Winter Riding by Judy-Lynn McGrath

When most people are asked to name a winter sport or activity, mountain biking is not a typical response. In fact, many cyclists hang up their helmets during the winter months or when the temperatures dip. I would have thought to do the same thing, had I not known that there are ways and conditions to ride all winter.

I was introduced to mountain biking by my husband Chris, in the fall of 2007. He explained that riding was an endless continuum and we do not stop riding… even when winter arrives …much to my surprise. Prior to my initiation to winter riding, I would recall seeing the odd cyclist on the snowy streets of Toronto. Whenever there is a major winter storm, the news media posts that ironic image of a lone cyclist battling the elements. Cycling just seems so extraordinary in winter. Back then I was puzzled: I asked myself: “how is it possible to ride?” “Aren’t those cyclists cold?” “Is it safe?” My questions and opinions back then were no different than what my colleagues at work, friends and even other cyclists express to me now. They are awe-struck when I tell them I ride all 4 seasons and especially in the dead of winter. They ask: “You mean you ride outside?” “In the snow?” “Is it safe?” I then begin to tell them that this activity is quite normal and fun providing you are prepared and have knowledge about the risks. As I excitedly describe how it’s possible, I soon realize my audience is not applauding. The skeptics remain unconvinced and the others mock me like I would make this up! As I reflect back on my winter riding experiences and I realize that this off the beaten path past-time is worth a review.

First and foremost, I am not an expert in the field of winter riding however I am a keen pupil and have learned to master the basics and I ride with highly experienced cyclists who know the terrain, conditions and know how to ride in highly unusual circumstances. Chris and I (and a few hardy friends) have ridden in the most extreme conditions of winter in our local stomping grounds and have applied techniques to ride under the best biking opportunities. The intention of this brief article is not to appear prescriptive (because everyone has built a better mouse trap) or to promote risk taking. I just want to share some of my experiences and hope the readers are curious and entertained. I should also add a disclaimer that riding on ice or in extreme cold should never be taken for granted. The people I ride with have been doing this for many years and know the weather and ice conditions intimately.

In 2007, our frosty group made it to the road. It was a very cold ride.

In 2007, our frosty group made it to the road. It was a very cold ride.

My first cold weather ride was December 2007. Our group spent the day exploring the frozen trails in Bolton. The temperature during the day was about -4C and the ride home was about -20C (with wind chill). What did we learned from that ride? I underestimated my attire. I froze my face, and my hands and feet felt numb. Two riders in this pic switched to platform pedals and hiking boots from SPDs for future winter rides. I also began an earnest hunt for the warmest and most pliable clothes and accessories I could find. Over the years I have tested dozens of products before finding the best ones for me: ski gloves and wool snow board socks, toque under helmet, Gortex (shells and even socks). Just to mention a few necessities.

Posing for the camera and wearing multiple layers. As the season gets colder, we usually ditch the camel back bladder and bring water bottles. Also switching from hiking shoes to light weight waterproof boots. This pic is from 2010

Posing for the camera and wearing multiple layers. As the season gets colder, we usually ditch the camel back bladder and bring water bottles. Also switching from hiking shoes to light weight waterproof boots. This pic is from 2010

Every ride is different in the winter, snow (deep snow, slushy snow) vs. no snow. Damp cold vs. dry cold (cold is cold!) This pic was taken December 26, 2011.

 Every ride is different in the winter, snow (deep snow, slushy snow) vs. no snow. Damp cold vs. dry cold (cold is cold!) This pic was taken December 26, 2011.

 This pic was taken a couple days later. The ground was frozen but the light snow dusting made the trails surprisingly tacky so studded tires were not needed… yet.

This pic was taken a couple days later. The ground was frozen but the light snow dusting made the trails surprisingly tacky so studded tires were not needed… yet.

This pic was taken early March 2009. The ground was still frozen, so the pond had a solid bed

 This pic was taken early March 2009. The ground was still frozen, so the pond had a solid bed

Riding conditions vary depending on the temperature and the amount of snow or ice. The best trails for riding are frozen or hard packed.

Just the right amount of snow and ground frost makes it possible. When the trails are softer, the wheels go squirrelly however it’s good practice to learn to correct the bike in those conditions. Sometimes we go off the beaten path and have to hike a bike in the most extreme conditions.

Some winters have the most perfect conditions for ice biking. I ride only with the most experienced riders who know the depth of the river and all the currents. The temperatures have to be perfect for this. We ride only when it is solid and safe.

The sound of the top layer of ice crackling under the tires is initially unsettling but then it becomes awesome. After perfecting the technique : easy gear, keep pedaling, keep observing the changing color and texture of the ice and snow, riding where the animals walk, not going too close to the edges where it is soft and not riding too close to the rider in front especially when the ice may be thinner.

I remember the first time riding on the frozen river. After getting over my initial fear that the ice will crack-up and swallow me up, I was hooked. On a typical ice bike ride, we can cover 10-20 km on the river. In 2010 our greatest achievement was riding from Bolton to Palgrave (about +25 km). Some spots have trees downs, some spots open up and you have to ride around the obstacles or hike up on the shore.

I am amazed by the magnitude of animal tracks! I can’t get over how busy the forest is and how the animals use the river like a highway. We’ve heard coyotes howling nearby, and we have seen wildlife up-close (beaver, deer, muskrats, rabbits).

Sometimes you can see the different layers of frozen-ness. In this spot, the river is sandwiched between 2 frozen layers.

This was taken in 2008, too steep and too slick to ride, even with studded tires

 I made it up this hill. Thank goodness for studded tires

 Days are short and temperatures drop, building a fire and sharing body heat is a necessity

In 2010 the Humber River froze early and then broke up following a temperature spike, spilling massive ice cakes on its banks. It made for very diverse riding and changed the forest appearance. Some mighty big trees were plowed down by the massive ice chunks.

Chris found this cake to play on.

This year we had very little snow and we did not have a sustained deep freeze so our “ice rides” have been on frozen ponds.

Sti: Please visit this HK discussion thread to let Judy know how you like her article!