Prepping For Winter Bike Commuting (Part 2 of 3)

If you are already riding your bike in the winter, then you probably already know most of what I’m about to write. But in the off chance that someone is moving to or visiting a snowy location for the first time and wants to know what to expect, here is part two of a three-part series on commuting by bike in the snow, particularly for the visually impaired.

Hunting for Contrast

Biking with vision loss is all about making use of whatever vision you’ve got and allocating that limited vision to the most important things, namely things that can kill or hurt you, or things that you can hurt if you hit. I generally do this by hunting out high contrast changes. This is what makes winter biking so challenging. There is so much white snow everywhere, and particularly with fresh snow on overcast days, there is little contrast difference between a trail or the deep snow next to the trail.

A  trail covered in snow
A narrow trail covered in snow

On overcast cast, there may be little to no contrast. Bright sunny days tend to create a lot more shadows or contrast in the surface of the snow which is good for visibility. Generally staying on well-used paths, roads and trails increase the chances of a trail being easier to see because of the dirty beige or brown snow that results from heavy use. Rose or yellow-tinted snowboarding or ski goggles may also be worth looking into as these can help to emphasize texture or contrast in snow.

Keep an Eye on the Time, Weather

As I mentioned earlier, the bright sun often helps create more texture and contrast on snow, making it easier to see where you’re going. It’s worth checking out the weather ahead of departure to know if there will be clouds and less visibility later. Keeping track of the time of day is valuable too as the sun comes up later and goes down sooner in winter, so while the light conditions might be good when you leave the house or work, be aware of weather and sunlight changes that will greatly affect your vision.  

Get Comfortable with the Front Tire Washing Out

It is a question of when, not if you will lose traction on your front tire in the snow, even with studded tires. The bigger and fatter tires you have, the less this will happen. Losing traction on your front tire feels similar to biking in deep sand. You get a numb feeling in your handlebar due to the lack of control. Generally, the best thing to do is look far ahead at where you want to go, keep a relaxed grip on the handlebars, aiming the front tire where you want to go and keep pedaling. Standing up while pedaling makes it easier to keep your balance. Trust your bike and it will usually end up taking you where you want so long as you don’t panic and tense up. One of the worst surfaces to bike on is brown-sugar slush, which is often found on roads with lots of car traffic and poor snow removal. It basically looks and feels like biking in deep brown sugar or sand. Just relax. look far ahead and keep pedaling.

A road covered in brown slush
A road covered on brown-sugar slush

Expect Different Conditions After Every Corner

Snow and road conditions are not the same everywhere. In fact, every single time you turn a corner onto a new street you should be prepared to re-evaluate the road conditions. At least in the city where I live, the busiest roads get the best snow removal and de-icing care. Side roads are often terrible, with deep brown-sugar slush which is horrible to bike on, and sidewalks are unpredictable. I have found that roads and sidewalks near government buildings, commercial buildings, and schools are often very well taken care of. Keep track of which roads and trails on your commute are best maintained in the winter, and which roads should be avoided.

a clear sidewalk, free of snow or ice in the winter
A rare sight, clear, well-maintained sidewalks

Turn Where You Have Grip

Similarly, whenever you turn onto a new street, to maintain the most grip, it is best to do most of your turning where you think you will have more grip.

If I am turning onto a high traffic street that is free of snow and ice, I would wait to turn until I am on the surface with more grip. However, if I am turning onto a street covered in brown-sugar slush, I would turn as much as possible before leaving the good surface.

When in Doubt, Stand and Chill

If you see a street or surface that you are not sure about, generally it is best and easiest to keep your balance by standing up on the pedals, staying relaxed (especially your hands and grip), looking where you want to go, pedaling and trusting that your bike will go where you want to. If a section of road is still too sketchy, just stop, get off and walk a bit. It’s better to be cautious than injured.

I will wrap up part two there and be back I na few days for the final entry in this Winter Bike Commuting series.

Stay safe!