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Biking like a Viking

Winter cycling brings all the benefits of fair-weather riding with just some thoughtful preparation.

Years ago, in one of our ever-more-rare cold snaps, I was in front of my house waiting for my child to get home on the school bus when up the street came a lone figure on a bicycle. They were covered head to toe in warm clothes using multiple layers. Thick gloves protected their hands and a scarf and toque left just a slit for their eyes.

They waved at me merrily as they passed, and I found out later it was my friend Amy on her way to work at the Spectator.

“She’s out of her mind!” I thought to myself. “Nobody cycles in winter.”

Hold on just a minute, say the newly elected co-chairs of Cycle Hamilton. Winter biking is not only safe and enjoyable, it’s a great way of staying in shape and getting around, as long as you have taken the time to prepare a little. If you love cycling as much as Paul and Mark do, there really is no reason to give it up in the winter.

Paul Brown recently joined Mark Anderson as co-chair of this nine-year-old cycling advocacy group. Both ride during the winter, though maybe not for the reasons you might think.

“I’m more of a leisure cyclist,” says Brown in a recent interview. It may seem odd considering how much colder you feel in the winter when you’re zipping along on a bicycle. Cycling is Brown’s passion, and a little snow and cold weather is no reason to give it up. “The key is to dress for it.”

The key to winter riding is proper preparation and dressing right, say a couple of local cycling enthusiasts. Photos: Mark Anderson

Anderson rides for pleasure too, 12 months of the year, and followers of his social media accounts can attest that there is very little that stops him from his “life behind bars” as he likes to call it. Those are handlebars, to the uninitiated. Cycling is an important part of Anderson’s life, and he doesn’t see any reason to give it up for three or four months of the year either.

Both had some suggestions on making the most of your winter ride.

“Speed isn’t your friend,” Brown explains. It takes longer to stop and you need more concentration to keep your balance on ice. “There is also some debate over studded tires,” Brown says. He doesn’t like them because they reduce traction on pavement. “I would recommend thicker mountain bike tires and make sure you’re staying on cleared paths.”

“I remove maybe five pounds of pressure out of my tires,” adds Anderson, who likes the increased traction that gives him.

The good news in Hamilton is that bike paths and bike routes are part of the City’s snow clearing efforts, and for the most part, the City does a good job of keeping major cycling tracks cleared, if not the roadside unprotected bike lanes.

There are also some clothing options you can take to increase your comfort and safety.

“I love ski goggles because you tend to tear up,” says Brown. The cold from either the winter wind, or the wind you’re generating by moving quickly can sting and make it hard to see the road, even with a pair of wrap-around sunglasses. In the winter, you need a bit more protection.

Brown also advises to dress in layers you can add and remove as you heat up and cool down. Sweat is your enemy, and it can lead to a serious chill or even hypothermia once you stop moving, so be sure to wear clothing that will wick away moisture, such as synthetics or merino wool. Avoid cotton, especially against your skin, because it acts like a sponge and will guarantee an abrupt cool down once pedaling stops.

Both agree that you need to remember to hydrate and drink more water than you think you need to. Because your body isn’t overheating from the temperature outside, it can be deceptive, and you may not realize that you are slowly dehydrating on your ride.

And if you don’t take the usual two-hour leisure rides that fans of Anderson’s Strava account have all seen, then there’s less risk of your water bottle freezing up.

Mark Anderson frequently shares his rides through his Strava account that tracks a rider's route.

With this kind of preparation and a little caution, you can make the most of four-season biking in our fair city, which if we’re being honest with ourselves hasn’t experienced a real winter in some time.

And Amy? She moved to the Yukon where she can cycle in the snow as much as she likes.

Jason Allen is the host of The Environmental Urbanist, Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m. on 93.3 CFMU, and has been encouraging Hamiltonians to explore the outdoors for almost two decades.

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