A Canadian winter causes more wear on two-wheeled transporters; harsh weather, slush and the dirt contained in slush often call for a dedicated, winter-ready bike. Some cyclists prefer to use different components like fenders or wheels that can be tailored to a seasonal cycle. Start with any type of bike that you’re comfortable riding and handling. Your current bicycle (with a few modifications) can be used as well. Think carefully before taking that nice road or downhill bike out in the middle of February.
Wide tires with a good tread (a.k.a. “knobby ones”) will provide better traction on ice than narrow or slick tires. Some prefer narrower tires for their ability to cut through snow and slush to make contact with the pavement below. Somewhere in the middle is practical. A 1.75” mountain bike tire or a 32C road bike tire is sufficient and should fit with most bicycles. Just be sure tires will fit your wheels and frame before buying. Studded tires are a commonly discussed option that is available in sizes for both mountain and road bikes. Metal studs in the tire tread increase traction in icy conditions. For best results, try letting some air out of the tires (about 15 per cent) when ice is expected. The tires will compress, putting more tread and studs in contact with pavement. Don’t get too confident – studded tires offer no advantage when riding through snow, and may wear out from pavement riding.
More diligence is needed. Wipe your bike after each ride. Lubricate your chain with all-weather lube regularly (every 100km, or every two weeks). Run the chain through every gear after lubricating. Be watchful of any moving part that is showing rust or is slowed by gunk. Use stainless steel cables for breaks and derailleurs if possible. Non-stainless cable will rust and need replacing sooner.
Single speed drivetrains with fewer components that need to be maintained or might break down are a boon in the winter. A fixed-gear drivetrain offers a unique advantage for winter cycling; the drive moves along with every movement of the rear wheel (unlike a freewheel system where the wheel spins while the drivetrain coasts). Every slip of the wheel is felt in the pedals, providing feedback to the rider on exactly how much traction he/she has. For easier maintenance without committing to a single gear ratio, consider an internal gear system. Internal gear systems are most commonly built into the hub of the rear wheel and have two or three gears (though internal gear hubs with more gears are available). Many internal gear hubs also include a brake as well, doing away with another external component.
Biking generates body heat that will warm you as you ride, so dress enough to keep warm but don’t over do it. Focus on staying dry and protecting extremities (hands, feet, face and ears) from wind. Gloves are better for grabbing handlebars, pulling brake levers and shifting gears. Mittens get in the way of shifting and braking more but they keep your fingers together for better warmth. Wear a thinner toque that fits comfortably under your helmet. Sunglasses are a good idea for bright days.
FENDERS Winter bikes have a tough life. Slush will soak your bike’s components with dirt and water. First order of business is to use fenders, the longer, the better. This is an easy (and vital) upgrade for any winter bicycle. Make the addition even more effective with splash guards. These rubber flaps guard your face and clothes in the front, while the person riding down-wind will thank you for a rear splash guard.
Give yourself more distance when braking to stop safely. If the brakes are acting slippery, lightly pump your brakes a few times to dry them off before making a stop. Respect ice. Slow down. Even small patches can put you on your ass. Leave early, allow extra time to get to your destination. Be visible. Carry bright front and rear lights for times when it is dark or snowy or both. Ride where you can be seen. As snow piles up, roads will narrow and bike lanes will disappear. Take the lane with confidence if there is little room to share with another vehicle safely. Regional roads and roads with bus routes are often the first and best plowed. Despite the quality of your winter whip, if it is particularly nasty out, don’t ride.
Andrew has lived in Kitchener-Waterloo for about one hundred years and currently resides in an apartment in the centre of the universe, Uptown (sorry not sorry, Big Smoke). These days, Andrew works as a project consultant in urban planning and writes about city people and things.