01/24/2012 01:36 EST | Updated 03/25/2012 05:12 EDT

The Beginner's Guide to Winter Biking

When the wind is high and the snow is blowing, riding a bicycle seems like an exercise in danger. It takes dedication to look out on a blustery day and say, "It's a great day for a bike ride!" In Canada, we often abandon our bikes once the first snow falls, but with a little planning, it's possible to ride right through winter.

Winter cycling rides that tricky line between requiring bravery and not being worth it. Some winter days, riding your bike requires no extra courage and only a few extra layers. On wilder days, when the wind is high and the snow is blowing, riding a bicycle seems like an exercise in danger. It takes dedication to look out on a blustery day and say, "It's a great day for a bike ride!" In Canada, we often abandon our bikes once the first snow falls and we end up stuck in traffic or jammed onto public transit. Those aren't your only options -- it's possible, with a little planning, to ride right through winter.

First things first: investing in the proper gear can make a world of difference in your quality of life. Miserable rides are bound to happen, but you can make them a little easier to handle by preparing your outfit and your ride for the elements, whether it's cold, wet, or both.

For clothes, a warm hat that covers your ears is key and a brim to help deflect snow or rain is great help. Warm, waterproof mittens or gloves will help stave off dreaded handlebar freeze, so invest in a pair that aren't going to let your hands get wet. And, I can't believe I have to say this, but there are hotdoggers out there: a helmet. Any bike ride should find you wearing a helmet, but that goes double in the winter, when slips and falls are much more likely. Dress in layers that can be easily unzipped or removed; winter riding will warm you up, but damp, sweaty clothes will be chilly. Your personal style can be adapted for your winter cycling outfit, but remember that comfort, visibility, and warmth should trump your cute-yet-useless beret.

As for gear? Fenders! Fenders are amazing -- they keep the slush off your back, which is so helpful in wet weather. Other must-haves are lights -- a red one for the rear, a bright white for the front -- and a bell. Those are both mandatory under Ontario law, but become life-savers on dark nights. Make sure your lights are as bright as possible, and if you ride in areas that don't see a lot of winter cyclists, you can invest in reflective clothing or tape to further illuminate yourself or your bike. A rag to wipe off your wet seat and to get stuck-on slush out of your frame is smart, too.

Other helpful technology? The coaster brake. Remember your first bike, the one that stopped if you pedalled backwards? That was a coaster brake, and they're handy in very cold temperatures because they're less likely to freeze than cable-based systems. If you plan on riding in extremely icy conditions for a long time, you can purchase studded tires (the studs act like snow chains and provide added traction), but those are really only helpful in icy conditions. Otherwise, a thick-tread tire -- like the kind found on mountain bikes -- can help with traction, while narrow tires cut through the snow.

Before you start riding, remember to check your bike, especially if you've parked it outside. Make sure the brakes aren't frozen, that your lights work, that your gears haven't seized. Do this before you hop on, lest you find yourself tipping over with no brakes. When you get home, give your bike the spa treatment: wipe down any crusty snow or salt accumulations from the frame and rims, clean and lubricate the chain as needed, and keep an eye on things like tire pressure and brake response. Riding through the winter takes a little bit more TLC, but the payoff is that your spring tune-up will be fairly straightforward.

When you're on the road, stay calm and alert. Winter cyclists are a bit of a rarity -- drivers may not be expecting you. Use your lights and bell, signal your moves, and make eye contact as often as possible; making sure drivers have seen you goes a long way in feeling safe. Often, bike lanes aren't ploughed in heavy snowfalls, so choose alternate routes that have clear, dry streets. You may ride more towards the centre of the lane than you're used to, but that's okay -- just make sure you signal and maintain visibility. Don't wear headphones, since weather can often affect how loud traffic sounds. Most of all, make sure you feel safe. There's no shame in pulling over to catch your breath after a close call with an icy patch.

I'm not going to deny that winter cycling can be tough; it's hard on your bike and takes a measure of planning that leisurely summer rides don't. Like any other winter sport, it has its pitfalls. But winter riding is also lots of fun; it builds character, keeps you fit and can seriously help with commute times. It's also exhilarating to arrive at your destination with a helmet tucked under your arm, getting to say yes when people say, "Did you really bike here?"