Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean that bike of yours has to hibernate in the garage. Cycling in the winter is possible, and Edmontonians can look to northern European cities as an example. Oulu, Finland—deemed the friendlist winter-bike city, located 200 km below the Arctic Circle—has a thermal period similar to Edmonton’s that lasts from early November to mid-April, but 53 000 of its residents (27 percent of Oulu’s total population) still maintain bicycle mobility during the winter months. While it’s true that devout Edmonton cyclists bike year-round, winter cycling can be done by the most casual rider. While any bike could be used in winter, it is important to use discretion as winter conditions can be harsh on it. A mountain bike will work, but a $829 Linus might not be the best choice for that winter commute.
“Can you use any bike? Yes. But use a bike that you know is going to be under a lot of stress,” says Mark Jung, president of Red Bike Cycling Club. “The caveat about winter is that it will deteriorate your drive chain quite quickly with sand and grit.”
Once your bike of choice has been determined, some additional preparation will ease the winter ride. Changing your tires to studded ones ($69 – $179) will help get your bike through winter terrain, Jung notes. (The key to control and traction is in the front tire, so place a studded tire on the front wheel before investing in a studded rear tire.) Using a lubricant ($4.75 – $14.75)—the same kind you’d use during the summer is fine—will loosen rusted, stuck or stiff metal parts should they become frozen. Adding full fenders ($33.50 – $100) to the bike will provide protection and keep slush and mud from getting on you. LED lights and reflectors are a good option for dark days and nights, too. Finally, dress appropriately for the weather. Remember: you are exerting energy into cycling, so a puffy down jacket will make you hot and uncomfortable. Wearing layers will regulate body temperature and provide warmth. As for your outer layer, wear a wind-deterrent jacket. Headwear like a toque or balaclava is fine, just make sure the head garment fits under a helmet—safety is key during any season.
If riding a summer bike still isn’t enough to get you cycling in the winter, Jung suggests giving the fat bike a try since “[a] fat bike is a proper winter bike.”
Fat bikes are named after their extra-large tires, which are four to five inches wide—double the size of a mountain bike’s two-inch tire. The large tires allow a cyclist to ride various winter terrain by providing serious grip on the ground. The fat bike creates a sense of stability and comfort for the rider, Jung adds.
“Fat bikes allow for riding on terrain that was not possible before,” he explains. “If it’s fresh snow, the fat bike just rides on top of it. When it’s packed snow and bumpy, the fat bikes keep you stable on it.”
Fat bikes are a rather new concept that have seen exponential growth in the last five years. Today, almost every bike brand on the market has its own version of the fat bike in its lineup. These mass-produced bikes have also seen versions in big retail chain stores like Wal-Mart; however, Jung notes, these are entry-level versions of what is sold in speciality bike stores. Fat bikes do carry a hefty price-tag, with a starting price of $1300, which can climb upwards of $7000.
While a proper bike and maintenance is key, the most important thing to consider with winter cycling is route choice, Jungs says.
“It doesn’t matter if you are on a fat bike or road bike,” he says. “You have to be [smart] about the route you take. It’s not like summertime where you can take a shoulder. A three-lane road becomes a two-lane in the wintertime.”
With that in mind, road bikes, mountain bikes and cruisers are better suited for shorter distances—Jung has taken his Linus on a six-minute ride downtown during snow storms. But fat bikes are best for longer commutes. If you are considering purchasing a new bike for the winter, keep the length of the commute in mind.
“People winter ride in Finland, and they’re not buying fat bikes [or] they’re not buying spare tires,” Jung says. “They just get on their bikes. It could be minus 20, and they just get on their bikes and go. But they’re riding shorter distances.
“It’s the urban sprawl of North American living. Most people live far from work,” Jung continues. “You live in Cameron Heights, but you work downtown. You work in the west end, but you live in Sherwood Park. … The logistics of winter riding or summer riding is far beyond people. The inherent problem with North American commuting is that the distances are usually higher than Europeans and the rest of the world.”