Lessons From my First Winter of Bicycling

This winter is the first one that I’ve bicycled to work. Other winters would see me retire the bike or run commute in favour of the car in October-ish.

Winter Mountain Biker
Winter bike commuting isn't quite this fun.

I was really nervous about the winter commute before I started. Like most, my memory of winter automobile commuting is about shoveling the driveway before work and sliding around unplowed streets. These are exceptions not the norm though, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from winter biking.

Probably a bit better than mid-way through my first winter of biking and this is what I wished I knew before I started. It wouldn’t change my mind though, just relieved some of my anxiety.

  1. This is Waterloo specific. Your commute is going to be much, much easier if you are travelling north-south in Waterloo. There is no decent bike infrastructure linking east and west. If you’re going N-S, you have the Iron Horse trail.
  2. Not everyday is an icy slippery mess. You’ll have some days like this. They actually stretch out for several days after a good snowfall (due to point 3). But for the most part, winter here is dry and the roads are made of salt.
  3. Snow clearing from bike lanes is only priority on paper. Again, maybe specific to Waterloo only. After a snowfall, you can expect to stay out of the bike lanes for a good while. Some roads are excepted. Bridge St. Seems to have bike lanes cleared quickly, but Columbia St. was a mess for months.
  4. People will think you are impoverished. There’s a great many trail blazers at my office who have broken the stereotype before I took up winter cycling. But in my other person interactions, there’s a fair amount of pity that I pick up on when I say I bike to work. I don’t usually try to correct their perceptions. It’s easier to be the object of pity.
  5. Don’t be timid about biking in traffic. I ranted a bit against vehicular cycling last year. I still think that VC isn’t necessary if decent infrastructure is provided and maintained. However, in the winter months, you can expect to assert your right to the road more often. Or, bike in the snowbank. Make sure to stay out of partially cleared bike lanes, they make you unpredictable to motorists.
  6. Motorists are not out to get you. They are mostly courteous and allow me lots of space. Some come too close and honk for no reason. I prefer to think of them as ignorant, not malevolent. This dispelled a bit of a paranoid fantasy I had about winter biking. If you share it, you can relax, drivers are good if ignorant.

As I write the list, I realize I could go on and on about what I know now. Might be fun if there’s a collaborative list going in the comments section though. If you’re reading, you should feel compelled to add to it.

18 thoughts on “Lessons From my First Winter of Bicycling

  1. Good post – particularly about the N-S orientation. I ride (in the summer) from West Waterloo to downtown Kitchener and the E-W portion seems to consist of endless left turns, in both directions.

    How is your bike holding up in the salt?

  2. Bike is bad with salt. The derailleur and chain are a total mess. I think the best thing a winter biker can do is ride near-free junk until April then break out the road bike.

    Graham’s saga seems to support my theory.

  3. That’s pretty bang on.

    1. St. Catharines doesn’t really have any east-west or north south-routes. The closest thing we have is the Welland Canal trail which connects the north and south, however it is on the edge of town in the east end. Doesn’t come close to the downtown or any major retail/business areas. As far as I know it’s not maintained during the winter.
    StC is laid out quite differently then Kitchener is. The downtown “spokes” out into multiple directions, which means there are a number of major streets that connect east-west and north-south.

    2. Some like to claim we receive 8 months of winter. So far there has been only one day this year that I haven’t been able to ride…Of course with what is suppose to be coming tomorrow I suspect it will be worse.
    At the most there are probably 10 days throughout the winter the average beginner wouldn’t be able to handle…Before this year I missed two days in 7 years.

    3. One reason I had to walk one day this year. Snow was pushed into the bike lanes. Only the bike lane outside my house was cleared. Side streets are a complete mess.

    4. I’m not sure how much this exists with people here. Perhaps when you live in an area with high unemployment people assume everyone is impoverished.

    5. That’s tough, because legally speaking there is nothing wrong with riding in the middle of the road if it’s needed. On the other hand I find motorists are more aggressive and annoyed this time of year.

    6. In previous years I never had an issue with motorists in the winter. This year I’ve encountered far more people who are leaving just a few centimetres to pass, though this tends to only occur when the bike lanes are snow/ice covered and I’m riding outside of them.

    Bike maintenance is an issue this time of year. Clearing the snow, slush and ice off is pretty important so everything doesn’t rust up. My chain has already changed colour twice, to a dull orange.

    Best of luck to everyone should we receive the major snowfall in the next couple of days. Warnings are already being issued for Niagara, for people to stay off the roads with their cars.

  4. This is also my first winter for cycling and love it! I hate being a slave to my car and I’m finally free during the winter.
    The Iron Horse is incredible, seriously. It has become my winter route (luckily my commute is always N/S and pretty damn close to the trail).

    A few things I have learned riding through all types of weather this year:
    -you will never be as fast as your summer ride (so don’t try, you’ll just sweat more!)
    -studded tires=confidence in the winter (it’s worth the $$ to keep rubber side down)
    -Winter Gear; old winter hiking boots work great (and straps on pedals), wind/waterproof pants/jacket (preferably not heavy), MEC winter gloves (thanks Santa), thin hat under helmet and bella-clava for colder days, saddle bags, and fenders

    I keep a can of WD40 by my bike in our parking garage and it keeps everything moving smoothly…although there’s a few gears I skip over now.

    I find buses to be very courteous, taxi’s are alright, cars have been pretty nice, pickups a little less, garbage trucks are downright deadly, and large rental trucks are always avoided.

    Hopefully not too many centimeters fall and I can still ride this week!

  5. This is my first year of biking on a regular basis, and I’ve been riding my Dutch bike most days this winter. No problems with the enclosed chain or gears/brakes (none of which I’ve touched), but it looks like I’ll have to replace the pedals / pedal cranks as they’ve started rusting. I’m also contemplating getting some battery-powered lights, as the “stand light” feature for the rear light doesn’t work well in the cold.

    I’ve had to upgrade my non-bike-specific winter gear. I’m considering picking up some ski goggles to help with snow-in-your-face days.

    What’s bad isn’t snow in general, but slush or any significant accumulation of wet snow. That stuff is slippery. You have to be careful on turns. And you shouldn’t be going fast in general.

    I’ve found the multi-use trails to be hit or miss, and sidewalks are just horrible. When in doubt, I go around on bigger roads. And unless there is a significant stretch of open, cleared bike lane, I stay only in the well-cleared area, generally in the right wheel track. Winter – that’s where I’m a vehicular cyclist. At least on roads that aren’t designed for 60+ km/h.

    Many bike racks are covered with snowbanks, which sucks.

    Anyway, the hype about winter cycling implied that I am hardcore for doing it. It doesn’t apply to my experience so far.

    1. @Michael: Many bike racks are covered with snowbanks, which sucks.

      I’m totally with you on that. Outside Valumart at Uptown Waterloo, they’ve cleared snow from every inch of the sidewalk and parking lot *except* the bike rack, which seems to have extra snow. And the removed the benches from the south side of the mall, so that’s not an option either.

      It’s pretty frustrating to be treated so poorly. It makes me want to bring my dripping bike into the mall.

  6. @Rob: “I don’t usually try to correct their perceptions. It’s easier to be the object of pity.”

    Hahaha… a great line in a great article. I agree – I’ve had a great time biking this winter and had only positive interactions with drivers.

    Here’s my only lesson: Last year, I brought my bike inside after every ride to dry off and warm up. My bike was getting a little rusty, and someone suggested the change of temperature might be making things worse. This year, I’ve left it outside, though covered, when not in use aaaand… it’s getting way rustier. I’m not sure if those things are connected (maybe there is more snow and salt this year than last?) but it certainly wasn’t a miracle cure. On the other hand, it’s way less work to leave it outside. =)

  7. I’ve really enjoyed commuting this year, I’ve been riding all year for a while, and doing a 10k commute for two winters now and it’s been quite pleasant. Davenport is a mess along with Columbia for bike lanes but I don’t encounter much traffic when I go to and from work, so no issues for me.

    I also love the iron horse for being plowed frequently. The salt sucks for frames but I’ve yet to encounter any circumstances where I’d need studded tires. Fenders with full coverage will save you some mess and help if it gets warm and wt.

    I haven’t missed a ride to work yet this year… got two machines for winter riding, the regular derailer commuter and a single speed with a front drum brake (it’s getting a 5 speed IGH soon) so I can ride the regular commuter on dry days and get the other bike out for bad weather.

  8. Great post Rob!
    1. Belt drives suck or there’s no such thing as a maintenance free bike!
    2. Salt sucks, I wish they didn’t use it!
    3. As other posters have claimed, love the Iron Horse this year. Can’t remember it being plowed so well. (I’m curious to see how it makes out if we get a wallop of snow). Mind you it’s super bumpy these days on stretch through Waterloo Park.
    4. Need to figure out how and where to clean my bike! Just don’t see using water at -20 working too well. Does Recycle Cycle have a spot to bring in bikes just for a cleaning?
    5. Finally broke out the balaclava and the ski pants the last week or so with the colder weather. It really does make cycling more comfortable. (Haven’t succumbed to ski googles yet, but I regularly wear clear cycling glasses.)

    1. Generally you can come in and clean a bike up at recycle cycles, just call them up 519-749-9177 ext. 222 and check to see they have a stand but it’s usually pretty quiet in the winter, lube and stand time is free of charge too.

      I’m lucky that my workplace is a small machine shop so I have space to bring my bike in and let it drip-dry. I just wipe down all the drivetrain stuff with an oily rag and liberally apply more lube (either automatic tranny fluid or motor oil) and let it seep in and then wipe off the excess. I have some rust on my cogs and chain but it’s only surface rust at this point and if I can get a chance to clean the chain off the bike in mineral spirits and then give it a soak in some oil to really lube it up nicely I think it’ll last me for another 3000km, at least.

      I’ve found the best way to keep my bike clean is to ride in the car tire tracks, they are all generally free of snow and slush by the day after, so that helps big time. I’m lucky that I commute outside of rush hour though. And it’s not much help on the day of a big snowfall, like this supposed snowmageddon we got.

  9. @Michael: “Anyway, the hype about winter cycling implied that I am hardcore for doing it. It doesn’t apply to my experience so far.”

    …couldn’t agree more. Whenever I say “my ride in today wasn’t too bad” the response is usually along the lines of “what, are you insane? You actually biked in this!? What is wrong with you? I sat in my car with my coffee and was still cold!”.

    Winter riding is NOT that difficult. Just have to get off your butt and harden up…eh! I would compare winter riding to, well, ANY other winter activity. Such as skiing (of any kind), snowshoeing, skating, toboganning….how about anything where you are outside for more than 10 minutes! Winter is guaranteed to come around once a year (at least for the next 1000 years) so you might as well figure out how to embrace it!

    1. It’s like walking, except with a bit more wind chill and more condensation from breathing. The risk of falling is probably no different. The only difference is that you have to compete for space with cars, but that’s not winter-specific.

  10. In case anyone’s interested, there’s a bike race on an ice rink in Toronto this weekend.

    Saturday, February 12 · 6:00pm – 9:00pm
    Dufferin Grove Ice Rink
    $5 to sit in the players boxes rinkside.

    Proof that bicycles and winter go hand in hand. Fun fun fun.

  11. New lesson: Slush might not look as slippery as ice, but it can be very very slippery nonetheless.

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