Winter cycling tips

Photo: uwajedi

Paul Terefenko of NOW Magazine has some pretty good winter cycling tips but I feel I can provide better suggestions in places (having taught CAN-BIKE and ridden in many winters).


Just ditch style in the winter. That Pashley doesn’t deserve to get eaten by salt, covered in grime and penetrated by water for four months. Instead, find a beater.

Get a bike with as few gears as possible. Frames don't rust quite as easily as NOW suggests, just shake or wipe it off frequently. The real issue is rusting of gears, brakes, and cables.

Choose a more upright bike that allows you a better field of vision.

I suggest cleaning up the bike mid-way through the winter at a do-it-yourself shop such as the Community Bicycle Network (Queen and Euclid), Bike Pirates (Bloor and Lansdowne) or Bikechain (U of T).


Something with wider knobby tires works.

There is almost no advantage to knobby tires on Toronto streets. When the roads are icy knobs don't help you, and when it's snowy you almost want a bike with thin tires that can cut through the packed snow.

There are studded tires out there, if you’re convinced you need them, but again, Toronto roads are pretty well cleared most of the time, and you’ll just be buzzing along most of the time.

Studded tires would be quite nice on ice, particularly on side roads, but you can get by without them.


Gears are nice, but can freeze. Make sure to lube brakes, gear cables and your chain. A lot.

Use lots of lube (and by lube we mean bike chain specific lube). Heavier oil is better in winter since it doesn't wash off as easily, but it will attract a lot of dirt and grit.

The fewer the gears the better. You will better off with a well-built three speed internal gear hub, a fixed gear, or a coaster brake (where you pedal backwards to stop). These all have fewer issues with cables freezing up.

An ideal winter set-up would be a fixed gear bike with disk brakes, which would give you the least chances of brakes failure. But this may also be overkill or hard to find if you're looking for a used bike.

Ice and Salt

Freezing is also made a whole lot worse if your beater is going indoors between rides. Any ice buildup melts and then refreezes when you go back outside. Keep it outside – that’s why you’ve got a beater.

Probably a good idea to keep the beater outside unless you can clean off the snow before bringing it into a warm space. The big issue is the water mixing with salt as the bike warms up which increases the rusting.

Riding with care

Starting slowly is key. When your body isn’t warmed up the frigid temps are taking a toll on your joints. Warm them up just like you would a cold car engine – i.e.: don’t floor it.

Most likely you'll be starting having just left indoors so this isn't usually a concern.

Once you’re moving keep yourself in a straight line, especially over ice and snow. Also avoid the front brake over slippery roads. Using it increases the chance of the front wheel sliding out.

Always, always use both brakes! The key is not to use the front brake too much. Terefenko's advice is poor: only using your rear brake increases your chances of the rear wheel sliding out and takes you longer to stop. Just use both brakes, applying slowly, and push your weight backwards on the bike to help prevent yourself from pitching over.

It’s a good rule-of-thumb to avoid streetcar tracks at any time of the year, but wet, slippery rails are so much worse in the winter. The same applies to metal bridges, plates and even painted lines.

Terefenko fails to explain how to cross streetcar tracks. Slow down and cross the tracks at close to 90 degrees as is possible. If you are riding alongside them, slow down, shoulder check to make sure the way is clear, turn away from them a bit, and then cross them more sharply. No braking or leaning during the turn.

Snow clearing

Most of the time, you won’t even encounter crazy conditions – just former crazy conditions in the form of encroaching snowbanks that push you closer to traffic. The city’s supposed to be on top of this, but that statement applies to lots of reality defying issues.

The city is slow in plowing the bike lanes, but it's starting to happen as I've seen on College St and elsewhere. Last year was the first year that the city plowed the Martin Goodman trail. It's a much less stressful alternative to the streets!

You need to be careful to not ever make quick turns, no leaning into turns, and no quick stops or starts. On ice or streetcar tracks keep


Like any active sport, layering is key. You’re going to heat up in the core, and conditions can change, so base layer, mid and shell, is the standard. The shell should be waterproof, and again – style will suffer, unless you’re still into that mid-90s urban explorer dad look.

Don't worry about layering unless your commute is long. Most people who go less than 40 minutes can just wear a regular winter jacket, sweater and t-shirt. You don't need a waterproof jacket if it's cold since nothing is melting.

Footwear has to be waterproof. I found some winter hikers for $70 last year, and they’re amazing. They also negate the need for those cycling dog booties.

Just use regular warm winter boots. I use either hiking shoes or Blundstones with heavy socks. Both are somewhat waterproof, but again, no need for waterproof unless things are melting.

Pants are another story. Jeans don’t really work – but you can usually swing it with a good pair of thermals underneath. For those not-so-cold moments, you can try windproof underwear. They counter the crucial groin chill.

I wear jeans with long johns. They work just fine for me. If it gets colder you can pull on rain pants. Perhaps you have less natural padding and will need more.

As for your hands and head, they’re at the top of the list. Your hands are fixed in place, so you can’t just heat them up as your ride. Ski gloves (not mitts) do the job. The head is tougher.

Always choose mitts over gloves. They just keep your fingers warmer. I put a thin wool glove underneath thick mitts.

Balaclavas are great, but you can get by with a good thin toque under your helmet. It sure beats squeezing into a hood, which flies off, impairs vision and tends to channel air into your jacket. Some people do the ski goggles, too.

A thin toque under the helmet works well, or even a shower cap over the helmet to keep the wind out. Ear muffs help a lot. I've got facial hair so I don't worry about the lower half of my face.

Like Terefenko suggests, put your bike on the bus bike rack when it gets too cold or you're too tired. On the worst days just leave your bike at home. After a day or two things will usually clear up and you'll be happily biking again.

Happy winter cycling!


What is your opinion of the ultra low maintenance galvanized Dutch bikes, advertised as winter proof by a certain bike shop? A viable alternative to rusty beaters?

Why is everyone who introduces themselves as having taken the CAN-BIKE course so didactic?

I differ with both your opinions in areas, but that's because I know what works for me. I don't know what works for you, or him, or others. Were I to list my ideas, I'd point out that they are suggestions from my experience, and would need to be adjusted to each cyclist.

I've taken and taught CAN-BIKE. I'm not so didactic. A lot of this is a matter of personal experience and will differ for lots of people.

As far as the article goes, I really disagree with the author's suggestion on tires. First time I tried riding in various kinds of snow, I tried to do it on slicks, and it was very difficult to impossible. Same condition on knobby tires were a cakewalk. In my experience, knobbies are much more stable on all types of snow - from loose to hard-pack, and can even handle an occasional ice patch without too much difficulty.

  • Starting slowly is key. When your body isn’t warmed up the frigid temps are taking a toll on your joints. Warm them up just like you would a cold car engine – i.e.: don’t floor it. *
    Most likely you'll be starting having just left indoors so this isn't usually a concern.**

I do not think having your thermostat set to 21C will help you stretch or warm up your muscles. I could be wrong as I do not stretch or warm up before riding.

  • Lights!!! Get lithium battery powered lights, these will perform much better/brighter in the cold and dark, of which your commute will be in mostly.
  • Tires, studded tires... please, there is just too much going on bicycling to bother with ice. At least get knobby, wider tires which are easier to balance on and have more grip.
  • Fenders w/ mudflaps. no options here, unless you really like oily slush spraying allover everything.
  • Don't get the cheapest bicycle and then expect it to stand up to the harshest conditions. I would have no issue riding a Pashley(if I owned one). Heck, it is a bicycle not a work of art to hang over your fireplace!
  • Choose simple and reliable components, single-speed is good but, having no gears can get really annoying(hills, snow piles, winter winds) - choose your ratio very wisely!

You really have to clean and oil stuff in the winter, not like the summer where you can get away without doing anything for long periods, if you leave a salty-wet chain overnight outside in anything warmer than -17c(near where salt-water freezes) you will wake up to a well rusted( ;-p ) chain. Don't get out the wd-40 either it will remove the rust but weaken the chain, upping the risk of breakage.

As for dressing.. it's easy!

Anyways, once you get all that in your routine winter-commuting is as easy as summer commuting and more fun.

Because CB Instructors trained experts, as opposed to internet mouthpieces.

You go do days and days of learning how to teach cycling, pass the written exam with better than 75%, pay your annual OCA dues, and then come back here and try to talk sense to some hack who thinks their opinion and experience is best.

A Fellow CB Instructor

Okay, yet another excellent point raised by jamesmallon.
From now on could everybody begin every one of their thoughts with "In my opinion..."? That way we won't get confused and think you're expressing someone else's view.

Thank you.

Keep warm, keep dry - cover your face & neck

Use lots of lights

Corner slow

Use the roads that cars use - slush is easier to ride in than snow, and way safer than ice

Fenders - especially a front fender that extends low to the ground

Keep a small bottle of WD-40 handy for moving parts that stick or freeze

The enclosed drivetrain of Dutch bikes helps quite a bit to keep out rust. Plus they have tough paint jobs with thick tubing so will withstand rust longer. My girlfriend thinks they may be too upright for winter use, but your experience may vary.

This was an educated opinion, folks

I usually just jump on the bike and go since most of my trips are under 20 minutes. My muscles and joints are already warm. Stretching may be a different matter - probably a good idea to only stretch when your muscles are already warm.

Suburban riders usually have to think about this stuff more since their trips are longer. This is where CAN-BIKE would put more emphasis on stretching and warming up.

Good points, Seymore Bikes: fenders and riding main roads.

I should have made a checklist: I find fenders essential though they can get a bit packed with snow at times. You may need to shake the bike a bit to knock some snow off. Chain guards are also useful and have allowed me to just wear regular pants.

Just after snowing residential roads become much less ridable which unfortunately means the main streets are the only place to go. Right along with all the cars, streetcars, car door openings and buses.

Waterproof Boot Covers Rock - they give you cartoon feet, but nice and dry. I also got a waterprrof helmet cover this year - heat stays in, snow stays out!

Both are available at MEC.

@jamesmallon: Not much use of a blog if I can't state my opinions.

I know more about cycling than the average cyclist, and especially the beginners that Terefenko is trying to woo into cycling. I suspect I know more about the subject than Terefenko, which is why I gave other advice. Terefenko gives poor advice in a few points where it's critical, but in other parts it doesn't matter if we have different opinions.

I've taught CAN-BIKE but not all my writing here is based on that. I've also got a pretty good understanding of bike mechanics since I've volunteered for years as a mechanic (though you don't want to rely on me). I've built my own bikes, and have real bike mechanics as friends who've corrected me. I've also ridden many winters in Toronto and before in Edmonton.

Terefenko was wrong about only using your back brake. This is due to his misunderstanding how to use your brakes effectively. Terefenko also didn't give any advice on how to cross streetcar tracks safely. My answers are backed up by other experienced cyclists and CAN-BIKE, which could be considered didactic but does give some good advice where it counts.

You might not notice but that I'm more lax than CAN-BIKE on things like clothing and stretching and such. Just wear something warm to start off and you'll figure it out.

As a former Circus Clown and Unicycle Instructor I feel it is my duty to warn other Unicyclists that juggling during your winter commute is not advisable.

  • Occasional exception given to burning torches as they keep you warm and easy to see on dark rides.

I ride my Pashley Sovereign Roadster 12 months of the year. It is a supremely practical bike in winter. The fully enclosed chaincase keeps the chain and gearing from rust-causing road crap. The internal gears and brakes are sealed away so always work with zero maintenance. The full fenders, chaincase and coatguard protect my nice work clothes.

In short, the Pashley is the perfect winter bike for me.

Maybe before racing, but I'm a utility cyclist.

How many people have you heard say "Before I walk to the grocery store I always do my warm-up exercises"?

Some people need to calm down, relax and just enjoy cycling to work or wherever else they are going. If you start to sweat, you're going too fast!

So, Paul is experiencing "crazy conditions in the form of encroaching snowbanks that push you closer to traffic."

Looks like he needs to learn how to take the lane. Which is something that he should be doing year-round on Toronto streets that are too narrow to allow cars and trucks to pass a bike in the same lane. Which is almost all Toronto streets.

I always, always take the lane. 365 days of the year. I encourage everyone else to do so also.

Maybe it's just me, but whenever I hear Pashley I think of Rick Astley and then I get angry.

Pashley also makes a model named the Princess, not that there's anything wrong with that.

One day a few years ago I was riding home through deep powder and mentally patting myself on the back for being a hard-core rider...and that's when the unicyclist went by. It was humbling.

CanBike traces it roots to Vehicular Cycling. The VC crowed are encouraged to evangelize the words of their prophet and some followers do it with quite the religious zeal. Didactism(if there is such a term) is part of CanBike, for better or worse.

That said, Herb is far from didactic. He also did say he was offering "suggestions" and not god's word. If you ever have the misfortune of running into a real VC zealot you will never forget it. I crossed paths with one from out east. God help anyone that doubted him. While he did do some good things educating cops on cycling, he pillared anyone that did not disagree with him. He had a website which had some informative stuff on it but it was also interspersed with exchanges he had with a lover that spurned him. What was more scary he had followers. He had VC people all over the place encouraging his work. When he decided that I needed more help he escalated my case to some VC in San Diego. It took a month to get them off my case, they decided that I could not be "saved".

You can read up on Vehicular cycling here: The article seems to suggest that the opposite of vehicular cycling is "segregated cycling". While that is true up to a point, I believe that it is more than that. The opposition to vehicular views is to emphasize that bicycles are not just like motor vehicles no matter how much the law and VC proponents try to insist. The City of Toronto cycling folks take a hybrid approach with one foot in the VC yard and one foot in the bike lane/bike path yard. The opponents to VC also emphasize the need for safer roads all around: slower speed limits, calmed traffic,and more dedicated room for cyclists who can often go faster than downtown motorized traffic.

So, no, I know my CAN-BIKE, but that doesn't mean I'm didactic. I drew from all my experience when writing the post.

Rather than 'warming up' before a winter commute, you may be better off 'cooling down', in the sense of wearing enough clothing so as to be slightly cold while strapping your gear on the bike, unlocking it, etc. That way, when you start pedaling you won't overheat.

Trust me, you don't want to overheat in cold weather, as you'll eventually come to a stop and get really, really cold all at once. Sweat is your enemy in cold conditions, so take it easy. Try to plan ahead and time stop lights if you can so as not to stop for too long (or at all.)

In cold and windy conditions, consider zig-zagging down side streets to get a break from the wind - although if it's really snowy the main routes are usually cleared first and may be your best bet.

Don't ride on sidewalks - it's illegal for one things, and more dangerous than the road. They also tend to be icier and bumpier in winter, and have more things to hit with you head if you wipe out.

I've run the gamut with tires and found an interesting "happy medium" in beach tires. The wider base allows for great stability, and many have a great tread that allows for grippy corners and smoother cutting through the muck. In particular I tried a set of tires that were somewhat square that gave me the best stability of all.

My favorite winter tire was a set of Slush Cutters with Kevlar lining. Now I find that a heavy tread mountain bike tire -seems do well in slush & light snow, plus they are far more resistant to flats in winter riding - changing a flat at roadside is never fun, but handling a filthy hub in -10C with a bike light in your mouth totally sucks!

Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires came as standard equipment on my Pashley. I've never, ever got a flat. You're right - fixing a flat in winter is a very bad experience.

Only two of the points that I saw in the post were points that I recall being a part of CAN-BIKE. Those are the points on braking technique, and on crossing streetcar tracks. On the latter point, I've joked with CAN-BIKE instructors from Ottawa about the general reaction of instructors who have never ridden around streetcar tracks before to e.g. Queen and Spadina.

I've spent too much time working with CAN-BIKE instructors to really mean any disrespect to the lot of you, but there are a few who have a habit of using their credentials to make an argumentum ad verecundiam, and they're certainly vocal enough to foster the sort of opinion that you're arguing against.

Winter Riding Diary - Jan. 19, 2010:
- 7:35 AM: Read morning paper with coffee, note story on Star local section of the 7 dead pedestrians in 7 days due to vehicle collisions – hmmm…..
- 8:04 AM: Leave for work
- 8:13 AM: Driver of a red SUV honks from behind as he can't seem to wait the 1.47 seconds it will take me to clear the bike lane in front of him as I cross the on ramp to the DVP at Castle Frank; I offer my condolences to the driver.
- 8:17 AM: Jarvis & Bloor - Notice a young woman run off the curb and cause a right turning car to skid to a stop in order to avoid hitting her. My appeal for her to take more care in crossing the road may be obstructed by the head phones she is wearing.
- 8:25 AM: While waiting for a right turning car to proceed from Bay to Grenville, a cyclist passes me a takes the turn ahead of the car – wow another close call?
- 8:27 AM: Approach the intersection of Elizabeth & College and notice a woman come to a stop in the middle of the crosswalk that is showing the DO NOT WALK signal, she is staring at me, but does not see the Police cruiser waiting at the intersection; not to worry though, the Police don’t seem to notice her either.
- 8:33 AM: Arrive at work, safe, warm, but a little perplexed.

(winter) Riding Tip: Expect everybody around you to do something crazy.

I opine that to receive the personal loans from banks you must have a good motivation. Nevertheless, once I've got a small business loan, because I wanted to buy a bike.

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