As Hamilton is still recovering from Wednesday’s epic snowstorm, I feel it’s a good time to share some of what I’ve learned over the last decade of intense winter cycling. I’m told all the time that “you can’t ride a bike in the winter”, which seems odd to me, since I do it all the time. But since it is, in many ways, far more complicated than summer riding, this seems a good time to post some tips.

Dress Warmly
While biking in the winter your core (chest, torso etc) will often be much warmer than if you were walking or standing, since you’re being much more active. The increased wind chill, though, will mean that your extremities – hands, feet, ears etc – will get much colder. Go overboard with mitts, socks and boots, and have a good hat and scarf if you need it. One can also buy chemical pads for mitts and boots at sporting goods stores – having a few of those around for emergencies can be a toe-saver.

For the rest of you, layers are far more important than any one good layer. I almost never wear a “coat” in winter. A few sweaters, thermals, shirts and a decent canvas or fleece jacket (or even hoodie) will allow you to breathe so you don’t build up heat and get sweaty. Have some layers that can be rolled up or unzpped if you get too hot. Waterproof layers can be good if it’s raining, but otherwise will risk feeling like you’re riding in a plastic bag. For your legs, you may be able to get away with shorts and long-johns or tights. Anything below your knees will be covered with slush and salt, so if you wear nice pants, roll ’em up. For really slushy days rain pants can be life-savers, but again, you will feel (and smell) like you’ve been riding around in a plastic bag.

Any kind of tires will work. I’ve known many bike messengers who never switch away from 23mm racing tires for years at a time, and it does work. That being said, most people would rather have something with a little more grip.

Bigger tires will tend to sit on top of snow. Anything beyond two inches (most mountain bike tires) especially. This means you’ll often have a much easier time with packed snow, but may not get much traction on it. Thinner tires, like most road bikes use, will cut down through snow to the road for better traction, but may simply get stuck in deeper snowdrifts. My personal preference are cyclecross tires – designed for off-road racing bikes, they’ll fit into my old Italian racing frame (barely) and many road brakes, but still give me a lot of the added traction that a mountain bike would have. For worse weather and worse days, a friend recently had great success with a pair of big knobby mountain bike tires and a box of screws – then spent an afternoon riding on the lake.

Winter is hell on bikes. It does far more damage than the other three seasons combined. Salt, grit and moisture all conspire to literally dissolve your rims, brake pads and drive-train. If you have the option of a “winter bike”, that’s best. It’s a great use for an old mountain bike or ten speed frame. Don’t count on your brakes or gears to work anywhere near as well as they would otherwise, either – use the biggest pads you can and change them often, and clean off your gears whenever possible. It may make more sense simply to ride a singlespeed or fixed-gear. I’ve ridden a fixed-gear as a winter bike for many years now and love it – there’s so much more control and feedback on bad patches, and I’ve experienced far too many brake failures in wintertime to ever again trust them with my life.

The best policy in wintertime is to be bold and visible. Take major streets where possible, since they’ll likely be far better plowed. In my experience, most drivers are far more courteous in wintertime (mostly because they’re terrified). But even for those who aren’t, you’ll always be better off upright and in their way than falling into their path. DOn’t go any faster than you feel comfortable with, and try to stick to car wheel-wells when roads are bad. Don’t be afraid to take a lane, or even a second lane out if the first is obstructed. Take your time with turns and other manoeuvres. Everyone moves slower in the winter for basic reasons of physics – friction, air temperature etc. Keep in mind that surfaces like metal (sewer grates) are almost as slick as ice in winter. If you do hit ice, just keep going. If you try to stop, speed up, or turn on slick ice you’ll likely end with the bike on top of you. If you simply keep the bike steady, you’ll come out on the other side.

Other considerations
Keep a cigarette lighter or other heat source on hand to unfreeze your lock if necessary. Have sunglasses or ski-goggled for snowy days. Don’t be discouraged when you fall – everyone falls in winter. And when all else fails, pick the bike up and trudge through the snow with it.