Braving Calgary's winters by bike

By Kristy Archibald

Thoughout Calgary’s cold winter months, it’s common to want to put your bike in storage. However, with the new bike lanes introduced in 2016, Calgary is asking you to reconsider.

How you go about preparing for your frosty ride will differ from person to person. Here are a few guidelines to get you started. [Image credit: istockphoto.com/kaca_studio]

Braving Calgary's winters by bike

Preparation

“If you have the right attitude, you can get over your fear of winter riding by simply being prepared,” said Tom Babin, author of Frostbike. “Make the experience fun – there is nothing quite like riding home from work in the dark when the snow is falling, the sound is muffled and you are laying fresh tracks.”

It’s important to do a full maintenance procedure before riding in Calgary's winter weather.

According to Tom, you don’t need to buy anything special, but it's important to ensure your bike is in well working order.

“I even recommend using an old bike, because the slush and the salt from the roads can easily rust your bike’s components,” he said.

If you’re looking for information on the best bike trails and routes through the city, pick up a copy of Calgary By Bike, or follow Bike Calgary on Twitter.

Gear

If you are interested in purchasing some new gear to brave the winter, check out Mountain Equipment Co-OpGood Life Bike ShopBow Cycle or your closest athletic store.

Tires

As some routes may be tougher to pass than others, wider tires with a deep tread pattern and reduced tire pressure will ultimately be the most ideal option for maximum grip, stability, traction and control in snowy and icy conditions.

“If you’re really worried about slipping, studded tires make a world of difference,” Tom said. “If you can only afford one studded tire, put it on the front.”

If you regularly commute into Calgary’s downtown core, Tom recommended a fat bike, as they are strategically built for icy and mucky conditions.

Fenders

Fenders are an inexpensive investment that will make a huge difference to the quality of your ride. They work to block slush and muck so that your shoes, pants and back stay relatively dry.

Lights

Due to Calgary’s short winter days and low visibility it is crucial to have both front and rear lights on your bike.

Front lights help you see what is ahead, so lights that are 150 to 200 lumens minimum are recommended. Rear lights are important so drivers and other bikes can see you, so it’s suggested to always have a spare, as they commonly break off, burn out or simply stop working due to the cold.

Brakes

Brakes need to be checked in the fall and changed to hydraulic disk brakes, which are better for durability and will stop you quicker in cold weather.

Staying warm

When it comes to staying warm, there is no secret – it ultimately comes down to personal preference. The key is to not sweat and to avoid fogging!

In extreme temperatures you may want to wear the thickest clothes you own, but that can backfire, as peddling generates a lot of heat and your sweat will end up freezing, making you colder in the long run. Plus, you don’t really want to arrive to work in need of a shower!

Outerwear 

“As with any winter activity, dress in layers,” Tom said. “You don’t need athletic wear, especially if you’re going to work, but a warm base layer and a waterproof outer layer helps.”

Your goal is to find the right combination of comfort and warmth. For a base layer it is crucial to avoid cotton, as it retains moisture and, in return, makes you cold. Instead, choose an insulated fabric that will be breathable but warm.

Choose a shell that is both waterproof and vented for those days when you have worn too much. You can buy a warm windbreaker, or use your ski shell or parka, but keep in mind the salt and slush may age your jacket quicker then normal. On extra cold days you may want to add a light fleece between the base layer and shell.

For bottoms, thermal and water resistant cycling tights are warm and are easily layered. Long underwear and soft shell ski pants also do the trick.

Headwear 

Headwear choices vary depending on the temperature. If you find yourself commuting during a chinook or days when the temperature is closer to -5, a headband or light toque combined with a neck warmer is all you need.

Balaclavas or neoprene facemasks help cut through the wind in weather closer to -15. If you choose to wear cycle glasses, it’s recommended you try clear lenses or double lens goggles, which can help to reduce fogging.

Hands and feet 

It’s important to particularly focus on your hands and feet, as they are the first to get cold. Wear gloves made of durable leather with extra padding for warmth. Extreme weather may call for lobster mitts or “pogies,” which both combine warmth and dexterity for shifting and breaking.

Regular waterproof and insulated winter boots combined with wool or synthetic socks work well enough for regular commutes. Two layered thin socks are better than super thick socks, because squeezing your feet into your boots will constrict the blood flow and your feet will get colder quicker. Shoe covers or overboots may also be a good solution.

Staying safe

Though the city's cycle tracks are designed with physical barriers from moving cars, parked cars and sidewalks, the elements can pose unexpected challenges when commuting into Calgary's downtown cores. For that reason, cyclists should keep in mind their safety at all times.

  • Never brake suddenly, especially on snow or ice, as this can cause you to swerve uncontrollably.
  • Get off your bike and walk if you don’t feel comfortable.
  • Check the weather forecast beforehand and don’t go out if conditions are too extreme.
  • Take a few spin classes before you venture out – biking uses a lot of cardio.
  • Look for new routes that are safer.
  • Give yourself lots of time.
  • Stick to frequently travelled roads and pathways, as they likely to be cleared first.

More and more people are choosing to forgo Calgary’s traffic and take advantage of our recently implemented bike lanes. The practice even recently inspired a local documentary. Winter biking can be incredibly fulfilling and a great cardio workout – and with these tips, you’ll be braving the icy streets in no time.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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