Join the Winter Biking Militia -
Biking to and from work everyday is one of the most rewarding experiences that a mindless worker bee can have. The mud on my work pants. The sweet smell of dirty bus exhaust fumes. The disdain hurled at you by uncaring motorists. The rain and subsequent skunkstripe (even though I have a damn fender!). Flat tires, broken brake lines, and signs that jump into your path – insidious, ambushing, sharp edged signs that send you ass over teakettle and ruin your front wheelset.
But seriously, there’s crap you’ll have to deal with, but the ride gets the blood moving, clears the cobwebs that formed the night before (or during the work day) and lets you think a little bit about what’s got to get done when you hit your destination. Even more importantly, biking is good exercise, requires no external fuel source, connects you with the city and frees you from a rigid bus schedule (and the exorbitant fees that OC Transpo is charging) or a reliance on your car.
I bike to work. All year. Spring, summer, fall and yes, winter. It’s a small feat. Some people think it’s a big deal, but really, winter riding is the same drive as my summer commute. Just a little colder.
Ok – sometimes a lot colder, sometimes so cold it causes “reverse elephantitis” (did you know that actual elephantitis is caused by a parasitic worm?).
Mostly, it’s fun. And with so few people doing it, you certainly feel a sense of accomplishment. So, while I am no expert, I thought it might be useful to post a few tips I’ve learned over the years. Hope that they help to make your experience safer and more enjoyable. If not, you can’t sue me, I’m imaginary!
Matt’s Winter Biking tips:
1) Be hyper-aware
Car drivers aren’t really expecting to see you. They have blindspots, cellphones, screaming kids in the back and a thousand other preoccupations. It’s your responsibility to be aware of these drivers – to anticipate their actions and respond accordingly. Keep your eyes moving. Stay alert, stay present and stay safe.
2) Be visible
This tip is an extension of #1. Many drivers don’t expect to see bikes on the road. So you have to make sure they see you. Proper lighting, and if possible reflective clothing will help.
Stay out of drivers’ blindspots, and approach intersections carefully. Make eye contact with drivers at intersections. Just because you have the right of way, doesn’t mean you are going to get it.
3) Stay warm (but not too warm)
It’s winter – you have to stay warm. And you have to stay dry. So, stay warm and dry. Simple huh? You’ll need to test drive some of your gear to get the right mix. I layer my clothes. That way I can add or remove as the weather changes.
Usually I wear a hoodie underneath a thin poly zippered jacket on days between -5 and -15 celcius. My snowboard gloves do the trick on my hands, and I double up on socks to keep the kickers warm.
Some people favour a moisture wicking layer against their skin, followed by an insulating layer and then a water/wind repelling layer to finish it off. You’ll figure it out, but only practice is going to help you here.
4) Types of riding
There are really three types of riding in winter. Wet riding, dry riding and icy/snowy riding.
Wet riding usually occurs after a snowfall. The plows and salt trucks have been out and the roads are mostly clear, but a slushy brown sludge will likely be found on the shoulder of the road (right where you are gonna be riding). Wet riding means that your brakes will be slower to stop you, and you’re going to get a bit wet. Dress appropriately and keep your speed in check.
Dry riding is usually accompanied by colder weather. There is less precipitation when it is colder. The roads are more likely to have been salted and cleared and the road itself will have a bone gray look to them. This is ‘money-shot’ riding weather. It’s fast, visibility is good, and you aren’t going to slip around on the white stuff. But, it’s cold. So bundle up.
Snowy/Icy riding. This is a whole chapter all on its own. Regardless of the amount of snow, you need to be smart. These riding conditions wreak havoc on motorists, and it’s less likely that they will anticipate bikers on the road. Couple that with poor braking conditions and you’re fair game to get t-boned.
In addition, the riding can be heavy slogging. My advice is to take it slow. Break your own trails - don't just follow car tire tracks as these often provides less grip than a trail you make on your own.
Keep your ass in the saddle. This is going to keep the bulk of your weight on the back tire. It’s like throwing bags of sand and salt in the back of your truck. It’s gonna give you a little more grip and keep that rear tire from spinning out.
It’s going to be slow going, but when you get to work 45 minutes ahead of your car driving buddies, you can rub it in a little.
5) Keep your shit straight
If you’re going to hit the streets, you’re going to need to understand a little about motion. In that snowy/icy weather, your brakes won’t be as effective as they are in dry conditions.
You’ll find that on icy surfaces, a quick pull of the front or back brakes will lock up a wheel and send you sliding. The same thing will happen when you try and make quick turns. In both cases, your momentum will continue forward as you fall. Slow down and anticipate when you will have to brake or turn.
Keep an eye out for icy patches. But ride with caution, a blanket of snow can easily cover up those patches.
I also like the ‘pontoon method’. Simply put, be ready to throw your feet and legs out (like pontoons) when you hit a slippery spot. You’ll be able to plant a foot and keep your ass from hitting the ground.
6) Maintain your bike
You have to love your bike. Love it or lose it. I love both Herschel and Lieberman and that love keeps them rolling.
Make sure your bike is in good working order. Brake and shifter cables can freeze. Ice and sludge can build up on rims and brake pads. I give Lieberman (my heavy duty commuter) a weekly bath and lube in the winter. It's important to have a well oiled chain, and lubricated cables - this will reduce rust on the chain and decrease frozen lines.
A little TLC each week means that I am sure things will function normally and I can rely on the bike to get me safely where I want to go.
I know there’s a million other tips for this kind of thing. Do you have any? Throw them in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you.