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OK so I'm new to cycling and only own a road bike but I've been told that it's not suitable to ride in the winter in Canada. Winter here goes from -15°C to -35°C and there's plenty of ice and snow.

The only other spare bike I have is a BSO my parents bought for my birthday 2 years ago and I really want to keep cycling as a mean of commuting even in winter. I'll be mostly riding on flats for that matter and my average speed on my BSO in summer is 20km/h. (For a 15km trip)

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    Sounds perfect - don't want to damage your nice bike. The three issues will be damage to the bike from the salt and grit, the temperature affecting the bike, and general winter riding when the road is icy. Also, poor visibility in winter generally – Criggie Aug 29 '16 at 6:16
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    What's a "BSO"? – Brian Knoblauch Aug 29 '16 at 12:09
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    @DanielRHicks Colder temperatures can and will damage an improperly prepared freehub/freewheel and suspension. Additionally "if you are cold, pedal harder" is a common falsehood for people that don't understand that seriously cold weather (-35C) and sweat soaked clothes can become dangerous very quickly. – Deleted User Aug 29 '16 at 14:06
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    @BrianKnoblauch A "BSO" is a cheap/inexpensive bicycle. – ChrisW Aug 29 '16 at 14:47
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    @DanielRHicks I am familiar with it/them. It was/is a mixture of some good advice with ridiculous bravo of "I can do this thing". I stop paying attention to "winter" cyclists who don't glue the non-drive side tire to the rim. There are a lot of bad ideas that are survivable at -30F when you are in Minneapolis that will kill you in less developed parts of the country and in backwoods Canada. – Deleted User Aug 29 '16 at 18:25
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I can only speak from my experience, as a winter rider in Norway (around the capital).

When the winter sets in I usually just end up putting more clothes on myself, and studded tires on my bike. I avoid hard biking (biking so that I get tired, breathing heavy) when it's below minus 10/15 degrees C, because breathing in such cold air can be damaging for your lungs.

Of course, with all the extra salt (at least in Norway) the bike parts get worn out faster, and I usually end up changing at least the chain after the winter, and maybe also the cassette. I have some friends that usually buy used cheap MTB and throw them away or sell them at the end of the winter season.

Edit: One other thing that is important, is to be visible. Depending on the road you're riding, you may share it with other cars or cyclist/runners/walkers. In Norway it is mandatory to have light (yellow in front, and red in back), plus a bell. In the winter I also use a safety vest (they may look silly, but it's not cool to be hit by a car!), plus a stronger light in front, than in the summer. Just be aware that the light should point down, so you don't blind other people.

I think the best solution is just to try it out, and take it easy. Wider studded tires will help you.

Also, be careful about sharp turns. They are dangerous in the snow/ice/winter.

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    My experience in Stockholm is the same, except that I haven't needed to replace any parts, only a full service in the spring, but I do have a full chain guard. Answering @Criggie, lights and yellow vest and you are fine. – Davidmh Aug 29 '16 at 12:03
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    Leaning into turns is also an adrenaline-generating experience in the cold! – Criggie Aug 29 '16 at 19:41
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I've been an ice biker for 10+ years in as cold as -20C (-5F) in the Black Hills of South Dakota and West Michigan US.

Safety in winter cycling comes down to your gear both for your bike and your person.

Bike

  • Rear Rack with water resistant panniers (I recommend Ortlieb) - This keeps your center of gravity low and adds extra weight to your back tire for traction
  • Studded Tires (I recommend Nokian IceSpeeds) - Good studded tires grip on the ice and should channel slush out from underneath. They increase rolling resistance slightly, but for the added control they are well worth it
  • Clipless pedals and shoes - These ensure your feet stay connected to your pedals for greater control and sudden balance correction. Soap bars won't cut it. Your feet will constantly slip off in cold and wet losing control and balance of the bike.
  • Lights - mornings in winter are dark. Make sure you're visible with front and tail lights.

Cyclist

  • Layered moisture-wicking materials - Wet is far more dangerous to winter adventurers than cold. Stay as dry as you can
  • Water resistant shoe covers
  • Cycling-specific rain pants
  • Water resistant gloves - I recommend Pearl Izumi Lobster gloves for below -10C
  • Insulated water resistant cycling jacket
  • Under the helmet insulated cap (I'm currently using one made by Carhartt)
  • Neck warmer that can easily be pulled over the mouth & face (I'm using one by smartwool)
  • Non-fogging glasses or ski goggles

Some Additional Tips:

  • Try it out on a day you don't have to get to work first
  • Ride more "upright" on corners. Leaning hard will not help you
  • Take stops and acceleration easy. Sudden acceleration in any direction will help you lose traction and balance.

So is it safe? Yes - as long as you're careful and use appropriate gear!

  • > Cycling-specific rain pants -- What are the features that make these cycling-specific? Do you have some that you like? – compton Aug 29 '16 at 17:55
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    @compton Generally they are lightweight and have velcro or drawstrings around the ankles and calf to tighten over your shoe covers and keep fabric out of your chain. I'm using Pearl Izumi rain pants right now but have had great success with Craft in the past. Link: pearlizumi.com/US/en/Shop/Ride/Road/Men's/Apparel/Bottoms/… – danielml01 Aug 29 '16 at 18:06
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    @compton: In addition to danielml01 comment, the main point I have found is that they have more robust material between the legs (where there is a lot of friction). I have cycled in rain pants meant for walking, and invariably they quickly developed leaky spots or even holes between the legs due to friction. Cycling rain pants are usually reinforced there. – sleske Aug 30 '16 at 7:46
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If you have to ask, I'd say it's likely the answer is no. If you have lived in Canada all your life and own appropriate gear to those temperatures, you probably have a better chance. I have been commuting and riding/racing in temperatures similar to and lower than those for several years. Prepping a bike for such temperatures is fairly involved and likely as expensive as a BSO. Simple modifications (like decent studded tires) can end up that expensive (or more) again. Even with proper preparations, A 15 minute summer commute can turn into a 45 minute (or longer) commute in winter as frozen grease and stiff sidewalls absorb all the power you are putting out. Without proper prep, it's likely you'll just be pushing (or carrying) the bike.

Riding in a serious (well below zero) winter ends up being a fairly expensive and intensive proposition to do safely. Moisture management is (among other things) a key skill you will need. It can most certainly be done, but it really isn't a thing I'd recommend for a casual rider.

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    It depends how cold you store your bike. If it's in a insulated garage overnight you shouldn't have frozen grease etc. The other "it depends" aspect is whether you have non-biking winter outdoors experience so you're familiar with layering and good/bad cold (the difference between a bit chilly getting ready but perfect when you get going and incipient hypothermia). – Chris H Aug 29 '16 at 14:07
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    At -35C You get about 15 minutes of riding out of a room temperature bike before the grease noticeably hits close to outside temperature. The temperatures the OQ is asking about are very serious. Storing a bike inside (all my bikes are stored inside) does nothing to prevent grease freezing at -35C. – Deleted User Aug 29 '16 at 14:12
  • The title has -15, the extreme of -35 is presumably exceptional. These are very different conditions; I don't know where to draw the line regarding grease etc. – Chris H Aug 29 '16 at 14:19
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    It isn't exceptional at all here in interior Alaska and parts of Canada. – Deleted User Aug 29 '16 at 14:33
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    Quite a bit. That question is answered a few other places, but ALL your bearing compartments (some are necessary, some just help make it easier)is quite involved. I don't run studded tires often, everything gets pretty sticky at -20F anyway. Unless your sidewalls are frozen completely (which I haven't seen happen) they still flex/bend as your wheel rolls. When that flex is harder to do, they roll slower. – Deleted User Aug 29 '16 at 18:18
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Whether it is safe to ride does not depend on temperature, but on road conditions. If the roads are dry and free, there is no particular risk. If the road are covered with a shiny layer of ice, you'd better stay home.

I typically ride all year round, however this is in Germany, where winters are typically mild, and there is only snow for a few weeks.

In practice, I'd check road conditions every day to decide:

  • dry roads (no snow, or snow has been cleared and roads salted): no problem
  • fresh snow: generally ok, but you need wide tires (at least >28mm) with some tread; ride carefully
  • compacted snow: usually ok, but may be slippery; ride even more carefully
  • ice: dangerous; if widespread, it's better not to ride (in that case driving a car would be dangerous, too)

Note: With studded tires (and a lot of care) it is possible to ride even on ice. However, studded tires only make sense if this happens frequently (because they are expensive, and not that good for regular riding). So unless you have icy roads for weeks in winter, I'd recommend just avoiding ice.

So, in short:

  • make sure you have wide tires with a tread
  • make sure there is no ice on the road
  • enjoy your ride :-)

Of course, the usual caveats apply about proper clothing and increased maintenance (washing off salt regularly); see e.g. Biking in the winter more difficult?

  • With studded tires and a bit of care ice is not such a big problem, as long as you don't try to brake too hard or make too sharp turns. My studs give a pretty good grip. – Davidmh Aug 29 '16 at 12:08
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    +1 for check conditions daily. Become a weather forecast geek. As Sleske says, temperatur is not the big issue, it's precipitation at sub-zero temperatures that you need to be more concerned about. – SSilk Aug 29 '16 at 19:23
  • Another danger around road conditions is related to potholes. The overuse of salt increases their occurrence and the snow can hide them. Most will cause an uncomfortable bump but I've seen some that would surely stop a bike. – JimmyJames Aug 30 '16 at 15:58
  • I am going to guess there are multiple bots responding here. For humans, -35C without proper gear is a problem. – Deleted User Sep 2 '16 at 21:01
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I would say that riding your bike on the road in the winter is not a safe option. This has very little to do with whether you and the bike can physically accomplish it. A consideration that hasn't been mentioned, that probably bears the most significance, is that motorized traffic also has reduced traction and visibility. At least around here (Chicago), motorists drive too fast for the conditions, creating hazards for everything in their direction of travel.

If you want to ride outside in adverse conditions, your safest bet is to ride on off-road bike paths, or if your city has them, barrier protected bike lanes. Or purchase an indoor bike trainer. That's cheaper than a gym membership, more convenient and entertaining with a suitable app on your phone, tablet or computer.

  • Spoken like a cyclist in a car-centric country. While I see your point, you are missing out on a lot. Should you get the chance to travel, do try and visit a bike-centric country and experience the difference. To mitigate the risks, add lights (even in daytime) and ride defensively. – Criggie Aug 29 '16 at 19:36
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    @Criggie Canada is similar to the US in this regard. Riding in traffic on snowy roads in the US or Canada will tend to reduce your chances of having an opportunity to visit a more bike-friendly nation. – JimmyJames Aug 30 '16 at 15:40
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    @Criggie There's no mitigating the risk here in the US as the drivers who are most likely to hit you are the ones who aren't even watching the road. – B2K Aug 30 '16 at 17:10
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This is based on cycling many years during winter in Finland, where I have been commuting all year long to school quite some years back. One of the things I remember best is that at -30°C or so (and below, naturally), you can start experiencing problems with the equipment, especially changing gears and chains (at least mine started to freeze, so they were jumping over the gears and causing somewhat jerky power output to wheels which lead to difficulties with traction - keeping them well oiled helped but did not eliminate the problem).

Though you may know this already, it is very important to evaluate weather in total - not just the temperature:

  1. Sun: Granted, may not come up that much, but snow and ice are very reflective surfaces. And during winter times the light may come from very small angles. Anti-glare & polarized sun glasses in the darkness may sound odd but may very well safe you from being blinded (temporarily) at a crucial moment. Just make sure they aren't too dark ones.
  2. Wind: depending on how windy it is you may need full coverage for your face + extra insulation on top of it, as wind increases how much the coldness actually hits you. Never try to cross a highway on a bridge on such cold temperatures.. and even if you still do so and have half-frozen your ears despite them having been well covered - never ever try to warm them up faster with slightly warm water.
  3. Rain: If it's raining on minus degree weather (ie super cooled water), don't cycle. Just don't. That water will generally freeze on contact, making it really hazardous for driving at all.
  4. Fresh snow easily hides away slippery spots, and is easily packed into banks that affect riding conditions badly - still possible to cycle by dropping speed and being more careful about how your tires will hit the banks. Naturally too much is too much and one just cannot cycle because it will add up to a lot of resistance - remember to account for how long the snowing is predicted to last, you will want to be able to drive back as well.

It is relative safe to cycle all year long as long as you and your bike are prepared for current conditions (was covered in other answers so omitted here, but being extra visible is worth highlighting!). It is much more about adjusting driving speed to the conditions, with the cave-eat that you have to adjust for the chance of others not having adjusted enough (cars not being able to stop as fast as they did during summer for instance).

2

I live in Buffalo and I know a bike-nut that has a fat bike that he uses for riding on snow. If the roads are cleared and salted you'd probably be fine with the BSO but if there you have a bike path you'd prefer, it might not be cleared and you might want to consider this option.

Another issue is that at around -21C (-6F) you reach the Eutectic Temperature of Salt, and salt won't melt snow or ice. Even above these temperatures, it's not very effective. It never get's to -35C (-31F) here but if it's single digits or lower (F) salting is halted and the plows leave a layer of snow. The snow isn't very slippery in these low situations (unless there's lots of salt on it) but it will give under normal bike tires unless it's firmly packed.

I understand you wanted to use what you have already but I think it's worth mentioning anyway.

enter image description here By Anthony DeLorenzo http://www.flickr.com/photos/delorenzo/ - http://www.flickr.com/photos/delorenzo/6819965699/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22172069

1

Presuming it's some kind of mountain bike, you could just get studded snow tires. They work well and are a lot of fun. Good ones like Nokians last a long time.

0

I see a lot of answers from people living in northern Europe. Canada's winter weather is much worse. You'll have to have your face fully covered, because of the wind chill.

Thing is, in Canada, with few exceptions, most cities have a lot of space between buildings, which makes riding the bike much more difficult than Europe's dense cities due to the wind. Also, winters last long, it could be 0 Celsius in May.

You could also check the elevation you have to "climb" on hills while riding. At least in Ontario, you climb a lot of steep hills and than use the brakes when going down the hill because of traffic lights.

I Rode in an European city and in Ontario as well, in both summer and winter. In my opinion, even mild winter weather in Canada is a pain for a cyclist. You'll get to hate it.

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