A Guide to Winter Cycling in Toronto

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A Guide to Winter Cycling in Toronto

How to navigate the city's slushy, snowy, icy streets.

I have a confession to make. I have never been a winter cyclist. In the past couple of years, I have gotten into enough scrapes in the balmiest of weather that I thought it wise to avoid the inevitable accidents that would come with cycling in slush and ice between December and April.

But it is possible, and it helps to be prepared. Toronto is slowly but steadily transitioning to becoming a more cycle-friendly city. I hope one day day we’ll be an all-season cycling city.

Here, a look at how to master winter cycling in Toronto.

What’s the City Doing?

Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati of the city’s cycling office says that the permanent counters at Sherbourne and Castle Frank average between 600 and 1,000 cyclists a day during the winter months. This is an impressive number for two of the best bike lanes in the city. Gulati also notes that there has been a “recently adopted level of service for winter maintenance of bikeways and priority routes for bikeway snow clearing.” You can find more details in the full report [PDF].

The City is in full support of Cycle Toronto’s efforts and outreach programming. On November 19, Cycle TO held a winter-cycle seminar at the Lillian H. Smith Library on College Street—something the group could likely do more than once judging by the growing number of cyclists in the city. For those who feel stronger in numbers, the organization also has its annual Coldest Day of the Year Ride along with its Get Lit program (which runs in October).

The Bicycle User Group Network has published a thorough brochure [PDF] available on the city’s website. It covers everything from maintenance to visibility to proper attire. As helpful as these resources are, it’s quite daunting when you read a never-ending list of must-dos and must-haves.

Cycling is the transportation of choice for so many simply because it is easy and cheap. The added cost of getting the right gear and maintaining your bike with regular washes is daunting. So what are some tips from people who actually brave the slush-laden streets?

The Basics

As a winter-cycling novice, I wanted to know how people suck it up and stay in the saddle. Those who have cracked the code to staying comfortable all winter aren’t shy about it.

Nadine Lessio, a longtime winter rider, cycles “all winter with no special gear,” she says. “Just a good wool base layers and winter street clothes.” Warm boots and gloves are key.

Other people I spoke to echoed the layer-up advice. Bryanna Reilly, an artist and waitress, says she prefers leg warmers over long underwear on her commute to the restaurant she works at, mainly because they allow for a quicker change.

Water proofing isn’t a bad idea. Rain pants and windbreaker shells that allow you to move comfortably are du rigueur in places like Scotland and Vancouver. It’s something to consider here, if only to act as a wind break. Wearing breathable natural materials like merino wool as a base is worth it, too.

During the dark mornings and evenings, it goes without saying that you should light yourself up like a Christmas tree. Reflective vests and LED lights on your helmet, spokes, handlebars, and saddle are essential. You might look like a nerd, but you’ll be safe.

If it’s the muck that concerns you and you don’t have the luxury of having a “beater bike”—something that was recommended by several of the people I spoke to —you’re going to have to take a couple of precautions. Winter tires are a good investment. One person I talked to said she sprays her frames and gears with a vinegar solution that helps prevent corrosion. You can also blast away the salt build-up with a visit to one of the coin car washes across the city.

An excellent resource is Tom Babin’s cycling column at the Calgary Herald, as well as his book Frostbike.

Be Street Smart

The City is trying to be more accommodating for cyclists these days. As previously mentioned, the City is trying to uphold higher standards of snow removal as vigilant citizens document on social media whether or not lanes are cleared during the snowy months.

There are dangers: black ice, wind, cars, and badly lit roads.

Photo by Barbs-- from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Barbs– from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

What about those you share the road with? A couple of people I spoke to said cars tend to give you a wider berth because drivers think you’re a bit zany for being out there in the first place.

Winter cyclists of all stripes say common sense is your best friend in wintertime.

Stick to arterial roads because the likelihood of them being cleared is much higher than side streets. Avoid braking hard if you suspect ice—break lightly or pump the breaks. Now more than ever avoid the rat’s nest of streetcar tracks, as they’ll be slicker than ever.

If there’s a stretch of precarious road, just walk your bike. My friend Andrew’s mantra for cycling (and life) is simply: “Don’t be a hero.” I’ll be heeding that advice when I’m on the road this winter, and you should too.

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