Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why and How You Should Winter Bike

So, I'll being this little missive by confessing that I took a fairly easy, cheap-shot at Granville Mag this evening. Their article "Preparing Your Bicycle for Winter" is an excellent guide to getting both your bike and yourself adequately prepared for winter, bicycle commuting - in Vancouver.

The cheap shot was easy to take, so I took it. Vancouver doesn't get winter. Vancouver gets damp, followed by wet, followed by wetter, followed by damp again. To be fair, the article does acknowledge this fact and spends its time discussing the proper methods of wet-proofing your bike and dressing in quick-drying layers. It also mentions that once the snow flies, it's time to take the bus. Pansies.

Now, I lived in Vancouver for a long time and was a regular, year-round bike commuter. Yes, commuting in the rain sucks. Big time. But the problem isn't so much that you get wet while riding. The real issue is that due to the high levels of moisture in the air, none of your cycling clothes ever dry out. At the end of every work day, you're always putting on slightly damp layers of slightly smelly clothes. If you want to be a successful and non-aromatically-repulsive cycle commuter through a Vancouver winter, get your employer to invest in a clothes dryer. Or, double the weight of your backpack and bring along an extra set of riding clothes.

So, I may have called winter riding in Vancouver "cute". My bad, but I stand by it.

However, winter riding here in Alberta is a totally different ball game. The challenge here is not staying dry, or even staying warm (layers and the energy required to ride in snow and ice will keep you warm. No, the challenge here is not killing yourself while riding and avoiding frostbite. I'm not even kidding.

Keeping warm while winter riding is a relatively simple endeavour. The rules are the same for all winter sports:

  • Do dress in layers to trap thin envelopes of air around your body. Your body heat will warm the air and you'll stay warm. 
  • Don't - read that as DO NOT - wear cotton. When cotton gets wet, it sticks to your skin and destroys that first, critical warm air envelope. Wet skin loses heat about 800 times faster than dry skin. Cotton kills. 
  • Do trap heat around your extremities. That means layers of socks (thin ones next to skin) and mitts on your hands. On really cold days, I wear my full-finger cycling gloves inside a pair of warm mitts.
  • Do wrap yourself in a windproof layer. Even I - the guy who wears shorts year-round - am not stupid enough to let the wind blast through a porous outer layer.

All of this is pretty much what the Granville Mag article was talking about - minus the rain. But given our frigid climate between November and March, there are a few extras we need to keep in mind. The big one for our bodies, is frostbite.

We all know what windchill is right? When the temperature is below 0c, the wind will make it feel colder. What lots of people forget, is that you don't need a windy day to experience windchill. The movement of the bike will take care of that for you. For instance: While I will generally stay committed to riding my bike down to about -25c, much of our daily commutes happen in the -15 to -20 range. At an air temperature of -20c, and a ground speed of 20km/h, you are creating a windchill of -29c. Exposed skin will freeze in a short period of time - the best estimate I could get is about 15 minutes. However, once you dip below that, the freezing time drops dramatically.

So, covering your skin is important. My standard winter riding outfit includes a full, one-piece, head-and-neck-covering helmet liner that pulls up over my nose. If the temperature is above about -18, I wear sunglasses. Once we start approaching -20 I put on ski goggles. I have zero exposed skin once we get down to those temperatures. I've seen and treated frostbite on other people. It hurts, it damages skin cells and in bad cases, creates ugly scars or worse. No thanks.

Now you're warm and protected from the wind and cold. Let's get to the bike.

Lubricate everything - every bearing, hub, gear, cog, chain... you name it, with thin oil. Thick oils are great for wet, warm-weather riding but in the winter they get really thick, making the moving parts that much harder to keep in motion. I just test them by dabbing a little on my fingers. If it feels like peanut oil, it's pretty good. If it feels like syrup it's too thick.

Lights. I cannot say this enough. Here in Central Alberta we have really short winter days. That means that you'll probably be riding in the semi-dark to really-dark, most of the time. Invest in a flashing-red LED for the back. Put it on your pack, your seat post - wherever; just make sure it can be seen. A bright-white LED for the front is also important. Make sure that you can position it so that you can see what's in front of you without blinding oncoming drivers. I like LEDs because winter is really hard on batteries and LEDs don't draw much power. This helps extend the life of the batteries.

Finally, tires. Stud them. All the layering and weather protection in the world won't be much comfort when you find yourself lying on your side, staring at a truck tire pass inches by your head, because you hit an ice-patch and the bike went sideways. Studding a tire is cheap, easy, and as long as you're patient, doesn't take too long:

  • Go to MEC or Canadian Tire and buy a cheap, wire beaded, heavily treaded mountain bike tire. I have Kenda Kinetics; about $20 each.
  • Take your tires to the local hardware store and buy a box of 300, self-tapping, sheet metal screws. Measure them against the knobs on the outside edges of the tires. Buy screws that are about 1/4 inch longer than the height of the knob.
  • Take all this home.
  • Book off a Saturday afternoon.
  • Using a power drill and the thinnest bit you have, drill a series of pilot holes. You're going to drill through the inside of the tire, through each of the knobs on the outer edges of the tire.
  • Using a manual screw driver (no power tools here) screw one sheet metal screw, through each of the pilot holes. You'll probably get about 70 screws per edge; so about 140 screws per tire. The finished product should look like this:

  • Do a tire swap - wear gloves as the screws don't mix well with tire irons and bare knuckles. 
That's about it for the pre-winter prep. I strongly encourage you to try it. The air, while cold, is fresh and the skies are generally clear. 

Stay tuned. In a couple of days I'll talk about actually surviving your winter bike commute. Preview note: drivers who don't see you in the summer, really don't see you in the winter.

1 comment:

Red said...

My winter riding story is being lucky enough to tip over a snow windrow. So there I am almost upside down with my bike on top of me. It was embarrassing.
Good post with lots of pertinent info.