Where I live, the snow really comes down. The snow really comes down and then the wind comes up and then we all stay in. Back to the dreadmill or the track, convinced that we can pass the winter in 400’s, doing speedwork, staring at the wall or, worse, Netflix. Or, for those of us with enough Shackleton in our blood, we snap on the snowboarding goggles, layer up and head out anyway, into whatever is waiting out there, trudging through hours of 8 minute kilometres and repeatedly telling ourselves that it’s all strength training, that it’s all good.
And while all of this is true — all of this and the goodness of skiing and snowshoeing, back country trekking and skating — I have yet to find anything as satisfying, challenging, or engaging as cycling all winter.
For the sake of some street cred, let me first say that I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick where last winter we got 409cm of snow between November and March and where the average temperature in January and February hovers around -10 before the wind chill. So yeah, winter.
After commuting year round for the past four years and recently taking up trail riding in the winter, here are my lessons learned for those looking to really rock the season. (And, for what it’s worth, I ran outside as well, opting for the track only once — it sucked — and won my first race in the spring after almost exclusively basing my training for the five months leading up to it on nordic style skiing and cycling through the snow!)
Type of bike
— commuting: Given the severity of our winters, the amount that roads get salted and sanded, the variety of conditions that you’ll ride through, and the likelihood that you’ll have to get a ‘new’ bike every 3 – 4 years, I suggest that you buy a used, heavy, steel framed beater with gears. The kind of bike is really inconsequential, though I do recommend getting a second hand higher end bike going for $300 – $500 instead of a department store special. The steel frame will help you crush it through snow and slush and wind, and the original, better quality components won’t let you down when you need them most!
— trail: FATBIKE! As a friend of mine once said, mountain bikes are cool because they got us into the woods, but fatbikes are GREAT because they made it FUN! As opposed to the commuter, this is where it’s worth it to spend the money. That being said, if your primary interest is in winter trail riding/ cross training and not bikepacking, I recommend avoiding bikes (and the added cost) that come equipped with all of the bells and whistles to hook up a dozen saddlebags, and instead go with a hard tail with a 1 X 10 set up — seriously, for floating over the snow, powering the hills and getting super strong while staying lean and having fun all winter (common wisdom has it that winter fatbiking burns 1500 calories per hour!), the less moving parts the better!
— commuting: To commute with ease, I have found that studded tires and solid fenders are absolute necessities and worth every cent to buy the very best (which still isn’t going to even be a fraction of what your car’s winter tires are going to take you for). Seriously, everything gets better when your bike is sporting both. Not so necessary are things like saddlebags and back racks — when your sliding on ice, reducing unevenly distributed weight is a godsend (see “Clothing Accessories” below for the alternative). All told, and much unlike cars which need things like block heaters, bum warmers, antifreeze, antilock breaks, windshield fluid, etc. etc. etc., your commuter bike just needs something to keep it stable, two fenders to protect you front and aft, and for you to have a healthy breakfast. Warmth on a bike comes from the INside.
— trail: Unless you want a light to ride in the dark, there are no necessary accessories! Your FATBIKE — basic, stripped down, with low psi in the tires, cleaned and well-lubed — is all you need. The rest is all for show and, really, isn’t biking through the woods in the snow all the badass any of us can handle anyway? (Buy a light…)
— communting: Now it comes to the rub, right? How can I get to work or school without sweating to death, without freezing my body parts off, dry and (imagine!) satisfied that I can keep doing it? In his book ‘Frostbike’, Tom Babin comes to the conclusion that the primary factor in winter cycling isn’t the bike or the weather, but whether or not it’s easy; as such, clothes are a real concern — especially if you do not have access to a shower. That being said, here are a few of the things that have made my commute 100% possible and enjoyable.
- carry on — a big, well-fitted backpack with weather proof cover, the former of which can cost as much as you like, but the latter should only take you for about $50 and is worth its weight in gold as it will protect the contents from above AND below.
- over layer — splash pants, snow mobile mitts, weather proof shell, buff, hat, goggles, boots and gaters. All depending on the severity of the weather, these items can be added and subtracted (and even replaced by the things you wear during the spring or fall), but each are meant to keep you DRY and not necessarily warm!
- under layers — your full body base layer (made of a sweat wicking material like 100% Merino wool) might very well be the most expensive item you purchase for winter cycling; therefore, I suggest that you do your research and put it on every Christmas list you’re asked for — why not? Mom will buy you undies for sure! And not just undies, you’ll want Santa to get you a pair of socks, long underwear, T-shirt, long sleeve and sweater. These light, wool items keep you super warm and dry easily (and without stench) when hung in your office. They also make it so all you need is a towel in the bag (and some deoderant) to let you go to work. Trust me, I’m a teacher, this works.
— trail: unlike commuting, riding FATBIKE on trail is warm business, so with the exception of a pair of boots and mittens, you can usually get away with your base layer, some thermal tights and a warm upper with a wind breaking jacket. In other words — put on your running clothes. Seriously, 1500 calories per hour — what do you expect?
To my mind, there’s nothing mysterious or insane about riding your bike all winter — like running, it’s way more about the clothes and the attitude than it is about the weather. The benefirs — in addition to the Vitamin D to fight against SADD and the antidote to cabin fever — are numerous and include giving you a new, solid challenge, staying strong and lean over winter, and giving you some serious street cred. And after all, doesn’t all that really sum it up?