Winter Biking 101

Bicycle traffic drastically drops off in the winter. Now, it seems like travelling by bike is only for crazies or masochists.

Redbike owner Cliff Vallentgoed rides about 60 kilometres a week. He uses his bike to commute to work, take rides through the River valley and run errands. Vallentgoed thinks a lot on people miss out on the joys of winter riding because it looks too hard.

But appearances can be misleading, according to Vallentgoed, “getting over that initial psychological hurdle — and getting out and doing it —  even if you haven’t got everything right." 

What is intimidating about winter cycling?

I think that's exactly it — it’s the intimidation factor. There are so many challenges. There is the cold. There are traction issues. Riding in company with traffic on slippery and narrower than normal streets. There are all kinds of things that are downright scary.

How do you deal with the traction issues?

For me, traction is the biggest issue because there is such a huge range of conditions that you are forced to cope with over the course of the winter. There is fresh snow.There are large accumulations of snow mixed with sand and salt put on the streets. There is packed snow. There is ice, and, a lot of the time, there is bare pavement.

Riding technique comes into it a little bit, and the proper equipment definitely [helps too]. Studded tires are a huge, huge, huge advantage, but also that ability to trust the machine a little bit and trust your own balance and try not to force it too much. If I had to boil it down to a couple of bullet points, those would be the two.

What kind of techniques or riding habits are important in the winter?

Riding with confidence is always really important because that makes you predictable to traffic. But it's also trusting the gyroscopic effect of the wheel, trusting your own balance, trusting the things that normally keep you upright on a bicycle anyway.

A lot people are a little scared of riding in traffic in the winter because as you said, the roads are narrower and packed high with snow. What would you do in that case? Would you ever use the sidewalk?

Sometimes, yes, if the conditions are particularly bad, I will use the sidewalk. When I am forced to ride on a major thoroughfare — and sometimes you are because there is no sort of passage through sections where you need to go except to ride on busy streets. If I need to, I’ll take up a lane — a proper car’s lane — so I am fully visible and I have decent traction as well.

How do you prepare your bike for riding in the winter?

The studded tires are definitely number one. Depending upon how willing you are to do the necessary, day-to-day maintenance because they spread so much crap on the roads. It can be deadly for your bike’s drivetrain.

Day-to-day maintenance can be quite intensive. If you are not willing to do that, you might want to have an entirely different bike that you are not going to be too terribly hurt if it is worn out by the end of the winter season

How do you dress?

Mobility is really important. You have to be able to pedal of course, and that is a pretty big range of motion for your legs, so you have to wear garments that stretch or that are somewhat loose.

Keeping the extremities warm is probably number one. Hands, feet, face, butt — again, those mobility issues. You have to be able to work the controls with the hands. You need to be able to breathe, so covering your face up too heavily is going to restrict your breathing.

It can be a real challenge finding that perfect balance. But once you do, it just transforms the experience. It’s fantastic to go out in minus-20 degrees. You’re warm enough to feel like you have control, so you can go fast enough safely.