Thursday, January 19, 2012

Biking in the Snow

Ahhhh, winter.  The time of year when we all huddle against the wind and driving snow, and cram into subways and streetcars to avoid the terrible salt and snow on the sidewalks.  Even in Toronto's mild and low-snow climate, winter can be sucky.  I like winter, to be clear; it's just the transportation question of winter that makes it hard, since sleighs and horses (best option ever) aren't so available 'round these parts.  What's a girl to do?

While in general I support the use of public transit and take it on occasion, I like to have the flexibility of getting around on my own route.  I also like to keep my expenses down.  So I bike.

Last winter I bought subway passes for January, February, and March, and given that it was my first Toronto winter and I had no idea what to expect, it was the best call to make.  It turned out that I could have easily biked on days when it was cold, sunny, and dry out, and it also turned out that I wished I was on my bike even in the messier weather, if it meant that I could just get out of the sweaty crammed subway (which was often mysteriously delayed).  Three days out of five, I would step off the subway feeling annoyed, late, and slightly sweaty.  When I bike to work I have my work-out clothes on so it doesn't matter if I sweat, but on the subway I'm in my professional get-up, and sweating in those dry-clean only duds makes me so irritated. It's not just the cleaning involved, it's the entire idea of sweating in my suit jackets that makes me feel like my hair is frizzy and my make-up smudged.  Unsightly, indeed.

With last year's experience under my belt, this winter I decided to take my chances and just forget the subway passes.  I have a small collection of tokens on hand, but for the most part, it's bike time.  I love it.  I have thicker tires on my bike (not studded, there really isn't enough snow here), and I have waterproof pants and a spiffy red coat (for visibility), and I tuck my toque under my helmet.  Freedom! Sanity! Punctuality!

For those who want to try to brave the winter weather, I highly recommend:
1. Winter tires - studded or not, definitely look for some tires that will give you greater contact with the road while letting slush move away from the centre of the tire.  It may sound counter-intuitive, but mountain bike tires are terrible in snow.  Snow packs into all the grooves and you end up sliding around like crazy.  Continental and Specialized both make great winter tires, so check 'em out.
2. Bright winter ski coat - maybe if you're a very cold person you could go down-filled here, but I think getting a sport coat with multiple layers, like a snowboarding jacket, is ideal.  You can wear one layer or both, depending on the degree of freezingness outside, and they often have vents in the sides and armpits too, which is even better when you get warm from biking.
3. Mittens - I don't have any handle-bar guards on my bike, though they look effective.  I just wear some solid wool-plus-lining mittens (mine are Canadian Olympic team mitts right now) and I have some heavy duty snowboarding mitts on stand-by for very very cold days.
4. Biking snow pants - worth every single penny.  They'll keep you warm and dry in the cruddiest weather.
5. Waterproof, possibly rubber, boots - as long as your feet are dry, your feet will be warm.  There's nothing worse, in my view, than having soaking wet cold feet while biking to work.  I often wear Blundstones on the cold dry days, and have some rubbers that I can wear multiple layers of socks in for the wet days.  A dry foot is a happy foot!
5. Lights and reflective things - so that you don't get hit by any cars.

Today it's storming pretty good outside.  Looking out the office windows, the buildings I can usually see across the street are partly whited out, and things further down the street have disappeared in a swirling haze.  Snow is building up on the streets and roads (and Toronto doesn't seem to plow - ever).  It'll be an interesting bike to wine class tonight, but I'll take it.

The alternative is just far less chic.

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