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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.

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