It is possible to ride your bike through the winter. The right gear helps
OK, so it’s winter. Life goes on. If you’re one of the thousands who rides a bike to work (or just for pleasure) in fair weather, you need not hang up your helmet and stow your bike in the garage once snow starts to fall. By outfitting yourself right – and with a little chutzpah – you can pilot your two-wheeled steed on most winter days.
Winter cycling can be economical: It’s not hard to ride a beat-up old bike while wearing everyday pants, coat, and gloves. But bicycle clothing and accessory makers are quite happy to sell you specialized gear for winter riding, most of which is quite advanced and effective. (Check the store directory, below, for locations.)
Head, face and neck
- Wear a helmet. (Don’t argue.) Your head will rarely feel cold; remember, you’ve got the equivalent of a beer cooler strapped to your skull. But if you do feel a draft, tape over the vents, invest in a helmet liner or balaclava ($10 to $17 at MEC), or even a havelock-style nylon helmet cover ($16 at MEC).
- A thin headband (fluffy ones are too confining under helmet straps) will keep your ears frostbite-free ($8 to $12 for various brands at MEC, or about $18 for Patagonia at Sporting Life).
- Eyeglasses – even clear ones – are useful year-round for keeping out debris and, of course, for sun protection. MEC Chameleons are a great value at $25, with replacement lenses (in “smoke,” brown, “rose,” yellow, or clear) at $15 each, but check that the Chameleons’ upper frame doesn’t obscure traffic lights when riding. My Oakley M-Frames don’t have that problem, but cost $120 at Sporting Life Bikes.
- An everyday scarf or a neck gaiter ($9 for the latter at MEC) keeps your neck warm. My Arson snowboard jacket (about $60 on sale at Sporting Life Bikes) has a high lined collar, obviating the need for a scarf.
- Wear an undershirt. Here, synthetics are your friends – polyester and polypropylene wick perspiration away from the skin. (If you cycle slowly and don’t work up a sweat, don’t bother.) MEC’s Bipolar line ($31 for a polyester T-shirt) or the Lifa Prowool model (a wool shirt lined with polypropylene, about $35 at Sporting Life) are worth the money.
- Despite the lack of arm coverage, a sleeveless vest retains body heat nicely. MEC’s Logan II polyester-fleece vest ($43) carries a Lycra backing for snugness. Cannondale’s Windfront vest (a $130 special-order item from Duke’s) is billed as featuring “fabric treatment of recycled aluminum” but is actually made of nylon. It’s effective at stopping wind dead in its tracks, but when zipping it up you’ll feel like a foil-wrapped potato about to be popped into a toaster-oven.
- Virtually any jacket will do, but for appearance’s sake, short bomber jackets are to be avoided (they ride up in back in a rather unsightly way).
- Schlepping papers, clothes, a box lunch, and other gear can be a problem. Backpacks work well, though they lack an executive look. (Executives are too lazy to bike to work, so they’re no role model anyway.) My MEC Adventurer pack was $53 and features a single enclosed pocket and a single zipper, a design that’s showing its age. A better option is the Arcteryx Sebring ($107 from MEC), with an unusual two-zipper, two-inside-pocket design and a small pocket on the outside bottom in which you can stash the keys to your bike locks. Or try the Mountainsmith World Cup backpack (US$130 from 800 234-8356), which is somewhat undersized but comes equipped with more pockets than a billiar table.
Hands and feet
- The extremities are where you really feel the cold. Pearl Izumi’s Aqua-Not gloves ($69.99 at Duke’s, $54 at MEC) feature five inside fingers slotted into three pockets, allowing you to steer, brake, and hold on simultaneously. The Aqua-Nots vastly improve on their predecessor, the Lobster Therma-dores, and are actually too warm on some days, as though anyone’s complaining.
- The classic grey wool work sock – the hose choice of generations of hosers – cannot be beat inside boots made for a Canadian winter. But opt for a polypropylene sock liner ($3.50 to $4 at MEC), which transports sweat away from the skin. Coupled with a windproof, waterproof boot, like those from L.L. Bean (huge range available from US$59 to $138), the warm vapour produced by your feet will be retained inside the boot but away from the skin. It’s an almost miraculously cozy combination.
- It’s perfectly possible to cycle in long underwear and civilian pants. On wet days, wear overpants to ward off mud and slush – MEC’s Spindrift nylon windpant ($39) or Sportif Chinook Gore-Tex pants ($115) will work.
- Failing that, consider Louis Garneau’s polypropylene tights ($35 at MEC) under MEC’s cycling pants ($69), the latter faced with Gore-Tex with a Lycra backing. MEC’s Bernoulli reinforced Gore-Tex cycling pants could survive a nuclear blast – and they had bloody well better, for $174.
- Cyclewear manufacturers have not figured out that real-world bicyclists need pockets, so when decked out in the aforesaid tights, I use the MEC Travel Pocket “kidney pack” ($13). Another option is the Pac Design Hip Pouch with Lock Holster, an ingenious purse-like contraption that holds a bike lock, pens, keys, and other essentials ($59 at Duke’s).
- There are two schools of thought in winter cycling: Use your regular bike or shift to a “beater” (a dilapidated, old, low-tech, semi-disposable bike). Most cyclists opt for mountain bikes, while a small but vocal faction rides thin-tired road bikes through the winter without mishap.
- In either case, if you use toeclips, consider Norco neoprene toeclip covers ($11.95 at Europe Bound), which really block the wind. Expect water to accumulate inside on very wet rides.
- Lights are required under the Highway Traffic Act. My VistaLite 430 headlamp is $134 at MEC; the new 530 series is smaller and brighter ($178 for single, $225 for double at MEC), but all headlamps are ridiculously inconvenient to attach and detach of a cold winter evening. The el-cheapo Cateye HL-500, at $16 from MEC, meets the legal requirement for a headlamp but is useless at illuminating potholes, puddles, and ice patches. Vista’s flashing LED taillight is $13.50 at MEC and, like every rear light I’ve ever seen, is a major hassle to attach and detach in the cold.
- Virtually any tires will work for winter riding, but these Nokian Mount & Ground W160 studded tires (160 studs per tire, $75.95 each at Cyclepath) will make you feel as sure-footed (sure-wheeled?) as a mountain goat, despite their increased drag and noise. (Another Nokian tire, the Extreme 296 at $129, packs 296 studs per tire. Some dinosaurs didn’t have that many teeth.) A competing product, the IRC Blizzard tire ($39.95 at Cyclepath), carries about 50 studs and offers no advantage over a standard mountain-bike tire.
- Fenders are an absolute must to keep clean; Mt. Zéfal fenders are about all you can find in Toronto and can be relied upon to break in the cold or suffer failure of the metal fittings due to rust ($36 at MEC).
For more information
- Don’t be afraid to talk to other winter cyclists, who have all sorts of survival and gear tips.
- If you’re online, subscribe to the Icebike Internet mailing list on winter cycling (originated and managed by the author).
Published circa 1996 ¶ Updated 2007.03.19