If you're already a winter cyclist, then you know that special kind of satisfaction that comes when your friends or coworkers look at you as if you're from another planet. It's like you have a secret joy to share with the world (or keep for yourself if you're so inclined). The truth is, winter cycling can be fun! It's a different kind of fun than the other three seasons, granted, but it's invigorating, entertaining, and good for you!
If you're reading this and having trouble suspending your disbelief, ask yourself this: would you ski in winter? Would you snowshoe? Would you go tobogganing or go for a walk? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you could certainly cycle in the winter as well. No one seems to doubt that we can safely go outside and enjoy ourselves when it's cold, but for some reason biking doesn't spring to mind as a winter activity reasonable people would enjoy. We're here to tell you it is, and that it can easily be enjoyed as long as you are prepared.
There are a number of things you can do to make your bike and yourself more winter worthy. Here are a few that we can help you with:
Fatbikes are a rapidly growing category, and we have some of the best climate and trails in the world to take advantage of these extremely fun bikes. With ultra-wide tires that float and grip like nothing else, these are great for snow, sand, and bush. We have a couple of demo bikes from Kona, so stop by sometime and we'll show you what they're all about! In the meantime you can check out the Kona Wo here.
One of the more common objections to winter cycling is that we only have so much traction on two wheels. This is true, but with a little practice you'll be breezing along winter roads and trails with aplomb. Winter cycling affords us a wondering opportunity to practice our handling skills whenever we get on our bikes, making us a better cyclist year round. Some people even report that winter cycling improves their winter driving skills, as the cyclist is probably the most intimately aware of road conditions.
Not everybody uses winter specific bicycle tires, but they are available for a variety of bikes and can make a huge difference in how your bike reacts to winter conditions. The majority of winter bike tires are studded, and we carry a good selection in the shop. They can be extremely helpful with ice and hard packed snow (such as after your neighbourhood gets bladed). A good studded tire will help you remain upright, as well as give you added confidence turning and stopping.
The best winter tires use carbide tipped studs, which are sharp and durable. While these tires usually cost 1.5-2x what you would pay for aluminum-tipped studs, they work better and can last more than twice as long, making them a good buy in the long term. We've seen many of our Nokian and Schwalbe studded tires still going strong after four or five winters.
Like regular three-season tires, winter bike tires come in various sizes and tread patterns for different purposes. Smoother tires have lower rolling resistance and are ideal for commuting. Deep lugged treads are great for the winter trail rider. Some tires, like the Nokian Hakkapellita 240, split the difference by having lots of tread depth but keeping the center line of the tire almost continuous. This is a great tire for mixed use.
Please Note: It's recommended to ride new studded bike tires for about 40 km on smooth pavement while avoiding sudden stops or acceleration. This will ensure that all the studs are seated properly in the tire, increasing traction and service life of the tire.
Edmonton actually has some of the best winter sunlight in the world, with lots of clear blue skies to be enjoyed. Unfortunately most of it occurs while we're indoors doing our jobs, so chances are during your cycling hours you'll need to be well lit so that other road users will see you.
Bicycle lights fall into two main categories: those that allow you to be seen, and those that let you see. If you cycle in well-lit areas, having enough light to be seen is enough. There are lots of great LED lights for both the front and rear of your bike that use conventional AA or AAA batteries and do a great job of letting everyone know you are there. Nowadays there are also lights with built-in batteries that can be charged by USB. Most of these lights feature very long battery life. Lights in the being seen category typically cost around $15-$60.
The other type of light is much brighter and mounts to the front of your bike to allow you to see on roads and trails that are not well lit. They are obviously bright enough to satisfy the being seen requirement, but they also light up the trail well enough to commute in car-free areas like Mill Creek or the river valley trails. These lights are rechargeable from a USB port or wall socket adaptor, and start at 100 lumens (a measure of brightness). 100 is a great brightness for commuting, and can keep you safe on the trail, but for aggressive trailriding it can easily be outridden. 500 to 1500 lumens is for folks who want enough light that they won't have to slow down when they hit the trails. These types of lights can often be mounted either to the handlebars or the helmet. We recommend handlebar mounting in traffic, as you won't unintentionally blind any drivers by looking at them. Helmet mounting is great for trails it lets you see around turns while you're making them. A combination of the two can work really well for riders whose ride will see both lit roads and dark trails. Lights in this category typically cost $50-$400.
Layers are your friend in winter. A wind-proof layer is a must, with insulative and wicking layers beneath. Many synthetic fabrics wick and insulate well, as does wool (wool is lovely!). Cotton holds moisture, as well as losing its insulative properties when wet, so cotton is not your friend.
Here's an example commute: Chris lives at the top of the river valley, and uses the valley to get to work. Five minutes into his commute he descends into the river valley, coasting down at moderate to high speed. So Chris isn't working hard, he's picking up speed and dropping lower to where the coldest air accumulates. Typically Chris needs to bundle up for the first five minutes of his ride. Shortly thereafter, Chris begins climbing out of the valley, slowly and with great effort (poor guy). He's getting warmed up and working harder now, so he can easily start getting too warm. This is where layers and clothing flexibility are very helpful. He may open his cuffs, pit-zips, or front zip in order to cool down. If he has zips he can open for his legs, he may do that as well. With the right combination of clothing you can keep yourself comfortable for changing conditions during the ride and over the course of the day.
A winter cycling wardrobe is a multi-piece extravaganza, and right now at the shop we're primarily focussed on accessories. We have some great shoe covers and handlebar mitts to keep your extremities warm and comfy on the ride. We're also offering some great winter helmets from TSG. We can also give you some advice on other pieces you might want to obtain, and where you can get some of them. If you'd like us to carry more winter cycling clothes, let us know. We love getting input on what you want to see in the store!
Winter can be hard on a bike. If you ride regularly, there's a good chance you will wear through a drivetrain each winter. It's still cheaper and more fun than driving, though, so we see it as a good trade. A less frequent or a particularly conscientious rider can easily extend the life of their winter bike, though.
Clean It! - The coldest winter days are actually not that bad for our bikes. On a cold day riding over hard packed snow, your bike won't get much dirtier than it does on summer roads. On warm days, however, you may find yourself riding through a lot of "brown sugar", that lovely mixture of melting snow, sand, salt, and traces of motor oil. This stuff is bad for your bike. After a messy ride, we recommend you brush as much snow off as possible, and dry the chain, cogs, and any other moving parts as well as you can with some rags. This includes brakes, derailleurs, and the area around your bearings. Avoid leaving standing water and salt on these parts and you'll extend their life considerably. Another area to give attention to are your wheels. Water can cause corrosion where the spokes meet the rim, eventually leading to a wheel that cannot be trued or adjusted. Cleaning the rims of sand will also extend their life if your bike is equipped with rim brakes.
Lube It! - After cleaning the bike and giving it some time to dry, we recommend lubing it up after messy rides. Note that lube does its job within working parts, like the rollers of your chain or the pivot points of brakes and derailleurs. A coating of lube on the surface of your bike will just mix with road grime, forming an abrasive crust on moving parts. Therefore the regimen is always Clean, Lube, Clean Again. After letting bike lube wick into the moving parts of your bike, you should use a new dry rag to wipe excess lube away from the surface.
A good winter lube is usually more tenacious than the clean-running Teflon based summer lubes. We recommend Tri-flow for pivot points and cable housings, and it can be a good winter drivetrain lube with lots of care. Recently we've taken a liking to Purple Extreme as well, and it lasts longer between applications. Feel free to stop by and ask our mechanics for their recommendations!
We hope this little primer helps you feel confident about staying on the bike year round. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to winter cycling lore, so you're welcome to stop by anytime if you have questions. If you have suggestions for other riders, consider sharing them on our Facebook page. Thanks for reading, and happy trails!