Winter cycling: 5 tips for riding in the sleet and snow

The CBC's Giacomo Panico rides his bicycle all year round, even on the coldest days and in blowing snow. He says riding a bike in the winter is easier than you think and he provided five tips to make it easier.
Cassandra Fulgham tweeted this photo on Dec. 3 and wrote: "Had a great #ottbike in this morning; great conditions. I especially liked my brand new upright handlebars! Comfy!" (courtesy of Cassandra Fulgham)

Very often, people’s reaction to hearing I bike all year round is surprise.

It exposes a problem with many people’s perception of cycling in general, at least in North America, that riding a bike is complex. It doesn’t have to be, and that applies to winter biking, too.

If you already commute by bike in the warmer months, it isn’t a huge transition.

Riding on snow can be a bit tricky, but with some adjustments you can easily gain the confidence to ride all year long.

So with that in mind, here are my five quick tips for pedalling your way through an Ottawa winter.

1. You don’t need a special winter bike

In fact, simpler is better. A single-speed bike (not the same as a fixed gear "fixie") means fewer moving parts and it's less likely to freeze up.

As for the style of bike, consider using an upright bike since it will allow you to sit in a more relaxed and comfortable position.

Upright bikes also have the advantage of easily accepting wider tires and a rear rack for panniers, making them perfect for commuting to work.

(Giacomo Panico)
No matter which bike you go with, try to make sure it can accommodate fenders. More often than not you’ll be dealing with wet, slushy roads, so fenders are a big help in staying dry and riders following you will also greatly appreciate it.

2. Consider a studded tire or two

While you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, consider using a studded tire. At roughly $80 each they aren’t cheap, but they do offer better control.

One option is to only install one studded tire. If you decide to go that route, make it the front tire.

3. Don't spend hundreds on specialized clothing (you likely don’t need)

If you walk outside in the winter, chances are you already have everything you need to bike in the winter.

Got a long winter coat? Go for it (another advantage of riding an upright bike). Combine it with a shell over your work pants.

You can spend some money and buy a specialized balaclava, but you can just wrap a good scarf around your face.

When the mercury really drops, I like to pre-heat my mitts and boots on the heating register (or the computer fan at work).

If old man winter is feeling particularly angry, consider hand and toe warming pockets. If you bring a Ziploc bag to work, you can seal them during your shift and they’ll still be good when it’s time to ride home.

4. Light it up!

When it comes to riding in the dark winter months, I tend to double the number of lights on my bike.

On the front I go with two lights; one steady and the other flashing. Ditto for the rear in red.

You can even get lights that screw onto your tire valve which turn on when your wheels spin.

5. Have fun

While cycling on a snowy surface can be a bit tricky at first, you do get used to it and your confidence will build. And don’t forget, most days you aren’t riding on snow you’re riding on wet pavement, so it’s not a huge adjustment.

Yes, biking in the winter can be cold, but so can walking or standing waiting for a bus. I don’t ride in the winter to prove something. I do it because it’s really practical and it’s a fun way to commute. Remember, it’s not a race.

Enjoy the ride.


Giacomo Panico

CBC Reporter and Host

You can reach Giacomo by email