(Photo: Chris Amat/Travel Alberta)

How to Safely Ride Your Bike This Winter

By Andrew Raven

The first snowfall of the season doesn’t mean you have to put your bike away. With the right preparation it’s possible, and some say downright enjoyable, to cycle through winter. “You don’t have to change your routine very much,” says Subha Ramanathan, manager of partnerships and programs for Share the Road Cycling Coalition. “You can still use pedal power to get to your destinations and have your daily dose of exercise.” But if you’re new to bike riding in the winter, here are four important things to keep in mind. 

It’s inevitable that at some point in the winter, you’re going to have to contend with snow and ice. When that happens, ride cautiously. “Give yourself extra time when winter cycling in case roads and paths are slippery or covered in a layer of slush,” Ramanathan says. “You may also need to find alternate routes to your destination to ensure that you’re cycling on trails and paths that are maintained during winter.” 

Go slowly and brake well in advance of intersections. Change gears regularly to prevent the buildup of slush. Be especially careful when turning, as that’s when most winter spills happen. Finally, avoid major roads if possible, opting instead for maintained trails, side streets or roads with bike lanes. 

One reason many people avoid winter cycling is a fear of the cold. But pedalling will generate body heat, which, combined with the right clothes, should keep you nice and toasty. Aim to dress in three layers—a base layer, a middle layer and your jacket—so you can peel away clothes if you get hot. 

Also, make sure you have warm gloves, good boots and a thin toque or headband under your helmet. Remember to follow the 2V1 test to ensure your helmet fits properly. To pass the 2V1 rule, you should be able to place two fingers between your eyebrows and the helmet, with the straps forming a V shape under your ears. The chin strap should be snug enough that only one finger can fit between your chin and the strap. 

If the weather is especially bad, consider a balaclava and ski goggles. Above all, don’t feel the need to buy fancy winter cycling gear. “Your usual winter gloves or mitts, boots and toque will suffice,” Ramanathan says. “Special winter bike accessories, like handlebar mitts, are nice to have but not necessary.” 

Winter is rough on a bike; there’s no way around it. The biggest culprit: road salt, which will eat away at the exposed metal on your bike, including the chain and the pedals. Experts recommend cleaning your bike regularly, rinsing away both salt and slush. (The latter can freeze, jamming up components like brakes.) Ramanathan says you may also need to adjust your tire pressure to the low end of its range to ensure greater contact between the surface of the tire and the road. 

And if you live in an especially snowy region, you might want to consider installing studded tires or buying a bike with thicker tires and a heavier frame that you don’t mind exposing to the winter elements. 

If you run into trouble while riding this winter, give AMA a call. Members are entitled to roadside assistance for their bikes through our Bike Assist program. 

It’s the law for bikes to have a white front light and a rear red light or reflector at night, as well as a half hour after dawn and a half hour before dusk. That’s especially important during winter when visibility is often already poor. Wear bright, reflective clothing and put reflectors on your pedals or around your ankles as the flash will catch the eyes of drivers better than a blinking light.