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Cold or wet weather cycling

Essential cycling clothing for cold weather

The key to an enjoyable ride in cold weather is not keeping warm but keeping cool. Layers of clothing are essential so you can adjust to varying temperature.

In cold weather, always take care of your head, hands and feet. These areas are more susceptible to the cold and vulnerable to frostbite.

Head

Between 50 and 65 per cent of your body heat is lost through your head, so keep it covered in colder temperatures

  • Wear lightweight toques, headbands, balaclavas
  • Avoid hoods, which restrict peripheral vision
  • Adjust your helmet size to allow for winter gear
  • If it's snowing or there are strong winds, consider wearing a pair of ski goggles as protective eye wear, so long as these don’t obstruct your peripheral vision.

Hands

Hands are susceptible to cold, and you have to keep them warm to have the dexterity to control the bicycle at all times.

  • Try layers of thin gloves rather than one pair of heavy gloves
  • Try two layers:
    • wind resistant mittens (outer layer)
    • gloves that allow for dexterity (inner layer)
  • Try the specially designed cycling mitts known as lobster mitts. These offer the dexterity of a glove with the warmth of a mitten.

Feet

Keep your feet warm and dry by wearing water-resistant, warm footwear. Some examples include:

  • Warm hiking boots, cross-country ski boots or booties
  • Wool socks (cotton holds moisture and leads to discomfort)
  • Plastic bags over socks and under shoes ensure a dry ride to work

Torso

Layers are crucial. Cycling will warm you up quickly, so don't overdress.

  • On wet days be sure to wear an outer layer that is waterproof and breathes, such as Gore-tex.
  • Wear a jacket with armpit zips for ventilation, allowing for a cooler, more comfortable winter ride.
  • Try having a wicking material (like CoolMax) next to your skin to keep moisture moving outward.
  • Remember to wear brightly coloured clothing or a reflective vest so that you can be seen at all times.
     

Essential cycling clothing for wet weather

In wet weather, it’s important to stay dry – but also to stay visible to other drivers and cyclists. Wear bright yellow or orange and make sure your bicycle has reflectors and lights. Choose an outfit that is waterproof, but try to avoid bulky clothing that restricts movement.

Hands

Split mitts – known as lobster mitts – let you grip your handlebars and still have the mobility to operate your brakes. Since these gloves are windproof and waterproof, your hands will stay dry (and warm, in cold weather). Pull these over your own riding gloves to ensure comfort.

Feet

Waterproof shoe-covers (made of nylon taffeta) will ensure that your shoes remain clean and your feet dry. These covers only protect from water, but they feature a water-resistant, grease-resistant, cleat-adaptable sole. There’s a home-made option, too; plastic bags over your socks and inside your biking shoes to help keep your feet warm and dry.

Torso

Jacket

Choose a jacket that provides protection from both the rain and the wind, with maximum breathability for strenuous activity.

  • Sealed seams allow for a dry ride and provide extra warmth as the weather begins to get colder. 
  • A micromesh back with light and breathable 100 per cent polyester mesh and moisture wicking properties will ensure that the moisture is taken away from the skin, keeping you dry and warm. 
  • A vented shoulder yoke allows for additional breathability and prevents billowing, making for a faster commute.

Poncho/Cape

Wear a poncho or cape as an alternative to the jacket. A cycle cape will give you plenty of ventilation, keeps your entire body dry, and doesn't impede your pedalling motion.

Fabrics

Cycling jackets are commonly made from the following three fabrics, each with different advantages and disadvantages:

  • PVC or poly vinyls: Completely waterproof, but have no ability to wick moisture or to breathe without exterior vents or mesh panels
  • Nylons or polyesters with a waterproof coating: Fabrics that are coated rather than laminated tend to be a little softer; less noisy, but not as waterproof. 
  • Laminated fabrics: Designed to wick moisture. Laminates are layers of fabrics that are glued or heat-bonded to each other, which is more waterproof than coated fabrics but heavier and a little stiff.
     

Essential equipment for cold or wet weather

Cold or wet weather cycling, with the proper equipment, can be as safe as summer cycling. Remember to always wear a helmet, especially in winter as roads become more slippery and are narrowed by snow banks.

Spring and fall (April, March, September to November)

These months require minimal adjustments to your summer bike. Be aware that the days are shorter, so some of your commute may take place in the dark. Equip your bike with, at minimum, a red rear reflector and a white headlight. Add two strips of white reflective tape on the front forks and two strips of red reflective tape on the rear forks to increase your visibility.

Winter (December to February)

If you plan to ride through the winter, keep these tips in mind:

  • The salt and sand used to prevent slippery roads all winter long are hard on a bike, so (if possible) try to use an old, inexpensive bike for your winter cycling expeditions.
  • Fenders are essential and should be wide enough to deflect the snow and slush and placed high enough off the wheel to avoid snow build-up between the tire and the fender.
  • If possible, use strapless clips for best grip on the pedals.
  • Thicker tires may be an advantage, however, the key is to reduce tire pressure and have your tires slightly underinflated to ensure maximum tread for stability and grip.
  • Perform regular maintenance checks. Grease the inner cables (and brake pivots on a mountain bike), oil the chain and grease inside the freewheel. Use a dry lube because it won’t let debris build up, which prevents wear on the drive chain.
  • Check the front headlight and the rear reflector or light to ensure that the batteries are working and still charged before setting out for the day. It’s also a good idea to carry extra batteries.

Wet weather (March to November)

Have all the regular equipment for cycling: a helmet, the required number of headlights and reflectors, and a bell. You can take further precautions to make your wet-weather ride more comfortable:

  • Fenders keep rain and dirt off of you and your bike.
  • Additional reflectors or lights for your bicycle (or on your rain gear) improve visibility on the roads.
     

How Bad Are Ottawa Winters, Anyway?

Many winter days are bright and sunny, with clean, clear roads. The sides of the road are often free of snow and slush through the winter months. However, travel time tends to increase by approximately 30 per cent in the 'good' winter weather. Simply plan ahead and take this factor into consideration.

It is also important to consider which route to take to work. In winter, it may prove useful to have alternate routes planned out to allow for delays caused by strong winds, snowy roads, or other unpredictable weather events. Keep in mind that many pathways are not cleared during the winter months, limiting bicycle travel to roads.

Overall, many cold weather cycling commutes are very pleasant, enjoyable and safe. Of course, use your judgment on a daily basis when confronted with some of Ottawa's more challenging winter weather. For example, when confronted with a winter storm, using another mode of transportation may prove to be the most responsible decision.

Remember, winter cycling is not a day in, day out commitment. Pick your cycling days according to the weather and to your mood. Just remember, every little bit counts, and at the end of the day, you will probably feel more satisfied if you've had some exercise and fresh air on your way to and from work.

Riding techniques for poor weather conditions

Seventy percent of winter cyclists reported never sustaining an injury – or even a bruise. If you're properly dressed and riding cautiously, winter cycling is a very safe and practical way to commute for most of the year.

In poor weather conditions, you should be extra attentive on the road. A little extra caution goes a long way to staying safe. On days with heavy snow or freezing rain, consider alternate means of transportation.

Techniques

Winter cycling – especially after snow has fallen – isn’t the same as cycling during warmer months. Use these tips to keep safe:

  • Roads tend to be a bit narrower due to snow banks Ride in the middle lane when necessary, which will prevent motorists from passing you too closely.
  • Avoid patches of ice and snowdrifts at all times.
  • Ride a bit more slowly to allow for maximum traction. It is also wise to cycle slowly since drivers do not expect to have to contend with cyclists in the colder weather.
  • Take curves at a slower pace and avoid leaning with the bicycle. Try to keep the bike perpendicular to the ground at all times for maximum traction.

Braking

Winter cycling requires special braking technique:

  • Avoid over-braking on slippery surfaces and keep your brakes properly greased to prevent them from icing up..
  • Test your brakes often and make the adjustments when needed. 
  • If you are having trouble using your brakes on a particular day, you can try the following technique to achieve better results:
    • Position your pedals in the 6- and 12-o'clock position.
    • Stand up, one foot on the 6-o'clock pedal, the other one on the ground in front of the 12-o'clock pedal (skidding a foot on the ground stabilizes the bike).
    • Be sure to make contact with the ground with your heel first.

When braking in the rain (or anytime your rims are wet):

  • Remember that the first few revolutions will only succeed in drying the rims and pads of your bike; be sure to allow yourself more stopping distance.
  • Pump your brakes to help the rims and pads dry off more quickly.
  • Avoid painted line or steel surfaces, as these are the most slippery part of the road when wet.
  • Keep your tires slightly under-inflated to increase contact with the road and therefore, give you more control.
  • Avoid riding through deep puddles that may be concealing potholes and other hazards.
  • Avoid leaves, mud and other material that may be very slippery in wet weather.
  • Ride in the tracks of the motor vehicles in front of you. This can give you a drier surface and better traction.