The number of cyclists in Ottawa has been growing rapidly over the past decade. Now that the snow has arrived most of us will put our bikes away until the spring. But there are some hardy cyclists who commute by bike or ride for recreation all year. Winter cycling has its rewards but it also comes with added risks. Biking in winter conditions can be challenging, but by being cautious and well-prepared you can stay safe while cycling year round.
Here are a few tips to help you enjoy safe cycling during Ottawa’s winter months.
Choosing the right bike is an important place to start. Some types of bikes are better suited for winter riding. “Fat” bikes have larger tires with low pressure and are best suited for winter conditions. You may want to spare your high end summer bike from the ravages of winter weather and the salt and sand applied to roads. Consider buying a “beater” bike the way some people buy a car just for winter driving. Second hand bikes are an excellent option. Make sure that whatever bike you are riding that it has good winter tires to maximize grip. Studded tires are recommended. Your winter bike should have fenders to keep the slush and salt off of your clothes. Don’t worry about the extra weight.
Get your bike tuned up.
Most cyclists get there bike tuned up each spring when they haul it out of the garage, basement, or storage room. A well-tuned bike is a safe bike. So make sure that the bike you are riding in challenging winter conditions is in good mechanical condition.
A lower tire pressure will increase traction so use the lowest level possible without pinching a flat tire. You may need to experiment with tire pressure as the rider’s weight is a key factor.
Keep your bike clean. Street salt and sand can cause your bike to rust and increase the wear and tear on working parts. Ideally your bike should be cleaned after each ride. If that is not practical then wipe it down with a dry towel. Don’t wash your bike and then leave it outdoors without first making sure that it is dry.
Some winter riders apply a coating of WD40 on their bike frame to prevent ice and grime from accumulating during their rides. They also also spray it on their chain as part of their cleanup to get rid of excess moisture.
Wear weather appropriate clothes. You want to be warm but you also want to avoid overheating. As with any outdoor winter activity you should layer your clothing. Just like in the summer your body temperature will rise as you ride so you may be a little cool when you first get going. If you find yourself getting too hot you can remove a layer. As the temperature drops you will need to experiment to determine the right amount of clothing to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Remember it is better to have to take off a layer because you are too warm than it is to discover you are under-dressed when you are a long way from your destination.
Pay particular attention to your hands and feet. Hands and feet get cold first because your body focuses on keeping your core warm. There are several kinds of warm cycling shoe covers and “bar mitts” (insulated sleeves that fit over the ends of our handle bars that you put your gloved hands in) to help keep your hands and feet warm. Heat packs can also be used inside boots and gloves.
Take along some extra clothes. Weather conditions can change quickly and unexpectedly so in addition to your regular repair kit take along some extra clothes: hat, gloves, socks, and face covering. You should already have a good bike helmet (not over 4 years old) so make sure that it has enough room for your hat. This can mean removing a little bit of the adjustable padding that most helmets come with. In very cold or windy conditions you may want to wear a ski helmet or goggles to prevent the cold air making your eyes water.
Plan your route and check the weather. Not all winter cyclists have the same level of experience and expertise navigating winter riding conditions. Know what to expect on your ride before you set out. Plan a route that allows you to take full advantage of Ottawa’s shared use paths and separated bike lanes when they are an option. If weather conditions are forecast to change consider whether or not you are prepared for what may be coming. And always remember that if you will have a return trip later in the day the weather may change significantly. Make sure that your clothing and accessories will be suitable for more challenging conditions.
Be prepared to abandon you ride. Careful planning should prepare you for worsening weather or mechanical problems. However if you find yourself in conditions that are beyond you riding level do not hesitate to stop riding and make your way home by some other means. Your safety is your first priority.
Ride cautiously in traffic. Although winter cycling is becoming more popular some drivers may not be expecting cyclists on the roads so try to make eye contact with any drivers who may pose a risk. Maintain a safe distance from cars and adjust your speed according to conditions because icy roads make steering and braking more difficult for all drivers. Snow and ice can also obscure hazards on the road such as pot holes or black ice.
Whether you are considering extending your cycling season for the first time this winter or a veteran with plenty of experience, winter cycling poses some risks that aren’t present during the summer months. Despite the challenges you can stay safe while cycling year round by being cautious and well-prepared. Following these tips will help you enjoy safe cycling during Ottawa’s winter months.