Winter Riding Tips

Coldest Day of the Year 2017

Photo by Martin Reis.

Colder temperatures and darker days are no reason to put away your bike for the season. While it can be a little more tricky to ride in the winter, there are a few things which can help make is possible. Indeed, cycling through the winter can be enjoyable, relaxing, and fun. Getting that extra bit of exercise can help get you through the darkest and coldest days, delivering you to work or home feeling fresh and revived. If you're thinking about giving winter riding a shot, here are a few ideas to help make it a good experience:

Wear layers & protect your extremities

If you live in Canada, you’ve already got most of the gear you’ll need for winter cycling. Wear a few layers that you can unzip/button along the way. The most important layers will be what goes on your hands, ears, and feet. Your core will get warm as you ride, but your fingers can be left feeling pretty frosty if you're under-equipped. Make sure you have a good set of gloves or mitts for your hands, boots for your feet and toque or earmuffs for your head and ears. Protect your eyes either with a pair of ski goggles or sunglasses. If you’re new to winter, read more on proper layering at the City of Toronto’s Bike in the Winter web resource.

Look after your bicycle

While salt does wonders for melting ice on the road, it also accelerates rust on your bicycle. You can combat this by riding with front and rear fenders which also keeps slush from flying up your back. In addition, clean your bike regularly. Giving is a quick rinse off when you get home every day is a good idea. If you’re not up for all that maintenance, consider getting a ‘beater’ bike for winter.

There’s a lot of debate on whether to ride with fat or skinny tires; fat tires potentially provide more traction, whereas skinny tires enable you to cut through snow. Studded tires are generally not necessary due to Toronto’s relatively warm winter conditions. Read more about winter bicycle maintenance on Bike Calgary’s Winter Riding page.

Research your route

Generally speaking Toronto roads are clear throughout much of the winter. However, while many riders prefer quieter streets through the snow-free months, lots switch to arterial roads in the winter as they're more likely to have been plowed. The City of Toronto has a Cycling Snow Routes map where you can see which roads are cleared regularly (generally speaking, protected bike lanes and routes seeing bike counts of over 2,000 are cleared). You can also report uncleared bike lanes by calling 311. We've noticed they're responsive on Twitter @311Toronto too!

Extreme conditions can be difficult for even the most seasoned winter cyclists. If you do end up riding through a storm, or tackling the roads soon after, remember the basics of bicycle riding: avoid swerving and ride in a straight line. There are some time when, in the interest of safety, it can be best to leave you bike at work or home and take transit. Don't worry, you'll be back in the saddle in no time once the worst of the weather passes!

Get Lit!

Winter days are shorter and darker. It's important that you can see and be seen on the road. Having a front and rear light is essential, and you can be ticketed under the Highway Traffic Act (see part IV: Equipment) if you don't have them. You can also get extra reflective gear to go on your bike, backpack, panniers, and/or helmet. 

Adjust your riding

There are a few things you can do while riding which can help you stay safe:

  • Shift regularly to help clear your chain of snow build up
  • Reduce your tire pressure for increased stability due to more tire contact with the road
  • Take it slow and brake early. It will likely take you longer to get where you're going when there's snow on the road, so leave some extra time. 
  • Avoid riding over piles of snow. Do a head check and use hand signals to indicate to passing motor vehicles and other riders where you're going. 
  • Take your water bottle inside so it doesn't freeze! Better yet, take a small thermos and have a sip of warm coffee or tea on your way to work.

Winter cycling can be as much fun as riding at other times of year. With a bit of preparation, you’re good to go!