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culture

How to Ride Your Bike Through a Toronto Winter

It's not that bad, if you prepare for it.

This post was originally published on November 20, 2012. Not much has changed since then—winter is still cold, and bikes are still bikes—but we’ve made updates to some of our descriptions of specific cold-weather products.

Winter is on the way, meaning soon you’ll have no choice but to stop riding your bike and start spending a bunch of money on TTC fare.

Or, you know, you could not do that.

If you’ve never biked through a winter before, now is as good a time as any to try. If you’re prepared for it, it’s really no worse than any other form of being outdoors in Toronto during cold weather.

Assuming you can already ride a bike, all you need, aside from an iron will (or a strong desire to save money), is a little bit of gear and some basic street smarts.

Here’s how to become one of those cyclists that holds fair-weather riders in contempt.

Step One: Equipment

One of the most important things to have for winter biking is a good pair of gloves. If your fingers are as cold and rigid as frozen hot dogs, you’re going to have a hard time hitting the brakes in time to prevent yourself from slamming into the backs of snowplows.

The best biking gloves are warm, lightweight, and water-resistant. Kathleen Banville, a co-owner at Urbane Cyclist, recommends Sugoi Firewall Z gloves, sold at her store for $75 a pair. They’re mitten-shaped, but they have separated index fingers that make it possible to fumble for keys without exposing one’s hands to the elements. A Thinsulate lining makes them warm even in the worst Toronto weather. Admittedly, they are a little pricey. “The thing is,” says Banville. “You get what you pay for.” Buy a cheaper pair if you want, but make sure they’re good enough to keep your hands dry in a snowstorm.

Several bike-shop employees agreed that one of the best things a winter rider can do is install fenders—those semicircle-shaped protectors that go around the tops of a bike’s wheels. Fenders prevent road water from flying off a bike’s spinning wheels and landing all over your clothes. In winter, they’re all that stands between your jacket and a wet stripe of black, salty grit, right between the shoulder blades. “Plus,” says Banville, “fenders protect your bike from all the spray from the road.” Urbane Cyclist sells SKS Chromoplastic fenders, which don’t bend or break as easily as other models because of their metal construction, for as little as $60 a set. Plastic fenders usually cost more like $40 a set.

As for keeping your body warm, obviously you’re going to want a good coat, preferably with some degree of water resistance. Since you live in Toronto, you probably already have something that more or less fits the bill. Some cyclists like to outfit themselves with more esoteric types of winter gear. Mikey Bennington, who works in sales at Curbside Cycle, says face masks are a perennial favourite. Cyclists can buy balaclavas specially designed to fit underneath bike helmets. They keep the wind off your face, and also, incidentally, make you look like some kind of soldier of fortune whose employer wouldn’t spring for a Jeep.

But winter cycling is not about fashion. It’s about survival. “I like to wear a lot of wool,” says Owen Gerrard, general manager of the Sweet Pete’s at 1204 Bloor Street West. “Basic layering is the key to keeping warm in wintertime.” Make sure your layers are removable, because—inconceivable as it seems—biking in cold weather will make you sweat.

Photo by Tania Liu, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Tania Liu, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Step Two: Bike Maintenance

As soon as snow hits the ground, Toronto’s streets become a polar Dead Sea, wet and salty enough to turn even the most dependable ride into a solid chunk of crumbling, orange scrap metal in a matter of months. The only way to keep your bike in reasonable riding condition is to add another weekly chore to your to-do list. From December until May, you clean your bike as often as you take out the trash.

Wipe down your bike, paying special attention to the brakes, which can corrode easily. And then clean and lubricate your chain. “You have to oil frequently, and by oil I mean using an actual bicycle chain lubricant,” says Gerrard. (WD-40 and its ilk will actually dry out your chain and cause you problems.)

Sweet Pete’s sells Finish Line Wet Lubricant for $9.99 a bottle, but any type of wet lubrication will do. (Wet lubes are formulated to stand up to wet weather conditions. Look for the word “wet” on the bottle.)

Before applying lubricant, it’s important to clean your chain with degreaser, which is available at most bike shops. Here’s a video that shows how to do it. A good cleaning will remove all the salt and other sundry road crap that would otherwise turn your drivetrain into a rusty ruin.

There are also more expensive winter-proofing solutions. One is to pay a shop to take your bike apart and lubricate all of its moving parts to keep moisture out. At Urbane Cyclist, that service runs between $30 and $100.

Or, you could just buy a bike that’s winterized by design. Most shops will have models that come with chain guards, and internal brakes and shifters. Bikes with those features are really expensive, but they don’t require as much cold-weather maintenance. “The supreme winter bike is going to the Gazelle,” says Bennington, of Curbside Cycle, where Gazelle bikes retail for between $1000 and $1500.

As for tires, it’s best for them to have some tread. Any bike shop should be able to point you in the direction of a good set of winter wheels.

Step Three: Ride Safely

There are a few things about winter riding that are tricky.

One is that side roads tend not to get plowed as well or as frequently as main roads. If there’s been a ton of snow, you may need to adjust your route so that it relies more on arterials than neighbourhood streets.

The downside of riding on main roads, of course, is that there are going to be lots of cars there. The best thing to do is take as much room as you need. “Try not to ride right by the curb,” advises Gerrard. “Ride a foot or two out so people have to see you. Better to have the jerk behind you get mad because they can see you than to get hit by the idiot who doesn’t.”

Also, it never hurts to slow down. Maintaining a lower speed will give you more control, and you’ll be better able to prevent mishaps.

And remember that it’s sometimes okay not to ride. On days when the layer of fresh snow on the road is thicker than your tires, there’s no need to be a hero.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/wklis W. K. Lis

    If at all possible, own TWO bicycles. One spring, summer, and fall bicycle, and one winter bicycle (with fenders).

    • Anonymous

      Very good advice. I started using that system last winter after watching my beloved beater mountain bike slowly turn to crap because of year-round riding.

    • Chris Hughes

      I agree. I nearly destroyed my fair-weather mountain bike trying to ride it through winter. I shelled out for an all-season commuter with chain guard, internal hub, fenders, the whole bit. Only regret is not getting disc brakes. Disc brakes in the winter are far superior due to their distance from the rim, which is constantly picking up slush and snow.
      Once you’ve got the kit though, riding in winter is really no big deal.

    • http://www.corbinsmith.ca Corbin Smith

      To go one step further on the “two bicycle” thing: having a single gear bicycle for the winter is a great option as there are far less components to worry about cleaning out or getting covered in a salty sludge.

  • vampchick21

    I have nothing but a combination of stanch admiration and curiousity as to the level of insanity for those cyclists who ride in the winter here or anywhere. I’d take my hat off to you but it’s too damn cold.

    • torontocouriergirl

      Its WAY warmer to bike somewhere than to walk, hands down. Ive been biking 40+km/day, at least 5 days a week year round for the last 13 years and when I go out without my bike I end up so cold because Im not working up any body heat! Try and see!

      • vampchick21

        lol…I would if I weren’t so afraid of motorists being stupid! I won’t ride in the spring/summer either thanks to them, and that’s when I’m most tempted to buy myself one of those girly retro bikes with a basket and bike to Kensington Market for flowers, bread and fruit. So I’m therefore left to freeze my tush off waiting for the streetcar and jumping out of the way of slush splashes.

  • Raven

    I just wanted to say that I like this post very much. Great info! Thank you!

  • David Vereschagin
    • torontocouriergirl

      I highly recommend these gloves. Ive owned various versions of these over the years and wouldnt wear anything else.

  • http://valdodge.com/ Val Dodge

    I generally find that car drivers on main roads give me much more room in the winter than they do in the summer, especially during or shortly after a snowfall. I assume it’s because they think that cyclists just randomly fall over when there’s snow around.

    Fenders are essential on any commuting bike no matter the season. It’s amazing how much of the slop that we associate with riding in the rain is kicked up by our own wheels. A set of full fenders will keep your back, legs, face, and clothes clean in the summer as well as in the winter.

    The dirty secret about cycling through a Toronto winter is that the roads on most days are as smooth and dry as they are in the summer. Sometimes they’re wet from melt, and they’ll have some snow on them for a day or two after a storm. Take the car or TTC for a dozen days a winter if you don’t like snow and you can easily cycle the rest of the time.

  • Al Gore

    global warming

    • Anonymous

      Convenient!

  • Bryan

    Duct tape exposed skin on your nose/cheeks on really cold days — prevents frost bite.

  • http://twitter.com/candleflame3 PlantinMoretus

    I find the toughest thing is getting the right clothing combo for both winter cycling AND a suitably office-y look. (I’m female, so clothing & appearance at work is whole kettle of fish to begin with.) I find that my body gets overheated fast and my face gets just TOO cold.

    • Anonymous

      You could just bike to your office in your bike clothes, and then change to your work clothes in your office. That’s what I did, anyway.

      • http://twitter.com/candleflame3 PlantinMoretus

        Which means transporting an outfit & shoes, finding somewhere to change, etc. Too much hassle for me, personally.

    • Duna

      I find that putting on a pair of wool leggings over tights really helps! And if it’s really cold, an extra (wool) sweater over top of my work outfit. And I usually wear a big wide scarf that I can wrap around the bottom of my face if it starts to freeze.

      The only time I change is if I’m wearing a pencil skirt.

      • http://twitter.com/candleflame3 PlantinMoretus

        Ah, but that’s the tricky part – staying warm to begin with but not getting too hot once I’ve been cycling for a bit, even though my head always seems cold. Kudos to people who do it, but I’ve tried a variety of combos and they were all uncomfortable/unworkable in some way.

  • Leia

    I rode through my first winter last year and loved it! Much nicer than freezer waiting for the TTC. That said, 1) put a bit less air in your tires to allow a bit more grip on the road, 2) if it’s wet / slushy / icy NEVER LEAN INTO YOUR TURNS! If you’re a committed cycling, using your handlebars to turn is a bit of a joke, but if you keep that attitude in the winter, your bike will skid and flip out from underneath you. I learnt this first-hand, to my utter embarrassment. ;)

  • Michael Black

    For more information on cold weather cycling, attend a Cycle Toronto workshop at the Cyclepath store on Yonge (between Davisville and Eglinton) on Saturday, November 24 at 1:00pm. – with Councillor Josh Matlow present!

  • G. Bails

    Lights! It gets dark early in the winter and visibility can be tricky at the best of times. Invest in decent lights, front and back and keep a spare set handy, just in case.

  • psyclebabe

    I have a bad weather bike and a good weather bike. My bad weather bike has straight handlebars over which I can install a pair of (my and my daughter’s product) HandleBar Booties. I have a problem with the bulkiness of biking gloves and mitts. I do not think that I have the control I want especially once they get wet. I don’t mind saying that I think HandleBar Booties is a great product for like mined cyclists out there.

  • Guest

    Don’t wear black.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.cap.988 Andrew Cap

    My mountain bike has survived the last two winters, apart from a $4 gear cable that rusted inside the casing (I thought my dererailleur had frozen). A ski mask minimizes icing. And if wet snow is falling, you’ll want clear specs to keep your eyes open.

  • adam man handler

    DONT FUCKING RIDE IN THE WINTER.

    • http://twitter.com/torontomyway Toronto My Way

      There are plenty of people who need to be as mobile as possible and for whom either driving or putting up with TTC’s crappy service are not viable. This article and the comments are to help people who must or want to ride to do so more safely and effectively. If it’s not for you, go somewhere else, but a comment such as yours is neither funny nor helpful.

    • Don Rhodes

      thank you so much for that valuable input.
      SMH

  • http://twitter.com/torontomyway Toronto My Way

    A couple of tips. A courier once told me that wide BMX-like tires are not good because
    they float on top of snow like snowshoes and reduce traction; get a set
    of more narrow tires that cut through snow and keep you in contact with
    the road. Also, sweating in winter is a killer because, once you get damp from sweat, that moisture gets cold real fast. Look for “breathable” materials that wick moisture off you, Thinsulate wear is good, reduces bulk, retains body heat and wicks moisture. One more thing – last winter we had not one permanent snow fall that resulted in any accumulation lasting more than a day or two. If this winter is anything like it, your primary challenge will be temperature, not drifts of snow. I salute those who bike year round, hope you stay warm and safe. http://torontomyway.blogspot.com

  • http://twitter.com/torontomyway Toronto My Way

    AND, as Leia rightly reminded, “stay vertical”. Do not lean into turns, stay upright, keep maximum force directly over top of your tires. If you lean, you’re directing force laterally and increasing the likelihood of sliding. If you slip in winter, an on-coming car needs more time to stop before striking you because there’s less traction out there. Stay safe. No matter what rights cyclists have, in a collision with a car cyclists will always lose.

  • Anonymous

    I never find winter cycling to be uncomfortable for the cold as long as I’m wearing my warm leather gloves. When it gets down to -20, then I think a balaclava is advisable. But it can be a headache in terms of maintenance. The roads get nasty not just because of snow, but the grit of salt and pebbles that mixes with slush. You can cause some nasty damage to a bike with just one ride on streets with snow and slush if you don’t wash it and relube the chain when you arrive home. A “beater” bike is a good idea if you’re riding a decent commuter bike like a Kona or Giant. We need to push on to achieve practical standards in terms of the toughness of the bikes we choose as Canadians for commuting, and how the city clears roads of snow.

  • http://twitter.com/lavegetaliana Kris

    This is a wonderful, informative article. Thank you! I’m from Montreal and could never fathom how some Montreal cyclists bike year-round, but I learned first-hand last year that it’s possible in Toronto (I _was_ a hero one night as I biked over ice patches to a poetry slam and wiped out on a side-street [thank goodness] and I know not to be so silly anymore. Also, what magnificent advice about not leaning into turns! Phew! Thank you). I did, however, do some serious harm to my year-round mountain bike. I had to take it into a shop about three times throughout the season, twice of which was because my brakes had locked.

    I moved to Italy for seven months and am moving back to Toronto today, and I will probably bike this bicycle into the ground and go the two-bike route next year. I never realized how much harm winter and salt can do to our precious means of transportation.

    I would like to thank the readers of this article, too, for the very useful comments. I look forward to sharing the road with this group of conscientious and considerate individuals. Safe and pleasant riding, everyone!

  • http://twitter.com/lavegetaliana Kris

    This is a wonderful, informative article. Thank you! I’m from Montreal and could never fathom how some Montreal cyclists bike year-round, but I learned first-hand last year that it’s possible in Toronto (I _was_ a hero one night as I biked over ice patches to a poetry slam and wiped out on a side-street [thank goodness] and I know not to be so silly anymore. Also, what magnificent advice about not leaning into turns! Phew! Thank you). I did, however, do some serious harm to my year-round mountain bike. I had to take it into a shop about three times throughout the season, twice of which was because my brakes had locked.

    I moved to Italy for seven months and am moving back to Toronto today, and I will probably bike this bicycle into the ground and go the two-bike route next year. I never realized how much harm winter and salt can do to our precious means of transportation.

    I would like to thank the readers of this article, too, for the very useful comments. I look forward to sharing the road with this group of conscientious and considerate individuals. Safe and pleasant riding, everyone!

  • Eric Freedburg

    Buy an escooter, easier to ride in snow, easier to dress for cold weather, you can put your feet on the ground without dismounting, better headlights, brake lights, direction lights,fatter tires to handle street car tracks, lots of storage for work clothing, and much much harder to steal. You can ride 50 KM’s round trip even in the cold and not arrive burnt out. Get over the battery, Its the future and a no brainer.

  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    Icebike mailing list (my creation, over a decade old, a happy ship).