Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Riding a bike in Ottawa during the winter

First off, this already sounds like a bad idea:

Roads + salty snow + hidden, bad, deep potholes + snow banks + only 30% of drivers have snow tires + bad, angry drivers + white outs + salt that will quickly destroy every part of your bike + cold + icy, rutted, salt and sand covered streets + very little daylight + snowy days + pedestrians + extra layers of clothes + bike thieves + man hole covers that are even slipperier than imaginable (metal + plus ice + plus snow).

Ottawa's saving grace for winter cyclists:

Wide lanes. There seem to be ample wide lanes in Ottawa. A good cyclist will constantly be aware of the roads he/she's on. Anything that gets too narrow, I change my route or tactics, such as:

Sidewalks. They are a cyclist's saving grace in the winter. They will save your life while still getting you to work. They are generally as clear as any road, and when the road gets too narrow, hop onto the sidewalk. If you get to a pedestrian, hop off, run by and jump back on again. Kinda like cyclocross. And as anyone knows who rides their bike in the winter in Ottawa, you're not exactly going to be riding at top speed anyway. And in my mind, there are many sidewalks that could easily be converted to multi-use paths, but that's another discussion...

The Canal. Ride on the Canal or ride on the paths beside the Canal. The National Capital Commission keeps them pretty clear and the Canal goes from Carleton U all the way past Ottawa U to downtown.

Downtown. Traffic downtown generally sucks and is very slow, thus conditions are relatively safe for riding on the street. There are lots of side streets so you can get anywhere without hitting main street traffic.

Safety Notes. Be super visible. Use a yellow jacket and get the brightest lights you can afford (I can't stress this enough). Put reflective tape everywhere on your bike. Use clear ski goggles.

Get seriously studded tires. Not the cheapo $45 Toronto version of studded tires, where the studs are spaced out by 5 centimetres and only have 100 studs or less. Get the Ottawa versions. $100 per tire. 300 studs. Seriously knobby. I bought Nokian brand (I found them at Peter White Cycles in the U.S.) because they have developed a compound that doesn't use petroleum. They call them environmentally friendly, and they are compared to regular tires. They use the same compound as their high-end winter car tires so they don't turn into hockey pucks at -20C.

Preparation. Something that was missed in the MEC article that I copied: Use Rust Check on all your metal parts and for your chain, not WD-40. You can unhook all the cables on your bike and spray the stuff on all your cables. Use it on your pedals, bolts, derailleurs, seat post, seat post head. Hold a large sponge behind whatever you're spraying to catch over-spray. The stuff fizzes into every crevice and penetrates deep down into the threads and springs. Don't be shy with it, and keep using it all winter.

If you want to keep the snow and ice from building up on your bike, spray it down with PAM cooking spray or Jig-A-Loo. It'll help.

Other than that, ride slow, pedal in perfect circles to keep from slipping, keep your elbows relaxed and think like a cat - be agile and ready to change directions at any moment, try to ride "light", always try to land on your feet and generally avoid people (and their cars). And if you do, be nice :-)

Good luck and stay patient - those car drivers are doing their best not to run you over...really.

Riding in the freezing rain is really dangerous. While I have studded tires and had no problems with grip, I suddenly realized that cars do not! Huh...this is where riding on the sidewalk is a really good idea.

Another issue with riding in the freezing rain: while your rear derailleur will get frozen in whatever gear you spend a significant amount of time in (not a problem really, you can still shift the front derailleur to get up hills) - the DANGEROUS thing is that ice will build up on your disk brake rotors or rims, so no matter what, you seriously need to slow down on hills and before stops by a very significant amount - in fact, start squeezing the brakes at least 50 feet before you need them in order to clear away the ice. Maybe even squeeze them every so often even if you don't have to, just to see how bad they are before you need them.

Also, when you put your foot down at a stop - keep your leg firm as if it was a kickstand - your shoes don't have studs like your tires and you will slip and fall :-) Maybe sit on the top tube for added balance (lowering your centre of gravity), especially for panic stops.

Wearing ski goggles is a good idea, though I prefer the motocross type that have the acetate tear-off sheets. Road grit and salt will make the lens of your goggles deteriorate very fast - if you have to clean them, shower them off and then BLOT dry, do not rub them, they will scratch and then you won't be able to see very well.

Being seen from the side is difficult for motorists because your headlights and taillights are very directional. I'm experimenting with using a small LED on my handlebars and pointing it backwards onto my stomach. It lights up my legs and body, so I'm hoping drivers will also be able to make out my moving legs to make them aware that a cyclist is coming down the road. It also helps with roadside repairs because it's already on the side of my drivetrain.

SCRUG is the new nickname I've given to the mess of snow and ice and salt and grit that makes the worst car tracks on the streets that you can get caught in. You will be defeated by it, so move to the sidewalk. If you have no choice but to ride it, do this:

1) Ride with your arms bent such like you are riding up a very very steep pebble hill. Pull back hard on the bars to keep them rigid but elbows bent at 90 degrees so that as you go up and down and pushed around, you'll be able to keep some margin of control.

2) Ride them like you would cobblestones - faster than comfortable, in the big chainring, really focus on keeping your pedal stroke round and don't get distracted.

3) Aim for the part of the road that has the least number of tire tracks - tire tracks are what makes it impossible to ride. So go as close to the edge of the road as you can. Riding though fresh snow is much easier if you can find it, even up to 8 inches deep.

4) Lower your seat by a centimetre and be ready to pull your foot out of the pedals to keep yourself from crashing.

Staying warm is hard to achieve sometimes so keep two heat packs (those type you can find at outdoor activity supply stores) in your pack, just in case.

Ice in your cables often occurs, even though you sprayed them with Rust Check. It helps to keep a small bottle of lock de-icer (for car locks) in your pack.

Tire pressure should be adjusted outdoors, so that you get it right for the temp outside. For example, 45 psi at 20 degrees Celsius goes to 25 psi at minus 20 degrees Celsius. I really recommend whatever the minimum pressure is stamped on the tire.

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