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Winter Cycling in Ottawa

by Graydon Patterson

This is a rather lengthy paper on my experiences cycling in winter. I commute to work all year round, this is my fourth winter doing so. I enjoyed it so much, I sold my Tracker 4x4 last winter because I never used it.

Graydon Patterson
Ottawa-Canada

Winter cycling offers the opportunity to retain, and even enhance, your cycling skills over the whole year. There are very few days during the winter in which cycling becomes impossible. If your able to cross-country ski, then your ready to cycle.

The secret to successful winter cycling is when your able to stay warm and dry, maintain hydration, minimize sweating and avoid injuries.

Weather

In Ottawa, temperatures extremes of -30 to +35 (Celsius) are not unusual, and there is an average of 2.2 metres (~6-1/2 ft) of snow in Ottawa during winter.

Weather probably has the most effect of whether people will cycle, or bus/drive.

Temperature

The air temperatures has several effects on the human physiology. The body will always attempt to retain a constant central body core temperature. In warm weather, this usually results in body sweat to lower body temperature. In cold weather, the body will close down blood flow to prevent excessive cooling., the body acts like a living radiator for temperature control. If the core temperature begins to drop, the brain will shut off blood flow to the hands and feet and then arms and legs if cooling continues. The body looses up to 40% of it’s heat through the head, but the brain will not shut off blood flow to the head for rather evident, but selfish reasons.

Blood flow also provides heat to the extremities, like hands and feet. Thus, if the body can retain it’s core temperature - it will share blood flow, and thus warmth, with other body parts.

I personally find the best cycling temperatures to be 10 to 20 above, and -15 to -25 below. The reason for this is that in the above zero temperature range, I can wear comfortable shorts and a cycling jersey and feel quite warm cycling for as long as I want without over heating. In the below zero range, the clothing also keeps me comfortable for an extended amount of time and the roads are usually wet/slush free.

I find cycling in wet -10 to 10 degree weather the most abhorrent. In winter, it seldom snows at temperatures below -15. But at temperatures at or near zero, it is frequently snowing, the roads are always slushy and wet from melting snow. Even in nice weather, the roads will be covered with melting snow/slush at the edges, making any cycling a ‘wet’ experience.

The table shows the Weather recordings I made with my ride log since 1994:

Month

Av. Temp (C)

Range (C)

Snow?

Rides

November

-0.1

-12 to 20

11 (2)

83

December

-5.3

-25 to 7

10 (1)

66

January

-11.7

-29 to 4

12 (3)

67

February

-8.7

-22 to 4

2

71

March

-2.5

-17 to 25

11 (2)

97

In these 6 winters (1994/1995 to 1999/2000), out of a total of 908 days, I cycled on 384 of them (42%). Of all those rides, there was snow on the road for only 46 of them (12%), and only 8 of those were ‘challenging’ (2%).

Wind

Beside the problems with wind in the added work needed to cycle into it, wind accelerates cooling of the body. Again, think of the body as a radiator, cold air running around the body pulls out more heat than normal. This is worsened as the temperature drops. With no wind, the cyclist is still producing his/her own wind of 15 to 30 kmh in normal cycling. Adding a wind of 20 kmh, 30 kmh or more means a wind of 35 to 60 kmh. Wind chill, the accelerated cooling effect, becomes a problem.

Exposed skin will quickly freeze, because the blood flow to the air is not sufficiently warm or fast enough to keep the skin temperature above zero.

Wind is easy to protect against, by keeping all parts of the body covered. The only difficult area to completely cover is the face. A Balaclava pulled down over your face will only leave your eyes exposed, and these should be covered by eye-wear.

Wind Chill Table

Wind KPH

Temperature (C)

0

0

5

-10

-15

-20

-25

-30

-35

-40

-45

-50

5

2.1

-2.6

-7.3

-12.0

-16.7

-21.4

-26.1

-30.8

-35.4

-40.1

-44.8

10

-3.1

-8.6

-14.0

-19.5

-25.0

-30.5

-35.9

-41.4

-46.9

-52.3

-57.8

15

-6.6

-12.6

-18.6

-24.6

-30.6

-36.6

-42.6

-48.6

-54.6

-60.6

-66.6

20

-9.2

-15.6

-22.0

-28.4

-34.8

-41.2

-47.6

-54.0

-60.4

-66.7

-73.1

25

-11.3

-18.0

-24.7

-31.4

-38.1

-44.8

-51.5

-58.2

-64.9

-71.6

-78.3

30

-12.9

-19.9

-26.8

-33.8

-40.7

-47.7

-54.6

-61.6

-68.6

-75.5

-82.5

35

-14.3

-21.4

-28.6

-35.7

-42.9

-50.1

-57.2

-64.4

-71.6

-78.7

-85.9

40

-15.4

-22.7

-30.0

-37.4

-44.7

-52.0

-59.4

-66.7

-74.0

-81.4

-88.7

45

-16.3

-23.8

-31.2

-38.7

-46.2

-53.7

-61.1

-68.6

-76.1

-83.5

-91.0

50

-17.1

-24.7

-32.2

-39.8

-47.4

-55.0

-62.6

-70.2

-77.8

-85.3

-92.9

55

-17.7

-25.4

-33.0

-40.7

-48.4

-56.1

-63.8

-71.4

-79.1

-86.8

-94.5

60

-18.2

-25.9

-33.7

-41.5

-49.2

-57.0

-64.7

-72.5

-80.2

-88.0

-95.8

 

Precipitation

This alone has probably the most effect on cycling, in summer and winter. Few of us like getting wet while riding. Riding while wet completely changes the comfort level at cooler temperatures. I have found it the most uncomfortable and coldest rides to be wet and riding at temperatures near freezing. I would much rather cycle in -20 degree weather than being wet and cold.

Staying dry is of utmost importance the colder the temperature. Wearing rain pants and jacket, i.e. Goretex or something breathable, makes it easy to keep most of the body dry. Unfortunately, it is harder to keep exposed areas like the head, feet and hands dry in slush or cold rain. There are solutions to keeping completely dry, but these cost money - but I must say it is most worthwhile.

Keeping the feet dry is harder because the feet are closer to the road and wet. Wet can come from your own tire road spray and from passing traffic. Installing good fenders on your bike will keep your feet dryer and bike components dry as well. Wearing shoe covers such as Goretex and neoprene will keep your shoes drier. Wearing Goretex socks liners will keep your feet dry even if your shoes get wet. The former option is the one I use and prefer, shoes covers in combination with fenders keep my feet 100% dry even in the wettest, slushiest weather.

Hands are easier to keep dry by wearing waterproof gloves or mitts, or wearing treated leather liners over the mitts.

Wearing a helmet cover will keep your head mostly dry, although your face will always get wet as it’s exposed. As indicated earlier, the body always keeps blood flow to the head, so keeping your face dry is not too much of a problem in terms of feeling cold.

Having cold wet feet will actually cool the blood flow off quicker, prompting the body to shut off blood flow to the feet if the core body temperature drops. Cold wet feet are problematic in terms of comfort and the length of time you will be able to cycle.

Roads

For the most part, winter cycling is on dry smooth road surfaces. Bike paths are obviously inaccessible, but roads are usually in excellent shape 88% of the time. The other 12% of the time the roads will be covered in snow, and 2% of the time the roads will be covered in ice/hard packed snow where cycling is difficult.

Nothing need be said about your cycling abilities for 88% of winter riding, its the last 12% that suggestions are needed.

It should be noted that riding in any condition in which the road surface is covered has problems concerning the quality of the surface under the snow or ice. Hopefully, you will have had experience in travelling the route prior to having to travel on it while its snow covered.

Cycling in fresh falling snow is actually a nice experience. The snow actually smoothes out all the roughness of a road, and makes riding quite unique. Riding in fresh fallen powder snow of up to 10 cm is not a problem at all.

Riding in wet snow can be accomplished up to about 5 cm in depth without much difficulty, deeper powder or wet snow will start to slow you down and require more work to pedal through.

Riding in snow that has been traveled on, after a few hours or the day after a heavy snow fall, can be difficult. Car, truck and bus tracks tend to pack down the snow quite hard into ruts, making it hard to get out of if you happen into one. As the time after a snow fall lengthens, the effects of salt and traffic will turn the snow into slush, then water.

Cycling in ‘dry’ fallen snow is much easier, more comfortable and better for the bike than riding in wet snow or slush. Fortunately, for the most of our winter, Jan and Feb., the temperatures tend to remain on the cool side. Fallen snow quickly gets plowed off the roads, and the transition from slush/water to a dry road can occur in a few hours. Cycling in March is my least favourite because of the warming temperatures and the almost continual slush and watery road conditions. Be wary of riding on roads where there is a slush build up along the sides and in the center lanes. Typically, cars will give you some room as they pass you – but their right side tires are usually then travelling in the slush in the centre, meaning, you are going to get splashed frequently with cold, wet, icy slush. Riding on less traveled roads, even if it means snow covered, is usually more comfortable.

In cases of poor snow removal, usually when these is only a few cm of snow and there is no snow removal, packed snow quickly turns to an icy surface. The particularly evident at corners, stop signs and traffic lights. Be aware of potential packed snow conditions and check out the first few intersections when you start your ride. The best way to negotiate an icy road is to not be on it. Travelling at the extreme right edge of the road, or in the centre of the vehicle tire tracks, in the unpacked snow is the best way through the obstacles.

There are usually 2-3 days per winter that freezing rain falls, coating the snow and roads with ice. This is a very bad thing to have to try and ride on. In fact, you will not be able to ride on it unless you have metal studded tires. It can happen that the freezing rain falls after a small snow fall, meaning there is a slight layer of snow which your bicycle can break into under the ice. This is probably the only icy road condition you could travel in.

Bicycling perk is not having to scrape ice off your vehicle, or does it!

Clothing

The secret to winter warmth is layering your clothing, and knowing your body’s own physiology in terms of heat generation. I know that I am comfortable wearing clothing that wouldn’t keep me warm walking for more than 15 minutes. But cycling generates heat of it’s own, thus the body needs less heat loss prevention than one would usually wear in cold weather. Cycling with excessive clothing on restricts movement and can cause too much sweating. Wet from sweat isn’t much different than being wet from rain, it alters your comfort and warmth level.

It is essential to at least modestly cover all exposed skin. The face is an exception that can be ignored till more extreme sub-zero temperatures. But covering the head, helmet vent holes, wearing wind proof gloves and shoes will do most of the job in keeping warmth in.

I wish someone would manufacturer a bike helmet, with no vent holes. If you think about it, a helmet is made from the same material they make insulation out of. The 1-2" of Styrofoam in a helmet is more than ample to keep your head warm, IF you cover up all the vent holes. I used duct tape for several winters, which is fine on an old helmet. The duct tape glue is really tough to get off the helmet if you want to use it again in the summer. I’ve been using a Goretex helmet cover, which I find excellent. Even in the coldest weather, I just wear the helmet, a simple fleece cap and a face balaclava, my hair is soaked with sweat after a ride.

I would also highly recommend the use of a helmet visor (for cycling in all seasons). The visor keeps rain and snow from directly hitting the eyes. It provides good sunshade, and at night, you can move your head down to keep the glare from headlights from blinding you, yet still see a reasonable distance up the road. To use a visor with a helmet cover, I just glued small Velcro fasters (appropriate ones) to the inside and outside of the cover. The inside cover is now fastened to the Velcro on the helmet, and the visor is Velcro’d to the cover. (Hint: use wax-heated glue)

Early spring and late fall are the most difficult periods to cycle in. Temperature extremes can vary from -5 to +30 in one day, meaning having to carry jackets, tights and gloves as well as shorts and short sleeve shirts.

During the core winter months, plan on always wearing a basic set of clothing:

  • Wind proof running shoes or bicycle shoes,
  • Thick socks,
  • Thermal tights or better, Goretex tights,
  • Cycling jersey under a long sleeve turtle neck
  • Goretex type outer shell,
  • Ear muffs, or cycling cap
  • Helmet with holes covered,
  • Long sleeve gloves
  • Eye-wear.

Carry with you an extra pair of socks, water proof socks, rain pants, a Balaclava and over mitts. These items will take up the room in a waist pouch. On some days, you will want to wear additional clothing layers like long underwear and a fleece or ski jacket liner.

For two years, I cycled with sweat pants, long underwear and ‘baggies’ for sock liners. It was very uncomfortable and spending a few dollars on bicycle specific warm clothing is worth every cent.

Ideally, bicycle specific footwear would be the best to use if it was sufficiently warm to wear. I’m ridden with Lake mxz300 winter shoes for two winters now, and have nothing but good to say about them. I seldom where more that a pair of wool socks, and the shoes is wind and waterproof. In extreme cold, I wear a set of over-booties to keep more heat in. (2 minor issues with the shoes were: I bought a size 44, which is one size bigger than my 43 summer shoes, but the shoe was very tight for the first moth or so – it has stretched since. The cleat bolts on the shoes get welded by corrosion over the winter, and require drilling out to remove them)

I also highly recommend using a cleated pedal system. Although you might think the cleats would jam with snow/ice or be hard to release, in fact they are maintenance free and give you excellent control in bad riding conditions. (After all, they are designed to work in much worse off road situations). I’ve fallen off my bike many many times wearing running shoes because they get wedged in the pedal cages and can be very slow to get out. SPD style clipless pedals release during the motion of putting a foot down.

Most cycle foot wear is design for summer riding with mesh and other vents in the shoe to let air in. Wearing ‘spat’ like boot covers helps keep the cold and wet out of the mesh surfaces on bike shoes. The alternative is to either wear winter type boots or running shoes. While it may seem that the boots would be the best option, in fact they are heavy and difficult to pedal in. Running shoes, that are sufficiently wind proof, make excellent winter riding shoes. They are light, have good flexibility and are comfortable. As already indicated, as long as your feet aren’t being exposed to the cold, your body will keep a good blood flow going to the feet and keep them warm. The main problem with the feet, while cycling, is that they don’t move too much. And your footwear is specific to your foot size in the summer. Thus trying to cram in more layers of socks with cut of the circulation in your feet, and the cold with just make them feel worse. Ideally, but winter footwear several sizes too big, enough to get 2 winter socks under and still be able to move your feet around. On warmer days, when your wearing only a single pair of socks, your feet will be very loose in the shoes. (Try adding in thicker shoe liners)

In dressing for cold, try to dress to prevent excessive core temperature loss and not to worry too much about your hands and feet, except to ensue they are kept dry. Cycling provides a tremendous amount of heat buildup in the body core, which in turn maintains blood flow to the extremities, thus keeping hands and feet warm.

Dressing for cycling in any weather is dependent on individual physiology. Some cyclists can continue to wear shorts at temperatures near freezing. Others start wearing long tights whenever the temperature drops below +15. I find these temperature ranges significant in clothing changes:

0 to -15C: ‘Thick’ tights, i.e. fleece lined with front Goretex shell, sweat wicking shirt and/or a turtle neck long sleeve, and Goretex or similar wind proof/breathable jacket, long finger gloves (or lobster mitts), thick socks, cover vent holes in helmet, ear muffs, windproof footwear.

-15 to -25C: Same as above, add long underwear. Add a fleece or similar jacket liner under outer jacket. Balaclava (at –20), scarf, thin and thick pair of socks with boot covers. (Electric socks also work well, but you still need a shell to keep the wind out) Ski gloves or lobster mitts. (The lobster style mitts are so warm, I find I sweat in them at temperatures above –10C)

-25 to -40C: Same as above, plus another pant lining or outer pant shell; fleece underwear; Balaclava pulled over face; lobster mitts; Thin thermal socks and thick pair of socks, with boot covers will keep your feet warm for about half an hour. Add a Goretex sock liner and electric socks for longer rides, and/or pull a wool sock over the running shoe.

below -40C: Same as above, you can’t physically wear much more and retain reasonable mobility. If your riding in sunny weather, the sun will keep you reasonably warm for an hour. At night, you will feel cold in half-hour or less. Half-hour to one-hour commutes in these temperatures is bearable, albeit feet and face will feel cold at the end.

Lighting

The sun rises as late as 7:45 am and sets as early as 4:15 p.m. in early winter. The transition from less than 9 hours of daylight to just 12 hours takes 3 months on each side of the winter solstice. Commuting to any 8-hour a day job means that one will be riding in or home (or both ways) in the dark at least 2-3 months of the year. Lights on the bike are essential as one may expect to be driving home or to work in the dark several times over the winter. I see 3/4 of cyclists travelling during the dark with no lights. Obviously they are both senseless and poor planners.

Lighting has two purposes to enable you to see what lies ahead of the lamp and to let others see you. On a bicycle, carrying enough wattage and power to facilitate the former takes planning and some money. Rechargeable batteries require a charging schedule to maintain the life of the batteries, and a knowledge of where and how long the lamps will be in use between charges. These systems are required for riding along roadways and pathways with no ambient lighting, lesser capacity lights (i.e. dual cell lamps) do not shed sufficient light to let you see what’s on the roadway in front of you.

The more simple lighting systems are sufficient to allow others to see you, and obviously using more powerful lights will potentially let you be seen from farther away. The problem with simple lighting systems is that the batteries drain even faster in cold weather, you cannot leave the lights out in the cold for very long before they stop working.

So while it may be cheaper to buy a $20 bicycle light, the costs of buying a set of batteries each week will quickly add up to $50 or $60 in battery costs over the winter. And while this is cheaper than the $100 to $200 for a good rechargeable light, the costs of buying batteries over 2 years would more than cover the costs of a rechargeable light.

Another reason to consider a good lighting set is that motor vehicle drivers do not see enough winter cyclists to expect you to be out there. In a snow storm, car drivers can barely see out of their snow covered windows, you should be aware of this and light up as much as possible. Wear reflective clothing, strong headlamps, flashing rear and front lights and be visible.

(Tip: buy a 12-volt bike lighting system, it is much easier to find a variety of wattage for the light bulbs)

Bicycle

Don’t ride your best or expensive bicycle in winter - but don’t ride a piece of junk either. There are several issues to cover with the bicycle itself in winter riding, but having the most comfortable bicycle with the best components have to be weighed against the abuse it will take.

I’ve ridden a ‘junker’ over two winters, and have found it slow, heavy, uncomfortable and continually breaking down - winter riding was not a great experience. I purchased a used ‘mid’ level bike and have found it a pleasure to ride and easy to maintain.

Plan to spend about $200 on a good used bike for winter use. I would recommend the following configurations:

  • A mountain style bike. (The frame geometry, wheels and components are design for less than ideal riding conditions such as mud and dirt)
  • Knobby tires. Wide tires are needed with snow covered roads, while narrow tires are fine on dry roads. Narrow knobby tires have higher tire pressures and roll easier on smooth roads. Metal studded tires have the advantage of much better control on ice, they cost $30 or more each.
  • Regular road tires are useable, as 88% of the time the roads are bare and dry. However, even under these conditions, there will invariably be snow or ice covered portions of the road somewhere.
  •  
  • LX+ quality components. Better components handle ice and snow buildup as they are design to do with mud and dirt. My STX components rusted in one winter. I’ve been using XT components for 3 winters with no problems at all.
  • Good ‘slick’ type cables are worth their weight in gold.
  • Cromolloy or similar light iron frames will stand up to corrosion and the cold better than alloys or carbon.
  • A good dry lube will keep the chain and derailleur from accumulating dirt and grime.
  • Panniers are great for keeping extra clothing
  • Pedals suitable to your footwear See the Footwear Page and All Weather Sports page for some options.
  • Fenders and a front mud flap.
Although obvious in nature, these components can cause problems if improperly installed. I installed my own set on a suspension fork, using zip-ties, it was not a pretty picture when the ties snapped and my front wheel seized.

Equipment I Highly Recommend

A simple Goretex helmet cover. Think of it. A helmet is made of the same stuff they make refrigerators out of! If you can cover the helmet, your head will be well insulated. I find wearing a helmet cover above zero too warm. You can get by with just the helmet cover and ear protection to almost –20C.

A good wind proof jacket. A Goretex style jacket will keep the heat in, still let your perspiration out, and is light.

Semi-Goretex cycling pants. These have a Goretex covering over the front half of the pant, with normal stretch nylon at the rear. The keep the wind wet and cold coming at you from the front, yet are light, not too restrictive and comfortable. They can be worn to –15C alone, without long underwear.

Thick cycling lobster gloves. I have never had to wear supplemental hand wear with these type of mitts. Again they tend to be too warm at temperatures at or above zero.

Lake MX300 shoes, your feet will stay dry and very warm.

Nite Rider digital Pro lighting system, w/ rear flasher. This system costs lots of money, more than I paid for the bike, but..

  • It has a gauge to let you know how much charge is left;
  • It has a range of lighting settings from 6 watts to 32 watts, including flashing modes (flashing mode is great in very poor visibility);
  • The battery last up to 7 hours @ 6 watts. (I get a full week of commuting on one battery charge), it has a 20-minute reserve when the battery drains;
  • It has NiMH batteries, which don’t have ‘memory’ problems like NiCADs;
  • The rear flasher is ‘blindingly’ bright (cars are passing me a full lane width away in bad weather because they can’t recognize what I am);
  • It comes on and off the bike easily.

Your winter ride will work much better if you have the ability to bring it into the warmth at least once a day. You will even have to plan when you should bring your bicycle indoors, do not bring your bicycle inside unless you can wipe it down and dry it off before it is to go outside again. Letting a bicycle begin to thaw will cause condensation to form on everything, and it will immediately freeze if brought back outside. (Note: this isn’t much of a problem with temperatures above -10C) If you need your bicycle for frequent outside rides, keep it outside between rides and only bring it in when you know it can dry completely.

When you do bring your bicycle inside, ‘bounce’ off any loose snow or ice, and then let the bicycle sit and warm up for about half an hour. Then wipe the bike down completely, including chain and derailleur. Winter riding in snow alone is no worse for the bicycle than riding in the rain, but the addition of road salt plays havoc with metal bicycle parts. In cases of wet snow and slush conditions, spray the bike off with an aerosol water sprayer while wiping the bike down. Wait until the bicycle is dry before adding lube. In dry riding conditions, lube can last a week or more, but may have to be reapplied daily in slush conditions. I recommend a lube like White Lightning, the caveat is that the lube must be DRY before you head out for a ride. This means applying the lube after your ride so that it has time to dry before the next ride. Maintaining your bicycle with frequent cleaning and lubing over the winter will extend the life of the bicycle and components for several years.

Frozen cables will be the most common cause of problems in winter riding. Using ‘slick’ or Teflon type cables can cure this. These cables are more expensive than normal, but then they work better too. You can ride with regular cables if you lube them every week with a dry lube like White Lightening. Cables freeze because condensation forms on the wires and then freezes to the cable liner when you go outside. This can occur in 5 or 10 minutes in cold weather. This is the main reason not to bring your bicycle inside unless it can dry completely. Wax lube like White Lightning coat the cables with paraffin which resists condensation buildup and which don’t freeze to the cable liners.

Oil lubes are a quick and dirty way to keep your bicycle running in winter, oil doesn’t freeze and it does displace water - thus preventing freezing. However, oil collects a lot of dirt and debris - wearing your bicycle’s components faster.

When taking the bicycle outside after a snowfall, let the bicycle ‘sit’ outside for 15 minutes before riding it. The bicycle’s temperature will drop below freezing, thus snow and ice will not stick to it as if it would if you drove a warm bike through the snow. The bicycle will require less cleaning at the other end the less snow and ice that sticks to it

Motor Vehicles

The point to get here is that car drivers don’t expect you to be there. Car drivers are often having a tough time maintaining control of their own car and avoiding mistakes of others, that they don’t see cyclists. This is compounded with frost and snow covered windows that make it very difficult to see a bus, much less a bicycle. It is your responsibility as a winter cyclist to drive extra defensively in winter. Don’t put yourself into a position where you ‘figure’ the car can see you. Assume you are completely invisible because you probably are.

Winter Cycling as a Sport

While many people still question the reason why anyone would cycle in the winter, these same people accept as norm outdoor sports like down-hill and cross-country skiing. I would suggest that dressing for and experiencing winter cycling is no better or worse than cross-country skiing. Granted there is the complication of icy roads and traffic, but this adds to the challenge of cycling in less than ideal conditions, a cyclist can become a pedestrian any time the situation gets bad.


Try it – you’ll like it!

Last Updated 12/08/01 09:40:11 PM