Winter Riding? In Calgary………..really? Well yes, you totally can!

Article by Nigel Swytink-Binnema

Some think that riding in the winter is something that requires a huge expenditure, or only for those who have cold blood running through their veins and another bike fitted specifically for the conditions. Commuting or riding a bicycle is an alien concept when our weather shifts into minus territory. Well no, this doesn’t have to be the case at all and the perception that your bike has to be hung up on first snow or you need a specific bike, are false.

It’s probably a lot easier than you think. Year-round riding in Calgary is actually not only fun at the weekends but very practical to commute to work or even split a journey using the LRT, if you follow some golden rules.

  1. Dress for the conditions. If you have ski gear or lots of layers, you can ride in the winter probably with what you have. Overheating can actually be an issue so do some trial rides to understand what you need for what conditions. Be visible by adding some reflective elements or clothing if you can! Doug D aka @coldbike wrote a great article here which is well worth the read.
  2. Know your limits. Don’t ride if you feel it’s just too cold for you or conditions are too poor. Remember this is supposed to be safe and fun! Watch for underpasses and places that are shaded in the day as they will have ice. Ride slower than you normally would and look for the routes that are cleared of snow by the city (usually within 24 hours of snowfall). If it’s not, 311 it! And yes, you still need to hydrate so don’t let that freeze!
  3. Cover everything! Frost nip or worse from the wind chill when riding is no fun. Exposed skin even on the face can be a problem, so cover it up. Get off once in a while and let the warmth run to your extremities. Just jogging on the spot for a minute will do that.
  4. Studded tires are not always necessary if you ride snow-cleared pathways. You will need tires with a grip surface (not slicks!) and you can adjust tire pressures to benefit in different conditions. Watch for ice under bridges and take it easy. Perhaps speak to someone who’s been doing it for a while and reach out to out forum and ask questions about your route in certain conditions. Winter tires can be bought for nearly all types of bikes. If you want to go studded though, maybe start with the front tire being studded as that gives you grip in steering and braking. Studded tires on the rear only won’t do that. You know what driving a car is like in the snow in your car, so this is no different really. If you feel you want to invest in studded tires then shop around as there are always deals somewhere, (or use our paid membership discount!). There are many articles you can read on the web. We think this is a useful article to read on tires Remember that specific tires as an investment against the cost of not driving or using transit will actually pay for themselves, and will last multiple seasons.
  5. Battery’s won’t like it. Make sure your phone is well inside your layers and your lights are charged. USB chargeable lights are best as you can easily charge them at home and work so they don’t give out on you.
  6. Maintain your bike more in winter. Lube your chain more regularly (at least weekly) and clear any snow from the gears and moving parts if you don’t have a heated garage or parking area to melt it away. A cheap mudguard, even a clip-on type, is recommended. Remember salt or grit may be down on the pathways so every weekend try to wash that off to prevent corrosion taking hold.  

Nigel from Bike Calgary was a first time winter rider in 2019/2020. We asked him to share his experience below.

I step out the door and the cold hits my cheeks and legs. The sky is getting light and the air in my nose is crisp. I can see my breath. I turn on my lights, hop on my bicycle, and pedal up 7th street towards the river. My body takes the first few minutes of my ride to get used to the temperature and feel of the bike under me. I cross the Peace bridge and head to the right to cross Memorial at the pedestrian lights. Then I’m in Sunnyside.

The road is ice. I’m not afraid, because of my studded tires. I’m alert and in that Zen-like state when I ride. I focus on the balance of the bicycle as I slow down carefully for a stop sign. Pause as a car quietly crosses the road in front of me. I hear my breath from inside my neck warmer, within my cocoon. I push on the pedals and cross the intersection, nearing the hill beside 10th street.

I head onto the trail, gear down in advance of the hill. As I push my way up, my breathing gets stronger, and I start to sweat. Whoever thought winter cycling was cold? At the top of the hill I pause and the sun has risen just above the horizon in front of me, painting the snow-covered mountains to the west with oranges, yellows, and pinks. The snow-white city stretches out in front of me. I pull myself away from the view before I cool down too much, but that hill helped circulate some of the heat around my body.

A few minutes later I’ve arrived at SAIT, locked up my bike, and am heading up the stairs to my office.

Last year was my first winter cycling, and I’ll be doing it again this year. I wish my commute were longer. I live downtown and work at SAIT, so my short 2 km commute takes:

  • 30 minutes walking
  • 10 minutes by bike in the summer
  • 12-15 minutes by bike in the winter

My number one piece of advice for winter cycling? Cut yourself some slack! It snows, it’s windy, it’s icy, it’s cold. Just assume that you’re not going to bike every single day. That’s okay. Just admit it now, and see what happens! That said, establishing a habit and a routine is really helpful. And keeping warm.

Your legs are pumping, so I didn’t typically need to work that much to keep them warm. A base layer, a mid layer, and some kind of an outer shell were plenty to get me through most days. And keep in mind when I say that, I mean my mid layer was always jeans (my work clothes) and my outer shell was some crappy old rain pants with a hole in them. Nothing fancy.

Your torso is relatively easy to keep warm too. Just make sure to layer! I never wore my winter jacket on the bike. Instead, I’d wear some combination of these layers to get me through anything down to about -20 or -25:

Quick, hide the bikes, it’s snowing!…or you can equip yourself to enjoy winter riding!
  • Long-sleeved moisture-wicking base layer
  • T-shirt or dress shirt (work clothes)
  • Light cycling mid layer jacket, with hood
  • Neck warmer and head cover (under my helmet)
  • Thicker spring jacket
  • Wind breaker
  • Large fleece

It’s the extremities that are more difficult. More than one layer of socks is good, so are winter boots, and I used gaiters too, for the slush. My hands were most difficult, because they are hard to keep warm yet they need to be able to use the brakes and shifters. I don’t have bar-end gloves (or pogies) that many people swear by, so I would wear up to 4 layers of various gloves and outer shells.

My strategy is to take things a bit at a time. Last winter I rode down to about -20 or -25. This winter I might try to go lower, but I’ll have to come up with some better clothing solutions. Last winter I didn’t clean and lube my chain that often. This winter I’ll try to be better at doing that once a week. Last winter I only cycled for my commute. This winter I may try to use it for errands, too.

Peace Bridge in -25 degree’s, still showing many cycle tracks and snow cleared pathway

My experience of winter cycling was that it definitely took longer than it did in the summer (just like with transit or car!). I’d say there were three reasons, which may or may not apply to you:

  • The road conditions (ice, snow)
  • The additional clothing (it hindered my movement, but also took more time putting on and taking off before and after the commute)
  • A longer route (I wasn’t comfortable riding straight up the not-quite-plowed bike lane on 10th street, so I took a longer way on the paved trail)

There are tons of resources for tips on how to maintain your bike. And lots of opinions on tires or studded tires for all types of bicycles on the internet or from your local bike shop. But ultimately you’ll just have to try something and see what works for you. It’s a process. Enjoy the satisfaction that comes from it!

So if you’re looking to ride this winter, do it! Take it easy and find your way through some trial and error. The Bike Calgary Forums will give you access to experienced winter riders who will share tips and advice.

Other articles such as this are also good to read:

2 thoughts on “Winter Riding? In Calgary………..really? Well yes, you totally can!

  • Robo

    Advocate: an important element of winter riding is to complain about the lack of plowing on pathways in your area. If you are one of the fortunate few who lives near regularly plowed routes then get on that bike, thank the city and share your route tricks online.
    2. Ensure your employer understands the importance of shower facilities. Winter riding without a good shower room is much less pleasant. Find a gym close to work and find a quiet place to dry your clothes every day so you can ride home dry. Dry=warm.

  • RichieRich

    I’ve winter commuted at least the last 15 years, consistently. The worst case scenarios are major blizzards and lots of snow. Notice I didn’t say cold. If people are willing and able to downhill ski in -25C then really honestly biking shouldn’t be an issue either – in fact it’s usually warmer because at least with cycling you’re constantly moving and not sitting freezing on a slow chair. So yes, key is proper attire, layers, and patience.

    Next item only slightly referenced in the article was lighting. PLEASE make sure you have better-than-adequate lighting. I always say TWO lights for both back and front (yes, 4 total). This way you have backup lighting for when (not IF) one fails. It does happen. Also make sure they’re of adequate strength to see, and to be seen. Also ensure they’re both installed and aimed appropriately – no point installing them behind a barrier such as backpack, behind a pannier, pointing directly to the sky or to the ground is useless too. And lastly, be aware of other users out there and try not to accidentally blind other users.

    If you can only afford one studded tire… make it the front tire. If you still feel a little unsure then don’t be afraid to drop the pressure a little – you don’t want rock hard tires. Some softness will allow the tire to spread a bit and thereby give more/better traction.

    As Robo says above… it’s great to have shower facilities. If not (which I experienced for a few years once), I highly recommend baby-wipes for the upper body wipedown (chest, armpits, neck) and of course some good deodorant.

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