Shift into Winter: Follow-up questions & answers on winter cycling

On October 15, 2020, Two Wheel View hosted the 4th Annual Shift into Winter cycling panel in conjunction with the City of Calgary. (The video of this virtual panel is available here.) As a follow-up, we have put together this post full of questions and comments from the chat box of the event, curated by Bike Calgary volunteers. We hope it helps to answer any more questions you may have about cycling in wintertime that weren’t answered at the event!

Bike Maintenance

Got questions on how to maintain your bike all season long? Is there any way to avoid destroying a bike when riding in winter? Your bike definitely needs a little bit of extra love in the winter, mostly as a result of any salting or brining your city may do to help clear the roads. But, salt is not a death sentence with maintenance! Read on for more tips.

Bike-cleaning routine

Seasonal tips
  • Pre-season: clean and grease your seat post and your pedal threads

  • consider adding fenders, they help keep you and your bike cleaner!

  • Throughout winter:

  • periodically take care of your drivetrain, especially your chain (clean, then lube)

  • seize the (warmer) days and clean your bike! eg. Chinooks in Calgary

  • habits are good: aim for a daily or weekly routine if you can to help keep your bike running smoothly all winter

  • End of season: deep clean on a nice day or take it in for a tune-up

  • if you have a dedicated winter bike, clean it well, grease parts (eg. seat post, pedal threads), and oil chain before you store it

What if you don’t have a garage?

The following tips are useful for anyone, but especially relevant for those of us who do not have (heated) garages:

  • Brush or kick of any extra snow upon arrival at your destination to avoid freezing

  • especially around fenders, tires, brake/shifter cables

  • Do a deep clean when you can, you’ll need:

  • a bucket with warm water or a pesticide sprayer,

  • microfibre cloth or rags (eg. old towel pieces), and

  • old dish brushes (which are helpful at getting into harder to reach areas)

  • cleaner to cut the grease, especially on your drivetrain:

  • MEC Green Biodegreaser,

  • Muc-off cleaning product, or

  • blue Dawn dish soap.

  • Try to clean your frame on warmer days or bring in your bike to warm up first; a large temperature difference between your frame and the water can crack your powdercoat.

  • Able to bring your bike inside?

  • Shower/tub access?

  • let your bike warm up first

  • put old towels/rags in the tub to protect the enamel from studded tire scratches/gouges/grease marks

  • prop your bike vertically

  • clean (eg. with biodegreaser, Dawn, etc.)

  • avoid spraying bearings directly (i.e. the part where the bike spins or twists)

  • let bike dry

  • grease moving parts (eg. derailleur joints, pedal threads) and re-lube your chain

  • Storage ideas: being able to warm up your bike inside and let the snow/ice melt completely at your destination is huge

  • put something under your bike to protect your floors, eg.

  • old shoe mats

  • old towels

  • buy a large floor mat and cut it in half (available at Costco, Home Depot, etc.)

Studded Tires

Studded tires have bits of carbide in them to help dig into ice. They aren’t necessary for all winter riding but they are nice for cities that tend to have significant freeze/thaw cycles, such as those Calgary gets with our Chinooks.

There are limited types of studded tires available, but there seem to be more options every year! The most popular are arguably Schwalbe Marathon Winter or their wider and more aggressively tread cousins, the Schwalbe Marathon Winter Plus; Schwalbe also makes the Ice Spiker. 45Nrth makes a smoother rolling tire for the 700c folks who are averse to rolling resistance, and they put their studs on the outer edges. Now, Continental has gotten into the studded tire game and offers a model with the option of either 2- or 4-rows of studs. Schwalbe also makes winter tires that are stud-free.

Do you need studded tires to ride safely?

Short answer — no, but things to consider:

  • What are the surfaces you will mainly be riding? On-street? Pathways that get cleared of snow and ice? Do you have hills en route or sharp corners?

  • Check your route for snow clearing in Calgary, here: https://maps.calgary.ca/PathwaysandBikeways/

  • Knobby tires can be helpful, too

  • Lowering tire pressure can help:

  • to engage studs and/or knobbies, especially those on the outer edges of a tire;

  • with snirt (brown sugar-style snow + dirt)

  • Studded tires have a softer rubber compound that help provide better traction in winter

  • Can now opt to buy “winter/snow” bike tires that aren’t studded but have this softer compound

  • Your body may be more relaxed rolling with studs; they give many people that extra confidence boost, so if you’re that kind of person, you may find studded tires helpful.

  • Ultimately comes down to personal preference and/or budget/cash flow (or desire to invest). People argue the cash works out because:

  • you now have two sets of tires, which means both sets last longer

  • relatively inexpensive with factoring in car use or transit pass, or even physiotherapy costs to help overcome a fall due to slipping on ice

When should I switch over to studded tires?

This depends on personal preference and where you live. Some people opt to put them on early; others wait as long as they can because they don’t like the increased resistance the tires usually have (but do like the benefits overall for most of winter). Some thoughts and ideas heard in Calgary are:

  • When the snow falls and stays on the ground (i.e. more than one day of continuous snow)

  • When the temperature drops below freezing and you might hit a patch of ice in the shade

  • When you want that added confidence for when precipitation freezes on the ground (eg. drizzle that freezes, wet snow that melts then freezes, foggy river valley trails that get glazed over)

  • Approximately from mid-October to mid-March/April, depending on the year and your style

  • Carbide studs are hardy, riding on some dry pavement won’t be the end of the world

  • If you happen to have an extra set of bike tire rims (and cassette), consider popping your studded tires on those and then you can swap wheels depending on the weather.

How often do you replace your studded tires?

This varies according to how often you ride in the winter, how far, and on what types of surfaces. In general, you will replace your studded tires every 2-5 years. Anticipate studded tires costing at least:

  • $70/tire — two rows of studs

  • $110+/tire — four rows of studs

DIY options exist and more ‘how-to’ videos and articles are surfacing online. Perhaps you know someone who can show you how, ask around! Otherwise, here are two resources:

Clothing

There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes, right? Don’t overthink it, you probably know how to stay warm outside if you survived Canadian winters so far! If you are active outside in winter, eg. running or cross-country skiing, consider dressing in a similar way with a bit more on your feet and hands. While many of us are able to cycle in street clothes throughout other times of the year, in winter we sometimes opt for extra pieces that help to keep us cozy. Here are some favourites as shared by Bike Calgary volunteers!

Photo Credit: S. Stuwe

What are some must-have pieces of gear to stay warm?

  • Fleece neckwarmer (homemade or bought)

  • Thin toque or buff (with or without a helmet)

  • Double up on socks and gloves/mitts — keep those hands & feet cozy!

  • Consider bar mitts or pogies for extra hand warmth & wind blocking

  • Chemical hand- and/or footwarmers (as a backup, for emergencies)

  • Clear ski goggles or safety glasses can really help on really cold, windy, or snowy days

  • Shell pants (you can wear your nice things underneath)

  • Tights or long johns under jeans or other outer layer

  • Merino wool, wool, fleece, and synthetic base layers

  • Down or insulated layer (eg. thinsulate or merino batting)

  • A local-to-Calgary maker sews these popular “travel hoods”: https://riyoko.ca/products/travel-hood

What are pogies?

Pogies, also known as bar mitts, are a type of overmitt that attaches to your handlebars to reduce wind and cold. Originally developed to keep rowers/paddlers hands warm in cold weather, they are equally useful when winter cycling.

Does anyone use heated grips? I have Raynauds…

Having poor circulation in your hands is hard in winter! We recommend checking out Coldbike’s Ray-No-Luke Pogies, designed specifically for a family member of his with Raynaud’s Syndrome. Check out the page for a full description.

Also, Coldbike has a very in depth resource on other tips and tricks to help keep hands warm in wintertime: https://www.coldbike.com/2019/12/05/warm-hands-cold-bike-the-definitive-guide-to-keeping-hands-warm-on-a-bike-in-winter/ Have a read!

How do you keep your feet warm?

Again, Coldbike has written an extensive post on how to keep your feet warm in winter, too, and we urge you to check it out: https://www.coldbike.com/2019/12/20/cold-bike-warm-feet-how-to-have-warm-feet-for-winter-cycling/.

In the meantime, some quick tips shared with us:

  • Make sure your boots aren’t too tight (cut-off circulation will make your feet cold)

  • Opt for a leather or winter boot; this helps to keep your feet dry and protected from the wind

  • Wool socks are great (not necessarily thick ones); thick soled boots keep you warmer than thick socks!

  • Some folks swear by plastic pedals in the winter as they don’t conduct cold as well as metal pedals.

How can I prevent my glasses from fogging up in winter?

Glasses fogging up is super annoying. It’s usually okay until you stop at a light and once fogged they either clear when you ride again or, if it’s quite cold out, the fog will freeze, too, which makes for tricky conditions, depending on your prescription. Here are some tips from other glasses wearers:

  • I try to wear contacts in the winter if really cold; if not super cold, I find a fleece neck tube has better air exchange than a cotton buff.

  • I find if my glasses are a little further from my face, they don’t fog up while I am rolling. They will fog at stops, but they clear up again as soon as I start rolling.

  • Glasses that have nose pads help to keep my glasses a bit further from my face!

  • I have lens inserts for my goggles that give enough space to not fog too badly.

  • I have tried dish soap on the inside, not completely wiped off.

  • Ski goggles without a tint (i.e. clear lenses) if you’re riding in dawn/dusk/dark.

  • You can get styles that fit over eyeglasses.

  • Rub baby shampoo on the inside of the goggle lenses (tip from swimmers!) and rinse them out, which helps to reduce fogging a bit, but still get some fogging at lights

What do you do to keep your kids warm?

Visit local Calgary blogger at ThisMomBikes.net to learn about year round family cycling (including how to keep those little passengers or young cyclists warm). Quick tips:

  • A trailer or covered bakfiets keeps kids sheltered from the elements and in their own temperature bubble.

  • If kids are pedalling on their own, dress them similar to how you would dress to spend time outdoors (think dog walking, tobogganing).

  • Ensure kids have range of motion to be able to brake and shift gears (if needed) and to shoulder check (so many layers!)

  • If you have goggles from skiing with your kids, they may want to use them. Having a barrier between your eyes and falling snow/cold wind can increase warmth and comfort for little faces.

Photo Credit: ThisMomBikes.net

Dark, Cold, and Snowy!

Check out this section for extra tips on riding in winter conditions.

When snirt is unavoidable, are skinny tires or fat bikes better for maintaining traction?

What is ‘snirt’? A combination of snow + dirt that looks a bit like an iced capp from Tim Hortons! Learn more about snirt in Tom Babin’s book FrostBike.

  • Lower your tire pressure, this helps with getting better traction in these conditions

  • Also, don’t be afraid to jump on a sidewalk if you feel unsafe in your traction or on a road surface

  • With a fat bike, you can roll right through snirt and over curbs, but may have less traction on ice

  • With a narrower skinny tire, you can slice through snirt, but may find your tires fishtailing at times

Are you all also nighttime cyclists in winter?

Light is precious in wintertime, given the shorter days we have in Canada. It is inevitable that you are riding at dawn, dusk, or in the dark unless you only ride mid-day or during the daytime on weekends. As such, it is prudent to be prepared:

  • Make sure you charge your lights every night if opting for LED and/or carry a battery pack+cable around or backups

  • Always take your lights inside with you.

  • Consider how visible you are (because we don’t have perfect infrastructure); maybe choosing not an all black helmet/jacket combo.

  • Make sure your lights are visible: do a check with a friend.

  • Riding at night can be really peaceful, especially when there are fresh flakes falling in the light of the streetlights.

What kind of lights are you riding with in the winter?

The goal of having lights on your bike is to ‘see AND be seen’. Consider doing a check with a friend.

  • Niterider and Lezyne are popular choices

  • Some models of rechargeable lights have a battery pack with a cable connecting it to the light; if the cable is long enough, you can put that battery pack in a warm pocket instead of mounted on your cold frame, which helps to prolong battery life

  • Helmet-mounted lights are great for being able to point your light at a specific place, eg. a driver’s face at an intersection or a weird noise in the bushes

  • Bonus: You usually bring your helmet in with you which means your lights don’t get stolen and they stay warm inside, prolonging battery life

  • Really make sure you have a functional red light. It can also be used for walking at night.

  • Always take your lights with you, for both cold and kleptos.

  • Lights range in price. Good quality lights can be a bit of an investment ($50+ for a rechargeable light with adequate lumens)

  • Consider Dynamo hub charged lights attached to your bike and always working

  • Consider having double lights, i.e. two on the front and two on the back

  • Or, at least carry around some extra backup lights in case yours die; MEC turtle lights were good for this

How many people use the street lanes for commuting where you are (during winter)?

  • After ploughing and/or during dry conditions, folks still do use them

  • If a lane is not available or you don’t feel safe, jump on that sidewalk, feel no shame

  • Seems to depend on the speed/traffic level of the street:

  • busier 50 kph collectors, less riders unless the roads are in great shape from good maintenance

  • quiet residential roads, absolutely because they often connect people to homes, schools, or other infrastructure

  • taking the right wheel rut helps with getting the clearest, most predictable path available after a snowfall

Are there any tricks that make longer commutes easier in the super cold?

A few little tricks can help, yes:

  • Have wind breaking layers

  • Drink a warm beverage before you start, or pack one for the road

  • Have backup layers if you need to change because things are getting wet (wet=cold)

  • Stretch!

  • For my little kid in her trailer, I pop a cloth bag of dried rice in the microwave for a couple of minutes and put it in the trailer 20 mins before we leave — it’s toasty!

  • Consider back-up:

  • Pack bus fare with you in case you need a backup option (train or bus with front rack).

  • Take advantage of these multimodal options if it means riding vs not riding!

  • Carry a lock in case you need to lock up and ditch your (cargo) bike somewhere.

  • Checker Cabs in Calgary can be requested with a trunk rack; use them when you’re too cold, have a mechanical, etc.

I was recently introduced to Edmonton’s “For the love of winter” strategy. What does a vibrant winter city look like for you folks? What role does cycling have in that city?

  • Looking to shift attitude and see the fun/opportunity in the winter

  • As a few of the panelists mentioned, winter cycling allows them to build a better relationship with and enjoyment of being outside, even in colder snowier conditions

  • Edmonton’s Winter City Strategy celebrates the joys of winter and encourages folks to get outside year-round.

  • A vibrant winter city should be welcoming for everyone

  • By providing year round opportunities for active transportation and recreation, more people can be active more often, increasing positive endorphins, reducing social isolation, and continuing investment in our local economy.

What is the record cold anyone has ridden their bike?

Not sure about the record cold, but one person chimed in to say that they’ve cycled in -35C! “You don’t bother shifting your gears, so find a good one, and you will feel it harder to fill your chest with oxygen, but it can be done and a wee bit fun knowing you did it.”

Photo credit: ColdBike.com

How do you care for your body through the winter?

Every body’s different, but perhaps some of these tips will help you:

  • Stretching, stretching, stretching

  • Doing other physical activities that aren’t cycling to help balance out and give muscles a break

  • Try to ride a bike that fits you properly and isn’t too small or too big; the cold will amplify those body challenges

  • Eat! You will be burning more calories during your winter rides, so be sure to replenish your energy reserves and often!

  • Meet up with friends to swap stories and share experiences.

Authors: Lindsey Bliek, Kim Fisher and Vanessa Urschel

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