So you’re thinking about winter biking in Ottawa? With a bit of preparation, common sense, and the right equipment, winter biking in Ottawa really isn’t so bad. Let’s take a look at what it takes.
Winter Biking in Ottawa
What: A look at conditions, equipment, safety and warmth while winter biking
A Brief History
I first started winter biking in 2010, and at the time, I was riding a terrible early 90’s Raleigh Matterhorn from Canadian Tire. It was my only bike, received as a birthday gift when I was in high school, and it was a time when I really didn’t know anything about bikes at all.
Over the years, I’ve really taken to cycling, and since then, I’ve had many different bikes in many different conditions for winter biking. I’ve even built bikes from the frame up specifically for the purpose of winter biking (Read about my current winter bike, the Bonelli Slusher).
Winter Biking Conditions
It is important to realise that in winters typical of places like Ottawa, it will be practically impossible to bike every day. The reality is that if there is fresh snowfall, and a few inches have accumulated on the roads, you won’t be getting anywhere on a bike (Although with recent fat bike adoption, the envelope for winter biking has expanded slightly). Days like the one below are pretty much impossible to bike in. Even with 3″ tires on a fat bike, you will struggle to make progress.
When we talk about winter biking, we’re talking about all the other days. In most major cities, the roadways are cleared pretty quickly which means that you can expect to be able to bike on relatively cleared roads for a good portion of the season.
While there is no single right way to equip yourself for winter biking, there are certainly some good ideas and some bad ideas. Keep in mind that this is not the final word in winter cycling, so take it with a grain of salt, and adjust appropriately to the type of winter riding you are planning Let’s take a look at some of the more critical components individually.
Tires are probably the most important component of your winter biking setup as they can either severely limit your capabilities, or open new options. Generally, wider tires are better than skinny tires, and the knobbier the tire the better as well. A wider, knobbier tire will be less affected by snow accumulation on the road.
The downside to choosing the widest, knobbiest tires you can find will be that when the conditions are clear, you will be suffering a fair amount of drag and you will be expending a lot of energy just getting the tires to roll. Wide, knobby tires will also not help when you encounter ice on the roads.
Choosing a studded tire is a nice option if you can afford the additional cost. They come in a variety of widths, tread patterns and numbers of studs. The studs are made of metal and allow you to maintain traction while riding on ice.
Ultimately, there is no perfect winter tire – there are always ups and downs to your selection. When I ride wide, knobby mountain bike tires, I can bike when there are a couple inches of snow on the ground, or plow through chunks of snow without worry, but if there was a melt and re-freeze earlier in the week and there is ice under the snow, I may be in for a surprise loss of traction. When I ride skinnier studded tires with no knobs, I tend to immediately discount riding when there is any snow accumulation, but I can ride with confidence over open icy patches on the road.
In downtown Ottawa, the snow gets cleared pretty quickly, so aside from a dozen or so days when I wake up and there are more than a few inches of snow on the roads, I am able to ride the rest of the season with 35mm studded tires.
Schwalbe Marathon Winter’s are my favourite winter tire so far. They are quick when conditions are clear, and they provide confidence in slippery conditions – it’s even possible to bike on a skating rink with a fair amount of control. The downside to these tires are that they cannot handle more than an inch of snow typically.
The simpler the better in all cases for winter biking. Your drivetrain (derailleurs, cassettes, brakes, shifters) will get covered in salt, get wet when it’s warm, and then freeze again when it’s cold. I would advise against spending extra money on nice drivetrain components, as their lifespan will be significantly shorter if used in the winter. A literal slurry of sand, salt, and grease will build up on your derailleurs, casette, chain, hubs, and everything else.
If you live in an area where there are not many hills, you may be able to get away with a simple one speed setup. In my case, my current bike has just one chainring in front, and 7 speeds in the back operated by a very simple thumb shifter.
Fenders are strongly recommended, not only because they will prevent road slurry from flinging onto your back and boots, but it will also help protect your drivetrain as well.
A smaller frame is generally better than a larger frame in the winter. Typically, manoeuvrability will be more important than outright speed, so getting a full leg extension will not be as important in winter riding as being able to quickly put a foot down to stabilise yourself.
The same safety rules when you’re biking in the summer apply to winter biking, however, there are a few notable differences:
- High traffic areas will be even more difficult to navigate due to narrower or non-existent shoulders
- Debris from cars will be more unpredictable – a chunk that falls off a car fender may be solid ice, or it may just be packed snow
- Braking distances will be a lot longer due to dirty brakes, dirty rims, and of course, snow and ice on the roadway
- Chunks of snow can cause your wheel to change direction suddenly – you will want to practice awareness, and a tight grip on the handlebars
- You will not be able to maneuver as quickly or as safely, since adjusting your direction quickly may result in losing traction completely
What this means is that you will want to make an effort to stick to side roads and maintained bike paths, and to look farther ahead to avoid obstacles in a timely manner. It is better to err on the side of caution – if you think that you might have to slow down because a car or pedestrian doesn’t see you, make sure to do so ahead of time because you will not be able to make the same kind of quick maneuvers you could do in the summertime.
In terms of jackets, you will want to dress slightly lighter than what you would normally need if you were driving or taking the bus to work – this is because you will generate quite a bit of heat while biking to work in a winter jacket.
It is important to wear good gloves or mittens – your fingers will be on the brake levers, and you won’t be able to scrunch up your hands inside your gloves to keep them warm when they get cold. Make sure beforehand that you can operate your brake levers and shifters while wearing your gloves.
Consider getting a winter helmet from your local sporting goods store – one designed for skiing and snowboarding. These are generally very high quality helmets that will keep your head much warmer than a cycling helmet, and they are typically multi-impact – much nicer than your typical cycling helmets.
Winter biking can be a lot of fun. In Ottawa, the Laurier bike lane is often in better condition than the sidewalk, and this year, the multi-use pathway along the canal was plowed and salted, meaning that if you could get to the canal, you could get almost anywhere downtown by bike. Another fun fact to consider is that because the biking population is so reduced in the winter, you pretty much have the pathways all to yourself!
- Get good tires – wider and knobbier if you have a lot of snow, and skinnier and studded if you have clear roads but icy conditions.
- Don’t use your nice bike and components – winter conditions will wear your equipment down much faster than normal
- Look ahead, act earlier, be aware of road obstacles, and err on the side of caution when it comes to cars and pedestrians
- Get some good gloves, and consider getting a winter specific helmet
Stay warm and stay safe!