One Man’s Winter Riding Recipe

The raison d’etre of this space is simple – I had a lot of questions around riding, a healthy cynicism of those standing to make a profit in answering my questions, a need to draw my own conclusions without re-inventing the wheel along the way and desire to share the journey with others who might find themselves with similar questions.  If I was going to wear stretchy shorts, there was going to be a reason that didn’t include because they do.

I have attempted to ride through the winter this year with a reasonable amount of success.  The mileage hasn’t added up as quickly as the summer, the ride calendar showing big gaps during the coldest periods.  There’s little doubt that riding in the winter requires more effort – physical and mental.  The biggest mental effort comes off the bike, before the ride begins.  Ugh…-15…west wind…cold and windy…I don’t need to ride…it’s going to suck…I’ll be cold…  Trying to stay out of that self-defeating space is hard for me.  My solution is fairly straight forward –each evening, I lay out all my gear and get everything packed before I look at the forecast for the morning.  If it’s been especially cold, I make sure to have the extras within reach so there’s no messing about in the morning.  Get up, get the gear on, get the pack on, get out the door.  Prudence dictates that a proper look at the current and forecast conditions is done before departure – I don’t need to freeze to death in an attempt to prove how hardy I am – but I don’t have to think about anything and all the work is done.

Extra snow = free extra workout!

Extra snow = extra training! For Free!

I have however discovered my personal riding hell, that thing most likely to keep me off the bike.  Hours after a good snowfall, traffic has trampled the fresh snow into semi-packed tracks and trails along the roads.  The snow is thick now, having been compressed by so much traffic, but it is not yet solid.  The weight of bike and rider is not enough to press through to get a solid purchase on the packed ice below but we will be pushed around by the varying consistencies of snow density and the icy ruts lurking beneath.  The wheels are travelling entirely separate routes from one another as the front end pushes and plows and slides around.  This is entertaining enough on flat, quiet roads but degenerates rapidly into abject terror on descents and mortal fear on busy streets.  Climbing becomes, quite literally, impossible as the tires, despite their studs, can find no traction to propel the bike through the thick snow and eventually my speed falls below that required to maintain a rubber-down orientation.  The last big snow included a perfectly-executed over-the-high-side shoulder roll, a vain attempt at climbing via the sporadically-shovelled sidewalks and a lot of bicycle carrying.  The paths were amazingly clear and plowed.  The roads?  Not so much.  

Semi-packed snow, ice-rut foundation, dense and super slick. My version of cycling hell.

So – the how.  How do I ride in when it’s snowing and blowing and cold out?


Northwaves, lobster mitts, goggles and come cleaning gear.

I was dubious of the Pearl’s ability to keep me warm in Calgary’s winter but it has continued to surprise me, time and again.  Those three items  – the Merino and two Pearl layers leave me sweating more days than not.  My own tendency is to ride hard so I might be warmer than someone riding a little more relaxed.  No question that my legs and hips get chilly when it’s really cold.  The Roubaix / driWear combination is just not enough to slow down the windchill effect.  I’ve got a pair of unlined GoreTex rain pants I’ll try over top the next time I can’t talk myself out of riding when it’s RBC – Really Bleedin’ Cold. The bike – what about the bike?  I’ve chosen to continue riding the Ridley through the winter though I’ve been told that’s unfair to the bike.  The folks that made it don’t think so:

@forgedcyclist And a nice place to ride your bike! How do you like the X-Fire with discs? *BV

— Ridley Bikes (@Ridley_Bikes) January 22, 2013

but I do expect that grime in the drivetrain will shorten its life.

Luckily – or not – I seem to be much slower in the winter so I rarely get onto the big ring – one less part to worry about changing in the spring.  I fully expect to replace the chain, rear sprocket and inner chainring but it’s not like I’m riding Dura-Ace or SRAM RED level components – the parts are relatively inexpensive.  I wash the bike regularly, more when the weather is back and forth between freezing and melting (which provides its own set of riding challenges).  It’s an opportunity to check the bike over for loose fasteners, damage, chips and so on.  It’s also a key piece of extending the life of the drivetrain – washing the grit out of it. For chain lubrication I’ve stayed the course with the usual red-top bottle of Teflon dry lube.  Dry attracts less grit and grime and keeps the overall drivetrain cleaner.  I scrub the chain down with a brush during its bath until I can handle it without getting dirty.  Add one drop of lube per roller, cycle it and let it sit until the next morning, then spend a minute or two back-pedalling the chain through a rag to remove the excess.  When it’s wet out, I’ll spray some all-in-one cleaner/ lube onto a rag and give the chain a wipe to keep the surface from rusting.   

Suomi Nokian IceSpeed 700x40, freshly installed.

Studs, but only in the center.

 I bought some Nokian IceSpeed studded tires which improved things dramatically but they are not a panacea – they do not replace dry pavement and slicks, nor do they replace common sense.  They have no studs on the sides, only the middle, so leaning into an icy turn will not go well.  I know this.  Otherwise, they provide a healthy amount of winter traction for the conditions I encounter most days, day-after big snow being the major exception.  That’s it – other than extra attention paid to the drivetrain and some studded tires, the bike is as-delivered.

There you have it – one man’s recipe for Winter Riding Success.  This is not a set of directions to tell you how you should approach riding through the winter.  Rather, this is how I managed it.  I’ve skipped out on some of the brutally cold days admittedly – I’m good down to -20C, with windchill to -30C but that’s it.  The admonishment you’re too old to develop character through athletic feats, a response received when trying to figure out how to ride the semi-packed snow, drove home the awareness that with an entire household depending on me to put food on the table, I don’t need to break my collar bone (or worse) trying to prove to myself how hard-core I am. 

I figure if I can do it, anyone can.  It takes more prep than going for a quick spin in the summer and getting past the mental obstructions thrown up takes some effort but really, it’s not that hard.  Layer up and get out there (or don’t – your call really).

Snow Bike!

2013…you’re here already?

How time flies when you’re having fun, spinning through Christmas in a full opposite-lock power drift, getting hammered by round after round of the latest cold or flu (children really are disease carriers…but cute ones), scrambling into the new year and suddenly it’s the end of January before you’ve taken a breath.  Or so it seems.  I’m so used to having no spare time that just the tiniest bit feels like a whole bunch that I don’t know how to deal with. Now there’s microcontroller projects scattered about the place, bits and piece of remote control helicopters littering the desk, the poor Rescue Bike is still wheels-up on the work bench waiting from some – any – attention, the stack of un-read books grows taller every day and this here venting outlet grows cold and dark.

Many an idea flowed through my synaptic gaps over the intervening weeks, but none seemed capable of firing the circuit to actually sit down and write.  There’s the success of the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. winter layers I snagged through a deal on Amazon – a huge, smashing success if I’m honest.  I wouldn’t ever have guessed that 2 flimsy thin layers of whatsit material would be capable of keeping me thawed through Calgary’s winter but I was so wrong.  My usual riding attire consists of a long-sleeve Merino wool jersey – super thin, you hardly know you’ve got it on, my layered Pearl jackets and a toque (and helmet) on top.  The coldest temps I recorded were in the high sub-zero teens…or is that low teens.  Numerically higher, but colder like -20C plus whatever wind-induced chill in addition to the cycling induced wind chill.  I continue to arrive sweaty, without fail. 

My legs aren’t as warm but they’re typically dressed only in the MEC Roubaix pants and on the coldest days some Driwear long underwear.  I’m not a fan of the latter to be honest – they feel like they trap moisture leaving me clammy by the time I get to work.  The Roubaix on their own are okay but when it’s nudging -20C, despite being warm and sweaty up top, the legs have gone from chilly to plain cold.  I might be able to tough it out for 60 or 75 minutes but that last bit would be painfully miserable.  I tried wearing my Gore-Tex rain pants over top but that led to similar cold-clammy end-results.  Need to keep trying stuff out but in the meantime, of the 420km I’ve managed this year, the Roubaix have held their own.

New, or mostly new, are the Northwave Celsius Arctic GTX (what a mouthful) winter shoes…or boots.  Whatever.  They’re great! </Tony-the-Tiger>  From multiple layers of socks inside the Sidi summer shoes with home-made duct-tape covered sock covers to simply socks in the Northwaves.  Less bulk, less weight and warmer!  They’ve performed flawlessly thus far – better than expected – but active temperature rating is important, especially the active bit.  The sizing is entirely out to lunch on the Northwaves but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of consistent Euro to US sizing conversion.  My Sidis are Euro 45Ms, the Northwaves are also 45s and my plain old shoes are 10.5.  The Sidis list a conversion as being size 11 and the Northwaves claim they’re size 12(!)  They’re not – they’re both 10 ¼, maybe 10½.  They’re also great footwear choices, size conversion anomalies be damned.

I’ve continued to mile-up the Ridley X-Fire Disc through the winter of course.  It’s now sitting with a little over 2200km on the clock, the bulk of it in the snow.  Actually at the moment it’s sitting with the dealer having a noisy bottom bracket dealt with as it started making unhealthy-sounding clicking / popping noises in the last couple of weeks.  Didn’t seem to affect its performance (I can do that all on my own thanks) at all but it wasn’t going away either.   Hopefully they’ve got it sorted and we’ll be back in the saddle for Wednesday – just in time for the latest round of cold temps to dissipate back to something slightly more pleasant.  I love this bike – I’ve put more miles on it since October than I managed in all of 2011.

I’ve read many things that I wanted to respond to but most end up forgotten.  One managed to stick in my mind, like a sliver that hasn’t worked its way back to the surface yet.  I stumbled across an article about winter riding written by a fellow Calgarian but this one left me cold.  Don’t wash your bike in the winter.  Bearings hate water and they hate ice more. 

Well that’s just about the stu….<whoa…easy there….> fine.  That particular bit of advice seems to have been written tongue-in-cheek – I can think of no other rational explanation for such an idio <hey…that’s enough…play nice>…sigh.  Right – okay. 

Here’s the deal.  Bearings do hate ice and water (in the summer too).  However they, along with your chain, sprockets, cranks, wheel assemblies and paintwork also hate salt, sand and other bits of flotsam and jetsam that find their way onto the roads and pathways.  Not washing your bike is tantamount to bicycle abuse in the winter.  As a mechanic, bicycleenthusiast and all-around cheap-skate (see earlier comment about duct-taped socks as shoe covers); I can’t fathom not washing the…shit off your bike on a regular basis.  Granted, don’t use a pressure washer on your bottom bracket or your wheel bearings, but that advice applies in the summer too.  I suppose if you lack the facilities – IE your bike won’t fit in the shower – then perhaps washing it routinely will prove tough.  From a maintenance philosophy, washing the bike gets me hands-on over the entire bike.  Loose fasteners, cable adjustments, nicks in the paint, spoke tensions and so on and so forth.  It allows one to address maintenance issues while they’re loose screws and not broken or missing parts.  Don’t wash your bike…sheesh.

Enough.  Tune in next time for a return to the initial purpose of this space – How and Why.

To be clear here – I’m not trying to tell you to wash your bike  – it’s just what I do and why.

Aziz! Light!

And you
light up my path
you give me sight
to carry on.


Actually no.  No you don’t.  What you do is blind me and ruin my night vision.  Oh I know, you need to be able to see where you’re going.  Strangely the rest of us manage without carrying around searchlights from a prison.  The duo beam is a nice touch too – you know, where you have one on your handlebars and one on your helmet.  What I really, truly, deep-down love though?  The duo-beam with a double-flash and            (yes, and) a forward-facing red light.

Cheap, effective, bright enough to get noticed.

Qualifier: My ride starts and ends on the road but that’s 80% or more on the relatively unlit path.  I have this set from Bontrager (courtesy the fine folks at Ridley’s).  It’s not powerful and when there’s no snow, it’s not really enough light to ride by but that’s not why I have it.  It has a seizure-inducing blink mode on it, and I ride in that mode.  Not only does it use up less batteries that way, it’s very noticeable and when I’m on the road, I want to be sure I’m noticed.  The rear light also runs in a blink mode for the same purpose – a solid red light blends in too easily with the rest of the visual noise.Now, it’s a debatable area of pathway cycling etiquette about the use of flashing lights on the path.  If we’re honest, they’re obnoxious.  I try to use the least obnoxious setting on the tail light that’s still attention-grabbing.  If I could reach it while I was riding, I’d make it solid on the pathway but considering I start and end on the road and am not flexible enough to change it on the fly, flashing it shall be.

I have been using the flashing headlight on the path and really, I have no excuse.  There’s no need for it, so tonight I turned it off on the path and fired it back up again when I made it onto the road.  Easy peasy.  However…  I don’t just go along riding on a dark path without some sort of light. Not so that I can see (I can see fine until Joe Double Searchlight Flashy-Strobe comes wheeling by), but so that I can be seen by everyone else on the path.

The other morning, I watched a light bouncing along ahead of me and made a quick estimate of our closing speed as I was on their side of the path thanks to the windrow of snow the plow pushed onto the path.  The scene in front of me was dark – a black path (on the side I’m incorrectly on), a black patch of trees ahead of me that the path winds around and the little headlight bobbing towards me through the trees.  It was not until the last moment that the bobbing light was blotted out by an unlit rider barely 2 meters away.  It was pure luck we didn’t collide though why he didn’t vocalize or ring his bell a bit earlier is beyond me.  Whatever – I was in the wrong on his side, but he was nothing more than a dark shape on a dark path on a dark background.  Foolish.  And invisible.

So – I have a headlight that I turn off on the path and a UFO light (courtesy of the one and only Lance Barrington) on my helmet that I leave on all the time.  It lets everyone else on the path know that I’m there instead allowing them to discover me through physical contact.

So there’s the pathway ninjas – runners, dog walkers and cyclists that insist on being out there in the dark without any lights whatsoever, and their polar opposites – the military surplus anti-aircraft light wearing riders and their strobe-light wearing brethern.

To the former: Look – this isn’t hard.  It’s dark out, those of you in your parka with the hood up, you’re not alone out there, there’s not enough light to make what marginal reflective strips you have on your clothing glow and we’re all preoccupied with finding the line least likely to throw us in the puckerbrush.  Please stop acting like video-game obstacles – put a $4 LED light on your chest and back or even a single wide-view one on your hip.

You…other guys.  Maybe you haven’t thought this through at all.  Sure – you can see a white rabbit sitting stock-still in the snow at 500 yards now, but we can’t see anything as you’re coming up or after you’ve gone by until our night-vision comes back.  And dear god, don’t turn your head to look at us with your helmet-mounted spotlight either – it’s bad enough we’ve been blinded on the approach, no need to force the issue as you go by.  Besides, we can’t see anything except a bright spot – no eye contact, no smile – hell, I don’t know if you’re nodding hello to a fellow winter cyclist, just looking around or intentionally trying to fry my retinas.

Here’s the deal – you don’t need that kind of light when there’s snow on the ground.  The amount of reflection, especially on an overcast morning, should be plenty sufficient to navigate the pathways well above the posted speed, in the snow.  Save that stuff for the roads – please.