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Intelligent Deterrence

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Updated: Saturday 20 August 2022.

This article will be added-to as time permits.

Bike commuting in snow is a lengthy topic. And it is an advanced one:
1. You have to have mastered cycling in all other conditions, ideally on different bikes;
2. you have to have mastered layering. If you always sweat while riding in cold rain, you really are not ready for regular commuting in snow.

Yes, some people do ride in snow without a fuss, but there is a vast chasm between riding in snow when you feel like it (and for however long you feel like it) and having to arrive at work irrespective of the day’s conditions (and completing the return ride)!

One crucial point I must add is that, despite the preponderance of bleak details, below, bike commuting is fantastic. I recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone. It is how things _should_ be. There is a learning curve; but, if done right, you’ll never look back.

Proviso

I left the colder climes of Canada well over fifteen years ago. My days of regular commuting in snow are long over. In Vancouver, where I now reside, snowy commutes rarely add up to a dozen days per year. Toronto and Montreal (esp. the former) were where I biked year-round, down to -47 C, in snow and ice. The snow varied from a mere dusting, to a few centimeters, to piles a meter deep, to slush, to sleet. And I rode during the snowfall, and on the days after. There were even a few unwise days of attempting freezing rain, without studded tyres! Most of that was in 2000-2005, when a hundred or so people, worldwide, frequented the ice-bike mailing list.

First Step

is to read a guide to layering for bicycle commuting, then a guide to bicycle commuting in rain. Those are pre-requisites you have to have become very skilled in, already.

Bike Preparation (Winterizing Your Commuter Bicycle)

If you don’t ride in sub-zero temperatures, then the following should not apply to you.

When I first started to regularly commute in -20 C or -40 C, the bike had to be winterized beforehand. This entailed changing all the lubes and grease used everywhere on the bike. Brand new, commercial bikes purchased from a shop use lubrication that is suitable for _sane_ temperatures, not for regular use in -20 C! For the latter, lithium grease was necessary.
Without that, pedalling soon felt like running in thickening sludge! If I recall correctly, the grease in the bottom bracket had to be re-packed with lithium grease. The hubs’ certainly. Likely the head tube’s as well. And, of course, regular lube could not be used on the chain.
I expect that Teflon housing was necessary for the brake and shifter cables, due to the gradual accumulation of dirt and grime. That does not save one from periodic maintenance/cleaning, but it does reduce its frequency.

Bike Type

Which type of bike is suitable for snow commuting?
Certainly nothing with skinny tyres. Period!

The tyres have to be wide and knobby. Traction is essential.
The deeper the pile of snow, the larger the wheels’ diameter ought to be. Simply, they plow through the pile easier.

Fenders are a good idea, though not as good an idea as under rain. On the one hand, you’d want to prevent slush from splashing onto your back; on the other, snow can clump/accumulate beneath fenders!

I don’t recall ever having used disc brakes in winter. While caliper-style brakes (that operate on the rims) accumulate ice and slush, disc brakes might be even more vulnerable to such accumulation. Methinks! I cannot speak from experience; I just wonder. Full disclosure: I’m of the opinion that disc brakes are overkill for everything except fat tyres.

Studded front-tyres are essential when routinely dealing with ice and snow. The rear would be good, too, for providing traction, but the front is _imperative_: Simply, you won’t have steering control without them. As well, the slightest uphill, on even a thin layer of ice, and your unstudded front will spin on-spot!

Fat bikes? I cannot speak from experience, but I’d certainly expect them to be very useful. Snow is what they were originally used for, before ebikers started using them. Though I consider them to be needlessly heavy for general use, heavy bikes handle far better on snow than thin, light, small bikes.

Personally, I used multiple bikes, for different conditions. Twenty years ago, not many people biked in winters. Being an engineer, I approached it as an engineering problem, trying to experiment with different solutions. I had bikes of different size/wheels/type, with meticulous observations of the different conditions and responses.
This has remained my perspective. Instead of the one-tool-for-all-occasions that is the automobile, one can use different, smaller, less-environmentally-costly tools for different occasions. A winter bike for dry conditions, and one for snow, makes perfect sense.

Daily Check of the Forecast

It should go without saying that the weather forecast is checked every day. That is imperative in mornings, well before preparing to head out. And it is essential on the night before, in order to have a rough idea of what you may need to do in the morning.
Longer term forecast, a few days in advance, is also needed, to prepare for any storms that may be coming. Because I used to multi-mode, the state of public transportation was important to me, due to the disruptions which heavy snowfall could cause.

Yes, I’m aware that the above may seem to be no different from anyone else’s routine. But, for a cyclist, the details are much more consequential. The shifts in conditions, from early morning to late afternoon, and perhaps early evening; the change in wind speed; the change in temperature; sunset and sunrise times, etc, all were closely noted.
(The times of sunset and sunrise affect the needs of visibility–for lights and reflectors.)

Note: ambient temperature is irrelevant; it is wind chill that constitutes the day’s ‘temperature’.

Winter Commuter’s Almanac

I kept one. It is very helpful when faced with a certain set of conditions, and not knowing how to layer for it. After summer and autumn, refreshers are needed as the many different days of winter roll out.
Basically, it is a record of which combination of layers worked for which conditions.

Cold & Dry

It’s coldest when there is no precipitation. This is when the minus twenties and minus forties Celsius occur.
Traction will be better, though one might need to watch for black ice as well. (The conditions that result in black ice are rare, not something that one’d routinely need to look out for.)

At -20 C and below, the extremities would need particular care: doubled toques, doubled neck-gaiter, doubled gloves (at -40 C, tripled, or using pogies) , doubled tights (perhaps even with a split-style shell) augment the layers of the torso.

Sunglasses are imperative in sunny conditions. The glare of light bouncing off the snow can make your eyes water, not to mention cause long-term damage.

As for the torso, a WindStopper jacket covers the thermal layer(s) and the base layer. I’ve already explained how to layer, in winter, for bike commuting.

Snow

Firstly, temperatures are not far below 0 Celsius. No -20 C.

Secondly, cars are much more dangerous than usual; sidewalks are often the least-worst option.

It will seem obvious that the amount of snow makes a significant difference. But it is not so much the piles (or not) that one would have to plow through; rather, it is the conditions that arise from that.

Any sort of hovering of the temperature in the vicinity of 0 C might result in slush.
Unplowed roads turn cars into more of a killer than they already are: A low-speed slide can tip you over, and crush a leg. The amount of space on the road will reduce massively. Any bike path will disappear–either under the snowfall, or under the piles pushed aside by the snow-plows or cars-and-trucks. Depending on the city you’re in, the sidewalks are likely to be unplowed; or they’re certainly low-priority, getting plowed after everything else. Still, sidewalks are often the least-worst option.

Any sort of high-speed road must be avoided: Spray of salt and slush reduces drivers’ vision even further, augmenting the reduced traction they have.

Ice

The day after a snowfall is typically cold and icy. Temperatures drop, wind might pick up, snow compacts, and ice forms.

Ice can be on top, or under a deep pile of snow, or it could be frozen slush. Rutted snow/ice can be the worst. Or black frost.

Slush

Accumulated snow, when followed by a rise in temperature to at or above 0 C, results in slush. The more car traffic, the more grey and muddy, if not watery, this will get.
While traction is far better than on ice, or in snow, a lot of mess is created: It splashes onto your clothing, and will accumulate in the bike’s drive train, if not at the brakes.

Note that ambient temperature might be much higher than 0 C; but, where there is car traffic, the road-level temperature will be higher due to the car tyres, thereby causing slush when the temperature level alone would not suggest so.

Maintenance

Regular commuting in snow requires a lot of maintenance. In _urban_ areas, anyway!
Salt.
Ice & slush.
Sand.
Cleaning the chain.

Parking

While parking might generally be safer in winter, it can also be difficult.
Safer, due to the difficulty of working with a tool in ice-cold conditions, and the difficulty of riding the bike away if you’re not skilled on snow/ice.
Difficult, due to piles of snow, or handling the lock and key with gloved hands, or the handlebars becoming freezing-cold, or the lock icing up.
Tip on parking outside, in sub-zero: When I parked all day, in -20 C (or less), I made rolls, from sleeping mats’ closed-cell foam, to slip onto the handlebars.

Techniques

Starting is always slow. After a minute, I begin to adapt to the surface conditions.

The slightest uphill or downhill slope can make control difficult.

Going down even the slightest slope, then turning into another street can be very dangerous. To emphasize the obvious, turns are dangerous on any slippery surface. Even a small round-about that you’re not turning-at can slip you into a fall, due to the slight turn of the front wheel you have to do as you traverse the curve of the circle.

Of course, fresh snow is easier than old snow, even if the latter has not yet turned into ice.
Trampled snow can be a lot of work, if deep enough.
In deep, fresh snow, recent tracks by another bike can be helpful; in older snow, or with more tracks, or with older tracks, they are best avoided. This has a lot to do with ice formation beneath.

Rutted ice is dangerous, especially on a road that has car traffic: It is easy to lose control, and veer into the path of a car that passes too closely.

Sidewalks may often be the best option, especially in fresh piles of snow. Danger of cars veering into you. Slush splash. Snow-plows at high speed.
Even under the best conditions, cars pass far too closely. When channelled, or otherwise herded, by unplowed snow, they drive even closer.

Ramming through the transitions: off-ramping and on-ramping of sidewalks (because they typically have walls of snow/ice formed by cars and plows).
The sidewalk might be plowed; the street not.

Allowing a lot of extra time, on storm days. In the morning, and far more for the evening’s return-journey.

Skiers’ Nose

Yup! It’s cold. As far as I know, much of that sniffling may be due, simply, to condensation of the cold air that enters a warm body. I’ve forgotten my readings on this, but Skiers’ Nose applies to anyone who exercises in the cold.
_My_ approach is to carry tissue. Yes, I even stop to use it, which is very hard when you have gloves to take off, and to put back on!

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