Why I bike to work in the winter (and how you can too)

Twitter user @cjhoylemusic posted this photo Jan 13, of his Toronto commute, “My first time riding below -20° C this winter!” (Photo courtesy @cjhoylemusic)

Twitter user @cjhoylemusic posted this photo Jan 13, of his Toronto commute, “My first time riding below -20° C this winter!” (Photo courtesy @cjhoylemusic)

January 16, 2015 | by Kyla Winchester

I know, you’re probably thinking, “Kyla, commuting by biking in winter sounds like a whole bunch of unpleasant things all put together.” And honestly, if you think biking to work is crazy, full stop, then maybe you can read this post as a comedy piece and leave it at that. But if you already bike to work in the summer, or if you have been thinking about biking to work but hesitation about winter cycling has held you back, then please keep reading (and don’t bother waiting for the punchline).

Who should bike in the winter?

Everyone! If you already bike in the summer, you have most of the gear you need for winter cycling. If you’ve never commuted by bike, then you might as well start now. By the time April comes around you’ll feel like a nice spring ride is like vacationing in the Carribbean.

If you’re not already riding in the summer, then I can only encourage you to do so with my most flowery, flattering language. The only obstacle for 99 percent of people is the distance of their commute. I used to ride 20 kilometres each way (that ride for me was about an hour), which I would imagine is close to the upper limit for a daily commute for most people. A lot of people bring up lack of shower facilities as an obstacle too, to which I can only say: you can figure it out. Bring a change of clothes, and/or get to work early so you cool down before your colleagues arrive. I know many, many people whop bike to work without shower facilities and they manage just fine. Your body very quickly gets used to riding and it requires less effort (therefore less sweating) and you’ll find the “sweet spot” speed at which you can ride with minimal sweating.

If you’re saying, “Kyla, you must be some crazy, Lycra-wearing, hardcore cycling activist if you ride in the winter! It’s basically impossible.” I can only assure you it’s very possible, and probably much better than your existing commute. I started cycling in my mid-twenties as someone quite out of shape who hated gym in school. I was inspired by promotional info on Bike Week from the City of Toronto, which I can assume was successful in converting many more people than just me, since Toronto now has Bike Month.

Since then, I have gone from biking to work a couple times a week (and biking nowhere else) to biking almost every day, to work and for as many errands and social events as possible. While I don’t wear Lycra, some people do consider me “hardcore” for biking in the winter (though whether I am crazy is debatable). So what I’m saying is: riding in almost any weather is possible, and fun, and you can totally do it.

Twitter user @jsquaredink's first winter commuting by bike (Photo courtesy @jsquaredink)

Twitter user @jsquaredink's first winter commuting by bike (Photo courtesy @jsquaredink)


That being said, I acknowledge that there are some challenges to riding in the winter. In warm weather, rain is my only challenge, but in the winter, you have to deal with the temperature and road/trail conditions.

Dealing with the temperature is relatively easy — layer! More on that below, but I get the feeling people vastly overestimate the effect of the cold on your ride. If you take transit, you have to either walk or wait, or both. Standing still in the winter wind feels far colder than riding on the very same street, since riding really warms you up. And if you drive, you have to walk to you wherever your car is parked, and wait for your car to warm up.

I did some math last week and realized, as I was waiting for the bus while it was 17 below (before windchill), that the time I spent waiting in the cold amounted to about half the time it took me to ride to work — and I regretted not riding! So I dug out some extra layers and rode this morning, minus 10 (yes, before windchill) and it really wasn’t that bad. IOt was definitely better than my alternative commute on the bus. And cheaper, and better for my health!

Road and trail conditions can be trickier to deal with, and frankly I haven’t figured it out 100 percent myself. I am lucky in some respects to be living in Toronto, since it doesn’t get too cold most of the time (last week excepted) and most of the winter the roads are clear. I have a road bike (think skinny tires) am comfortable riding when there is a little bit of snow on the road, like a centimetre or so, though I admit that sometimes if I’m at home and see snow I just take transit. It can be hard to judge road conditions based on the view out my window, overlooking a ravine! I’m more likely to ride home in bad weather, for some reason.

Some people swear by fat, bumpy tires, special tires with metal studs on them or even skinny tires for riding through snow. I don’t ride when there is enough snow that metal studs would make a difference, but if you live in an area where frequent heavy snow falls are a concern the internet is a great resource. I highly recommend checking Twitter for local cyclists. There are probably a few discussions already going on about winter cycling (and existing road conditions) who you can learn from.

The biggest obstacle for me when it snows  is that the snow is cleared on the parts of the road where the cars drive, but drivers expect cyclists to ride close to the curb (“out of the way”) regardless of the road conditions. This means that when there is snow on the road, the safest spot for me to be is the spot that makes drivers frustrated. And unfortunately for those who ride on trails, they are often not cleared at all in the winter, turning a lovely summer ride into a harrowing journey over packed snow and ice in the winter, forcing people to ride on streets as an alternative.

My short-term solution is to not ride when there is much snow. For longer-term solutions I volunteer with a local cycling group to help encourage the development bike infrastructure that would make cycling feasible for many people year-round. If road conditions in the winter or even fear of traffic in the summer is holding you back from cycling, I highly recommend talking to a local cycling group and joining them on rides or helping with their efforts to make cycling safer. Bike infrastructure makes everyone safer; not just cyclists!

Everyone can ride!

Everyone can ride a bike in the winter, but I don’t want you to be afraid of your commute or dread getting on your bike each morning. Some people ride in snowstorms, some people stop riding when it gets below 14 degrees...Do what you are comfortable with. Try riding in October when it gets cooler, or wait until a warmer day this winter and give it a shot! You may realize you can bike as long as there is no snow, or as long as it’s above minus 10 degrees. The more biking you do the happier your winter will be. And seriously, if I can do it, everyone can do it.

In my next post: how you can ride in the winter — the “stuff.”

Kyla Winchester (Photo by Theresa Winchester)

About the Author

Kyla Winchester is the former development officer for NCC's Ontario Region.

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