nighttime off-road winter cycling at – 30 C.

I’ve been cycle commuting, winter and summer,  for over twenty years in Red Deer, Calgary, Edmonton, and Victoria. So I thought I’d post a few thoughts on how to winter cycle. It’s intimidating to many, but easier than it looks.

  1. Start early. If you continue your cycling from summer into the fall, the transition to winter cycling won’t seem so abrupt.
  2. You don’t need complicated or expensive clothing.  A good rain jacket and rain pants built for cycling will be adequate down to – 15 or so. When you’re cycling, you generate lots of heat, so wind protection is more helpful than bulky insulation. Rain gear will do the job nicely. And a sweater or vest will give you another five degrees when needed. At -25 or so, I switch to a lightly insulated Cloudveil Circuit jacket. Clothing with reflective patches is amazingly visible at night and always a wise choice.
  3. You can protect the extremities incrementally as it gets colder. Start with bare hands, gloves, gauntlet gloves, mitts, and finally mitts with extra liners. An ear warmer under the helmet gives way to a thin toque and finally a cowl. I’ve experimented with ski goggles and neoprene face masks for full facial protection at -30 or so, but I’ve found that my glasses  get fogged, so I’ve given up on them. YMMV. I wear Keen winter boots below zero; any comparable brand will do.
  4. Make sure your bike is winterized. Sometimes cables freeze or your rear hub will fail to engage, leaving you in permanent “coast” mode. Have a competent bike mechanic overhaul your bike if needed. Sometimes bringing the bike inside during the day or overnight will thaw frozen components.
  5. You’ll have to pay extra attention to lubrication, especially when warm weather drives sand and slush into your chain. I don’t think anything is harder on a chain than sand. You may have to lubricate weekly or even daily. If you don’t, you’ll find your chain lengthening due to wear. And the lengthened chain will then damage your sprockets, leading to costly replacement. Trust, this procrastinator knows.
  6. Get good lights. Not all LEDs are created equal. I like the Light and Motion Urban 300. It’s solidly made, waterproof, and very bright at 300 lumens. It quickly mounts on either helmet or handlebars. I tried out the helmet mount and was an instant convert. When you turn your head, the light turns at the same time. No more waiting for the front wheel to catch up. It’s also rechargeable via micro-USB, which means you don’t have to buy replacement batteries and you don’t have to lug around a charger brick. Just make sure you have the appropriate USB cable at your home and office computers. $20 LEDs may look like a bargain, but they may not last and will cost more in the long run when you factor in the cost of batteries. And having a big bright beam really makes night riding enjoyable. I’ve found myself getting up earlier and earlier to  beat the sunrise. If you’re serious  about night riding, on road or off,  a good LED light is an expensive, but worthwhile, investment. The local cycling club has discovered that the new lights have made  night mountain biking a real opportunity. And, on road, driver are more likely to see you. But comparison shopping is wise.
  7. Standard mountain bike tires will be suitable for most riders and you can buy studded mountain bike tires if you need them. I  ride a hybrid (skinny tires are faster in the summer) and have been running on studded winter cyclocross tires for the last couple of years.  They’re only about 35 mm wide, but surprisingly effective. The studs have worn to the level of the rubber so I don’t know if they really provide much benefit. There’s lots of options out there if you’re shopping for good winter tires. Studded tires are heavy and slow so I  am happy to take them off when the last of ice disappears. If you only want to use one  studded tire, put it up front. On ice and snow, control is more important than acceleration.
  8. Ride conservatively.  Avoid sudden turns or stops on slippery patches. On road, you’ll often be forced to cycle in car tire ruts and this  makes you a target for aggressive drivers.  But at least they can see you. If this isn’t working, and the sides of roads are covered with ice or snow, switch to the sidewalk. But in this case, be wary when crossing streets. Car drivers aren’t as attentive to users  who aren’t in the middle of the road.
  9. Watch the weather, and dress appropriately. But don’t believe their “wind chill” reports. The last few days, the wind chill here in Red Deer is said to have hovered around -40 or lower. At these temperatures, exposed flesh is supposed to freeze in five or ten minutes. But I cycle a constant 15 or 20 km/hr (which is, after all, equivalent to riding into a 15 or 20 km/hr wind) for half an hour. And no frozen skin. So don’t  be spooked by these overly protective and possibly alarmist warnings. But as a general rule, it’s too cold to cycle when  teenagers start wearing toques.
  10. Some people think that all it takes to get into cycling is  the cost of the bike. But you may also have to invest in a pack or courier bag (way more practical in my opinion),  a good U-lock, extra clothing, lights, a helmet, and regular maintenance. This may seem like a tidy investment, but the costs of commuting by car are far higher. Car commuting may seem “faster”, but if you consider the hundreds of dollars per month you’ll likely save (car payments, depreciation, gas, parking, insurance, registration, maintenance, etc.) and the number of hours you’d have to work to pay the differential in cost, you may end up losing time instead. I consider my bike expenses trivial compared to the cost of a second car. And remember the very real benefits to the environment and your mental and physical health. Every minute you spend cycling, you’re getting stronger; every minute you spend driving (or blogging!) you’re getting weaker.
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