Saturday, November 20, 2010

Winter Cycling

As the days get shorter, the leaves turn colors and fall off the trees, and the temperature drops, it is just a matter of time before the snow flies when you live in Alberta. That day came on Wednesday here in Edmonton.  For the people who live an active lifestyle, when the cold and snow arrives it signals the time to take up indoor sports or visit the gym more often.  For those who don`t mind the elements, their focus turns to hockey or skiing. Then there are the few crazy individuals who continue to bike throughout the winter months over the snow and ice. At least that is what I thought before I tried winter riding last year.

The most common question I get after being asked if I ride all year long is how do you ride on the snow and ice? Do you use studded tires? Don't you fall a lot? Honestly, I think this is why most people in Edmonton can't drive their cars in the winter. I say this because the same logic applies when driving on snow and ice, regardless of whether it is a car or a bike on top of set of tires. You need to reduce your speed, give yourself more time to stop and don't try to make sudden turns. There is a bit more to pay attention to when on your bike that doesn't apply to your vehicle such as leaning and how much to use your front vs. rear brakes, but the basic winter driving rules apply to both. 

I enjoy winter cycling for the same reason I enjoy night riding - it makes old trails new again. Even though we are blessed to have so much excellent single track in our river valley, trails get a bit boring after riding them through the spring, summer and autumn. Adding a layer of snow adds a new twist to the same old trails and you have to shift your attention as areas of difficulty tend to change. Even though snow will reduce the technical features when roots become covered with snow, climbs and descents can become more difficult.

I found that the skills I was required to improve the most were slow speed bike handling and balance. When you are on a snow covered trail you need to keep on the hard packed area. On the less travelled trails the packed area can be as narrow as 6 inches wide. If your front wheel goes off the hard packed trail it will sink into the soft snow, killing your momentum. If you go off the trail at a high speed you might go over the handlebars, so it is best to reduce your speed.  I compare the skill required to ride these very narrow snow trails similar to that necessary to ride ladder bridges.  But unlike the potentially painful penalty if you fall off a ladder bridge, typically on the snowy trails the worst that happens is you have to put your foot down in a the soft powder and some snow gets in your shoes.

Cycling in the winter isn`t dangerous or crazy any more than it is during the summer.  The most extreme part of winter cycling is the temperatures so just like every other winter sport, you need to dress appropriate for the weather.  I will continue with this theme next post with a look into what you need for riding gear.  Stay tuned!

*photo credits to Sheldon Smart

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