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Bicycling in the Winter 41

Dutch Winter Bike

Photo courtesy of macfred64 

In North America, we have a funny tendency to overcomplicate things. Companies search for any opportunity to increase their revenues: they invent new products, improve existing products, and they employ marketing techniques to make you feel like you can’t live without their products.

Last winter I posted an article “Pragmatism Eludes Politicians‘”. But it’s not just politicians who are eluded by pragmatism – it’s our entire society.

Winter bicycling is no exception. Companies face stiff competition – vying for your business to increase their market share – and there is no shortage of bicycle gear for winter riding.

Take for example this image of “winter cycling” provided by the City of Toronto:

Winter Cycling - City of Toronto

Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto

TorontoStarWinterCycling

*Update: December 12th – Added the photo seen above. Courtesy of the Toronto Star (thanks for posting this @DuncansCityRide)

“Pannier with change of clothes”, “reflective tape”, “goggles or sunglasses”. It is somewhat absurd to make winter bicycling look so overly complex. The character in the photo looks like he’s competing in the winter Olympics for ski jumping.

When people ask me for tips on winter bicycling, I have very simple advice: Wear what you would have worn if you were going to walk outside in the winter. If it’s wet, throw on some water-proof pants on top of your regular pants, and that’s it. It’s very simple.

Sure, there is the odd day in a typical Canadian winter when there might be too much snow on the ground to ride comfortably. Most people who ride in the winter are comfortable with taking a few days off a year when the roads haven’t yet been cleared.

Last year in Toronto there was only one or two days when riding was too challenging because of the snow. The year before, maybe 5 or 6.

Aside from snowstorms, riding in the winter is actually very comfortable. The pedaling warms you up quickly, and drivers seem to be extra cautious in colder weather. I actually often prefer riding in cooler weather than in the hot summer.

Here are some photos of regular people in regular clothes riding their bicycles in the winter – courtesy of our friend Marc van Woudenberg at Amsterdamize.com

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam Winter Bicycle

Amsterdam winter photos courtesy of Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15589492356827998591 Ryan

    One thing that truly bothers me is when people say you can’t ride in the winter, or that we’re not like Europe with our winters.
    I always point out a place such as Oulu, which in most cases can be colder and snowier then anywhere in Southern Ontario.

    Here in St. Catharines we actually have a growing number of winter cyclists. I find fewer cars on the road as people are perhaps nervous about driving in certain conditions, so they car-pool, take a taxi or bike.
    Then again our winters here are usually somewhat mild and we receive less snow then most of Ontario.

    In the past 5 or 6 years of riding, I think there was only one truly bad day that I stayed off the roads. (I’m fortunate to work from home so I don’t have to leave to work)
    My Dad still rode into work, and although he had to walk his bike home, he was passing car after car that was stuck on the road. Not one car was able to get through any road.

    When it comes to clothing in the winter I don’t wear anything special.
    Jeans and Sweater with a jacket, or for the days where it is really cold, an extra sweater, extra pair of pants, a Parka and a toque.

    I will not however wear any special cycling clothes.
    Hands seem to be the biggest issue for me. I can never seem to keep them warm.

    As for my bike? I don’t do anything special with it. Same bike I’m riding now.

    My #1 recommendation for people who ride or are thinking of riding during the winter is simple…Take it easy and slow down.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13299453772790771792 Henry

    These photos make me yearn for simple, snow covered afternoons in the sunshine.

  • Anonymous

    Some of those guys look cold and that city of Toronto cyclist is ready for a blizzard!

    I’m sure something in between is good. Not sure i’d want to ride too far in a wool pettycoat with the wind howling in… brr. Not sure i dig the “just out for a walk outfits”, but it’s probably close in terms of what you should wear. My main issue is on the bicycle it gets colder from the windchill of pedaling 20km/h or whatever – so dressing for a “walk” is not that simplistic. If you dressed for the temperature plus 10km/h windchills(some leeway for extra heat from exercise)… it might be closer.

    BTW where are their toques eh?!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Anonymous, the way I look at it, if it’s -20+, you need to dress warm whether you are walking or biking. However, on a bike, you warm up pretty quickly, so you don’t want to wear too much. On a cold day, I would wear thermal underwear whether I’m on my bike or not.

    The only difference for me (as I mentioned) is that sometimes I’ll wear water-proof pants, and if it’s snowing I might wear a pair of goggles on a bike. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same as what I would have worn if I was walking.

    Keep in mind that I used the word “walking” intentionally. If someone only needs to walk in their driveway to get to their car, they obviously don’t need a lot of warm clothing.

  • Anonymous

    Great post James.

    Sometimes I wish it would snow here so I could have the chance to show people how you do it!

    We do have some great rainstorms though and I cycle through those. It is particularly enjoyable when you don’t mind getting wet – that is a lot of fun on a bicycle!

    Cheers,

    Paul Martin
    Brisbane, Australia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09032647563281070853 Jams

    I live in Ohio and this will be my first winter biking. I sold my car and invested in a road bike for the other seasons and a single speed 29er for winter. I also bought several clothing items; wool socks, base layers, water-proof pants, neoprene booties, a balaclava, and a neck gaiter.

    For many casual cyclists I can understand that they will ride in their basic winter clothing. My approach may be overkill for many, but as I said before, I don’t have a car anymore. I also ride to work at 5:30 in the morning and don’t ride home til 8:30 in the evening. I have to be there and there is no bus or other alternatives besides expensive taxis which are also not easy to come by here.

    I’m saving hundreds a month by going without a car and that’s how I’ve justified my bike transportation expenses. My main concern is being able to get to work and home comfortably and enjoying the ride.

    I’m looking forward to this first winter on my bike and I’m glad to see many more people seem to be considering trying it for themselves.

  • Anonymous

    I am from suburb Scarborough. I am planning to ride my bike through the winter this year.

    I guess the reason why people think winter cycling in Toronto is crazy is because the road infrastructure is designed around cars, and winter maintenance is also being done for cars.

    European countries probably have better cycling infrastructures and they do winter maintenance on cycling paths. In comparison, we already have very few bike paths/trails, and in the winter they are not even safe for people to walk on.

  • kfg

    Jams, I live in upstate NY without a car. As an enthusiast cyclist and former racer I have a drawer full of specialized winter cycling clothing – but I never use them around town on the sit up bike, even though they are right there available to me. They just aren’t worth the trouble for whatever marginal advantage they provide.

    I’ll note, however, that your wool isn’t cycling clothing, just the sensible cold weather clothing that James is talking about.

    I’ll also note that you don’t really need waterproof pants, just chaps. On a bike with proper fenders it’s only the tops of your thighs that get cold and wet and chaps are much easier to take on and off.

  • Anonymous

    Cycling in winter isn’t always easy in the Netherlands as you can see from this security camera footage:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9PTZDuhTFw

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lqo4hwnJt6Y

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13299453772790771792 Henry

    I disagree with the chain guards on the updated picture. I have never seen anyone dressed like that sensible enough to enclose their chain. Canadian Tire bike ftw?

  • Anonymous

    ok so I will admit I resorted to ski goggles last week to keep my eyes from tearing up. That got lots of laughs. So that graphic was not that far off the mark..lol

  • Anonymous

    I feel like such a woose now… I must admit I rug up being a regular cyclist in Vancouver and am not far off your figure – but only because the wind chill is damn cold (no balaclava or ski goggles)! But, with Vancouver drivers feeling the road belongs to cars and not cyclists, I can’t get enough lights and reflective stuff draped over me for the commutes in the dark…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01155715904982323893 Jakub

    I’ve been winter cycling in London, Ontario for half a decade.

    This blog entry’s one sidedness bothers me. You’re comparing apples to oranges, comparing Canada to the Netherlands. Comparing Dutch cyclist on a calm winter day to a picture of a cyclist prepared to ride through a blizzard in dim light.

    Visibility is king. Canadian motorists don’t expect you to be there. Passive visibility (reflective tape) is always there for you.

    I see this all the time on forums. People giving out advice in a one size fits all fashion. This seems especially pointless in cycling. Your view fits well, with some. The Sun’s picture fits well, with others.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Jakub, you clearly missed the entire point of the article (did you even read it?).

    The point is that blizzards do not happen every day. So all of the gear in the photo does not accurately reflect the “winter bicycling”. My suggestion is to wear normal clothes, and if there is a blizzard, I will normally take the day off and not ride through the blizzard. There are only 5 or 6 days a year where there is too much snow for me to ride.

    The point of all this is that the newspaper has overcomplicated winter bicycling using a worst case scenario – exceptional weather. Winter riding generally doesn’t require much more than warm clothes.

    This only serves to discourage people from riding in the winter.

    And that is the point…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Goddard/1059861564 Kim Goddard

    Another winter is upon us… and I have to respectfully disagree with this article. Winter cycling is not the same as summer (or fall or spring) riding, and it’s also not uniform across Canada; it’s just as silly to claim that *no* cyclist needs special winter gear as it is to insist that *all* do.

    I live in Calgary. I bike year round. There is no WAY I could do this safely without making a number of adaptations – and if I dressed like the folk in the Amnsterdam photos, well, I’d be missing quite a number of digits to frostbite. (Also I’d be paying through the nose for bylaw infractions, since bells and lights are legal requirements in Calgary – not helmets though.)

    I’m not a fashion victim who’s been gulled by marketers or taken for a ride by the bike shop sales staff. I’m a rational adult who is quite capable of making choices based on my own experience and on the advice of other cyclists. My winter cycling equipment and clothing have been evolving for several years, as I discover what works for me, in my particular climate – and more days than not, what works looks like the images you point to with ridicule.

    Now, *most* days, it is true, I don’t need to wear the full goggles, balaclava etc – my hooded jersey and softshell jacket are fine – but I do keep them in my pannier, because we get pretty dramatic weather changes at times. As for the rest of the ensemble, I do change into different clothing to ride (because I don’t have a job where I can arrive mud spattered, and fenders are not enough!), and since I’m changing anyway I generally go with lightly insulated, windproof layers because that is comfortable. Layers make it easy to adjust to variable weather, too. (Minus 20C yesterday morning; plus 9 this evening).

    It’s no more difficult to change into my insulated cycling boots than it would be to change into a pair of insulated walking shoes, and I fail to see how anyone would consider reflective strips on my clothes and lights on my bike to be worthy of ridicule. It’s dark at 5:00. I would prefer not to be mashed on my way home by a driver who can’t see me (I know it’s no guarantee of safety, but it’s demonstrably better than the ninja-bike method). I’d also rather be (metal studded) rubber side down, even if you don’t think winter tires are worth the bother. Those tires have saved my butt more than once, because Calgary’s streets in winter are invariably icy.

    Just one more thing – it’s very nice that you have the option of taking the day off and not riding through severe weather. Not all of us do. I don’t own a car. Unless I call off work completely, my options are cycling (and at least keeping myself warm), standing at a bus stop wondering if I’m stranded by transit, or losing half my day’s pay for taxi fare.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Goddard/1059861564 Kim Goddard

    Another winter is upon us… and I have to respectfully disagree with this article. Winter cycling is not the same as summer (or fall or spring) riding, and it’s also not uniform across Canada; it’s just as silly to claim that *no* cyclist needs special winter gear as it is to insist that *all* do.

    I live in Calgary. I bike year round. There is no WAY I could do this safely without making a number of adaptations – and if I dressed like the folk in the Amnsterdam photos, well, I’d be missing quite a number of digits to frostbite. (Also I’d be paying through the nose for bylaw infractions, since bells and lights are legal requirements in Calgary – not helmets though.)

    I’m not a fashion victim who’s been gulled by marketers or taken for a ride by the bike shop sales staff. I’m a rational adult who is quite capable of making choices based on my own experience and on the advice of other cyclists. My winter cycling equipment and clothing have been evolving for several years, as I discover what works for me, in my particular climate – and more days than not, what works looks like the images you point to with ridicule.

    Now, *most* days, it is true, I don’t need to wear the full goggles, balaclava etc – my hooded jersey and softshell jacket are fine – but I do keep them in my pannier, because we get pretty dramatic weather changes at times. As for the rest of the ensemble, I do change into different clothing to ride (because I don’t have a job where I can arrive mud spattered, and fenders are not enough!), and since I’m changing anyway I generally go with lightly insulated, windproof layers because that is comfortable. Layers make it easy to adjust to variable weather, too. (Minus 20C yesterday morning; plus 9 this evening).

    It’s no more difficult to change into my insulated cycling boots than it would be to change into a pair of insulated walking shoes, and I fail to see how anyone would consider reflective strips on my clothes and lights on my bike to be worthy of ridicule. It’s dark at 5:00. I would prefer not to be mashed on my way home by a driver who can’t see me (I know it’s no guarantee of safety, but it’s demonstrably better than the ninja-bike method). I’d also rather be (metal studded) rubber side down, even if you don’t think winter tires are worth the bother. Those tires have saved my butt more than once, because Calgary’s streets in winter are invariably icy.

    Just one more thing – it’s very nice that you have the option of taking the day off and not riding through severe weather. Not all of us do. I don’t own a car. Unless I call off work completely, my options are cycling (and at least keeping myself warm), standing at a bus stop wondering if I’m stranded by transit, or losing half my day’s pay for taxi fare.

    • Phénomène Acqueux

      Fully agree with you, and I spend my time between Calgary and Yellowknife. While I wear my hip city clothes and sometimes a suit when I ride my bike in the summer whether in Calgary or Yellowknife, I am pretty much like you when it comes to winter biking in Calgary, and I am the exact picture of the rider on the Toronto winter cycling photo in Yellowknife anytime between October and April, otherwise I would not be here to type this on a keyboard. Those who ridicule these winter cycling recommendations are simply clueless.

  • http://twitter.com/smackraman anthony valenti

    Utopian Hipster Winter Wonderland photos aside, there is riding your bike from your 2nd floor apartment on Crawford through Trinity Bellwoods Park to your favorite Queen Street coffee shop winter cycling, and there is commuting across the city winter cycling. If you are going to do the latter I suggest you gear yourself more like the “Ridiculous Photo” (The only useful thing in this article).

    Firstly, driving anywhere near an actual road for any period of time, you will get splashed by dirty salty water from foot to waist. Secondly, for the working world, dark comes pretty quick in the winter and visibility is very low. You will want to be well lit and highly reflective. And finally(for the sake of this letter writers patience with the stupidity of this article I am keeping it to these few but not exclusive points), when riding for any period of time your body does keep you warm but your fingers are left out of the equation and frost bite can come quickly to the unprepared. Good gloves are an absolute necessity. Lobster Claws are great because they keep you warm and allow you to work your breaks and gears.

    This article is a dis-service to anyone serious about using a bicycle for necessary transportation in the winter.

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      I ride virtually every day in Toronto year-round and I do just fine. And I regularly ride across the city, up to 10 kilometres each way to client offices. I find it humourous that you are referring to the people in those photos as “hipsters”. They look like regular people to me. The stupidity of your comment astounds me, but it is not at all unexpected.

  • http://twitter.com/smackraman anthony valenti

    Utopian Hipster Winter Wonderland photos aside, there is riding your bike from your 2nd floor apartment on Crawford through Trinity Bellwoods Park to your favorite Queen Street coffee shop winter cycling, and there is commuting across the city winter cycling. If you are going to do the latter I suggest you gear yourself more like the “Ridiculous Photo” (The only useful thing in this article).

    Firstly, driving anywhere near an actual road for any period of time, you will get splashed by dirty salty water from foot to waist. Secondly, for the working world, dark comes pretty quick in the winter and visibility is very low. You will want to be well lit and highly reflective. And finally(for the sake of this letter writers patience with the stupidity of this article I am keeping it to these few but not exclusive points), when riding for any period of time your body does keep you warm but your fingers are left out of the equation and frost bite can come quickly to the unprepared. Good gloves are an absolute necessity. Lobster Claws are great because they keep you warm and allow you to work your breaks and gears.

    This article is a dis-service to anyone serious about using a bicycle for necessary transportation in the winter.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    I ride virtually every day in Toronto year-round and I do just fine. And I regularly ride across the city, up to 10 kilometres each way to client offices. I find it humourous that you are referring to the people in those photos as “hipsters”. They look like regular people to me. The stupidity of your comment astounds me, but it is not at all unexpected.

  • http://www.facebook.com/allen.key802 Allen Key

    OK- I don’t want to raise the barriers any more than anybody else does, but I’d challenge you to do my daily trafficky, hilly, rainy, dark commute on roads with no on-street cycle facilities during the AM and PM peak hours of travel in jeans and a peacoat on a 40lb Dutch Bike. You certainly wouldn’t want to do it every day like that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/allen.key802 Allen Key

    OK- I don’t want to raise the barriers any more than anybody else does, but I’d challenge you to do my daily trafficky, hilly, rainy, dark commute on roads with no on-street cycle facilities during the AM and PM peak hours of travel in jeans and a peacoat on a 40lb Dutch Bike. You certainly wouldn’t want to do it every day like that.

  • Adam Pearce

    I wear goggles (a nice 20 dollar pair of Bolé I picked up on sale), but I tend to tear up terribly in anything over a mild breeze. As for the rest I find its hard to generalize about Toronto winters at the moment. Some days going Amsterdam style works fine. Other days though I feel like Shackleton. I did get a chuckle from the City’s “Ideal” cyclist.

  • Adam Pearce

    I wear goggles (a nice 20 dollar pair of Bolé I picked up on sale), but I tend to tear up terribly in anything over a mild breeze. As for the rest I find its hard to generalize about Toronto winters at the moment. Some days going Amsterdam style works fine. Other days though I feel like Shackleton. I did get a chuckle from the City’s “Ideal” cyclist.

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  • http://rantwick.com/ Patrick “Rantwick” Cormier

    I don’t understand the great debate in this comment section. Do it however you want. Wear specific gear like I do or wear normal clothes. Skip it and take a bus when it is too cold or wet or whatever. If you never want to skip a commute and ride in every condition, have the gear to pull it off safely and comfortably. Your comfortably. No one else’s. Simple, like the man said. Sort of.

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  • Phénomène Acqueux

    It may be absurd where you are, but where I am, Yellowknife, you’d be following every single recommendation. I can not only guarantee you, but I challenge you. I know it for a fact, I bike all winter, and temperatures hover between -30 and -40 or lower, without windchill. Take my word for it. Blizzard or not blizzard.

  • Jp

    I definitely agree that people can ride in the winter. However, I think you’re mistaken about wearing normal clothes. This probably works provided you stay under 5 or 10 mph and there is no moisture (rain or snow). Few normal pieces of clothing offer you the breathability that cycling clothes do and the wind resistance. Your likely to get soaked and chilled awfully fast without. Also the neoprene booties and gloves can not be stressed enough. Without these you will surely get frostbite.

  • Melinda Belisle

    nobody in those photos are wearing helmets. Sadface :-(