Tag: Snow

How to ride a bike in snow

Winter Cycling in Calgary

Riding through snow can be a little tricky, but also offers one of the great pleasures of cycling. Photo by Tom Babin.

There are plenty of challenges to riding a bike in winter, and sometimes they threaten to overwhelm its enjoyableness. But one thing that will always give the season a unique pleasure: Snow.

Once you get past the fear of slipping and falling (more on this later), snow offers an experience unlike any other you’ll have on a bike. Snow brings a magic to an environment, muffling the sound and brightening the night and creating a sense of timelessness and intimacy. When you cut through all of that on a bike, it can be an unforgettable moment.

But you can’t do that if you’re white-knuckled on your handlebars out of fear. Here are a few tips:

Embrace packed snow

Contrary to the impressions created by a lifetime of television ads for snow tires, packed snow isn’t the enemy of a wheel. In fact, packed snow offers fantastic traction for bicycles, and if you’ve never ridden on it, you might find yourself squealing in delight the first time you round a corner. If your city is advanced enough to have designated bike routes and is even more advanced to have embraced the idea of leaving these routes with a base layer of packed snow, congratulations. You will have a great winter on your bicycle.

If your city has yet to come around, you may have to do some searching. The best packed snow comes from routes that have light foot and bike traffic. Occasionally, you can find these conditions on a road with light car traffic, but even one too many cars can compress the snow down into an slick sandwich. Find the routes most conducive to packed snow and enjoy.

Winter Cycling in Calgary

Safe bike routes that are well maintained in winter are key to happy winter cycling in cities. Photo by Tom Babin.

Find the right tire

Winters differ in every city. Thankfully, there is a bike company out there trying to make a buck off this fact. Choose your winter bike style based on the type of snow city in which you live. If your climate is prone to giant dumps of wet, heavy snow, you might want to invest in a fat bike, with its ultra-wide tires built specifically for winter. If your city gets dustings of light powder, a thin road tire that cuts through to the asphalt below may be the best option. If your city is prone to icing because of freeze-melt cycles all winter long, invest in a studded tire.

No matter which route you choose, there are tire options available these days for just about any condition that will keep you upright and smiling all season.

Adjust your riding style

  • Slow down.
  • Don’t lean into turns.
  • If there is fresh powder, even remnants of it on a road criss-crossed with others’ tracks, steer toward it. It’s less likely to be made up of slippery compressed bits.
  • Avoid the snirt.
  • Pick a winter-friendly route to your destination.

Know when to throw in the towel

No matter what kind of winter hero you’ve become, there may come a time when the snow will get the best of you. A bike has yet to be invented to get through massive accumulations and giant drifts. When it comes to snow, volume is the winter-bike killer — there is just no way to push through snow that is deeper than about two feet. In such cases, it’s OK to leave your bike at home for a day or two, until plows, fellow pathway users or Mother Nature have improved conditions.

The first US National Fat Bike Championship in Ogden, Utah on Feb. 14, 2015.

Fat bikes are super fun, and will give you some confidence for your winter commute. Photo by Tom Babin.

Try a fat bike

Not only have fat bikes opened up a whole new season to cycling, they are a great recreational training ground for your bike commute. Give one a try. You’ll find fat biking as fun and exhilarating as mountain biking, buta little slower and a little less technical as the snow tends to cover up the rocks and roots that littler most mountain bike trails. Added bonus: The snow will dampen your falls. Seriously, it’s a blast.

Enjoy the ride

Now that we got that out of the way, here’s what you can look forward to: In the early darkness of a winter evening, during which most of the city has retreated to their houses, you’ll be outdoors beneath the snowfall enjoying the moment. Your movement will keep you warm, the snow will brighten the night by reflecting the streetlights, and you will be enjoying the reptilian-brain satisfaction that comes from cutting fresh tracks through the snow. Your body’s feel-good exercise pheromones will be pumping, you’ll feel the freedom of avoiding lines of crawling cars, and you’ll make good time. Best of all, you’ll be outdoors enjoying the moments that most everyone else will have missed.

Have fun.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

This is the one thing you should be frightened of while riding your bike in winter

Riding a bike is only the best thing ever, so of course you want to do it all winter long. But you’re frightened. All that cold, snow and ice is intimidating.

But after more than a decade of riding through northern winters, I’ve learned a secret: Those are not the things you should be afraid of.

Cold, for example, is the easiest problem for a winter cyclist to tackle. Pedalling legs are like bellows of your internal furnace: Once they get moving, your body will warm. In fact, the real risk in winter is dressing too warmly.

Snow? Pshaw. Snow may have been a problem at some point, but there are plenty of ways to deal with snow these days. Fat bikes will get you through pretty much anything shallower than your shin. A taxpayer-funded snow plow clearing a bike lane in a timely way is even better.

And don’t worry about ice. If you live in an ice-prone area, studded tires are like the magical traction fairies of winter. Even putting a single studded tire on the front of wheel of your bike will work wonders. Two studded tires will make you feel like you’re riding a Zamboni.

Nope, those are easy problems to deal with. What you really need to worry about is this:

Snirt. Example of snow on the roads mixed with dirt

That mashed-potato mixture of snow and dirt is snirt, the most worrying part of a winter bike commute. Photo by Tom Babin.

This is snirt. It’s a deadly mixture of snow and dirt (hence, snirt), mashed together by passing vehicles into a loose, soft concoction that seems sent from a wintry hell to make your blissful winter ride worrisome.

Snirt. Example of snow on the roads mixed with dirt

Snow and ice is no problem for my winter commute. This stuff, however, is worrying. Photo by Tom Babin.

Snirt is an unfortunate side effect of urban winter, and it’s worrying because it tends to lift up bikes and float them around in unpredictable ways. Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with all kinds of snow, ice and cold, but snirt is the one element that still gives me willies in the night.

There are ways to minimize the impact of snirt. I’ve found that two extremes make a difference. A skinny road bike tire can sometimes cut through small batches of snirt to the more stable stuff below, and a fat-bike tire can sometimes power through it (studs in both cases certainly help). But I’ve yet to find a fool-proof tactic for staying stable in all cases.

So here’s my advice: Learn to live with snirt. You can’t beat it, so give it respect. Avoid it wherever you can. That may mean choosing a route that avoids unplowed side streets. It may mean choosing a line of shallow snirt through a deeper pile of snirt. It may mean riding for a short stretch on a section of the road (or, ahem, sidewalk) that is cleared, even if you’d normally avoid doing so. It may mean getting off and walking through certain patches. Or it may mean taking transit for a day or two after a snowfall until the plows have come by.

Once you’ve come to terms with the reality of snirt, you’ve officially vanquished all legitimate fears about riding in winter. Which means you can get back to enjoying the ride. And in winter, few things are as fun and rewarding as a good bike ride.

Follow Shifter on Facebook or Medium.

Follow Tom Babin on TwitterFacebook or Medium.

Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

10 new year’s resolutions for your winter-bike commute

You’re fat off shortbread and turkey. The consumer orgy haze of Dec. 25 still lingers. You can remember nothing on New Year’s Eve after Mariah Carey. Sounds like the perfect time to start a new habit!

So here, future winter cyclist, are some suggestions to get you going in 2017.

Resolve to ride more

When you’re staring out your window at blowing snow and icicles, it’s easy to talk yourself out of riding your bike. “It’s too cold,” or “It’s too slippery,” or “The elaborate series of mental defenses that I rely on to convince myself that winter doesn’t exist have temporarily broken down.”

So your first resolution is to push through those nay-saying thoughts. Remember, there are easy ways to deal with the cold, snow and ice (warm clothes, well-chosen routes, and slowing down, respectively), and riding a bike to work in winter feels great, keeps you in shape, and makes the season a little less intimidating. You’ll almost never regret riding, but if you’re like me, you’ll kick yourself all day when you avoid riding on a day when you could have.

Resolve to avoid becoming a winter-cycling masochist

Sure, it’s great to commit to riding your bike more in winter, but there’s no reason to be a zealot. If the weather drops below where you feel comfortable riding, if the plows haven’t been to your neighbourhood yet, or if an overnight ice storm freezes your studded tires to your lawn, don’t feel pressured to ride. Take transit, car pool or drive your automobile. There’s nothing to be gained by punishing yourself. Even riding a few times a month during the winter is a win, so don’t feel guilty for taking days off. Keep it fun and realistic.

Resolve to stop bragging

I get it. When you beat the elements on your bike and waltz into work with a steaming head and your feel-good pheromones raging, while everybody else is huddled against the cold and complaining, it’s tempting to brag. Your co-workers will encourage it by expressing disbelief that you’d be crazy-brave enough to ride in this weather. Resist the urge. You are not tough for riding a bike in winter. You are not exceptional. People do it all over the world every day. Bragging about it makes winter cycling seem like something reserved for macho athletes, not right-thinking norms who just want to get to work on time. Winter cycling will never get into the mainstream if everyone who does it brags about it. Stop it.Tom_Babin_IMG_2210

Resolve to try a fat bike

It’s a bike with monster-truck tires. It tears through powder. And it’s a blast.

Fat-biking has been one of the great bike-industry success stories of the past decade, and with every major bike maker now pushing multiple models, this is the time to try it. Rent a bike, and go find some snow-covered trails or some fresh powder in your ‘hood. Finish at a coffee shop for some apres-bike warmth. Even if you don’t regularly ride a bike for recreation, give one a try. It may change the way you think about your winter commute, and you’ll have fun.

Resolve to stay bright

Unless you are a cat burgler or Batman, the darkness of winter can be a challenge when riding a bike. The good news is that LED technology has made bike lights much more affordable and efficient than they once were. So buy them, share them, charge them, and use them, for your bike, your body and your wheels. The more the merrier. Here are my basic guidelines: Two white ones of the front, two red ones on the back (two lights, according to some studies, make it easier for motorists to judge your distance). Make sure they are pointing to the ground and not into the eyes of passersby. Refrain from blinking lights unless you feel the added visibility is absolutely necessary. Don’t rely on reflectors.

Resolve to use the right stuff

Choosing the right gear can make your winter commuting life easier. Fenders are great. Studded tires work wonders on ice. A good base layer of merino wool will keep you toasty. Decent gloves and footwear are important. Lights are key (see previous resolution). Making good choices in winter will just make your life easier.

Resolve to never get carried away with the gear

Everything mentioned in resolution No. 7 stands, but let’s not go overboard. As much fun as it is, you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on gear in order to ride a bike in winter. A junker of a bike may work better for you than a shiny new model because snow, salt and slush can quickly rust your components. Cheap old winter boots will keep your feed just as warm as those $600 fat-bike boots. A good pair of ski mittens may work just as well as those expensive pogies. I’ve used the same bargain-basement balaclava beneath my helmet for years. All kinds of great winter-bike gear is now available, thanks to the popularity of fat bikes, and it is certainly nice to have. But very little of it is essential. Just get out there and ride.

Resolve to bring a friend

Somewhere in your office is a summer cyclist who longingly watches with envy as you ride your bike home through the snow. Alas, an irrational fear of winter is clogging the brain of that poor cyclist. Help that person. Offer a nudge. Explain how much you love riding in winter, provide some gentle advice, and deliver support until they feel comfortable. Don’t shame that person if they don’t do it because, well, nobody likes an asshole. But everybody likes that helpful and encouraging friend who inspires them.

Resolve to make your city more winter-bike friendly

Great bike cities all look the same in the summer — well build, safe and connected bike lanes inhabited by smiling, happy people on bikes. Winters, however, are different everywhere, so cities that are serious about becoming bike-friendly must adapt to local conditions. Encourage your city to help make it easier. The first step is to improve overall bike-friendliness. Advocate for improved policies, laws and funding for bike infrastructure. Once a good network of safe bike lanes is built, make sure the city is maintaining that infrastructure in the winter by plowing it efficiently, de-icing it when necessary, and, generally, taking the job seriously. Remember: If you plow it, they will come.

Resolve to enjoy winter

Winter can be dark. It can be cold. It can be harsh. But winter can also be a time of great beauty, pleasure and renewal. If you spend most of the season hiding from winter, you are unlikely to enjoy it, and even more unlikely to try riding a bike through it. So change your attitude. Find something you enjoy in winter — skiing, skating, a winter festival, walks in the snow, licking telephone poles — and commit to doing it. The more positive experiences you have in winter, the less you’ll feel intimidated by it. That is the first step to having a well-adjusted relationship with winter. You may never love it, but if you move beyond hatred and dread, your life will be much better. And someday, you may find yourself riding a bike through it.



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