Published on November 12, 2023
Great public spaces let us cycle all four seasons — here’s how to gear up for a chilly ride.
Getting ready to hibernate for the winter? Pump those brakes.
Pedaling through the winter isn’t just about braving the cold — it’s a ticket to keeping active and nurturing your wellbeing. Numerous studies show the health benefits of cycling to work, even cutting the risk of developing certain diseases nearly in half.
But cycling, whether in winter or summer, depends on accessible public spaces.
“For all of us to enjoy the benefits of cycling, there needs to be spaces that are safe, and that we have the capacity to use freely,” says Ed Mark, Senior Evergreen Program Officer and manager of the Gateway Bicycle Hub. “This calls for proper infrastructure on roads and public spaces like parks, trails and other accessible areas. My passion is mountain biking, so in the winter, the trails and ravines are super important for me to get out and enjoy my bike.”
Ready to conquer winter on two wheels? Mark takes us through five essential tips for a chilly ride.
Just like other outdoor activities, dressing for winter cycling requires a little bit of strategy.
Layering clothing is ideal so that you can add or shed a layer during your ride.
“The rule of thumb is to feel a bit chilly when you first get on the bike outside,” Mark says. “If you’re warmer than that, you’ll sweat and overheat while riding. There’s nothing worse than being wet in the cold.”
Tight-fitting inner layers with heavier, waterproof outer layers are ideal, Mark adds. You’ll also need to protect your hands from the elements — you won’t want your hands to be so painfully cold that you can’t brake properly. Don’t forget warm socks and waterproof footwear. Try shoes with treaded soles to give you some added traction when you’re off the bike.
Just because you’re all bundled up doesn’t mean your bike is ready to face the cold.
Fenders are key during winter riding. Without them, you’ll get covered with wet, grimy spray from your tires (and so will people behind you). Look for the full-size fenders that cover most of your wheels — these not only keep your body and face dry on those mucky days but also prolong the life of your parts and frame.
You can also ensure your tires are up for the challenge.
“A tire with good rubber compound, nice knobby tread for snow and roads, and appropriate width are all things to look for when considering what is best for your riding,” Mark adds.
Studded tires, though more expensive, could help if you’re venturing out on trails or the iciest of days. Regardless of the tire, check the pressure before every ride. It’s often overlooked, but tires lose a small amount of pressure over time, and cold temperatures further reduce air pressure.
When days are shorter, and snow makes visibility a challenge, winter cyclists need to really stick out.
“Many of us get caught in the dark, so it’s most effective to have more than one light,” Mark says. “Preferably one on the handlebar, one on the helmet, and a rear flashing light — usually red.”
Just assume you won’t have streetlights, so the minimum brightness for the front handlebar-mounted light should be 500 lumens. Secondary lights don’t need to be quite as bright.
You’ll need to be just as conspicuous during the day. While most bike clothing has reflective trim, you can also add a reflective vest or bands so approaching drivers can detect at least one reflective element. At the very least, stick out with bright-coloured clothing
All that water, salt and slush are pretty hard on your bike. The best way to minimize corrosion is to keep your bike relatively clean and dry.
“After each messy ride, take a small towel or rag and simply wipe off the yucky slush and salty water,” Mark says. “And, if necessary, lubricate the chain and anything that pivots (derailleurs) with chain lubricant. “WD-40 works great in this scenario. For longer-lasting lubricant, use a wet-based chain lube from a bike store or Canadian Tire.”
If you can, store your bike inside in a heated space. If not, you’ll have to cover your bike with a tarp or plastic to shield it from the elements.
If it’s your first winter on two wheels, don’t overdo it. It may take time to adapt to colder temperatures or different riding conditions.
“If you’re not used to cold weather, remember not to overexert yourself by sprinting up a hill or pedaling as hard as you can,” Mark says. “The frigid air can be harsh on your lungs and affect your breathing.”
Another way to make the transition to winter a bit easier is by riding the bike you already know. Most bikes you’re using during other seasons can be adapted to winter riding. But riding a familiar bike in winter offers a level of comfort and predictability. That familiarity with your bike’s handling, braking and responsiveness allows for better control, particularly on slippery surfaces.
While bike lanes or the far-right of the road may seem like safe zones, that’s not always the case during the winter. Snow, muck, and debris often gather in separated bike lanes and the area closest to the curb. Depending on conditions, riding in the middle of the right-hand lane makes you more visible and discourages drivers from attempting to squeeze past.
But staying cautious doesn’t mean avoiding rides. The more you venture out, the more at ease you’ll become on your bike, gradually building comfort and confidence with each outing.
You can find out more about the Hub on its project page or by visiting gatewaybikehub.org. The Gateway Bicycle Hub is generously supported by the City of Toronto’s Community Reduce & Reuse Program and Manulife.