Around this time last year I sat down and wrote a post with some great outdoor winter running tips that you can visit here. Me being a triathlete, and since outdoor winter swimming isn’t really an option for most of us, this time around I thought some outdoor winter cycling tips would be prudent.
Through the winter I do the majority of my riding indoors on the trainer. Typically those workouts are short, intense workouts lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half. When the days are short and the temperatures are cold, this will often do the trick. But if you’re training for a long distance triathlon, or building your base for cycling season, you may still want to get outdoors for your longer rides on the weekend.
For the record, I generally don’t commute or ride on busy roads during the winter as most of my riding is for fitness. So many of my rides are on pathways and back roads in the winter.
So here are a few key pointers for you from a cyclist/triathlete living in Calgary.
Winter cycling is a real thing in Canada, and I don’t just mean in Victoria where the biggest difference in riding is putting on cycling booties. Go to any bike shop and you’ll find a range of cyclocross bikes that can be rigged with studded tires for riding on hard packed snow or ice, and new fat tire bikes with crazy wide tires that run low pressures for riding on soft snow. If you’re a roadie or triathlete like me and have some Christmas bonus money burning a hole in your pocket, a cyclocross bike would make a great addition to the quiver. If you’re a mountain biker, “Fat Bikes” like the ones from Norco, Surley, and Trek will get you going through the winter months.
If you’re looking to retrofit an existing bike for riding in the winter then gear like; studded tires, fenders, mountain bike pedals or flat pedals, and front and back lights are what you’re after. Any reputable local bike shop will have knowledgeable staff that can help you turn your existing ride into a winter ride.
Similar to winter running, one of the most important things for keeping warm is a good system of layers when you choose your clothing. When temperatures hover just above or below zero, depending on your tolerance for conditions, generally you can get away with a solid base layer and winter cycling jacket. But for anything colder, a base layer made of wicking fabric, an insulator layer for warmth, and a proper cycling jacket to repel moisture, snow, and dirt is key.
In the winter, pay special attention to your hands and feet for warmth. There are a number of manufacturers that produce insulated bike gloves suitable to various temperatures. And you can find booties that fit over your bike shoes, or specially made cycling boots are available at bike shops and online. I generally stay away from road bike shoes in the winter as the ventilation made to keep your feet dry in summer will make them cold in winter.
Lastly, remember to keep your head warm and safe. Find a toque or headband that fits under your helmet, and to keep your face and neck protected, use a balaclava, neck warmer, or scarf. A pair of sunglasses will also keep your eyes from watering, and prevent anything like gravel or slush from getting obstructing your vision.
Winter is Canada means something different for almost every city. In the winter I typically stick to municipal pathways or back roads, which means when the tires hit the pavement, there are a few types of surface you can encounter during the ride. In my time winter riding I’ve seen 5 distinct surfaces that I’ve ridden on, and this is how I’ve dealt with them;
- Dry pavement- Calgary winters can be very cold and dry. Below -10C, you can actually encounter a lot of dry pavement out here, which means business as usual for riding (except for the fact that is -10C or colder). You may even be able to take a normal road bike with slick tires out in these conditions.
- Hard pack snow- This is what you’ll encounter on well travelled pathways and routes. For these conditions you’ll definitely want mountain/cyclocross tires or studded tires. Though it’s a bit more slippery, you can treat this surface more like dirt and ride with just a bit more caution.
- Ice- When you’re riding and the sun starts to reflect off of the surface in front of you, you’re probably coming up on ice. You can come up on ice anytime during the winter and you should exercise caution when riding over it. If you’re a strong rider, hold a straight line and if you have to brake, bias your braking towards the rear wheel and make sure you don’t lock up the front. If you’re not quite so confident, dismount and walk around the ice, or find another route. Safety first.
- Snow- By snow I mean fresh powder, the kind that you’d probably love to snowshoe or ski on. This can actually be a fairly tricky surface as it feels sandy and you can find the bike changing directions on you pretty easily. Unless you’re riding a Fat Bike which is perfect for this, my recommendation for this is to get up out of the saddle and keep enough speed to hold your forward momentum. If you start to lose control, aim for the snow bank.
- Slush- Well this just sucks. Typically you’ll find this on the edge of roadways or as the temperature starts to rise again. I generally try to avoid slush, as it’s often a mixture of snow, dirt, and salt. Avoid it if you can, but if you must go through it, close your mouth and get ready to get wet.
After the Ride
Be sure to wipe down your bike thoroughly after your ride. Riding in the winter will introduce your precious rig to all sorts of nasty things like super fine grit, and salt. I usually keep a dry cloth near the door so that I can wipe my bike down as soon as I get in from my ride.
Clean your chain thoroughly after every ride to keep any grit or salt from allowing rust to form. If after a day or two you do notice a little rust, don’t worry as its probably just surface rust. Use a strong environmentally friendly bike chain degreaser to clean the chain and components and be sure to lube the chain before your next ride with bike specific lubricant.
Finally, after the ride, be sure to upload your ride to Strava, mapmyride, or whatever else you track your rides with online to show your hardcoreness off to your friends. Trainer rides are a great way to focus in on your training and build a strong base for next season, but sometimes nothing is quite the same as getting out for a ride outdoors.