Demythologizing Winter Cycling
Posted on 18 November 2019
Do you remember when you first started riding in the city? Chances are good that you were uncertain, perhaps fearful, but your friends were doing it and they were loving it. Then you joined and you discovered that it wasn't scary at all, in fact it was liberating! And, suddenly your world opened up. Well, what if we told you the same was true of winter cycling? Like riding in the city, winter cycling also seems pre-loaded with all sorts of fearfulness that is easily deconstructed with nothing more than a ride on a cold and clear day. It's wonderful!
A couple of years ago Anders Swansen, a writer for the Guardian, visited Oolu in Finland, a city 120 miles below the Arctic Circle that experiences the same snow and cold in a city that is about as sprawled as Winnipeg. Nonetheless, 12% of the population continues to ride during the winter. He says:
Those -30C days do happen in Winnipeg, but they are pretty uncommon; yet we allow the deep freeze days to characterise an entire winter. We also conveniently forget that cycling keeps you warm – comfortably so....Winter is a glorious spectacle of glittering fractals complete with a soundscape and atmosphere entirely its own. Some of us have forgotten the bright side of winter: the simplicity, the efficiency, the pragmatism. In transportation terms, winter is all smooth, clean lines and quiet sounds. Bikes fit right in. Perhaps sitting in cars has dulled our senses.
Oooo yah, Amen to that! So, how do we get started? Let's start with the different kinds of winter cyclist. Which one are you?
TOO MUCH HYPE ABOUT JUST ONE TYPE
Or: "who is the winter cyclist?"
Let's take it from a fellow Canadian. In an article on winter cycling, Mikeal Colville-Andersen, cycling's pre-eminent displaced spokesman (he hails from Fort McMurray and lives in Copenhagen - no small irony there!) says most Danish people often laugh at how winter cycling has been so perceived as 'hardcore.'
"How do you cycle in the winter?” is a question that baffles us as much as it amuses us. The answer is simple: we put on our winter clothes. No scary GI Joe outfits, no high-vis vests, nothing too complicated. Just sensible winter clothing.... In Copenhagen, we dress for our destination, not our commute. The cycle tracks, even in the winter, are a rolling catwalk of Nordic design. In the winter we gear up with scarves, gloves and hats. Sleek boots, pea coats, and wool beenies. And never underestimate a scarf, perfect for layering up, wiping your glasses dry, and drying off your wet saddle.
Mikeal is right. There are articles upon articles trying to encourage winter cycling but they all seem to involve making the cyclist look like a ninja. But, it's not just winter that propels this ninja aesthetic. Those same bike stores that want to make you look like a ninja in the winter also want to make you look like a ninja in the summer. There is this strange belief that any person who hops onto a bike needs to look like Dr Spandex. Why?
The reason is that the cycling industry doesn't really understand dense cities like Toronto where people ride shorter distances and don't need to gear up for some sweaty battle-royals between point A and point B. When most bike companies talk about city bikes they use the word commuter bike, as though the cyclist was commuting from outside the city into the city. But, for most of us riding to work downtown, the gear required isn't all that different from what we already have in our closet. That's the difference between dressing for your commute or your destination. No one has to dress differently to get into a car, after all.
While we don't discount the existence of the commuter cyclist, the truth is, we see far less of them than the city cyclist. A far better division, we feel, is between the winter cyclist who rides everyday, no matter what, and the winter cyclist who is happy to change up transportation on days the streets are too icy. That means you can look every bit as sensible (or stylish) as our Danish friends who make winter cycling look positively aspirational. So, if you don't need all this special gear for winter riding, then how about your bike?
TO STUD OR NOT TO STUD
We solve the eternal question!
The distinction between the winter cyclist who rides everyday no matter what and the more reasonable winter cyclist who opts for transit on icy days helps understand the question around studded tires.
Just as a car requires different tires for the winter, so also does your bicycle. Up to now, however, there have only been two options. The first is to stick with the tires you already have. The problem is that the rubber on your existing tires get very hard in the winter, making them dangerously slippery on wet or icy surfaces. The second option is to replace your existing tires with studded tires, essentially a tire that has about 200+ carbide steel studs riveted into the tread.
Studded tires are great for the cyclist who rides everyday, no matter what. They are so sticky that there are ice-races where cyclists actually race on ice and the falls are few. If you want to ride on sheets of black ice, you can do so confidently. However, studded tires have two serious fallbacks. The first is that when the roads are clear they make a sound like a car on gravel and they slow you down significantly. The second is that when you ride on clear days, you're wearing those studs down, and these aren't cheap to replace.
In the last two years the bike industry has come to realize that not every winter cyclist is the type to ride everyday, and that neither a studded or regular tire fits their needs. Last year Continental came out with the Top Contact Winter tire and we cannot stop gushing about it. It has a softer durometer compound, meaning it has much more natural stick in cold weather, and it is composed of tiny micro-sipes that greatly increase grip, even on ice. These tires move much quicker than studs on cleared roads and don't wear nearly as fast. If you want to ride all winter, this is a must-have item!
ENDING CABLE FREEZE
While keeping warm hands!
While not a problem in the prairie provinces where the air is dry, a Toronto winter is a constant roller-coaster of oscillating temperature and humidity. This means that rain that falls onto your handlebars penetrates into your brake and shifter cables and then freezes once the temperature drops. While hydraulic disc brakes solve cold-weather braking issues by using sealed hydraulic fluid in the cable housing rather than metal cables, this doesn't solve the problem of your gears freezing. Either way, there's nothing more frustrating than finding you can't stop or shift gears in cold weather. So, what's the solution?
The answer is handlebar pogies! These clever devices kill two birds with one stone. First, they save you a ton of money on expensive winter gloves, since they are already insulated and completely windproof. That means you can pop your hands out quickly (if you need to text or check your phone for directions at a stoplight), and in the warmer shoulder-seasons, they are often all you need. They bolt onto the bike, making them theft resistant, and best of all they keep the brake levers and shifters covered, because that's the place water enters. While you can spend a lot of money on pogies, we recommend the Bar Mitts or Blivet Pogies since they cost about us much as a pair of good gloves and do a better job!
THE RIGHT OIL
Cold metal is slow metal.
Ever notice that your bike seems to go a bit slower in those super cold days? While bike parts can freeze up and slow you down, the one part you can do something about is your chain. If you consider that your chain has more moving parts than any other part of your bike, it makes sense to keep it running as smoothly as possible.
This year our friends at Muc-Off in Dorset, England, launched their -50 Lubricant, designed to keep all your parts moving smoothly in even the coldest temperatures (if it's -50 maybe you should take the TTC?). We like to splash some on the chain every two weeks but we also throw some into the shifter and brake cables when we do our winter tune-up.
Winter does also require that you keep things clean. Now and then, say every 2-3 weeks you will want to take a big sponge to the bike and wipe off all the salt. Salt is your only enemy in the winter. That's why we highly recommend bikes that use internal gears, covered chains, and are finished with durable chip-and-rust resistant paints. We talk more about this below.
THE WINTER BIKE
Is also a great summer bike!
There are a lot of cyclists who swear by using a 'winter bike' and 'summer bike,' but we often question the rationale. A winter bike, in this case, is most often a 'beater bike,' in other words, a bike on its last legs and different only from the summer bike by its value to the rider. However, winter demands a bike that is even safer than your summer bike, and when value as opposed to safety drives the rational between summer and winter bike, we begin to ask serious questions...
Yes, winter can destroy a bike but only if the bike isn't designed for winter. And, the big difference between the bikes of Northern Europe and the bikes sold in North America is that ours are designed for summer-specific recreation, theirs are designed for year-round transportation. That's why at Curbside we've made it our mission to import bikes designed for all-weather city riding.
What makes these bikes different is not only the upright position that favours comfort and safety over 'hardcore' performance, but also the durability of the frame and parts. The frames, for instance, will be treated for chip-and-rust resistance, while the gears are internally sealed rather than externally exposed to slush and snow. In some cases even the chain will be completely covered, so that you don't have to constantly clean and lubricate it. A good example of this sort of bike is the Fahrradmanufaktur T-50 or T-100. Both are awesome bikes for city riding or recreational riding in the summer, and both bikes transition perfectly to winter bikes, just add a tire change.
BUILDING THE WINTER BIKING CITY
We're getting closer!
There is little doubt that proper infrastructure is a big reason for people to ride bikes year round in Oolu, but the other reason is, it's simpler. As Anders Swansen says,
Oulu aims to have its cycling network ready and open for the people who want to use it. This not-so-revolutionary idea of caring about the needs of the basic users of the transportation system results in a populace that can rely on their city year round. Even in extreme weather, Oulu residents know that the bicycle will probably still be the most reliable form of transport since the pathways will usually be treated first.
Even in a city that is slowly developing bike lanes, a bicycle is often the fastest way to get from A to B - except, perhaps in the worst winter weather. Sure, you have to put on your winter gear, but it's the same gear you'd wear shivering at the streetcar stop anyways. And sure, there are days that riding isn't fun, but neither is any other alternative. As our friend Sussi from Biomega in Copenhagen says:
I don´t think we like riding in bad weather, but we don´t care either. It´s still the easiest way to get around and living in the city makes it difficult for you to have a car due to expensive parking facilities etc. After a long day in the office it´s always refreshing to get on the bike and breathe a little - it makes you move - and if you are used to biking it's a pain in the ass being forced to rely on the time table of a bus or a train.
Anyone who rides in the Spring and Summer knows that city cycling gives you back your independence. Well, the same is true in the winter too! The best thing is, you don't need to ride everyday, you don't need a ton of gear, and you save money while getting fresh air and healthy, rosy cheeks. So put on your favourite wooly toque and give it a shot. Let's turn your local bike lane into a winter catwalk!