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Snow Biking

Winter cycling in the city—things to know before you go


Blue skies, bright sun, fresh temperatures, five cm of packed snow — a perfect day for a bike ride, right? You don’t have to be one of those hardy Ottawa souls who cycle to work in winter — just think of it as you would an afternoon ski or skate except on a bike. You can wear your cross-country ski clothes and just go for the thrill of a spin on snow. Okay, you might want to be prepared for the possibility of slush spatter and for a serious bike cleaning afterwards, but it will lift your winter spirits. Guaranteed. Of course, if you already bike commute three seasons; why not try the winter too?

Bike equipment
The common wisdom is to not use your best bike for winter cycling — unless you want an excuse to buy a new ride in the spring! Salt is your enemy. If you think an aluminum bike is better than steel, think again. Salt may not corrode the frame but it will eat all the other metal parts like your drive train. You can spray inside steel tubes with rust preventive to slow down the internal corrosion, but it’s best to use your off-season bike or a bike you can junk at the end of the season. If you’re only going out for a recreational ride, it doesn’t matter if you use a roadie, mountain, or hybrid. Commuters have their own specific preferences. Just remember, after you do ride, you must wipe down the frame with a rag sprayed with WD-40 to help keep the rust at bay.

Larry Morpaw, one of Ottawa’s many four-season commuting cyclists swears that THE most important thing is to have studded tires on your bike. He recommends the Continental Nordic Spike with 240 studs made in Europe, but there are others available (see GEAR). With the potential for soft snow, deep snow, ice, black ice, slush and bare pavement, a studded tire will guarantee your ride no matter what.

Winter cycling experts don’t seem to agree on the value of using fenders. Some says snow/ice will clog between your fender and tires making it harder to pedal. Larry the commuter says, “the spray from passing cars will make you wet and dirty anyway, so why use a fender?” Still, he admits to using a “rat tail” or rear deflector to keep the rooster tail of gunk off his backside. Pete Hickey, another year-round cyclist (http://mudhead.uottawa.ca/~pete/winter.txt), uses a rack on the back with a piece of plywood to prevent splashes.

Icy slush can also clog and/or freeze up derailleurs so that they stop working. Some riders resort to single speeds (especially bike couriers) to avoid this hassle. Others uses bikes with internal hubs, such as Sturmey Archer or Shimano Nexus, which offer three to seven gear options without the need for an external derailleur. Larry makes sure his rear derailleur has “no plastic bits, so that I can kick it to remove the crust of ice and snow, without breaking it.”

Even with an old bike, you cannot avoid maintenance. Winter commuters wait for that warmish day when it is safe to wash the gunk off the bike. If you have enough mechanical knowledge, let the bike dry then bring it into the house — preferably to an area where grease stains won’t matter. Strip the bike, clean it and put it together with lots of grease. Remember this is not your good bike! Larry says not to skimp on the grease; use it on the threads, nuts, screws, etc. For those freezing days, he uses heavy-duty chain saw grease – “it slows you down but it keeps you moving.” Pete Hickey recommends putting “a drop of oil on the threads of each spoke, otherwise, the spokes rust solidly, and it is impossible to true the wheel.” He also suggests using a plastic ketchup squirter with automotive oil (90-weight standard transmission oil) to re-oil the chain, derailleur and brakes every few days.

Of course, you will need lights if you are a 9-to-5 bike commuter. While it is always nice to be seen by other vehicles so they won’t hit you, it is best to be able to see where you are going! So, consider paying more to get a reliable, rechargeable light system that will cover your needs. As a commuter, you should already know what works for you on your route.

Body equipment
Just as in other winter sports, it is important to keep your feet, head and hands warm. Since you are moving faster on a bike, you must consider the WIND CHILL and not just the current temperature.

For the feet, the choice is simple: for a recreational ride on a decent day, you can wear cold weather cycling boots, or neoprene booties and wool socks with your clipless pedals. However, for those hard cold days, put on some flat pedals and use your reliable Sorel winter boots. Larry dislikes having cold feet so he also uses a sock heater in his winter boots. Be not to burn your toes! If none of this keep your feet warm, then do it the old-fashioned way. Dismount and walk until your feet warm up.

Fingers or the use of them is especially important in winter cycling. You need to hold that handlebar and be able to shift gears. Wearing split finger or “lobster” mitts allows both dexterity and warmth. As for the head, well, you have a few options.

Of course, you will be wearing a helmet that is full of those wonderful-in-summer air vents. You can put on a helmet rain cover (some have a neck flap to keep rain and snow off your neck) to cover the vents and/or wear a cycling skullcap that will also cover your ears. Incidentally, Swix makes a very thin pair of earmuffs that fit nicely under a helmet and do keep the ears warm. Speaking of necks, consider a dickie on cold days to keep your neck and chest warm — your bronchia will thank you. Don’t forget your face and other exposed skin — spread on a layer of petroleum jelly for protection or be a commuter and wear a thin polypro balaclava.

It may be cold outside, but don’t overdress. Generally, you want to feel a bit chilly during the initial kilometre or two. Pedalling will warm you up. You don’t want to be sweating or you’ll become chilled later. Remember to skip the cotton clothing and wear synthetics that will wick moisture away from your skin. You don’t have to be a clotheshorse on a bike, but do to layer your clothing: base, middle and outer. Think warmth, breathability and water resistance.

Without the summer’s heat to make you thirsty, you may not notice that you are losing moisture with every breath. You need to drink non-alcoholic fluids. In very cold weather, some commuters fill their hydration systems with hot water to prevent it from freezing. Polar now makes an insulated water bottle that will keep your hot drink warm for the first hour or so. Wearing a hydration pack will let you carry extra supplies and reach them more easily you’re your jacket covered jersey pocket. It also covers the small of your back to hold in body heat.

Mental matters
Commuting by bike in winter does require a different mindset. It does take commitment and dedication, but most of all a love of cycling. You can learn more about the commuting technical ins and outs from Graydon Patterson’s guide to winter cycling in Ottawa (www.icebike.com/Articles/commuting.htm). The CAN-BIKE instructor is also a policeman and says cyclists MUST drive “extra defensively as car drivers just don’t expect cyclists to be out there in winter.” Still, if we ALL went cycling this winter….


Sheila Ascroft 

I’m an Ottawa writer/editor who has been road cycling for 20 years. I’m not fast or thin, but I ride 3000 km every year and have completed two 100-mile solo rides. For me, every bike ride is a joy ride. [www.sheilaascroft.com]

©Sheila Ascroft (This article first appeared in Ottawa Outdoors Magazine, Fall/Winter 2008.)

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