Winter cycling. Have you tried it? Maybe you’re an avid winter cyclist, no matter the weather and no matter the bike! That’s great. Hat’s off to you. Or instead maybe the idea of sliding around on two skinny tires out in the cold and snow sounds about as appealing as a root canal. However, if you are somewhere in between and just want to know what you need to make winter riding an enjoyable experience, then read on!
TLDR (too long; didn’t read)
Don’t have the time or attention span to read the blog in full? Here are the cliff notes:
- The best bike is a fat bike for all around winter riding. The worst bike is a road bike.
- The best tire is a studded tire. The worst tire is a slick tire. Lower your air pressure.
- Get some lights because it’s winter and it gets dark.
- Wear layers. And a proper helmet. And goggles. Stay warm.
There you have it! Now if you still want to read the details, continue on below…
Fat bikes make excellent winter bikes
First of all, what bike you are going to use for this will obviously have a major impact on your overall experience. I suppose it goes without saying that if your only bike is a slick-tired road bike, you aren’t likely going to have a good time trying to take it out on the ice. Or, maybe you will have a great time, who am I to say? Regardless, narrow and slick tires obviously are not going to work well, but many bike styles can work great.
A fat bike, for example, is likely your best choice. Fat bikes get their name due to the width of their tires, which run between 3.5”-5”. The wide tires, along with air pressures as low as 5psi, give you much better stability and traction on loose snowy and icy surfaces. They’re comfortable, and generally nobody is looking to beat speed records while on the white stuff so the fact that they’re a bit slower is a good thing in this season. Suspension is not necessary (in fact, can be problematic in extreme low temperatures), but low gearing is good for slow and easy spinning to ensure traction and control. The wide bars and more upright seating position also both lend themselves to a better stance for reacting to the quick changes of road conditions that you may or may not be able to predict.
A mountain bike can work well for this type of riding also. Generally, a fully rigid or hardtail is ideal, but a full suspension isn’t out of the question (just unnecessary). As most mountain bikes have wider tires with knobbies, you can lower the pressure and have decent traction and control over most winter conditions. As with a fat bike, the wide handlebars and upright riding position are good for overall stability and control. A word of caution, however. Most winter fat bike trails are a no-go for mountain bikes as the mountain bikes narrower tires and harder tire pressure will cause grooves in the groomed trails.
After this, bike choices start to narrow quickly. A gravel bike or commuter that has wider tires can still be very doable, but tire choice is crucial. Road bikes generally do not have the clearance for tires big enough to handle most winter conditions, and then bikes such as a BMX are not well suited for the stability requirements.
Studded tires offer optimum grip on ice
After the bike, the next biggest influence you can have on your riding experience is the tires themselves. Regardless of bike choice, the first choice you should make is to go with studded winter tires. Being on only two wheels, a bike can be quickly laid on its side in icy conditions and therefore studded tires are your best friends.
Studded tires are more expensive, but can be found for nearly any tire size you need. They are obviously heavier and have a higher rolling resistance, but when it comes to our snow and ice covered roads and trails, they offer grip that no other tire option can come close to offering.
If you can’t find studded tires for your bike, the next best thing would be to find a knobby tire with good clearance and a soft compound. There are some non-studded winter tires available that are a good option if (and only if) you are unable to get something studded.
Finally, lower your tire pressure. Check the limits your tires were built for and go as low as you can for your tire/bike/weight combination. The goal is to always maintain as much of a tire patch connection to the road as possible at all times. And, of course, limit any leaning on flat, icy surfaces if you can!
Light it up to keep on riding after the sun goes down
Other options you need to consider for winter riding are the gear itself. If you are commuting, consider mounting some racks with panniers or other similar bags for hauling your gear so your hands are always free to do what they need to do to maintain control. Also, winter riding often ends (or starts!) in the dark considering our winter days are shorter. So invest in a good set of lights, front and rear. If you’re always on well-lit streets, something under 500 lumens is a good light so that you can be seen by others. However, if you need to see, I would recommend a light over 1000 lumens for great visibility on roads, trails and alleys. Add a helmet light to ensure you always can see where you are going!
And, of course, install a decent fender set to keep any muck, salt or wet off of you, the bike and your gear.
Keep the heat in and your vision clear
Most importantly, no matter how well you prepare the bike itself, any winter ride will be ruined by improper clothing. Most of us that live in Canada and have spent any time outside in the winter have a decent understanding of dressing for the weather. However, dressing for exercise in the weather is a tricky one at best. You don’t want to dress too warmly, as the sweat created will cause you to freeze quickly and will render most warm clothing useless. Dressing too lightly, by contrast, will not provide the warmth your core requires and your body will be unable to keep up with the outside temperatures. In addition, as temperatures drop, your body will instinctively choose to try and maintain its core temperature at the expense of your extremities, such as fingers and toes.
Therefore, dressing in layers is your best option. A good base layer to manage the sweat, a mid layer to maintain warmth and an outer layer to block the wind. Good wind blocking gloves and boots (or shoe covers) help maintain warmth to your hands and feet. In addition, one can add pogies (also known as “bar mitts”) to your bike to help keep your hands warm while cutting down on bulky mitts or gloves. A proper winter helmet with goggles will also help in avoiding heat loss through your head and help keep your vision clear.
Get Outside and Keep Riding
We have many, many winter months to contend with and the more you are able to still be outside and on two wheels the better it is for your health, both physical and mental! So do what you can to make sure you still are able to get outside and keep on riding this winter. Of course, if you really get serious about it, you could always go find a race like the annual “Icycle Race” in Toronto…