Braving harsh temperatures, snow, and strong winds, some cyclists continue to commute by bike all year ’round. In the winter, biking remains a sustainable, affordable, and effective method of transportation. It’s easy, it’s exercise, and it’s not as crazy as you might think.
Before getting ready to ride, make sure both you and your bike are prepared. Start by choosing your tires. Mountain bike tires provide the best grip, but road tires cut through snow more effectively. Look for a narrow tire with knobs so you can benefit from the advantages of both types. Studded tires, which are specifically designed for riding on ice, are also available, but most Montreal riders agree they are unnecessary – especially in the city.
Krzysztof Welfeld, a volunteer at the Flat, recommends getting a cheap bike to ride during the winter. “Unless you are prepared to clean your bike after each ride and overhaul it every month” – which is still a good idea, especially since it’s made easier through places like the Flat – “your favourite bike is going to suffer a lot of damage over the winter.”
In order to prevent some of that damage, there are things you can do to maintain your bike, but they will require a little effort. You should lubricate your bike’s chain once a week for 10-15 minutes and keep the chain and brake pads clean. “It seems arduous,” says Ed Hudson, a volunteer at Right To Move (Concordia’s bike co-op). But as he points out, it probably takes you the same amount of time to walk to the Metro. Store your bike inside (unless it’s above 0 degrees outside, but who are we kidding?) in order to keep it from rusting or being snowed on. Michael Prebil, The Daily’s public editor and another volunteer at The Flat, suggests removing the seat post and flipping your bike over in order to drain any water that might have leaked into the frame.
There isn’t much equipment you need to buy before riding, but a fender is crucial for keeping you dry. Also, ensure all lights work properly, and don’t forget to turn them on if it’s starting to get dark. “Drivers don’t expect to deal with cyclists during the winter, so you want to stay visible,” Welfeld says.
When dressing to ride in the winter, it’s important to layer. Avoid cotton because it will soak up sweat and cool you down. Opt for a wool sweater or fleece, plus a lightweight waterproof jacket to break the wind. Remember that cycling is exercise and it will increase your body temperature, especially around your core. Overdressing will just make you sweat. Double-layer gloves, wool socks, and a toque will help keep your hands, feet, and head warm. “But don’t sacrifice a helmet for a toque,” Hudson says. Prebil advises wearing both: “Keep your head warm with a cap underneath your helmet, as riding with an exposed head in sub-zero temperatures can cause debilitating headaches.”
Cam Novak, creator of Cycle Bird Courier, has been biking year-round for the past three years. “Everyone has their own style,” he says, but he makes sure to wear a protective facemask, sunglasses, and thermal spandex during the winter. On his feet are clipless winter mountain-biking shoes with stretchy slipover covers. Both Hudson and Novak suggest tying a bandana around your neck to protect the skin there from being exposed.
According to Novak, winter riding is not as dangerous as most people think. “There’s never a day where you absolutely can’t ride,” he says. Though the sidewalks that pedestrians tread over may be icy, “in general, the streets are well-plowed. They don’t plow the sidewalks the same way they plow streets.” He believes that drivers are actually more cautious during the winter months, and he’s never been in a winter-riding-related accident.
Hudson warns that cyclists should be careful though, as plowed snow and slush take over bike lanes and drivers have less space to work with in the winter. Though small streets have less traffic, in the winter, they are the least likely to be plowed. It’s safest to ride in a road’s tire treads, as opposed to the snowy curbside. “Don’t be afraid to be assertive,” Hudson says. And don’t let honking drivers scare you. “If they honk at you, they’ve seen you,” he adds.
For traffic updates and other biking-related issues and questions, tune into The Bike Report, which airs during the Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday “Morning After” shows on CKUT Radio, 90.3 FM. Novak, who has hosted The Bike Report for a year and a half, says the program “is there for people to ask questions.”
With winter biking, you might have to experiment before you really begin to enjoy it. “Don’t be afraid to approach it bit by bit and see what works for you,” Hudson says. Welfeld agrees. “Winter biking is a fun learning process. You need to relearn your biking technique, how to deal with the types of snow and ice, and how to balance and stop well, but in the end it’s a wicked thrill and a good way to stay warm.”
For workshops, helpful handouts, and in-person assistance, head to the Flat, located in room B-02 of the Shatner building basement. Shop hours are 5-8 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. You can also make use of their free workshops on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.