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The Nuts (and Bolts) of Winter Cycling

By Heather Pardon

Winter CyclingI used to think that people who cycled in the winter were nuts. That is, until I became one of those people.

I don’t know exactly how I came to join the winter cycling scene. I think it was a convergence of forces, including leading a car-free lifestyle, a dislike of public transit, and a wish to maintain the cycling fitness that I’d attained during the warmer months that lead me to give it some more serious consideration last fall. Rather quickly I went from “thinking” about it to becoming an owner of a refurbished, circa 80s steel frame, 40 X 18 single-speed bicycle that I named “The Red Rocket”.

On the day of writing this article, Ottawa lays claim to the title of being the coldest city in Canada with the windchill hitting in the region of -35C. That did not discourage me from venturing out on my bicycle today. Before you call me nuts, let me say that in my first 2 months of winter cycling, I have discovered the following: Winter cycling is fun. It’s a heck of a lot of fun. It’s fun to cycle while giant snowflakes gently fall from the sky. It’s fun to cycle home on a crisp, clear night beneath the light of the moon. It’s fun to test your bike handling skills on a snowy street. It’s fun not to sweat buckets on a ride. It’s fun to do something that’s a bit out of the ordinary. It’s fun to enjoy a new challenge in cycling. And it’s fun to be a woman in a crowd that is dominated by men. I’d also argue that winter cycling will make you a better person. Forget the self-help books or Tony Robbins seminars, riding home into a headwind with a nasty windchill factor will “unleash the power within”.

Winter cyclingIf you’re not already a winter cyclist, hopefully by now you’re at least considering it, so read on and let’s talk equipment. When I first thought of cycling through the winter, I looked at buying a used mountain bike. My reasoning was I thought the frame would withstand more rugged riding and that the wider, knobbier tires would fare better on snowy or icy roads. A later conversation with an experienced winter rider convinced me to purchase a used single-speed. In cold winter conditions, I decided that fewer moving parts were better and less likely to leave me stranded at the side of the road where passing vehicles might look at me and think I’m nuts.

I also added a set of inexpensive cyclocross tires which work well in most conditions. If you want really great traction on ice and in all conditions, you may wish to consider studded tires. Or, you could try this MacGyver approach (which only works with disc brakes however).

As for maintenance, don’t get too emotionally attached to your winter ride nor use your beloved summer ride. It will take a beating at the hand of Old Man Winter and Old Man Road Salt. I clean my bike with some water and a rag every so often, wipe off my chain and douse it with lube. That’s about it. Lubing cables and housing so they do not seize is a good idea, particularly if it dips below -25C.

I paid $150 for the Red Rocket, $33 for tires, $22 for fenders and under $10 for lube for a total winter commuting investment of $215. Not too shabby a price to pay for 5 months of commuting.

winter cycling in ottawaWhat do you wear to be comfortable? Like any outdoor activity, layering is the key to success and clothing varies according to conditions. On days when it’s -15C or warmer, I’ll wear a base layer, light merino top and medium-weight cycling jacket, gloves, wind pants and goretex running shoes (I ride with flat pedals). On colder days, I’ll switch to a heavier weight merino mid-layer, winter-weight goretex jacket, a balaclava and ski googles, down mitts with merino liners and a pair of ankle-height winter boots. For further thoughts on clothing and other tips, check out this site for more great info http://icebike.org/Articles/Ottawa.htm.

I would say that winter riding requires a bit more diligence in terms of safety on the road. I added more reflective tape to my clothing, pinned a reflective vest onto my backpack and ride with a helmet-mount lighting system for added visibility. Road conditions can vary according to snow depth and conditions. I don’t venture out onto the roads unless I know that I will feel safe which, as a general rule, means that if cars are having trouble on the road, it’s not safe for me.

Winter riding will definitely test and improve your bike handling skills. There is nothing like having to navigate slushy, icy or snowy roads to help improve your balance, steering and maneouvring skills and boost your confidence on the bike. These same conditions will also add some resistance to your ride, helping to increase your fitness level too.

Lastly, winter riding is also about attitude. As one fellow said to me as I pulled up in front of the gym the other day in my full cycling gear, “Now that’s dedication!” (or as one friend posted on my Facebook wall “you’re nuts.”). Yes, it takes dedication to commit yourself to pushing yourself out the door when your neighbour is warming up their SUV. It also helps to keep positive for it can be a long ride around town if all you’re thinking about is the cold. Winter cycling will not only boost your physical fitness, it’ll give your mental fitness a boost too by challenging you outside of your comfort zone.

winter cyclingConsider this quote by turn-of-the-century American civil-rights leader Susan B. Anthony: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self—reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

Indeed, cycling gives us a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I would argue that winter cycling only amplifies those feelings, allowing us to reach new heights both as a woman and as a cyclist. That is the biggest reward and the nuts and bolts of winter cycling – it’s about becoming a better human being, a stronger individual and a more well-rounded cyclist. And there is nothing nutty about any of those pursuits, at least in this cycling nuts opinion.

Heather Pardon, avid cyclist and Founder of A Wild Daisy Adventureprises, publishes a popular inspirational blog about following your heart, which includes a chronicle of her own one-year adventure spent journeying across Canada in her daisy-themed RV, Miss Daisy, accompanied by her faithful hybrid bicycle, Miss Daisy Too. She is also a contributing author to the Canadian bestseller, “The Power of Women United” as well as writing articles for several other online forums including FengSHe.org, a site dedicated to bringing more balance and harmony into the world. Heather is a recipe contributor to the upcoming book, “Cooking With Sin”, a cookbook that pairs great recipes with great stories. She is also a Co-Founder of Just Say Yes!, a dynamic organization that creates inspired events designed to help others live their best lives.

Heather is an Author, Speaker, Coach, Certified Personal Trainer and Nanaimo Bar Fanatic. You can visit her website at www.wilddaisy.ca


3 comments to The Nuts (and Bolts) of Winter Cycling

  • Marilyn Sheldon

    The Nuts(and Bolts)of Winter Cycling is a great article with good information. I have always wanted to ride my bike in the winter time but am concerned about my bike-riding ability on snow and ice.
    My cousin, Roy Fowler, (May he rest in peace!) was one of the forerunners of cycling in Ottawa. As a matter of fact, the general population thought that he was a little mad because he cycled everywhere, anytime, when it was not fashionable to do so. He also built his own bicycles and stopped cycling in his 80’s because he was frequently falling from his bicycle. He was remarkable!

  • Great article and I admire your hardiness. And as a Canadian I know all about the cold. I am interested in continuing my training with my road bike on dry days. I have found that I don’t get cold on my body. But when you are reaching speeds of 35 km an hour your face becomes quite painful from the wind. Also, no matter what I’ve tried, my hands and feet freeze. In fact, those parts of my body freeze at 6C. I’d love to hear from others who train through the winter and what they do about hands, feet and face. I hop on my trainer but find it hard to ride for a long period of time due to the monotony- even with the TV on. Not enough variety in terrain etc.

  • Sheila

    Great article Heather. It certainly covers the nuts – and bolts! I have wandered out on a few warmish days and cycling on snow is fun, challenging and good for the soul.

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