There’s a pack of coyotes skittering across the frozen North Saskatchewan River; I stop pedaling and pull my bicycle to the side of the snow-covered trail to watch them. They’re oblivious to my existence, and similarly show no concern for the shivering vehicles motoring down River Valley Road just behind me. After a few minutes the coyotes are out of view, my body’s cooling, but my mind is exhilarated. I resume my ride.
“People think it’s nuts,” writes Mayor Don Iveson. “But it’s great exercise and it’s wonderful to be outside.”
He’s nailed it; that’s why people cycle in the winter.
It is surprising how warm your body is after just five minutes of pedaling, so although your winter-wardrobe is stocked with tuques, down-filled jackets and long-johns, you may find a few essential layers is all you need. “Wool is basically the key,” says Rob Lester, a mechanic at Velocity Cycle who rides year-round. If you can afford it, or already have it, merino wool is best, says Lester. “It’s comfortable, lightweight, breathable and doesn’t stink either.”
The extremities will feel the cold, though, so focus on the hands, feet and head. Multi-layered ski-mitts or gloves work well. Or you can buy cycling specific lobster-gloves – they’re mitts that are each split in two, giving your pinkies warmth and dexterity. You can also use neoprene over mitts, called pogies, which attach to the bike’s handlebars. Switch out your clip-less pedals for regular flat pedals so you can wear warm hiking or winter boots, and find a good balaclava or facemask that fits under your helmet. Ski goggles are essential when it’s snowing, or really cold.
Powder pedaling Mayor Don Iveson says he couldn’t go biking in the winter without his dual-purpose bike/snowboard helmet with its cozy built-in winter liner.
“I wrecked a drivetrain over the course of the winter,” says Josephine Junas-Grant, who winter cycled for the first time last year, and found that the slush and grit really wore down her bike. It’s why many people have dedicated winter bikes that are typically cheaper and simpler than their summer bikes.
Studded tires are good additions, giving a lot of traction on sheet-ice and, perhaps most importantly, increase the rider’s confidence. They can be expensive though, so Edmonton Bicycle Commuters, which also sells second-hand bikes, holds workshops showing you how to stud tires. With or without studded tires, there’s a trick to staying upright, Junas-Grant says. “As long as you keep turning [your pedals] when you hit ice patches, then you don’t end up spinning out or falling over.”
Increasingly there’s a new style of bike on the winter trails – the fat-bike. These bikes have mountain bike style frames, with four or five-inch-wide tires that help with flotation and traction on deeper snow. On a ride last winter, Rob Lester says: “We ran into about 20-25 guys on fat-bikes riding the trails, it was pretty amazing. It’s definitely gaining in popularity.”
Aside from the snow, ice and cold, the other challenge in winter is darkness. “I always have lights on, even in the day,” says Lester. A combination of flashing and steady lights is best for you to be seen, while a powerful front light will guide you on darker streets or trails.
The best time to ride is after a few days of consistent temperatures and no snowfall. The main roads will be snow-free, the ruts on residential streets will be predictable and the trails will be packed and good for gripping your tires.
The river valley and ravine trails are perfect first areas to try riding, since the city aims to have them cleared to hard-pack within 48 hours of a snowfall. They also keep you away from cars, so there’s less stress about slipping and falling. Don’t worry about that first slip either, says Lester. “Falls are pretty soft. Most of the time you’re falling into snow.” There is one thing you do have to worry about, he warns, “You get a little hooked.”