On Winter Bike Commuting in Calgary

I started riding to work in the winter months last year, mainly because I was enjoying it so much in the spring/summer/fall that I figured it had to be fun in the winter as well. A few lessons were learned that I’m now trying to apply to this season.

If you can ski in it, you can ride in it

People give you strange looks when you tell them you rode in to work on your bicycle when it’s -10 degrees celsius outside. But these same people don’t think it’s odd to head out to the ski hill in the same weather, bundle up, sit on a cold chair suspended 50 feet above the ground for 15 minutes, race down a snowy hill at high speed, rinse, repeat. All the same rules regarding layering, clothing materials and equipment that help keep a downhill skier comfortable in low temperatures also apply while biking in the city. If anything, biking is easier due to the fact that you’re always moving. By the time I get to work (a 12km ride) I’m always hot & sweaty, regardless of the outside temperature.

Studs are your bestest friend ever

Last year I commuted in the winter on a mountain bike with studded tires (Schwalbe Snow Studs, if you must know). These are what I’ll call “half-assing it” as far as studded tires are concerned. The Snow Studs have two rows of carbide studs that aren’t always touching the ground (this is by design). The end result for me was a few wipe outs, and a lot of dainty route-choosing ballet. One morning while attempting to negotiate a particularly icy section of path (behind Rocky View Hospital) I was passed by a guy riding on real studded tires like I was standing still and he didn’t even notice there was ice on the ground. Lesson learned. This year I’ve resolved to upgrade to some Schwalbe Marathon Winters, which are a little more serious as far as stud count is concerned.

Some maintenance may be required

With all the crap that gets on the road in the winter months, it’s no surprise that some of it ends up on your bike. If I didn’t clean the bike off after at least every couple of rides I’d have a seized up chain and poorly performing derailleurs on my hands. Now, I have nothing against cleaning, but doing it in your garage in the winter cold is really shitty.

Big hills don’t mix well with icy brakes

My mountain bike had a set of “standard” rim brakes, just like most 10 year old $500 bikes do. These were more than enough in the summer, but get a little ice and snow on your rims and suddenly big fast downhills aren’t so much fun.

So what did I do about it?

I tried to address every one of these issues in one form or another:

  • I got some new shoes (Five Ten Impacts) which help to keep the feet warm and with grip on icy pathways.
  • I’ve been collecting Icebreaker merino wool clothing to wear during the ride. This stuff is not only warm, but it does not stink. Ever. It’s ridiculous how much this stuff doesn’t stink. Well worth the price, Icebreaker clothing has supplanted Patagonia base layers for me.
  • Cheap ski goggles should help keep my face warm. I got a pair of cheap $20 goggles with clear lenses for when it’s dark out.
  • Schwalbe Marathon Winters are at the bike shop ready to be picked up. I got a pair of 700c 35mms.
  • As for the rest of the issues… I hope to have solved them with the Trek Soho:Trek SohoThis bike has all the attributes I was looking for in a winter bike: Roller brakes and internal 8-speed hub are basically sealed to the elements, so there shouldn’t be any degradation in performance due to winter conditions. The more upright position and flat platform pedals should make me nice and stable, yet able to safely bail if things get sketchy. Plus it comes with fenders, a coffee mug, and has mounts for my Topeak rack. If it holds up well, it looks like the perfect bike (my fingers are crossed).

4 thoughts on “On Winter Bike Commuting in Calgary

  1. BikeBike

    Hey Jeff

    Good article on the realities of winter riding. I dont have much to add to your piece – with the exception of your choice between chain and belt.

    A messenger buddy of mine has this same bike, with belt drive, and his thoughts were the same as yours – he thought the belt drive would be bulletproof and work well in winter. However, he has been having huge problems with ice getting packed into the rear “cog” which then forces the belt off the cog. He says the problem doesnt happen on the front chainring (due to the big cutouts).

    When I first saw the Gates Belt I thought it would be perfect for all-season riding but I think it may not be ready for our knarly winters quite yet. This is a bummer for me because I was hoping that belt drive would be the next “big thing” for everyday cycling. From what I can tell, all that needs to happen is for the rear cog to have those same cutouts and the problem might be solved.

    Just thought I’d let you know. All the best!

  2. Matt

    Glad you are able to ride in the winter. Nice gear list, I’d love to get some merino wool stuff. The only thing I can add is MEC cycling shoe covers. Technically for rain, these things keep the wind off your feet which goes a long way to keeping them warm.

  3. D'Arcy Norman

    I picked up a pair of Snow Studs – they work great, although traction on ice isn’t perfect. Still, way better than the near-slicks I ride in the summer.

    Is much of your ride on roads? I commute from Tuscany to the U of C, and about 2/3 of my ride is on roads – the pathways don’t go where I need to go – and with the deep snow we’ve had, the roads are just plain scary to ride on. The shoulders are covered with deep piles of snow, and the narrow lane that remains has to be shared with traffic. And they have a serious hate-on for anything on two wheels.

    Any tips for road riding in winter? Avoid it as much as possible? Move to sidewalks? Take the lane and wave as the monster trucks buzz by?

  4. Jeff Perrin Post author

    @BikeBike – re: icing… That’s funny, the guy’s at Ridley’s (where I bought the bike) were talking about a guy who was using it as a messenger bike. No reference to the problems of course ;) We’ll see how it goes and I’ll report back.

    @D’Arcy – The snow studs were definitely better than no-studs, but I just had no-where near the traction I saw other cyclists had. We’ll see if the extra studs make a difference.

    My commute is all over the map… Pathways, side roads, downtown streets. The only really bad parts are 8th street downtown & 19th street down by Southland leisure center. When the snow is really piled up I just ride the sidewalk if there’s nobody on it. I posted my route in another blog post last year… http://jeffperrin.com/2008/11/08/my-cycling-commute/

    In the winter I ride from the Leisure Center instead of from home (cuts the ride from 20km to about 12km)