Culture

Experts on how winter cyclists can stay safe on the roads

Biking in Canada’s infamous season requires more than just great gloves.

Biking in Canada’s infamous season requires more than just great gloves

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Cold weather, long nights, snow-covered bike lanes and drivers who seem to think cyclists go into hibernation come October — for the growing contingent of Canadian riders who cycle through the winter, there's no shortage of potential hazards on the road.

But while much of the winter biking advice out there focuses on investing in expensive gear, there's more to safety than a pricey trip to a sportswear store. We talked to cycling experts for their top tips on safe winter riding.

Consider your commute

Depending where you're based and whether you live or work downtown, some Canadians have an easier time commuting through the winter than others.

Most Canadian cities with protected bike lanes perform some winter maintenance of the lanes, but many maintain a smaller network than in warmer months, and snow clearing policies can vary.

Calgary, for example, plows downtown protected lanes within 24 hours of a snowfall, but other routes can take 48 hours to be cleared. For commuters, this might mean adjusting your summertime route to use paths that are open or more well-maintained in the wintertime.

Separated lanes will also make for an easier commute in winter, as painted lanes that run alongside parked cars tend to get covered up with snow and debris.

"The plows can try to push the snow against the cars, but as soon as the cars leave the parking spaces they'll push the snow right back into the bike lane," says Bartek Komorowski, a planner and consultant with Montreal bicycle consulting agency Vélo Québec, who bikes to work daily year-round.

"When you're not on protected lanes, the usable road width decreases."

Stay focused

Parking enforcement officer Angelo Franceschinis is a member of the Toronto Police Service's bike lane enforcement team and typically spends his entire shift bicycling across Toronto, ensuring that vehicles aren't parked or stopped in bike lanes.

With 22 years of service as a bike patrol officer, Franceschinis has clocked more winter cycling hours than the majority of commuters. His top tip is to be aware of your surroundings, staying focused on the road and conditions.

"I stay proactive, and I always assume there's black ice everywhere," he says. "Scanning is a big deal [when] cycling — always know what's in front of you."

Slow down

Winter cyclists should travel at a slower pace than they do the rest of the year, both Franceschinis and Komorowski say, and be especially careful when making turns.

"If it's dry pavement, you can pretty much go at a faster pace, but whenever the elements come across, you want to reduce [your] speed by about 40 per cent [or] 30 per cent," Franceschinis says. It might take longer, but so does driving or taking transit during a storm.

Franceschinis also recommends using your rear brake instead of your front brake in the winter. "I maintain my control of the bike with a proper speed and the best thing for that is never to use the front brake, because that's going to make you totally out of control."

Lower tire pressure

To stay in control of their bikes, cyclists can also deflate their tires slightly, Komorowski says. "You'll have better traction if more of your tire is in contact with the surface."

To do so, check the pressure range printed by the manufacturer on the inner tire walls and inflate the tires to the lower end of that range (but not below, as this can damage wheels and rims).

"If you're a frequent bike rider in the winter, it might be worth considering studded tires," Komorowski adds, especially for daily riders in snowier cities like Montreal or Winnipeg. "They're kind of like winter car tires. They're also made of a softer compound, so generally they just grip the road better."

Mind the conditions

More so than in the rest of the year, conditions can change suddenly in winter. Cycling can be a matter of knowing when to get off the road and take transit, ask for a ride or wait out a storm.

"Black ice is the big challenge, I think, and slushy conditions," says Franceschinis. "Traction can become an issue." He recommends being cautious about biking and keeping safety top of mind if the weather gets bad, adding that riders should also account for reduced visibility due to rain.

Komorowski advises getting off the road during freezing rain, as it can coat your bike in ice. He observes an increase in single-bike accidents in the winter, "falls, essentially, so people aren't necessarily crashing [into vehicles or infrastructure], but they are more likely to slip and fall."

Keep your bike tuned up

"Keep everything oiled," says Komorowski. "Bikes work fine in the winter, provided that you make sure that your cables and your brake pivots are well oiled. Use a very light bike oil, like Tri-Flow... you don't want those things seizing up when it's a bit colder."

That goes for your lock as well — a few drops of oil can save you standing outside in frigid weather trying to jam a tiny key into a frozen lock. "It's not like you have to re-oil it all winter — just once in November. Put a few drops in the two sockets if you have a U-lock, where the U goes in, and the keyhole," he explains.

Dirt and road salt can also do a number on your bike's components, so this may be the time to leave an expensive bike at home.

Stay warm — but don't overdo it

Expensive winter biking gear isn't strictly necessary. "I don't think you need to throw money at this; just dress as you would if you were going for a walk," Komorowski says.

He typically bikes in his office clothes and a relatively light jacket, since heat is generated while riding. "It depends on your circulation. I have one colleague who tends to have cold hands and cold feet, so he invests a little more in his gloves."

Franceschinis suggests layering, particularly given how conditions can change, noting he's often seen Toronto cyclists shivering at the side of the road. "Proper layering, being really warm out there, [with a] proper balaclava — that basically keeps your body temperature at a consistent place."

Light it up

"Lighting is more important in the winter, because you're almost guaranteed to have at least one of your commutes in the dark," Komorowski says. A decent flashing white spotlight in front and a red rear light should suffice, but cyclists can consider other measures such as high-visibility vests, depending on their location.

"It's good to be visible, particularly in cities in Canada where winter cycling perhaps isn't as widespread as it is [in Montreal]," Komorowski says. "It's a question of motorists not necessarily always expecting you, so be visible. Give them forewarning."

If you're driving

The best thing drivers can do is be aware of winter cyclists. Franceschinis recommends that drivers triple-check for cyclists when turning and be more vigilant about clearing snow and ice off of windows, especially their rear windows.

He recalls seeing drivers with small, selective patches removed make dangerous turns in front of bike riders. "If they'd clean off their windows, they would get a better view of cyclists coming down the lane," he says.

Just by getting on your bike in the winter, you'll be helping to make winter biking more widely accepted. "There's been a change in behaviour and attitude over the years. I've been cycling in the winter for a long time and there used to be this kind of an attitude, 'Why are you cycling? You're insane,'and I think [now] it's become much more commonplace," says Komorowski.

"I used to see one or two [cyclists] on my way to work. I see 40 or 50 now."


Laura Kenins is a writer, editor and graphic novelist. Currently based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Halifax, Latvia and Hungary. Follow her at @birch_control.

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