as worried about maintenance or corrosion resulting from winter riding.

Good visibility matters for cycling in winter

Winter means less daylight and possibly, depending on your work/social schedule, daily commutes/trips in the dark. Add in the “wintery mix” of precipitation (snow-sleet-ice pellets-rain) that hits Halifax and cyclists become very hard to see. Provincial law in Nova Scotia requires that bicycles have a white light in front and a red light or reflector in back. If you have bike lights that blink, use the blinking mode. This will be noticed more by drivers and allow your batteries to last longer than steady light. However, if you are on a dark trail and are using the light to see the terrain, leave your headlight on steady. It is best to mount bike lights onto your bike where they can be adjusted to aim either straight ahead at traffic or down at the trail, rather than clipping them onto clothes or packs, where they shift around. Lights mounted on your helmet are a good idea too. Reflectors are a great backup and are available as ankle/arm straps, vests, bike tape/stickers, and plastic pieces that mount to bicycles.

Riding Techniques

A few tips:

  • When riding in the winter allow yourself extra time for slower cycling speeds and longer dressing/undressing time before and after your rides.
  • Try to pedal smoothly and relax your upper body, especially on ice and soft snow.
  • Make graceful turns rather than over steering. Keep your weight low during turns rather than lifting off the saddle.
  • Give yourself lots of distance to stop. Not only is the road slippery, but your brakes may not work as well if they are coated in ice/snow.
  • Strangely enough, road ice can provide lots of traction or very little. Try to not brake hard on slippery ice, or if you must, use only your rear brake.
  • Black ice can be hard to spot and very dangerous. Remember to slow down well before a sharp turn, as you may not be able to while turning.
The right clothes are key for cycling in winter

Wind chill is your worst enemy while winter riding. Icy winds freeze exposed skin  and can cut through layers of clothes, chilling you to the core. It’s important to wear a windproof layer of clothing when the wind chill is below 0°C. Cycling does generate a lot of body heat—you should feel slightly chilled when starting your ride. Your layers should be warm and comfortable but also allow you to control the buildup of heat/moisture during your trip. Multiple light layers with neck or armpit zippers let you adjust your ventilation as you ride. Your base layer (the one against your skin) and mid-layers should be synthetics or wool, as cotton will get wet and feel cold. The biggest problem with cycling in winter is usually avoiding sweat.

Covering the head, neck and face can make or break a ride. Neck gaiters work well as they are not bulky and can cover the lower half of the face. A thin toque or skull cap works well under helmets (which, according to NS law, must be worn by all cyclists). You may need to change the sizing pads in your helmet or remove them entirely to fit your winter headgear. If the weather is really bad (cold with a freezing wind, or lots of wet precipitation), try taping over the vents in your helmet with duct tape. Eye protection is very helpful if you are riding in a headwind or falling snow.

Also popular are “pogies”, or oversized mittens that fit over your handlebars. You can just insert your bare or lightly gloved hands inside to grab the bars. Dirty slush and meltwater, from your own tires or passing vehicles, can leave you wet, cold, and dirty. Using a waterproof pant over your regular pants is highly recommended on messy days.

Have Fun

Winter riding might seem like a big feat, so start slow by incorporating winter riding into your routine once or twice a week on nicer days. Cycling is the “happiest” mode of travel, and its a great way to beat the winter blues. Incorporating cycling into your winter schedule will keep you feeling happy and healthy all year round.

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