Michael’s Guide to Winter Cycling in Edmonton

It is inevitable – winter is coming. Along with winter comes winter cycling. To do or not to do? So I put together this guide to winter cycling in Edmonton.

Most people that consider to bicycle commute through the winter months already bicycle commute. Winter cycling is a natural extension of their summer cycling. The people who commute by bicycle feel that it is a good thing to do and want to do more of it.

The majority of your winter cycling will be done on nice days with quite clear streets because there are only a few days that the weather outside is not conducive to safe and pleasant winter cycling. Unfortunately we view winter as those days that are blustery, very cold with lots of snow but the reality is that these kinds of days are few.

I believe a person should cycle because they want to and not because they have to. If the weather is more of a challenge than you are prepared for then take the bus, walk, or even drive if need be. The more times you cycle (or walk) the healthier you will be, the lighter your ecological footprint will be and the more money you will save.

Your winter bicycle and equipment will be heavier than your summer kit so it will slow you down a little and will add to the amount of time your commute takes.

What will work for me may not work for you or I may not have discovered what you have discovered and perhaps what works well for you might be an improvement on what I use and/or do. Sharing information and experience is good and beneficial. There may be things I have forgotten in this article so it will be worked on a little more over time and with reflection and input from others.

I strongly suggest that you find out what the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Society is offering for winter services – studding workshops (there is one happening next week), winter gear workshops, regular tune up work, etc. They are a fantastic resource – use them!

There are many people that cycle in Edmonton all year round. You probably know some and they are a great resource – use them.

Cycling is experiencing an explosion in popularity and a lot of it comes from the younger people in our society but now and again I see senior citizens riding their bicycle in winter and I know they didn’t use to do that – so more people are doing it and a wider variety of people are participating. It is fantastic to see and to be part of this shift.

So the main points to consider are:

    • Tuned up before winter arrives – bicycling in winter is much harder on a bicycle than cycling in good summer weather
    • Attachments – trailers, panniers (bicycle saddle bags), backpacks, etc.
    • Tires – when I first started to bicycle in winter (1982) I just used my normal bicycle (a ‘ten-speed’ bicycle) and tires. I did well on these and even though I have had a mountain type of bicycle with fatter tires I have ridden many winters since then on the skinny tires. There are a couple of ‘camps’ about what types of tires are best for winter. Skinny tires allow the tires to cut through snow and engage the road surface easier. When using skinnier tires your skill levels need to be better than on studded and fatter tires. Most people use a mountain type bicycle for winter. They tend to be smaller frames, higher bottom bracket, larger tires, and the option to have studded tires on the wheels.
    • Inflation – again there are two schools of thought on this. Some people deflate their tires a little so that more tire engages the road surface and will provide a softer ride and float on the snow and others like firmer tires thinking that cut through the snow to engage the road surface better and pushes out the studs (on under inflated tires the studs can be pushed back into the rubber more and therefore not doing their job). I am a firm tire person. As the temperature drops so will your tire pressure so ensure you top it up if you decide you like firm tires under you.
    • Studs – you can stud an old tire using screws and a drill. Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ quite often have a studding workshop for a minimal fee or you can do it yourself at the shop with a little guidance. There are YouTube Videos on this. Note that home made studded tires (and less so for the manufactured studded tire) will increase your travel time. The more screws and length exposed the more rolling resistance it has (it is also noisier which puts a damper on the Zen of cycling).
    • Lubrication – I always carry oil for my chain with me. If your chain gets wet (either in the summer or winter) you need to reapply new oil or wax. For the lubrication of the chain during winter I suggest a wax base lubricant. You can also use a ‘dry’ lubricant but whatever you decide apply it important to do so after a ride that you had wet snow on your chain (brown sugar stuff). I do a slow but effective touch/drip application where I apply a drop to each link as I rotate my crank/chain. It is recommended that you run the chain through a rag afterwards to wipe off the excess oil/lubricant. Sometimes when I see someone’s chain that is in need of some oil I will share several drops with them – Practice random kindness and senseless acts of bicycle maintenance 🙂
    • Fenders – I like fenders – especially when there is wet stuff. You have to ensure that there is adequate clearance between your tires and the fenders because snow and such can easily get logged into this gap. When you have finished your commute check to make sure snow/slush is not packed in this gap. If there is snow between the tire and the finder pick up your bicycle about 4-6 inches and drop it on the tires. It will bounce and the snow should be knocked out. If you don’t do this it may freeze up solid overnight and may lock up you wheel.
  • Bicycle

    • Trailers have smaller wheels and a lower clearance on the bottom. Smaller wheels are harder to pull through snow and the lower clearance will likely get caught up on things like snow banks.
    • Panniers – I like using panniers. They contain everything I need to carry around with me – patch kit, pump, store my lights when not needed, extra/different clothing/gloves, shopping, etc. A rack and panniers are good investments for a commuting cyclist.
    • Backpacks – the weight carried in these will change the centre of gravity and add to the weight that hits the ground if you fall. The heat trapped between the backpack and your skin can be a concern depending on how hot you get.
      • They are expensive but last many years. They engage ice more positively but don’t depend on them. It is your skill and not equipment that gets you safely from point A to point B, C, D….
    • I can’t express how important cycling skills are to keep people safe. The more you bicycle and in a variety of conditions the more your cycling skills will improve. In winter conditions your skills will be put to the test since sometimes the conditions will be less than perfect.
    • Ride to be seen and ride with the flow. Don’t marginalize yourself. Cycle in a predictable and obvious manner – meaning that other roadway users don’t have to worry that you will do something that is quite unexpected and something that they have to change their path to accommodate. We all have to work together. If we want respect and consideration we in turn need to offer that to other roadway uses. It is reciprocal.
    • Turn through your hips more and not through your shoulder as much. This is a skill you will learn very quickly. Practice this on a quite icy street/avenue so you know what I mean. Try turns instead of just going straight. If you are used to making quick turns, or any maneuvers, you will learn to do them a bit in slower motion in the winter because it you try to do it the same as in summer you will continue to fall.
    • Cycling on sidewalks – I don’t do this. It is against the law in Edmonton and most cities. It is not promoting the bicycle as a viable and legitimate form of transportation. It is also not as safe as bicycling on the roadway. Intersections are the most dangerous place – for cars, pedestrians and people on bicycles. When you are cycling on a sidewalk and come to a street (or alleyway) that posses a point of conflict. You are traveling at a different speed than the usual sidewalk user and might pose an unexpected variant for motor vehicle operators. I know many skilled people that cycle that will cycle on sidewalks during the winter or at time when it does not make sense for them to be on the roadway. If you do decide to use the sidewalk at times ensure that you check that you are safe from ALL directions before emerging back into traffic. Please be respectful of other roadway users and they in turn will/may reciprocate the respect. If you cycle on the sidewalks please recognize you are now the danger to pedestrians – just as vehicles are danger to people who cycle on the roadway.
    • Respect for each other helps us ALL get to our destination safely.
    • I am a slow cyclist so winter speed is something that I am use to J. My slow cycling speed is also very good since I very rarely overheat during winter or even summer. Overheating in winter can be a real serious problem.
  • Cycling skills

    • Since you are familiar with your bicycle-commuting route you will have to consider whether the route will have to be modified to work for you and your safety during the winter months. Conditions change – a good road during the summer may not get cleaned very well during the winter, snow gets plowed into the ‘bicycle path’, roads become narrower, etc. Be flexible with your route and know what options are available to you.
    • It there are things that can be improved for cycling safety or other roadway users let the City know (call 311 or email [email protected]).

Route

People usually use the same route during the winter as they used during the summer but sometimes this changes because of the season. For example you might use a multi-use trail in the river valley during the summer and but find that in the winter it becomes a sheet of ice and very bumpy due to dog paw prints .

    • Since you are familiar with your bicycle-commuting route you will have to consider whether the route will have to be modified to work for you and your safety during the winter months. Conditions change – a good road during the summer may not get cleaned very well during the winter, snow gets plowed into the ‘bicycle path’, roads become narrower, etc. Be flexible with your route and know what options are available to you.
    • It there are things that can be improved for cycling safety or other roadway users let the City know (call 311 or email [email protected]).

Safety

  • – expect to fall, expect to be caught out in bad conditions, expect that you are going to be cycling in darkness, expect kindness from other roadway users and frustration and anger from others
    • Space and distance – give yourself a little bit more room. If you slip or fall have you asserted your safety space so that you are not going to fall into traffic whizzing by you. When you come up to an intersection give yourself more time to stop. If it is really icy put one foot down and slightly lean in that direction so that if the bicycle wants to slip it can do so but you are still standing. I always put down the foot that is away from traffic so that I will have a tendency to fall away from traffic if need be.
    • Speed – on dry, ice free road surfaces (it is not icy all the time or in all places) you can quite often travel at usual summer speeds but be cautious since a sudden sheet of ice may just be around the corner.
    • Time – give yourself a little bit extra time to get to your destination. It is not a race. You will be less likely to feel self-pressured to make unsafe decisions.
    • Clothing – wear clothing that highlights your presence (be visible). Colours like yellow, lime green, white are quite visible whereas red, blue, and black can make you invisible. If you are going to wear dark clothing consider wearing a Hi-Viz safety vest. This can be put over any clothing to instantly increase your visibility. Choose one that has reflective material on the sides as well and the front and rear.
    • Lights – are critical for your safety. They alert other roadway users of your presence from a long way off. Please invest the small amount of money in an effective lighting system (about $30 – $40). The batteries should last you several months. I use rechargeable batteries and as soon as I notice the lights fading I switch them out. Having lights on your bicycle not only increases your visibility to other roadway users it is the law. You are required to have one white light facing forward and one red light facing to the rear.
      • During the winter months you are usually cycling to and from work in the dark. Carry your lights with you since there will be times that you will be caught out when it is dark out or the conditions warrant you increasing your visibility.
      • Helmet lights – these are good to point in the direction you are looking and in getting the attention of divers.
    • Reflectors – reflectors should NEVER be chosen over lights. Reflectors are only reactive and not proactive in alerting other roadway users of your presence meaning that a light source has to be hit them to reflect that light and at an angle that will reflect that light back out so that others see you. Reflectors along with lights make a good combination.
    • Helmet – make sure your helmet will accommodate the helmet liner you will require. Some people will switch to a more solid helmet with less air vents on it during the winter. These are excellent helmets for the season (caution – several models cover the ears so you need to use your eyes a lot more – shoulder check whenever you laterally move your position on the roadway – as you should normally do anyways). In the early 80s I used to carry a cheap nylon shower cap that would fit over my helmet to block out the wind. If you ever find yourself with wind blowing into your helmet and freezing your brain stop and pick up several sheets of newspaper and lay them inside your helmet. This will cut down on the wind and newspaper is breathable so any heat and moisture you are venting off can escape. Most bicycle stores offer helmet caps that can be stored in your panniers until that time you need it.
    • Water – Alberta is quite dry in the wintertime. It is very important that you keep your body hydrated. On an average commute (3km) a water bottle can still work for you though you may not be able to use the squirt function but have to take the cap off to get to the water. If you have an old fleece jacket that is looking to be reused you can cut off the forearm and make a sleeve around your water bottle and this will help to keep it liquid a little longer. Remember not to leave your full water bottle out on your bicycle for extended periods or overnight since the expanding ice may destroy your bottle.
    • Goggles/glasses – allows you to see in blowing snow and protects eyeballs from wind chill.
    • Know your route – are there places you can stop if you have a breakdown, need to go to the washroom, need to stop riding and lock up your bicycle and continue some other way to your destination (will it be safe)

Clothing

It is not about looking good – it is about function. I don’t really have anything that I use for winter cycling that I don’t use for other winter activities except for the skull cap (you can also use a balaclava)

  • You start with a base layer (never cotton during the winter) like a merino wool or silk undergarment. I also like using polypropylene undershirts but many people find that they smell after a fairly short period of time.
  • Then an insulation layer. A synthetic fleece or wool sweater works well here. If you have two layers of thin insulation layer this works better than one layer that is too warm.
  • Then the outer layer. This is your shell layer – it keeps the wind out and helps keep the heat in. In Alberta we tend not to have rain during the winter so this layer only needs to be windproof but if it is the same coat you use to go hiking you might want it to be waterproof (stacking function). Whatever you decide to use as your shell it has to be breathable. If it doesn’t breathe moisture will build up on the inside of the shell and freeze and moisture will start building up in the other layers. Once that starts to happen There are lots of synthetics in the stores that work really well for this.
  • I like to interlock my clothing layers so that cold air has fewer gaps to seep into my body.
  • One of the things I always told my son when he was young was that when you are taking off your gloves/mitts in the winter to stuff them inside your coat to keep the warm. Never just put them onto the ground because they will get cold (and snow might get into them). Cold gloves/mitts take a lot to warm up. A couple of hours before we left the house I would put our gloves on a rack above a heating vent so they would be nice and warm to start with.
    • Safety – wear clothes that adds to your visibility and doesn’t impede your movements
    • Layering – if you have lived in Alberta for any length of time you are probably familiar with the concept of layering your clothes specially if you have done any kind of outdoor physical activities. The concept it quite simple. Instead of wearing a t-shirt and a humongous Michelin Man type of coat over top, you wear 3-4 layers so that you can add or subtract clothing as the conditions warrant.
    • Goggles/glasses – Most times you don’t need glasses but some people’s eyes are more sensitive than others and if you have ever felt the pain of really cold eyeballs you may understand and appreciate the use of a protection pair of glasses. An inexpensive but optical clear pair of safety glasses are quite effective, lightweight and durable to protect your eyes from the cold wind and blowing snow.
    • Gloves – Don’t buy gloves that are too tight nor too loose. Buy gauntlet type gloves or mitts – the type that go up past your wrists and cover the end of your coat sleeves so there is a good overlap. Some people get really cold hand in winter. I tend to wear a light pair of gloves for the fall and then move into my winter gloves fairly soon. Most of the time I just use the same pair of gloves for the whole winter. When it is really cold with some wind you usually need something more. A pair of the thin liner gloves work well – especially if you have to take your over gloves off to do things. Mitts tend to keep your hands warmer than gloves but I usually never travel more than about 8 kilometres and have never needed to resort to mitts. In an ‘emergency’ you can normally find some plastic bags to stick over your gloves/mitts to act as a windbreak and hold heat in a little better
    • Leggings – again layering is the way to go here as well but it is just usually one to two layers for me. I usually only wear a pair of pants. If it gets down to –15 to –20C and windy or slushy I will put on a pair of waterproof/resistant wind pants. It is important to keep your knees warm because they are doing lots of work.
    • Socks – I usually wear a pair of merino wool socks. Sometimes I may add a thin synthetic fabric sock but I find the merino or alpaca (quite a bit warmer than merino but a lot more expensive and not as durable). When it is really cold I will put on a polypropylene sock liner. These are very thin but they certainly keep my feet warm couple with a wool sock. If I am going to be inside for any length of time I will remove the liner sock since it will make my foot too warm and moist and we do not want damp feet outside.
    • Footwear – people find it hard to believe that I use the same shoes I use in the summertime. It is just a plain sneaker/light-hiking shoe. I don’t even use over booties with these – just the shoe and socks. Some people I know where heavy hiking boots or Sorel type of winter boots. I find the first too heavy and the second never had the platform to feel comfortable on my pedal. You will have to find what works for you.
    • Neck – I love scarves, balaclavas and neck tubes. My beard also helps.
    • Head – I use inside my helmet a skullcap (I have two different ones). I also have two balaclavas. I have light skullcaps and balaclavas and heavier ones. I use what is best for the conditions and I carry both in the panniers so that I have options.
    • Face – I just use a wool scarf. For several years I had a Alpaca wool scarf that someone had given me. That was a really fine piece of clothing. It had lots of holes in it for ventilation (you are breathing moist air through it) but it was super warm.
    • Throat – cold dry air can cause some people some problems so a scarf or other mouth covering and help reduce the impact of cold dry air. Some people purchase neoprene face masks that seem to work well for them.
  • Road conditions
    • Leaves – before the snow and ice arrives there will be lots of leaves on the ground. When leaves get wet and start to rot they get quite slimy and slippery. Use caution when doing any maneuvers on leaves. Also leaves may be hiding something underneath them like a pothole.
    • Brown Sugar – when there is warmer temperatures (minus 10C or warmer) the salt and sand that the city puts down at intersection and bus stops will turn the snow into what we call brown sugar. It is tough stuff to cycle through so try and avoid it. If you do hit a patch ensure you have good control of your front wheel and keep up your speed. It is also hard on your components so ensure you don’t leave brown sugar encrusted on your gearing. Apply oil since the salt will rust your chain fairly quickly.
    • Ice – this is the scariest for most people since it can easily make things go out of control. The best suggest I can give is start off slowly. Do your turns slowly. Turn through your hips and give yourself more time to accelerate and to stop. Studded tires help out quite a bit on icy surfaces but don’t overly rely on them.
    • Ruts – these are formed on side streets (and bus stops) where the car wheels have worn deep ruts down the road. Sometimes these are a foot deep (30cm) and can be quite dangerous. I find cycling on the flat portion between the ruts the safest place to ride. If you have to descend into one do so at a steeper angle rather than sliding sideways into it. The walls of the rut will try and sweep your wheels out from underneath you.
    • Light snow – Ride on! Caution that there may be ice underneath. Studded tires help out here quite a bit. Thinner tire can have the advantage of cutting down through the snow to reach pavement
    • Deep snow – well I must admit when the big snowstorms hit – I walk. I am not interested in adding the mayhem on the roads. After the main roads are cleared I will quite often walk out from my neighbourhood and then cycle along the cleared main arterial roadways.
    • Windrows – snow is sometimes piled in windrows down the middle of the road or on the right hand side of the road (where the person traditionally cycles). Either way they narrow the roadway. You need to assert your presence and take more of the roadway to ensure you safety. Sometimes windrows get quite high so be cautions that they are not hiding you from traffic.
  • Arriving at your destination – lock up your bicycle securely. If the business has snowed in racks – complain. When arriving at work, give yourself a few extra minutes to get out of your cycling togs/gear.
  • Decisions – when to ride… or not. AS mentioned above. I tend to not cycle when there is a big dump of snow (over 6 inches) and usually when there has been freezing rain. It is easier to walk or bus. There is no rule that says I HAVE to ride every day. I usually also give the first three days of ‘winter’ – when we first get cold and snowy weather and drivers are getting used to the conditions – a miss. Cycling should be a pleasure, not overly dangerous, and not onerous. I cycle because I love it.

EVERYTIME that a person chooses to ride it is a win for the planet, our health, and the message – there is another way… a better way.

This winter try to cycle a little and I am sure you will enjoy the experience.

When roadway conditions are not up to standards or there is something that is unsafe -phone 311 or email [email protected]

Get involved with cycling organizations like the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Society or just become a member. They are our spokes group. When they can go to council and say they have 2,000 or 10,000 members it will carry weight.

If you want to make the streets safer for people that bicycle, ride more not less – the more people that bike, the safer the streets become for everyone.

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