Top 5 Tips for Cycling in the Winter

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Bicycle dives into ice crack

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I realize someone from Calgary or Winnipeg will scoff at this post about ‘winter’ riding in Vancouver. While temperatures will hover around the freezing point, we rarely need to tackle snow or brave truly cold temperatures on our daily bike commute. That said, as I rode home from work last week I passed by an incapacitated cyclist on a dark street. Not moving, and covered by a jacket from a few good citizens standing by while waiting for paramedics, I was reminded there are inherent risks to cycle-commuting, and these are only increased during the winter months. The roads are icy and its dark by 4:30pm. There are also just a few things to keep in mind to make the ride more enjoyable. Here are 5 keys to success:

1. Get your bike ready for the weather

If you have a mountain bike, the wider and thicker tread will do you a lot of favors. If you want to stick with your road bike, letting a few PSIs out of the tires will help increase surface area and traction. Yes, this will slow you down and increase the effort, but your traction will be better. You can also look at getting studded tires for snow/ice, but that is likely overkill for our climate.

Tune-ups become even more important in the cold as well. Make sure your brakes are well maintained and adjusted, and your chain is clean and lubed.

2. Stay seen

It gets dark early, so make sure cars can see you! Wear reflective gear, or at least leg/arm bands. Bright, rear and front lights are essential. Bike shops sell good, LED flashing lights for $15. A headlamp will help you be seen and is also useful if you need to jump off the bike to do some minor repairs or fix a flat.

3. Dress for success

Rain is the biggest foe of Vancouver cyclists, so waterproof gear goes a long way. Waterproof pants, jacket, shoe covers, and helmet cover will keep you dry from head to toe. Once you get wet, you’re in trouble as water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air.

For clothing, the key is to start out cool and allow the body heat from riding get you to warm. Otherwise, you’ll start perspiring, or needing to fiddle with removing layers. With my 45 minute commute I’m fine in a light sweater, wind breaker shell, and my jeans (plus above mentioned rain gear if its raining). That said, the one area that really takes punishment with even a little bit of cold air is the hands. Invest in a good pair of winter gloves. @anthonyfloyd had a great suggestion of grabbing a pair of waterproof kayaking gloves from MEC.

If it is really cold, avoid cotton. Use a wicking/ technical base layer. Then you can add wool sweater on top. Breathable/ adjustable out-wear will allow you to vent or change quickly if you get too warm. Wool is also great, as it retains heat even if it gets wet.

4. Go slow(er)

If you want to avoid wiping out, going slower is the easiest thing to do. Hitting an unseen patch of ice while turning or braking is going to cause you to wipe out. Leaving earlier will give you the time to get where you’re going at a nice easy pace.

5. Be a wimp (optional)

I only started cycle commuting January of this year. I wimped out for most of January-March. Sitting on a warm bus with a book isn’t all bad. If you’re new to cycling, its ok to be wimp on the coldest days, or if the weather is terrible. Wait until you have the experience and proper gear before tackling the worst days.

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  1. Derek says:

    Great article and comments. All very helpful, thank you. I’ll keep it all in mind including the braking with the rear brake suggestion.

    Regarding lights, I thought I’d add that from what I understand, I think you’re better off with battery operated high powered lights than USB ones. If you always have spare batteries on you, you’ll be okay with the first type. With the other type, you’re hooped unless you happen to have your laptop with you and want to sit on the sidelines waiting for your light to charge up. Also, the run times are short with the USB lights. The battery powered ones will get you through at least one full season.

    • Karl W says:

      Thanks for the comment Derek. I think you’re probably right about the lights. I still have the USB ones I bought when I got my bike, but you can’t let them die during the ride. It has happened to me once or twice and you just have to keep going in the dark until you get home. Luckily, mine have a little red indicator light that will show you when they are getting low, so mostly I know to recharge them before they actually die, but like I said, a few times that hasn’t happened. And yes, it also means charging them every week!

      Thanks for the input, I think my next lights may not be USB!

  2. Tyler says:

    I surely hope I won’t wimp out this winter and check out some of this trails around Vancouver I found in this article, because they were really lovely in summer. Thanks for the safety tips Karl!

  3. Karl Woll says:

    Ah, good suggestion Anthony, I would have never though about that.

    The day I posted this my rear light died (not just the batteries) and I had to do 2 rides home with no rear light. Talk about not walking the talk haha.

  4. Anthony says:

    Good list! I’d add to #4 (go slower): Brake with the rear brake, not with the front brake when it’s slippery. Most normal braking power happens at the front, and the natural tendency is to apply more force to the front brake, but if the front wheel locks up, you *will* crash. So, brake with the rear only. Stopping distance is increased, but you can control a rear-wheel slide.

    Having said this, it is *extremely* hard to get over the instinct to squeeze the front brake.