Cold temperatures and icy conditions keep most people off the trails

If you are a summer bike commuter living in Calgary, there are two things you can do to extend your biking season: move to a city with milder winters, or get on board with winter cycling.

A number of cyclists ride avidly from the time the snow melts in about April, all throughout the summer, until it begins to fall again in October or November.

However, brave bikers can do a number of simple things to join the city’s growing community of winter cyclists.

Gearing your bike for safety

Staying safe on winter roads is a major concern for people who might be considering winter cycling. That’s because many people aren’t sure how to stay safe when the snow starts to fall.

Sean Carter, who owns BikeBike and is a year-round bicycle commuter, says, “Some folks don’t want to fall down, or they’re worried about getting hit by a car.”

He says some of those fears are valid, but almost all can be mitigated with the right gear and the right preparation.

A simple piece of gear that can make all the difference for winter bikers is a set of studded tires. These are exactly what they sound like: tires with studs on them to increase traction on snow and ice.John Grecu takes his bike out in Calgary’s frigid winter weather to run errands instead of hoping on the bus or in a car.

Photo by Olivia Grecu

Carter uses studded tires – which also decrease a bike’s speed – putting them on the front and back of his bike, “because I want to not have to think about what conditions I’m riding through.”

But even if you take a spill during the winter, bike mechanic Bob (The Wrench) Nowak says it’s nothing like falling off your bike in the summer.
“The load is dissipated as you slide so it’s nowhere near as bad. Plus you’re in this massive padded clothing anyway, and if you fall into a snow bank, you’re usually laughing.”

Dressing for the weather

Frozen fingers and toes; frost in your eyelashes; shivering to the very core: these images are just a few that may flash in people’s minds when they picture what winter biking is like in Calgary.

But Steve Zacharias, who was a cyclist with Fireball Couriers in Calgary for 10 years, says the only challenges involved in winter cycling that don’t exist in the summer are “slippery roads and frost bite.”

“It’s easy to stay warm,” he adds. “Being outside is fun as long as you’re warmly dressed.”

In fact, Carter says would-be winter cyclists are more likely to over-dress than under-dress for the weather.

“People think that there’s this myth that you really need to gear up, to go buy all this plastic, water-proof stuff and I just disagree with that,” says Carter.

Carter’s advice for people who are getting into winter cycling is to just get going, and to figure out what works best for them along the way.

“Don’t try to over complicate it if you’re going to give it a shot, just give it a go and use the stuff you already have in your closet.”

“I just use two hoodies and maybe a thin puffy, and I’m good for pretty much any condition.”

Nowak’s advice is the same: “I think the mentality is that people think that the clothing they need to run from their house to the car or their house to the bus stop is the same clothing they need to ride to work, and that’s wrong. It’s not like that, you’re going to be way warmer than you actually think you are, plus your body has to adjust.”

Preparing your bike

In terms of the bike itself, experts and more casual commuters alike would recommend using an older, beaten up bike rather than a brand new one.

“The salt and the slush can be a little hard on the bike,” says Ian Parsons, who works at Total Energy, an oil and gas company. He has been a winter cyclist since his university days in Ottawa and never looked back.

In fact, Carter says: the chemicals that the city puts on the roads “will weld bike parts together. It’s really nasty, so if somebody is going to be riding in the winter it’s a really good idea to do some preventative maintenance as often as possible.”

Maintaining your bike

Some Calgarians decide to put winter tires on their bicycles instead of their cars to lengthen the biking season.

Photo by Olivia Grecu Winter maintenance can be more of a commitment than it can be in the summer time, so it can be a good idea to be prepared.

Carter recommends washing your bike once a week with soapy water to get the salt and chemicals off.

Bikes simply get dirtier and are more likely to get dinged by small rocks and gravel in the winter, so a little extra care will help it last longer.

Parsons also advises taking a bike mechanics course in order to prepare for the extra maintenance that winter riding requires.

“I’ve got four bikes now, and I know how to fix them all so I never need to go to a bike shop,” he says, adding that this has saved him a lot of money in the long run.

Planning your route

Another big consideration when preparing for winter biking is planning your commuting route. Doing so might not be as much of a headache as you think it will be.

Winter Biking Map (PDF) Carter says, “The city does an amazing job of clearing the pathways.

“The Parks Department plows the pathways, and they’re incredible. After a snowfall, they’re usually out and have cleared most of the paths by 6:30, 7 o’clock in the morning.

“If you live close to the Bow River or Elbow River pathways there’s a really good chance that your commute might actually be faster in the winter then it is in the summer because of how bad the gridlock is in the wintertime here.”

Being flexible is also a great way to get comfortable with winter biking, Carter says.

“Don’t assume that when the snow falls you can go on the exact same roads that you did before. It’s not a bad idea to experiment through the winter with different ways of getting places.”

Reaping the benefits

All of these factors mean that winter cycling can be a bit more work than summer cycling, but the benefits can be worth it.

Steve Zacharias says he doesn’t necessarily love winter biking, but that it’s simply easier to get around by bike than by car.

“You stay fit, you get to be outside, you get to feel tough,” he says with a laugh.
The benefits of winter cycling are indeed plentiful, and Ian Parsons is reaping all the benefits.

“Health, that’s probably the number one thing. I find it fun, and I like the challenge,” Parsons says.

“It’s definitely better than commuting,” he adds. “I don’t deal with traffic, and I’m getting exercise and fresh air.”

Parsons’ daily commute takes him over Deerfoot Trail, and he says, “no matter how cold it is, when I see those people sitting in their cars in that traffic, I always think I would rather be on my bike.”

ogrecu@cjournal.ca 

Are you an avid winter biker? Tell us what you love about winter biking, and if you have any tips for new winter bikers in the comment section below.