|Winter Cycling – Join the Crème de la Crème Glacée|
Many cyclists are content to ride from the end of March to the beginning of December, but for tens of thousands of Montrealers, snow does not signal the end of the season. Whether to continue to get around town by bicycle or simply to have fun, there is nothing wrong with riding a bicycle through a Montreal winter. Perhaps you have tried winter riding and are still getting used to it, or perhaps the idea may seem completely foreign. In any case, let us take a winter ride together.
Before riding, start with the right bicycle. Many people choose the “Canadian Tire Special” for winter use, yet these bicycles are hardly meant for heavy-duty use even in the summer. A better result can arguably be achieved by taking a better quality used bicycle and winterising it. There are many ways to create the ultimate winter bicycle, including buying a Ktrak kit which turns your back wheel into a track, like on a tank. That being said, there are three basic areas which deserve attention in any case: tires, brakes, and gear system.
A good choice of tires makes traction possible in winter. Special winter tires with metal studs are available and, although expensive, they can give you a grip even on ice. Some riders prefer a relatively skinny cyclocross tire, that is, a hybrid size with a knobby tread pattern. Others ride with the same racing slicks they use during the rest of the year – the thin tires slice the snow like a pizza cutter.
Your brakes must be up to the job. Aluminum rims are a must, for the brake pads bite deeper into the softer metal. If your bike has plastic brake levers, replace them with metal. Stainless steel cables will help to keep your brakes from sticking, and high-performance pads such as Kool Stop will make a big difference. Feel free to experiment with disc brakes, although considering very effective results can be attained with rim brakes, it may not be worth the extra cost.
Some gear systems work well in the winter and others do not; generally, the simpler it is, the better it works. Derailleurs are not the best idea as the pivot points and adjustment screws rust and get stuck, and snow and ice build-up can interfere with their action. The freehub body for cassette systems tends to freeze – the result is that you will pedal and your gears will spin but your wheel will not. A single-speed or fixed gear system is the most reliable in winter, and the least expensive. If you cannot part with your gears, internal hubs (available with three, five, seven or eight gears) will function better than derailleur-based systems, but are expensive to buy, and snow and ice accumulation can also jam the action of shifting components on the outside of the hub.
Finally, make sure your bike has a good quality sealed cartridge bottom bracket. This is the mechanism to which your crank is attached that turns while you pedal. The Shimano UN-54 will last winter after winter whereas cup-and-cone bottom brackets and cheap cartridges will wear out the first year. Keep in mind also that it gets dark early in winter, and riding your bicycle without lights adds unnecessary danger.
Your bicycle is ready, but what about your clothing? Wearing three or four layers will go a long way to keep you warm. Try long underwear, sweat pants, pants, and water-resistant cycling pants or tear-aways on top. On your upper body, try a T-shirt, a flannel shirt, a sweater, then a jacket. If necessary, add a polar fleece under your jacket. Wool socks, two pairs if necessary, and waterproof boots will take care of your feet, and ski gloves will keep your hands warm while leaving enough dexterity in your fingers to operate the controls. A polar fleece hood, or the hood on a sweatshirt, will keep your head warm and fits under a helmet.
You are now ready to hit the road – hopefully not literally! A winter cyclist must adapt their riding technique to counter the challenging road conditions. Not every winter day is a snowstorm, and more than half the time the roads are dry or are wet from melted snow yet free from accumulation. At times like these, riding a bicycle is similar to summertime, aside from the cold and the reduction in road space due to accumulation by the sidewalks. If the right lane narrows to a width which will not allow a driver to pass a cyclist, the cyclist can exercise their right to ride in the middle of the lane, if taking that space is necessary for the safe operation of their vehicle. Some drivers may not like this, but there is usually another lane for them to use for passing, and Montreal drivers can be surprisingly understanding. One way to repay this respect is to wait behind traffic which arrived at a red light before you, as opposed to riding to the front and making them pass you and pass you again.
If you do get caught in a snowstorm, your properly-equipped bicycle will still function. When there is snow accumulating on the road, be particularly careful with your balance. You will need to accelerate and decelerate gently, so leave yourself plenty of space. Keep in mind that snow sometimes hides ice underneath. Ice is the greatest threat to the winter cyclist. Unless you have studs, your tires will provide very little traction. If you are about to ride over a patch of ice, do not decelerate, accelerate, or turn at all. Usually the patch is small and you will be over it in a split-second. In the relatively rare case of ice-storm conditions, it may be prudent to take the metro.
Congratulations! You have safely returned home from a winter ride, with many compliments on your bravery from people who think you are absolutely mad. Before you climb into the bath with a cup of hot chocolate, take a moment to care for your winter bike. It still helps to store it indoors. If you cannot put it in a garage, Canadian Tire sells waterproof 4'x8' carpets for around $35, and they are a great place to let your bike discharge accumulated snow, slush and ice. If you have been riding in wet or snowy conditions, let the accumulated snow and ice melt, or, if your bicycle cannot be stored inside, use a brush to remove all you can. Then, oil the chain, even if you did yesterday. Also, the brake pivot points and derailleurs, if you have them, benefit from a generous application of WD-40. That way, your bike will be ready for use the next time – no stuck brakes.
Remember that the more winter cyclists there are, the more motorists are accustomed to them, and the safer it is for all of us. In the spring, when other cyclists are having trouble fitting into their spandex and cranking those dusty pedals, you will be as strong as a bull. Enjoy that hot chocolate! Your bicycle – it is a marvellous machine which multiplies your land speed by a factor of three to ten. Fun, healthy and useful, you can use it for transporting yourself and your cargo, for a scenic pleasure ride, for training and racing, for riding down the side of a mountain...the list has no end. No matter how you ride, here are a few simple universal tips to help you get the most out of your bicycle.