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Winter Cycling According to Pete

From: pete@panda1.uottawa.ca (Pete Hickey)
Date: Wed Oct 9 1991 12:05:07 GMT
Subject: Pete's Winter Cycling Tips
Keywords: winter cold wet frostbite
Organization: Computing & Communication, University of Ottawa

Winter Cycling According to Pete

I am a commuter who cycles year round. I have been doing it for about twelve years. Winters here in Ottawa are relatively cold and snowy. Ottawa is the second coldest capital in the world. The following comments are the results my experiences. I am not recommending them, only telling you what works for me. You may find it useful, or you may find the stupid things that I do are humorous.



I am not a real cyclist. I just ride a bicycle. I have done a century, but that was still commuting. There was a networking conference 110 miles away, so I took my bicycle. There and back. (does that make two centuries?) I usually do not ride a bicycle just for a ride. Lots of things I say may make real cyclists pull out their hair. I have three kids, and cannot *afford* to be a bike weenie.

People often ask me why I do it.... I don't know. I might say that it saves me money, but no. Gasoline produces more energy per dollar than food. (OK, I suppose if I would eat only beans, rice and pasta with nothing on them.... I like more variety) Do I do it for the environment? Nah! I never take issues with anything. I don't ride for health, although as I get older, I appreciate the benefits. I guess I must do it because I like it.


Since words like "very", "not too", etc. are very subjective, I will use the following definitions:

Cold : greater than 15 degrees F
Very cold : 0 through 15 Degrees F
Extreme cold : -15 through 0 degrees F
Insane cold: below -15 degrees F

Basic philosophy

I have two:

1) If its good, don't ruin it, if its junk you needn't worry.

2) I use a brute force algorithm of cycling: Peddle long enough, and you'll get there.

Bicycle riding in snow and ice is a problem of friction:
Too much of the rolling type, and not enough of the sideways type.

Road conditions:

More will be covered below, but now let it suffice to say that a lot of salt is used on the roads here. Water splashed up tastes as salty as a cup of Lipton Chicken soup to which an additional spool of salt has been added. Salt eats metal. Bicycles dissolve.



Although I have a better bicycle which I ride in nice weather, I buy my commuting bikes at garage sales for about $25.00. They're disposable. Once they start dissolving, I remove any salvageable parts, then throw the rest away.

Right now, I'm riding a '10-speed' bike. I used to ride mountain bikes, but I'm back to the '10-speed'. Here's why. Mountain bikes cost $50.00 at the garage sales. They're more in demand around here. Since I've ridden both, I'll comment on each one.

The Mountain bikes do have better handling, but they're a tougher to ride through deep snow. The 10-speed cuts through the deep snow better. I can ride in deeper snow with it, and when the snow gets too deep to ride, its easier to carry.

Fenders on the bike? Sounds like it might be a good idea, and someday I'll try it out. I think, however, that snow/ice will build up between the fender and the tire causing it to be real tough to pedal. I have a rack on the back with a piece of plywood to prevent too much junk being thrown on my back.

I would *like* to be able to maintain the bike, but its tough to work outside in the winter. My wife (maybe I should write to Dear Abbey about this) will not let me bring my slop covered bicycle through the house to get it in the basement. About once a month We have a warm enough day that I am able to go out with a bucket of water, wash all of the gunk off of the bike, let it dry and then bring it in.

I tear the thing down, clean it and put it together with lots of grease. I use some kind of grease made for farm equipment that is supposed to be more resistant to the elements. When I put it together, I grease the threads, then cover the nuts, screws, whatever with a layer of grease. This prevents them from rusting solidly in place making it impossible to remove. Protection against corrosion is the primary purpose of the grease. Lubrication is secondary. remember to put a drop of oil on the threads of each spoke, otherwise, the spokes rust solidly, and its impossible to do any truing

Outside, I keep a plastic ketchup squirter, which I fill with automotive oil (lately its been 90 weight standard transmission oil). Every two or three days, I use it to re- oil my chain and derailleur, and brakes. It drips all over the snow beneath me when I do it, and gets onto my 'cuffs'(or whatever you call the bottom of those pants. See, I told you I don't cycle for the environment. I probably end up dumping an ounce of heavy oil into the snow run-off each year.


Starting at the bottom, on my feet I wear Sorell Caribou boots. These are huge ugly things, but they keep my feet warm. I have found that in extreme to insane cold, my toes get cold otherwise. These boots do not make it easy to ride, but they do keep me warm (see rule 2, brute force). They do not fit into any toe-clips that I have seen. I used to wear lighter things for less cold weather, but I found judging the weather to be a pain. If its not too cold, I ride with them half unlaced. The colder it gets, the more I lace them, and finally, I'll tie them.

Fortunately, wet days are not too cold, and cold days are not wet. When its dry, I wear a pair of cycling shorts, and one or two (depending on temp and wind) cotton sweat pants covering that. I know about lycra and polypro (and use them for skiing), but these things are destroyed by road-dirt, slush and mud.(see rule 1 above). I save my good clothes for x-country skiing.

An important clothing item in extreme to insane cold, is a third sock. You put it in your pants. No, not to increase the bulge to impress the girls, but for insulation. Although several months after it happens it may be funny, when it does happens, frostbite on the penis is not funny. I speak from experience! Twice, no less! I have no idea of what to recommend to women in this section.

Next in line, I wear a polypro shirt, covered by a wool sweater, covered by a 'ski-jacket' (a real ugly one with a stripe up the back. The ski jacket protects the rest of my clothes, and I can regulate my temperature with the zipper in front.

I usually take a scarf with me. For years I have had a fear that the scarf would get caught in the spokes, and I'd be strangled in the middle of the street, but it has not yet happened. When the temp is extreme or colder, I like keeping my neck warm. I have one small problem. Sometimes the moisture in my breath will cause the scarf to freeze to my beard.

On my hands, I wear wool mittens when its not too cold, and when it gets really cold, I wear my cross-country skiing gloves (swix) with wool mittens covering them. Hands sweat in certain areas (at least mine do), and I like watching the frost form on the outside of the mittens. By looking at the frost, I can tell which muscles are working. I am amused by things like this.

On my head, I wear a toque (Ski-hat?) covered by a bicycle helmet. I don't wear one of those full face masks because I haven't yet been able to find one that fits well with eye glasses. In extreme to insane cold, my forehead will often get quite cold, and I have to keep pulling my hat down. The bottoms of my ears sometimes stick out from my hat, and they're always getting frostbitten. This year, I'm thinking of trying my son's Lifa/polypro balaclava. Its thin enough so that it won't bother me, and I only need a bit more protection from frostbite.

I carry my clothes for the day in a knapsack. Everything that goes in the knapsack goes into a plastic bag. Check the plastic bag often for leaks. A small hole near the top may let in water which won't be able to get out. The net result is that things get more wet than would otherwise be expected. The zippers will eventually corrode. Even the plastic ones become useless after a few years.


In the winter, the road is narrower. There are snow banks on either side. Cars do not expect to see bicycles. There are less hours of daylight, and the its harder to maintain control of the bicycle. Be careful.

I don't worry about what legal rights I have on the road, I simply worry about my life. I'd rather crash into a snow bank for sure rather than take a chance of crashing into a car. I haven't yet had a winter accident in 12 years. I've intentionally driven into many snow banks.

Sometimes, during a storm, I get into places where I just can't ride. It is sometimes necessary to carry the bicycle across open fields. When this happens, I appreciate my boots.

It takes a lot more energy to pedal. Grease gets thick, and parts (the bicycle's and mine) don't seem to move as easily. My traveling time increases about 30% in nice weather, and can even double during a raging storm.

The wind seems to be always worse in winter. It's not uncommon to have to pedal to go down hills.

Be careful on slushy days. Imagine an 8 inch snowfall followed by rain. This produces heavy slush. If a car rides quickly through deep slush, it may send a wave of the slush at you. This stuff is heavy. When it hits you, it really throws you off balance. Its roughly like getting a 10 lbs sack of rotten potatoes thrown at your back. This stuff could even knock over a pedestrian.

Freezing rain is the worst. Oddly enough, I find it easier to ride across a parking lot covered with wet smooth ice than it is to walk across it. The only problem is that sometimes the bicycle simply slides sideways out from under you. I practice unicycle riding, and that may help my balance. (Maybe not, but its fun anyway)

Beware of bridges that have metal grating. This stuff gets real slippery when snow covered. One time, I slid, hit an expansion joint, went over the handle bars, over the railing of the bridge. I don't know how, but one arm reached out and grabbed the railing. Kind of like being MacGyver.


There are several ways of stopping. The first one is to use the brakes. This does not always work. Breaks can ice up, a bit of water gets between the cable and its sheathing when the warm afternoon sun shines on the bike. It freezes solid after. Or the salt causes brake cables to break, etc. I have had brakes work on one corner, but stop working by the time I get to the next. I have several other means of stopping.

The casual method. For a stop when you have plenty of time. Rest the ball of your foot on top of the front derailleur, and *gradually* work your heel between the tire and the frame. By varying the pressure, you can control your speed. Be sure that you don't let your foot get wedged in there!

Faster method. Get your pedals in the 6-12 O'clock position. Stand up. The 6 O'clock foot remains on the pedal, while you place the other foot on the ground in front of the pedal. By varying your balance, you can apply more or less pressure to your foot. The pedal, wedged against the back of your calf, forces your foot down more, providing more friction.

Really fast! Start with the fast method, but then dismount while sliding the bicycle in front of you. You will end up sliding on your two feet, holding onto the bike in front for balance. If it gets *really* critical, throw the bike ahead, of you, and sit down and roll. Do not do this on dry pavement, your feet need to be able to slide.

In some conditions, running into a snow bank on the side will stop you quickly, easily, and safely. If you're going too fast, you might want to dive off of the bicycle over the side. Only do this when the snow bank is soft. Make sure that there isn't a car hidden under that soft snow. Don't jump into fire hydrants either.


Freezing locks. I recommend carrying a BIC lighter. Very often the lock will get wet, and freeze solid. Usually the heat from my hands applied for a minute or so (a real minute or so, not what seems like a minute) will melt it, but sometimes it just needs more than that.

Eating Popsicles

Something I like doing in the winter is to buy a Popsicle before I leave, and put it in my pocket. It won't melt! I take it out and start eating it just as I arrive at the University. Its fun to watch peoples' expressions when they see me, riding in the snow, eating a Popsicle.

You have to be careful with Popsicles in the winter. I once had a horrible experience. You know how when you are a kid, your parents told you never to put your tongue onto a metal pole? In very cold weather, a Popsicle acts the same way. If you are not careful, your upper lip, lower lip, and tongue become cemented to the Popsicle. Although this sounds funny when I write about it, it was definitely not funny when it happened.

Pete Hickey | Pete@panda1.uottawa.CA | "Its a damn poor mind
Communication Services | or (if desperate) | that can only think
University of Ottawa | petehic@uottawa.bitnet | of one way to spell
Ottawa, Ont. Canada K1N 6N5 | (613) 564-7646 | a word" A. Jackson

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