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.