Two-wheeled winter: CBC producer takes on winter cycling

It's Radio Active producer Isabelle Gallant's first winter commuting by bike. Every two weeks, she'll be sharing some of her adventures and lessons learned along the way.

Lesson 1: What to wear in chilly weather

High gear or low?

7 years ago
Duration 0:55
CBC's Isabelle Gallant looks at clothing options for the winter bicycle enthusiast.

WATCH THIS: Video producer Rick Bremness put together this side-by-side suiting-up comparison; on the left, Isabelle models her 'low-gear' ensemble, mainly pulled together from clothing she already owned. On the right, she dons winter-cycling-specific gear recommended by a MEC expert. The difference in price point may surprise you.

I decided to bike year-round for three reasons: it's convenient, it's cheap and it keeps me fit.

My husband and I have never owned a car, so we either bike, walk, or take transit. Being on a bike is my all-time favourite way to travel, but I wasn't sure about doing it all year long.

I always thought of winter cyclists as super intense, and really hardcore — and based on this video posted by This Hour has 22 Minutes, I'm not the only one who finds the activity a little ... extreme.

But was that me? What if I fell on the ice? And wouldn't I get cold?

Then I decided to just try it. And it's been amazing.

Starting out simply

Granted, this winter in Edmonton has really been a cyclist's dream, mostly mild and not too much snow. 

As the weather began to get cooler in October and November, I was able to get away with adding an extra couple of layers, mainly using clothes I already had at home. I did buy a pair of cheap polyester exercise leggings and a thin tuque to keep my ears warm under my helmet.

But I wanted to know: when it comes to winter cycling clothes, what kind of options are out there? And once I find out, will I be tempted to invest in some higher-tech gear for a more comfortable ride? 

Then I decided to just try it. And it's been amazing.- Isabelle Gallant on overcoming winter cycling worries

To get some answers, I turned to someone who really knows his cycling clothes. Ken Miller works in the bike shop at Mountain Equipment Co-Op in Edmonton, and this is his second winter biking every day.

"The real thing you've got to deal with in winter cycling is you've got to manage the temperature and wind chill," he told me. "Even if it's not a windy day, you're creating your own wind chill while riding, so you've got to manage that." 

Shelling out for that outer shell 

On that windy note, Ken's not wrong. 
MEC's Revolution pants for women. (MEC)

On cold days, I am keenly aware of the parts of my body that are bearing the brunt of the breeze, mainly my hands, feet and also the fronts of my thighs. In the past, I've thought about buying myself some wind-proof pants, but I just didn't know if they were completely necessary.

Ken, however, told me that was a good place to start.

"For your outer layer, what you want to have is something that's wind-proof, breathable and usually waterproof as well," he said. "What that allows you to do is to vent that moisture ... the base layer and mid layer have wicked away from you."

To prove his point, he had me try on a pair of MEC's "Revolution Pants" for women.

The outer-layer pants were lightweight and comfortable, and they looked high-tech and well-made, but they ring in at $145. Worth it? I'm not sure.

Ski helmet vs. cycling helmet 

Once we'd covered base and mid-layer clothing for the rest of my body, Ken and I moved on to options to cover my head. 
The Anon Greta snowboarding helmet. (MEC)

"What I recommend myself, when you go for winter cycling, is to ditch the cycling helmet and go for a snowboard/cycling style of helmet," Ken said. "A summer helmet is designed to keep your head cool, which is exactly what you don't want in the winter." 

Snowboarding-type helmets do the opposite. They lack the vents designed for air flow, and instead have an interior liner with ear flaps designed to keep you warmer.

The helmets looked great, and the one I tried on was really comfortable, but since I've never had a cold head while riding with my regular vented helmet, I don't feel the need to buy a separate helmet just for the winter.

Lots of glove options

Pearl Izumi's P.R.O. AmFIB Lobster Gloves. (MEC)
The same goes for my hands. Ken showed me a pair of lobster-claw gloves, which look just like you'd expect based on their name. The gloves are designed to make it easier to keep your hands warm while shifting gears and braking.

If you want to up the ante even further, you can also add pogies, which are basically sleeves attached directly to your handlebars, covering the gear shift and brake levers. 

I'm sure they'd be great to have, but I think my warm ski mitts, purchased for just $17 in the junior girls' section at Winners, do just fine.

The final verdict

By now, you're probably noticing a pattern. It's fine to have options, but buying a bunch of stuff just doesn't jibe with one of the main reasons I decided to cycle year-round in the first place.

Remember? It's cheap!

So in the end, I didn't leave the store with new wind-proof pants, or ski goggles, or a merino wool top (as soft and lovely as it felt). Instead, I bought a bottle of degreaser to keep my chain clean this winter.

For me, that's a little more important.

Isabelle Gallant is a chase producer with Radio Active. When she's not tracking down stories or teaching herself how to stay on her bike in all kinds of weather, she can be found playing with her three-year-old daughter or trying out new cookie recipes.

Every two weeks, Isabelle will share some of her winter cycling adventures and lessons learned along the way.