Cycling through the snow: How to make winter biking less daunting

·3 min read

When snow covers the ground and roads ice over, cycling through the city can feel completely different from summer riding.

People who worry about going to gyms or other indoor winter activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, may look to winter cycling as a safer option.

Transitioning to winter cycling can be easier than it appears at first glance.

This month, CBC's Edmonton AM is profiling different ways to stay active during the winter, and winter cycling is one that's seeing a surge of interest.

Shops like Pedalhead Bicycle Works said earlier this fall they've seen double the interest in winter cycling this year.

At Redbike in Edmonton's Garneau neighbourhood, a year-over-year increase is seeing a dramatic uptick this year, according to co-owner Cliff Vallentgoed.

Winter cycling can be a daunting slog, Vallentgoed said, but can also offer wonderful, rewarding moments. For new winter cyclists, Vallentgoed offered some advice for the season.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Staying warm

There are two kinds of winter cyclists, Vallentgoed said: commuters and active cyclists.

Commuters' ride to work or school might be short enough they could bundle up as they normally would, especially their face, feet and hands, and not worry about overheating.

But for active cyclists on longer rides, "the old axiom about dressing in layers very much holds true," Vallentgoed said.

Fabrics that are moisture wicking or have better temperature control are ideal, he said.

Traction on winter roads

The most common concern Vallentgoed hears is about traction on the ice and snow.

Fat bikes are popular for winter cycling as they are sturdier and put more rubber on the road, Vallentgoed said. With their wider tires, they can ride over ruts in the snow.

"The terrain varies day-to-day, week-to-week because of snow pack and tread with the motorists," Vallentgoed said. "So having a wide tread allows you to stay on track and avoid crashing due to undulating surfaces."

If you're sticking with your mountain bike, Vallentgoed recommends you opt for studded tires which come in all sizes.

Winter cycling on a budget

Before studded tires became popular, cyclists often made their own using metal screws. Vallentgoed said making your own is an inexpensive project.

Buy sheet metal screws and duct tape from a hardware store and look online for a DIY studded-tires guide.

For the bike itself, Vallentgoed recommends finding an inexpensive used mountain bike.

Getting out on the road

Once you have your bike and your winter wear, hitting the road can still be intimidating.

"If it is icy, even if you have the most aggressive studded tires out there, you still need to ride with caution," Vallentgoed said.

The conditions that can be most challenging are what Edmonton is seeing right now, fresh snow on side streets mixed with traction aides like grit and sand, Vallentgoed said.

This mix is fiendishly hard to ride through, Vallentgoed said, and cyclists have to be prepared to only have a vague feeling of control as their bikes float atop the cornmeal.

Fat tires can smash through this material and very skinny tires can cut through it to a degree to find a firmer base, he said.

For cyclists sticking to the main roads, they should be aware of motorists who may have their own issues with traction. The most important thing is to stay visible with flashing lights, even in the daytime, Vallentgoed said.

Major roads are the way to go for cyclists who feel comfortable riding in the flow of traffic. Others might stick to side streets or bike paths.

With this advice in mind, Vallentgoed said winter cycling is surprisingly easy, and it can be calming and therapeutic once you get the hang of it.

"It's a habit we want people to start doing and continue on doing," Vallentgoed said.