Safety & Education

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Bike in the Winter

Keep your bicycle in use all year round! The following information gives the experienced Toronto cyclist tips to keep on riding through the cold weather. With a little planning and appropriate gear you will enjoy a comfortable ride!

If you have never cycled in cold weather before, you will be surprised at how warm you will be! Cycling is an aerobic activity, which means that your body will produce heat-more than walking. Most first-time cold weather cyclists find that they have overdressed and are too hot.

It's more than likely that you already have clothes that will work for your legs and torso. Your extremities are the most challenging to keep warm - hands, feet, and head/face-and may require something extra.

Layers

Dressing for cold weather cycling uses the same layering principles as other cold weather activities. Layering allows you to add and subtract layers according to how warm/cool you are. There's no need to buy cycle-specific clothes (unless you really want to). Function over fashion rules.

  • It's more than likely that you already have clothes that will work for your legs and torso.
  • It is important to use thin/lightweight materials do reduce bulk and maintain manoeuvrability.
  • How many layers to wear depends on the individual and the length of the commute. Shorter commutes may require warmer clothing since the body has less time to heat up. Many cyclists recommend that you start off feeling a little cool because you will quickly warm up. If you overdress you will become sweaty in no time.
  • Experiment with different combinations and see what works for you. Consider marking down the daily temperature, what you wore that day, and what worked well.
  • Before changing layers, try working harder (cycling faster) if you are too cold and cycling slower if you are too warm.
  • Remember that once you stop cycling you will cool down quickly - so carry an extra layer if you plan on stopping or walking-or just in case the temperature drops for the ride back.

Head

  • Cover your head to conserve the most heat.
  • Choose thin, lightweight and wind resistant materials.
  • Toques and balaclavas work well
  • Leave a few extra minutes to adjust your helmet to fit over your hat/hood. You may need to remove some of the helmet's padding. Check that your helmet sits in the proper position by placing two fingers above an eyebrow. The bottom of the helmet should touch the top finger.
  • Remember to cover your ears! Try an earband.
  • A helmet cover will reduce wind and protect from rain and snow. It may be all you need for 0oC and above.
  • Cycle specific hats--helmet liners-fit snugly under the helmet.
  • If you wear a hood, do a shoulder check on each side to before you ride to make sure your vision is not compromised. You may need to tuck your hood under the sides of your helmet.

Face

There are a number of options for keeping your face warm. You may want to experiment to see what works the best for you.

  • Try tying a scarf so that it covers from your nose down over your neck. You can add velcro to an existing scarf to help keep it in place, or buy one at an outdoor/bicycle store.
  • Balaclava - covers the neck, face and head. There are very lightweight ones on the market, including silk. Cyclists with long hair may prefer another option.
  • Facemask - these have an opening for the bottom of the nose and tiny holes over the mouth, making it easier to breathe; some also cover the neck.
  • Eye protection-prescription glasses, sun glasses, clear or yellow lenses, or ski goggles.
  • Anti-fogging spray will keep your glasses from fogging up.

Torso

  • A thin water/windproof jacket is a must. There are many cycling-specific jackets on the market. Jackets should be long so they don't ride up and expose you to cold air, and large enough for layers underneath. If you can afford it, invest in a gore-tex jacket. Breathable materials will make your trip more enjoyable.
  • For longer commutes (more than twenty minutes), start with a wicking base layer next to the skin made of polyester/microfibre-synthetic fabrics to keep sweat/moisture away from the skin; silk and wool are natural fabric choices. Stay away from cotton as the base layer-it will absorb sweat and keep it next to your skin, making you wet and cold.
  • Add layers over the wicking layer, with layers getting progressively warmer. In Toronto one warm fleece/lightweight wool sweater is often enough over the base layer. You might want to add one or two thin layers in between.
  • If your commute is relatively short, you may not need the wicking layer-so long as you have a good breathable jacket-because you won't have enough time to build up a sweat.
  • Jackets, fleeces and tops with full front zips and underarm zips increase your options for moderating temperature.

Hands

Hands are in a stationary position so are more subject to cold than the rest of your body.

  • Try wiggling your fingers when stopped.

  • Gloves/mits you already own (wool, fleece, work/gardening gloves) may work fine.

  • Mits will keep your fingers warmer than gloves because the fingers are touching; some cyclists find gloves easier for shifting and braking.

  • For 0oC and below add a liner if your hands aren't warm enough, or add an outer shell made of water/windproof material

  • Have a waterproof option available for rain and snow-if your gloves aren't waterproof try a shell.

  • Ski gloves are particularly good for temperatures below freezing.
  • Wool or fleece gloves will keep hands warm even when wet. If your hands sweat consider a wicking liner
  • Cycling lobster gloves are now on the market; these are a combo mitt/glove: two fingers per segment and a separate one for the thumb.
  • Bike pogies are oversized mitts that fit over the handlebar ends, making it easy to operate the brakes and shifters; you may not need gloves under the pogies until it's 0oC or below. Make sure that it is easy to take your hands off the bars to signal.

 

Legs

Many cyclists are comfortable wearing their usual winter wear, particularly for shorter commutes. Stretchy, roomy clothing with some wind resistance will be the most comfortable.

  • Consider wearing tights/long underwear with another layer over them to protect from wind.
  • You can also invest in a variety of cycle-specific clothing (such as waterproof cycling pants) to reduce windchill and protect you from snow and rain.
  • Rain pants are an option for snow, wind, and rain-get them long so they account for bent knees. You can pull them up over your regular pants, thermal/long underwear, or cycling tights.
  • A reflective band around your right pant leg will prevent it from catching in the chain and increase visibility.

Feet

  • Waterproof hiking boots work well for cold/wet weather.
  • Cover your shoes with cycling overbooties or put a plastic bag over your socks.
  • There are a few winter cycling shoes/boots on market but they can be expensive.
  • Clip pedal cycling shoes can conduct heat away from your feet; try another system or simply cycle without.
  • Wool or fleece socks are good. If your feet sweat avoid using cotton liners.
  • Avoid too many sock layers because that can cut off circulation, and bring an extra pair of socks in case the first pair get wet.

 

Caution: Not every winter day is a cycling day. Some days it is better to leave your bicycle at home. Riding in the snow is a challenge even for very highly skilled cyclists. Use discretion.

  • If you feel comfortable riding in the snow, remember that drivers can't stop as quickly and the roads may be narrower because of the snow piled at the curb.
  • Icy conditions are never recommended for cycling.
  • Streetcar tracks will be icy when other road surfaces are not. Try to walk your bicycle across streetcar/railway tracks. If you must cycle across, always cross at a right angle.

   If you choose to ride, here are some suggestions:

  • Lessen tire pressure to the low end of recommended range (written on tire sidewall) to increase traction.
  • Adjust your fenders, if necessary, so that there is lots of room between the fender and tire to avoid snow build up.
  • Clips are not recommended in snowy or icy conditions; you may have to put your feet down in a hurry.
  • Cyclists are divided in their opinions about what tires work best. Thick-tread mountain bike tires will increase traction/grip on snow (particularly good for hard packed), whereas thin tires will cut through the snow (particularly good for loose snow) to the pavement. Some people use studded tires; these are noisy on dry pavement but particularly good for ice.
  • Snow banks may cause you to ride further out in a lane. If you need to move out from the curb be sure to communicate your intentions with other traffic. Shoulder check to make sure it's safe to move out, signal, do a second shoulder check to make sure it's still clear, and then move out.
  • Let your bicycle get cold outside before riding-less snow will stick to it if it's already cold.
  • Carry either a lighter, WD40, or light machine oil, in case your lock freezes; try adding a drop of oil or graphite lock lubricant in the locking mechanism to prevent freezing.
  • Remember to take your water bottle inside to prevent freezing!
  • If you encounter black ice, steer straight, don't pedal, and try not to brake as this could cause you to skid and fall.
  • Avoid riding over snow--it may hide ice-and avoid riding over snow banks; stay on wet pavement.
  • Leave extra room for braking.
  • Streetcar tracks will be icy when other road surfaces are not.
  • Try to walk your bicycle across streetcar/railway tracks.
  • If you must cycle across, always cross at a right angle, stop pedalling, keep your pedals horizontal, flex your arms and legs to absorb the shock and lift off your feet.
  • Shift often to prevent snow from jamming up the chain.
  • Leave extra time to cycle slower in wet and snowy conditions.
  • Plan your route in advance, and have an alternative in mind in case of snow or ice.

Cold weather cycling will frequently be in the rain or melting snow.

  • Brake often to clear rims. Braking is up to six times longer when rims are wet. Steel rims take longer to stop than alloy ones. It's best to apply a small amount of brakes at all times to keep rims clear.
  • Coaster brakes are not affected by ice and water.
  • Avoid puddles that may hide potholes or other road hazards.
  • Full fenders are a must, and are available for all bike types. They will keep the spray off and help to keep your feet dry.
  • Street car tracks are especially slippery. Always cross them at a 90 degree angle. You might want to practice on dry days.
  • Many surfaces are slippery in the wet, like streetcar tracks, painted lines, metal bridges and plates-try to avoid these as much as possible or cross them with caution.
  • Carry an extra plastic bag to cover your seat and for lining bags/panniers.
  • Take corners slowly and don't lean as much as in the summer-keep your bicycle straight up.

The nights are longer and darker in the winter and fall. Be as visible as you can.

  • Use a steady white light in front--the brighter the better - Highway Traffic Act 62 (HTA 62). Use rechargeable batteries since you will need to use your lights almost everyday.
  • Use a constant red light in the back--not a flashing
    light (HTA 62).
  • A red rear reflector and front white reflector are a good back-up in case a light goes out.
  • Generator lights stop working when the wheels stop so have a back up light.
  • Bright colours and reflective gear are recommended for dark and wet weather conditions-both conditions reduce motorist vision. Consider adding reflective tape to your jacket. Reflective bands are also widely available for your pant legs and arms, as are reflective vests.
  • Reflective tape is required under the HTA (62): white on the front forks and red on the back seat stays.
  • High contrast lenses increase night vision.
  • Anti-fogging spray is available for glasses.
  • Prescription cycling glasses are also available.
  • Stay on bright streets with good street lighting.

Start slowly so that your body, and especially your joints and muscles can warm up. Your body works better when it is warm.

  • Remember to replace lost fluids-you will get thirsty in the cold. If it's cold enough for a water bottle to freeze try a water bag between layers on your back.
  • Leave extra time so that you can ride slower.
  • For long rides start off feeling a little cool-you will warm up in no time.
  • Experiment with different clothing combinations and record the daily temperature-that way you will know what works for you.

Too hot? Try cycling slower. Too cold? Try cycling faster, wear a warmer hat, or add another layer.

 

There is far more dirt on the road in the winter, especially with melting ice and snow, so your bicycle needs more maintenance.

  • Clean and lubricate chain regularly.
  • Oil the freewheel too.
  • Consider carefully putting a drop of oil at the end of each wheel spoke to slow down corrosion; make sure the rims are clear of oil so that your brakes work.
  • Salt causes wear and tear on a bicycle, mostly due to rust. Try to wipe your bicycle down at the end of the day to reduce salt build up. Brush away snow and slush from the rear derailleur and freewheel; large bristle brushes (like a toilet bowl brush) work well.
  • Keep your bicycle covered, protected from rain, snow, and slush even when parked. No covered parking at your work place? Start a Bicycle User Group (BUG).
  • Consider using an inexpensive (beater) bike for the snow. Keep old bikes out of the landfill! They can be re-used and recycled

Bicycles

  • Personal taste but one that fits you and your needs
  • Mountain bikes offer good handling
  • Let your bicycle get cold outside before riding-less snow will stick to it if it's already cold, and the metal will have a chance to expand before you ride
  • Keep your bicycle covered, protected from rain, snow, and slush when parked.
  • Consider using an inexpensive (beater) bike for the winter.

Tires

  • Lessen tire pressure to the low end of recommended range (written on tire sidewall) to increase traction.
  • Thick-tread mountain bike tires will increase traction/grip on snow (particularly good for hard packed)
  • Thin tires will cut through the snow (particularly good for slush) to the pavement.
  • Studded tires: these are noisy on dry pavement but particularly good for ice; these are rarely needed in the City.
  • Full fenders are a must in wet and snow. You will be dryer and warmer. Adjust your fenders for max coverage and leave room for snow build up. Add mud guards to the front fender to keep your toes dry.

Pedals

  • Flat pedals work well, and even with heavy boots you can put your foot down fast.
  • Toe clips are not recommended in snowy or icy conditions; you may have to put your feet down in a hurry.
  • Clipless pedals need to be well lubricated and can freeze up. The metal will draw the heat away from your feet, making it very difficult to keep them warm. They are not recommended for cold weather.

Locks

  • Keep your lock key hole oiled or use graphite lock lubricant to prevent freezing.
  • Carry a lighter in case your lock freezes.
  • When you lock your bike have the opening for the key facing down to prevent water getting in.