Thursday, 24 October 2013

Riding in the Cold
For as long as I can remember I would “retire” the bike for the season sometime in mid-November. In my neck of the woods this was the approximate point when the temperature dropped consistently below zero. I didn’t like the idea of riding in the cold, and I figured the road conditions were going to be a challenge (e.g., snow, ice). This was fine for the most part, but I found that the three months or so that I took off from riding would make the spring riding season a challenge. All of the progress I had made from a fitness perspective would drain away over the winter (and as the holiday season occurred in the middle of all of this my eating habits weren’t doing me any favors either). 

After two seasons of spring/summer/fall commuting I decided I wanted to try to ride in the winter. I have a whole host of suggestions as to how to go about doing so safely, but the first observation worth making here is that I discovered that the cold wasn’t really the problem; instead it was whether or not it was wet. Wet conditions in the cold can lead to ice and snow, and snow can also “hide” ice underneath. Ice is obviously a concern as it is slippery, snow can be slippery as well, particularly if it is loose. When snow is soft and thick it can be a problem as your tires “sink” into the snow and this can slow you to the point where it is not worth riding at all. Additionally, falling snow can impact visibility for you and other drivers, another safety concern. About the only snow I like for riding is hard packed “dry” snow, and even this can be slippery.

Knowing all of this it would seem that cold weather riding is not a good idea, particularly if you live in a part of the world where it snows a lot during the winter. However, what I discovered was that the colder seasons, just like the warmer ones, have wet and dry “stretches”. And when the road was dry (no snow, no ice), cold weather riding was just as safe as warm weather riding. Yes, you have to bundle up for the cold, and I will discuss that in more detail, but by riding on dry days (or more specifically on days when the roads were dry) I was able to ride 3-4 days a week all through the cold days of late fall, winter and early spring. This was only slightly less often than I rode in late spring, summer and early fall, and I must admit I was a bit surprised. 

My “rule” for riding in cold weather was fairly simple; if the roads were dry I took the bike. If the roads were snow or ice covered, I did not. This did the trick; dry roads in cold weather are more or less identical to dry roads in warm weather from a safety perspective. There are only two significant differences that I am aware of between hot and cold riding on this point. First, really hot roads can have “gummy” portions of newer asphalt that stick to your tires, not so much a safety concern but it can be an annoyance. Second, really cold weather makes the rubber tires on your bike extremely stiff. I’m not sure if this makes flats more or less likely, but it definitely makes changing a tire almost impossible. I changed a tire once in -12 degree Celsius weather and it was extremely difficult. The tire did not want to come off of the rim, and my poor, freezing hands almost gave up.
There are two key priorities when you ride in the cold, retaining your heat and blocking the wind chill. Both of these are manageable, but you do need to spend some time putting together a winter clothing “kit” and learning how to dress for the colder weather. Essentially you want to “layer and block”, layering allows you to trap air both in the clothing and between the layers. Trapped air is warmed by your body heat (you generate excess heat while you ride) and keeps you warm in return. Blocking the wind keeps the cold air from cooling off the trapped air in your clothing, and from cooling your body directly. The key here is to ensure that you don’t lose heat at the periphery (e.g. in the space between your gloves and your sleeves) by overlapping layers of clothing. 

When done properly, cold weather riding can be done in complete comfort, I have cycled in weather as cold as – 25 degrees Celsius and been perfectly warm. Ironically, the real issue becomes overheating while riding in the cold. If you layer up properly you will find that in short order you start sweating under your clothing, and then when you stop moving for an extended period of time (e.g. at a long intersection light) you will find yourself getting very cold very fast. Thus there is a third key priority when riding in the cold, removing excess heat. That is why layering is so important, peeling off layers allows you to cool off and maintain a reasonable body temperature, something I do regularly while riding in the cold. 

The best way to explain this is to outline my full cold weather kit and then show how I use it during the coldest weather. First things first, as most of us know your extremities get cold first. Distance from the heart (the source of circulation of the blood) is the key factor. What that means is that by lower body tends to get colder than my upper body, and I tend to wear more layers on my lower body than my upper body as a result. This also explains why it is so important to wear a hat, a hat traps the heat as it is radiating from your body. I find that removing my hat in the cold can make a significant difference to my body heat.

I’ll start from the top and work to the bottom. Any hat you wear must be somewhat thin, as you need to put a helmet on top. What you want is a “skullcap” toque that fits tight to your head. If you have difficulty locating a hat that meets your needs, or if you can only find expensive specialty caps for winter use I suggest looking a children’s winter toques, they are smaller but designed to be just as warm, and aren’t as expensive. In particularly cold weather you can supplement this headgear with a headband. The headband will keep your ears completely covered as toques can “ride up” while you are on the bike leaving your ears and forehead exposed. Protecting your ears is important as cold air blowing in your ears can cause painful earaches. An exposed forehead encountering cold wind can lead to powerful headaches. I had both of these experiences before I figured out my kit.

The next issue is your neck. A scarf is handy as it is long and can be pulled up over the face easily if the wind gets too strong. I have also used a “neck tube”, essentially a thermal sleeve that fits around your neck. I roll it down for the regular ride, and then when I feel the need to cover my face it can be rolled up to cover up to just under my nose. In extremely cold weather you have the option of wearing a balaclava, a full face mask with only eye, nose and mouth openings. I wear prescription eye glasses so I always have something in front of my eyes, for those who do not a pair of sunglasses is a good idea, as a strong wind on a cold day can make your eyes water extensively. In extremes of cold ski goggles are an option as well.

For my trunk (my upper torso) I start with a regular cycling shirt, something short sleeve and breathable. You want breathable fabric for your undershirt as you want your perspiration to migrate away from your body. On top of that I wear a thin pullover, one I picked up at Mountain Equipment Co-op (an outdoors equipment store) about 15 years ago. Lighter than a sweater and featuring a zipper in the front, this layer helps to trap heat. My final layer on top is a “shell”, a standard issue cycling jacket with a long back end, zippers underneath the arms and down the sides of the jacket, and a zipper in the front. These jackets also feature Velcro at the cuffs so you can “seal” the heat in, and straps at the cuffs to keep the sleeves from creeping back. This combination, a breathable inner layer, a thermal layer to trap heat, and an outside layer to keep the wind from cooling you off, works remarkably well.

For my legs my heaviest “kit” consists of a regular pair of underwear, then two pairs of long underwear, one extra thin and another regular thickness. Then I add a third layer of regular lycra cycling “pants” (essentially just like cycling shorts but with full length legs). Finally I put a pair of cotton sweatpants over the whole collection. The point of course is to layer to retain heat but ensure breathability to allow moisture out. Multiple layers mean more sites for heat to be trapped, and more opportunity for your body to keep you warm. Just like the upper body clothing, the outer layers are a wind break, the inner layers trap heat.
Protection for your hands and feet are the last item on the agenda, and bear special consideration. As I mentioned above, your extremities are the areas of greatest risk when you ride in the cold, with your toes being at the greatest risk and your fingers a close second. If you experience any discomfort when riding in the cold it will be most likely be due to exposed skin on your face or finger and toe coldness.

For my hands I wear a pair of thin leather gloves that are lightly insulated, over top of these I place a pair of special mitts. These mitts have individual finger coverings in them with the top of these coverings cut off so you can use your bare fingers if needed. They also have a mitten top that can be folded over and then they function as a regular mitt. When it is coldest I put the mitten top in place and I am then wearing gloves inside mittens, which keeps my fingers very warm.

It is possible to purchase special footwear for cold weather riding, for my part I have a pair of insulated work boots that do the job. I combine them with layered socks. I have a thick pair of outer socks and a thinner pair of inner socks. So far I have found the combination of two layers of socks and an insulated workboot to be sufficient to keep my toes warm. Still, there were a few extremely cold days (below -25) when I opted for special “heat packs” that you could place in your shoe or glove. These packs work almost too well, but they will keep you warm on the extreme cold days. 

So there you have it, a complete cold weather cycling kit for the whole body. Using this kit I have been able to ride in cold dry weather very successfully. To see how this works take the full kit, assume I am wearing my entire arsenal (except perhaps for the balaclava) and it is very cold. The first point to make is that when you set out you will be cold, as you ride you will generate body heat and if you have layered correctly you will start to warm up. One important skill is to overlap at the edges to make sure heat doesn’t escape and cold doesn’t get in. So you should either tuck your shirt into your gloves or tuck your gloves into your sleeves, tuck your shirt into your pants as well. My inner sock is generally underneath my long underwear but my outer sock goes outside my pants (on that note I don’t generally put an elastic around loose pants that might get caught in my bike chain, I run the sock up out of my boots and tuck the pants into it). By overlapping layers you keep the heat in. Even the smallest sliver of exposed skin can get uncomfortably cold, so you need to be careful about overlapping layers. 

The next important thing to realize is that you can easily overheat during winter riding.  The same clothing that keeps the heat in will quickly lead to you being too hot and sweating while you ride. In this respect hot weather and cold weather riding can be very similar, you can arrive at work soaking wet. The difference is that being wet in the cold weather can be very dangerous. However, winter riding also provides you with the opportunity to cool off while you ride. There are two easy ways to do this, one is to vent and the other is to remove layers.

One of the reasons I recommend clothing that has zippers is that this allows venting of heat while you ride without removing the layer entirely. So assuming I am out with my full kit on a cold day my first step if I’m heating up too much is to undo the zippers on my outer shell. My riding shell has zippers under the arms that go down the side of the shell. When I undo these it allows cold air to rush in and cool off my trunk and my arms. The next step if this doesn’t work is to unzip the main zipper on the front. After this I remove the shell entirely. Each of these steps can cool you off considerably, as the shell is your windbreaker, if you remove that layer the wind will quickly cool you off. 

Most days when I ride in the cold I start venting and shedding layers within the first 15 minutes. After the shell comes off I zip down my thermal pullover, I find that venting on the top layer works best as my upper body is warmer. I rarely remove lower layers as I find my lower extremities to be the coldest. The goal is to ensure that your body is cool and comfortable while riding and you arrive dry at work. For the most part I tend to overdress for the weather, knowing I can vent and remove layers. Finally, it is also worth noting that the wind chill in the cold weather is, for the most part, more important than the actual temperature. I can ride at much lower temperatures when there is no wind chill. Put in a slightly different way, wind on a warm day is pleasant, wind on a cold day can literally be painful, so I make my riding decisions appropriately.

Two other issues make cold weather riding different. The first is that wet and cold conditions lead to a sort of sludge of ice, dirt and snow that comes to populate the “gutter” right beside the curb, sometimes it can also pool in the road. Depending on how much of it is there, you will end up riding further left of the curb than you would in dry conditions, riding through is both dangerous and slow. This makes some drivers nervous, and some cyclists too, but it can’t be avoided riding on certain winter roads. Also, bike trails in parks and along waterfronts can be closed in winter months. In addition, you may be constrained to main arteries in the winter, as secondary roads with less traffic tend to stay wet and covered with snow and ice longer. For the regular winter commuter main arteries, particularly wider ones will be your best bet. So winter riding is for those more tolerant of regular road traffic. 

The second issue is damage to the bike itself. The noxious mix of dirt, road salt, snow, water etc. that coats your wheels and eventually your chain in the winter can quickly lead to breakdown of your components. The first winter season I rode through my rear derailleur froze up completely. That was my own fault as I hadn’t been cleaning it regularly. Even two or three rides into wet winter weather you start noticing the signs of trouble, for example, this season my chain started “catching” as I pedaled backwards after my first two rides in mildly wet winter weather. It only gets worse after that. The only real solution is to purchase a bike with an enclosed gear and chain system or to clean the bike regularly. The problem is cleaning frequency, a quick wipe of the chain won’t do the job in the long run as the salt and dirt gets into all of your gear mechanisms. So you should really be disassembling your rear derailleur and cleaning all of the components. It isn’t necessarily that difficult to do if you are systematic about it, but you would have to do it so often during the regular season that it is almost prohibitive. My personal solution is to only ride on dry days. You will still pick up more dirt than in the summer, but it is much less significant than what you pick up when the roads are wet.

When the seasons start to change I will go from lighter clothing to heavier clothing, adding layers as I go. My footwear changes over the seasons, I cycle in the summer with bare feet in sandals or vented cycling shoes. As the fall starts I add socks to the sandals and shoes, as it gets colder I wear socks and a leather shoe without ventilation. Then I move to double socks, then to workboots, then layered socks in the workboots. There is a similar progression for leggings, starting with shorts, then full length lycra cycling pants, then cotton pants on top, then the long underwear layers. For the hands it is cycling gloves, leather gloves, cycling mitts then leather gloves plus cycling mitts. For the head I start with no covering, then headband, then winter cap, etc.

By combining these elements you can be comfortable in all varieties of weather. Keep in mind that wind matters most in the colder weather, and I should also note here that it is possible to buy specialty cold riding clothing (for example thermal pants or shoes). For the most part I have never tried this sort of gear, I’m sure it works well enough. However, I tend to try to use cheaper substitutes where possible, as a matter of fact most of the clothing I use for cold weather riding was cobbled together out of things I already had for other reasons (e.g. winter camping). The only specialty winter gear I have purchased for cycling is my dual function mitts. For the most part though, cheaper alternatives are always available. A light cotton shirt is fairly breathable, and can substitute for a cycling shirt. What is less substitutable is design options like zippers. A standard cotton t-shirt would not have a zipper. Still, you can always improvise, as I pointed out a children’s winter cap can work well but not be unduly expensive.

Just for the record, the only cycling clothing I have purchased over the years has been a few cycling shirts (with pouches on the back and a zipper in the front), cycling shoes, gloves, a thermal pullover (with zipper) and an outer “shell” (with side zippers, a front zipper, sleeve loops and Velcro “seals” at the cuff). All of these items were purchased about 15 years ago and I’m still using them today (with the exception of the gloves, a pair normally lasts me about two seasons). In each case the item functions particularly well for its purpose, and since it has lasted me a long time it was definitely worth the cost.



Tuesday, 15 October 2013

No big theme today, just some miscellaneous observations from the last few months on the road. I thought I would do a cheers and jeers, just for fun.


1. To the City of Toronto road works guys and gals for being diligent about what they do. First off, they are plugging holes in the road that make my life difficult. A particularly deep hole around a sewer grate just North of Wilson on Keele (my regular commute route) was filled in recently, and has made my ride significantly safer. Many cyclists trumpet new cycling infrastructure, but I’m just as happy when a regular route is paved and holes are fixed. Bumpy roads with holes force me out into traffic, always a bad thing (you should control when you enter traffic, not the road), so maintenance and repair are key.

2. And again to the City of Toronto road works guys and gals for being decent about what they do. Here I have in mind things like where you put your traffic cones around road work. If you locate them past the lane boundary line and into the next lane over this squeezes the cars and forces me to have my ass hanging out into traffic. If they place the cones just outside of the dividing line (inside the lane where construction is done) that gives me a de-facto bike lane, and makes things considerably safer. The crew working the road improvements from Lawrence and Keelt to the South side of the 401 did a great job, leaving me enough room. In addition, they created a space between the lanes going straight North and branching off to enter the 401 that I can use to negotiate the transition as cars pull off to the on ramp.

3. Several weeks ago going North on Keele I had a truck come up beside me that had a rake sticking out of the back and coming dangerously close to my head as the truck went by. It ends up it was a City of Toronto Parks vehicle, and it had various pieces of gardening equipment in the back. Things had pretty clearly shifted while they drove. I caught up to the truck at a light further up and I cycled up to the passenger side window, got the attention of one of the two men inside, and mentioned the rake to them. One of them saw it, jumped out and fixed the problem, and apologized to me. I cycled up ahead and as it happens found myself at an intersection further up when the truck pulled up again beside me. This time the passenger spoke up and thanked me for waiting for the red light, as he had seen so many cyclists blow through them. The longer I ride the more I come to value interactions like this. Not angry confrontations or challenges, but respectful exchanges between road users that improve safety and accentuate the positive.

4. They are installing a contra-flow bike lane on Shaw. Finally. For years Toronto cyclists have been cycling the wrong way on Shaw, and thanks to parking rules (cars are parked on the East side of the street) when you come to Shaw from a side street going West you cannot see the bikes coming from the South. They are practically invisible. Combined with the sheer volume of cycle traffic going the wrong way this made Shaw a dangerous road for motorists and cyclists. I am firmly against cycling the wrong way on a one way street. But adding a contra-flow bike lane will legitimate what is being done, and highlight where cyclists are supposed to be, which is good for cyclists and good for motorists. Good job!

1. I am often asked for soundbite advice I could give to drivers to improve the safety of cyclists. My #1 piece of advice is this: signal! For the most part my goal on the road is to get out of the way of the motorists to let them pass me. I don’t want to have someone stuck behind my slow moving vehicle and “riding” my back wheel. There is nothing more disconcerting than a car driving very close to your rear wheel. So I really like it when cars signal in advance so I can see what they are doing and react appropriately. What I find particularly irritating is cars that pull up to a red light and wait there with no signal on. Then when the light changes to green they put on their right hand turn signal and make a turn. It’s so frustrating, they save the turn indication to the last possible second, even though they have been “parked” at the red light for a good amount of time. If you signal when you are behind me I can switch lanes to let you by. If you want to make a right turn up ahead of me and you put on your signal I will generally switch to the left lane and wave you through. If you have your signal on at an intersection I will go around you to the left and let you make the right turn without complications.

Signal, it’s the law, and it helps me immensely.

2. Don’t wait for me. I can’t tell you the number of times I have approached an intersection, arrived well after someone coming in the opposite direction, so they very clearly have the right of way. They often have their left turn signal on so they will be crossing my path. However, as soon as they see me coming they stop and won’t do anything until I go forward, even though they have right of way. I think many drivers have been burned so many times by cyclists blowing red lights that they just want to let them through before going further. However, when they do this, I never know what to do, as sometimes they will change their minds and decide to go ahead with the turn anyway. Once they deviate from traffic rules everything is tossed up in the air.

Obey the law, drive when and where you are supposed to, don’t prejudge my actions as a cyclist based on what others have done.

3. Don’t honk unless you are about to hit me. Motorists love to honk at cyclists, to “let us know” they are there. That’s a decent sentiment, but motorists don’t “hear” car horns the same way cyclists do. When I hear a car horn when I’m on a bike I don’t hear, “Hey, I’m coming, stay where you are”, I hear “YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE! MOVE!”.  A car horn at close proximity doesn’t produce as much of a reaction as it used to, but it still makes me jump in the saddle and immediately look around to see if I’m about to be run over. If you are insistent on honking to let me know you are around please do so when you are NOT close to me. A distant honk will make me check my mirrors or shoulder check to get a bead on where you are, without making me jump out of my saddle.

4. Observe basic cycling etiquette, and wait for room to pass on bike paths. When I’m riding downtown (say on the Harbord bike lane, or on College), faster moving bikes constantly pass me. I have no problem with that, and I ride to the right of the path to ensure that there is as much room to pass me as possible. However, parked cars also  push me out to the far side of the path sometimes, as I want to avoid the possibility of a door prize. But even when I’m to the far right of the path, I have been crowded out and forced even further aside by faster cyclists hogging the path. Use some common sense, if you are blowing up the bike path super fast and see riders ahead of you, ring your bell so they know you are coming up. As soon as I hear a bell I will check my mirror and my position. Also consider riding in traffic if you want to go that fast. It may not be possible in all cases, but if you want to travel that close to traffic speed (and downtown this is possible) then by all means join the cars. The flip side of this is that tandem riding in busy bike lanes is inconsiderate. If there is heavy bike traffic there will always be those who want to go faster, so tandem riding is just inviting crazy maneuvers like whipping in between two riders on the path rather than going around them.

That’s it for today.



Monday, 7 October 2013

For me, night riding was an area where my expectations kept me from trying something new for many years. My main concerns with night riding were the obvious ones: reduced visibility and the greater potential for impaired drivers on the road. Both were, and are, legitimate concerns, there is more light in the daytime, and as a result you are more visible, and for the most part there are more impaired drivers on the road at night. I wasn’t just concerned that drivers would not see me; I was also concerned that I would not see obstructions in the road (e.g. potholes). I realize that many commuters don’t have a night riding option (they work during the day), but there are some commuters that start so early that they leave in the dark, during the winter sundown can happen before you leave work, and people who work the night shift will likely commute in the dark. Thus night commuters are a non-trivial component of the overall commuting population, in part depending on where you live.

I might never have tried riding at night except for the fact that I was assigned an evening course the second year I was commuting to work. The class was from 7pm to 10pm, so when it let out it was dark. I didn’t mind the late teaching so much, but the 1hr – 1hr 30min commute home at the end of a very long day (I started in the morning at my day job and left for home around 10:15-10:30 pm depending on student questions after class) was extremely unpleasant. For a while I would cycle to work in the morning and leave the bike overnight in my office rather than drive it home at night.

Then, as these things often happen, I just decided one day that I should try a run home at night. I already had the night riding gear, rear red lights for the bike and for me, a front light, reflectors all over the bike, and a riding jacket with reflective stripes. Much to my surprise, since that original trip I now look for any excuse I can find to ride at night, I not only enjoy it, in many cases I prefer it to riding during the day, for a host of reasons. Still, riding at night it not without its limitations, and if you are to add night riding to your regular commuting ride (or just for recreation) then there are some points worth remembering.

Riding at Night: The Risks
First and foremost, you need to be visible on the road. The basic equipment mentioned beforehand, reflectors on the bike, red rear lights, a regular white forward light and reflector stripes on clothing are sufficient to make you visible to cars approaching from both directions. It is important to have a combination of lights and reflectors, as lights can run out of power at the most inconvenient time, they can also become dislodged from you or the bike (rear red lights can clip on to your jacket and later fall off, I have had this happen to me). There’s no need to light yourself up like a Christmas tree, but erring on the side of excess is probably not a bad idea. I generally use two of each of my front and back lights, one mounted on the bike and one on me. The odds of both front or both rear lights failing are fairly slim. For a while I considered carrying a spare set of AA batteries as a precaution, but I eventually decided that doubling up lights was better, as the cause of failure might not be the batteries themselves. 
This is particularly important if you are concerned with ground conditions and visibility. When I’m worried about obstructions on particularly uneven or poor surfaces, I will point one light forward for cars to see and another light slightly downwards to illuminate the ground in front of me. In principle a bright front light will illuminate the ground, but I prefer a dedicated light as it lights up more and the direct light is stronger than the general illumination of a front facing light. A forward light is one of those items I’m willing to splurge on, mainly due to the fact that if I need it and doesn’t work well driving can be hazardous. Not so much on regular roads, where the general illumination is fairly good, but riding on trails or uneven surfaces requires a strong light. I have the most powerful light I could find as my “illuminate the ground” forward light, there’s no point getting something weak. I have used it in a variety of conditions and find it works exceptionally well.

Most lights (front and rear) now have a number of different settings, continuous light, flashing, rolling, etc. I’m not convinced that it matters that much which you use. If you are illuminating the riding surface you want a continuous light, some people prefer the flashing light to get the attention of motorists, but I have seen no evidence that flashing lights are more effective. My intuition is that flashing lights are better as they create a contrast with the dark background. If you are riding in a straight line for a long period of time a continuous light can “blend” into the background to a degree, a flashing light always stands out. Still, this is only an intuition, and I am sure that a regular continuous light would be fine.

One new concern that I have noted lately is motion sensitive lighting. I have been cycling before at night and found that lights would spontaneously switch off. At first I assumed that it was an accident, or that they were on a timed cycle, but as I watched the pattern it appears that they are shutting off in certain places when there is no car traffic. As they don't all shut off at once it isn't that big a concern, but it is worth noting as it can be disconcerting.

Another concern associated with night riding is that it limits your ability to use bike trails. Bike trails through public parks are frequently poorly lit, making night riding a bit more of a challenge. Bike trails also wind back and forth a bit more, which is an issue if you are relying on your light to illuminate them, as your light points in a fixed direction (usually straight forward). Thus when you turn it takes a moment for the light to “catch up” to the path surface ahead of you. On a straight main road this is not an issue. In addition to this, as public parks are one of the few areas today you can move around without direct public surveillance (e.g cameras, police) and they tend to be sparsely populated at night, there are safety issues to be considered. Getting a flat in the middle of a deserted, dark public park might not be pleasant. For the most part I avoid bike trails at night as a result. 

Impaired drivers are another increased risk at night. Of course people can be impaired while driving during the day as well, so the risk is not exclusively a night issue; still it is likely you will encounter more impaired driving at night. On the one hand there is little you can do about impaired drivers; if someone swerves into you chances are there will be little warning. However, I have two recommendations on this subject that can add to your safety. First, check your mirrors regularly while you ride at night. This increases the odds you will spot an erratic driver. It is of course no guarantee; drunk drivers don’t always announce their impending traffic failure with extensive weaving around the road beforehand. Still, if you spot a car behaving strangely in the rear view then you can always pull off the road until they are past you. Forester, who recommends cycling without a mirror and only shoulder checking before lane changes would rob himself of an opportunity to increase the safety of his ride as a result. My second suggestion is to keep an eye on the time. For example, in my neck of the woods bars close around 1 am, being on the road around that time thus carries greater risks. This rule applies to the space you ride through as well, a bit of extra caution when you pass the pub is probably a good idea.

The only other significant safety issue that I have experienced on the road at night is based on a speculation on my part (e.g. I’m not sure if it is the case, but it appears to be). Specifically, motorists are less likely to expect cyclists on the road at night. During regular commuting hours motorists in major urban centres have come to expect a number of bicycles on the road. They may not like it much, but the expectation of bikes is good for cyclists as motorists are more likely to accommodate you. At night motorists are not looking for cyclists (at least those who would be likely to do so during the day) and this makes it all the more imperative that you follow the traffic rules, cycle where you are supposed to on the road and make sure you are well illuminated.

Riding at Night: The Rewards
In my experience night riding has a number of surprising advantages. Indeed, I would go almost as far as to argue that night riding can actually be safer than much daytime riding, for a few reasons. First, visibility is nowhere near as much of an issue as it might seem at first. Yes, it is dark at night, but on main roads and even on most secondary roads there is ample lighting. For example, I have never had to use my front light to illuminate the road when riding at night. Take a look at one of those shots of the Earth from space at night, we tend to over-illuminate our cities, indeed, light pollution has become a public health concern for some. As a result I find that on most of the roads I ride on visibility is not an issue for motorists or for myself. 

In addition, as it is fairly easy for motorists to see me given the standard amount of ambient light on most streets, I view my lights as necessary mainly as motorists aren’t expecting me to be cycling on the road at night (just like they don’t expect me on the road in the dead of winter), not as they can’t see me. Lights and reflectors on your bike thus highlight your presence by creating a bright, moving object in the field of vision of the drivers on the road. Visibility at night is generally more than sufficient if you are in an urban centre. If you don’t believe me just try cycling on an unlit bike path through a park, you’ll notice the difference immediately. The flip side of the coin here is that extremely bright conditions can be bad for you as a cyclist as motorists can become unexpectedly blinded when changing directions into, for example, the setting sun low in the sky. Visibility is the issue, too much light is bad, too little is bad. For those considering night riding, the lack of natural light is a very minor safety issue.

The other interesting advantage to night riding is the comparative lack of traffic. Of course roads can be busy at night, and certain routes (e.g. roads around major night venues like bars) might even be more busy at night, but for the most part night time roads tend to be much less traffic intensive. I have used my regular commuting route during the day and at night and the difference is palpable. Secondary roads (as opposed to main arteries) can be completely free of traffic at night, significantly improving your riding safety. After my first few outings on the bike at night I came to long for the empty roads that night riding provides. It is a fairly surreal experience to ride on a route that is teeming with traffic during the day and all but empty at night.
For me the lower traffic volume more than compensates for any perceived safety concern associated with lack of ambient light. Indeed, since I feel that the ambient illumination provided by standard street lights in most urban centres is more than sufficient, the combination of acceptable visibility and lower traffic volume makes night riding a particularly safe and pleasant experience.

There are some other small subsidiary benefits to night riding that are worth mentioning. In the summer when the heat is particularly oppressive night riding is far more cool and comfortable. As you are moving and creating your own breeze as you ride, there is very little that is more refreshing than a night time bike ride during a particularly hot summer. I have also found that “short cuts” are more viable in the evening, as parking lots, sidewalks, etc.are much more likely to be empty. Finally, for what it is worth, there tends to be a greater number of police on the road at nights (due in part to concerns about impaired drivers), which makes the non-impaired portion of the car driving public more likely to behave. 

In summary, the most common concern about night riding, that it is more dangerous as it is dark, is for the most part unfounded as most urban spaces are extremely well lit at night. This means that it is easy to see the road conditions and easy for motorists to see you. Your lights, while useful for visibility in areas that are unlit, are thus primarily useful as they highlight your presence on the road as motorists are not expecting cyclists on the road at night. In addition, the lower traffic volume on roads at night makes them much safer to ride than they would be during regular daytime riding (with the appropriate caveats about those roads that happen to be just as busy or busier at night). For those who commute to work very early or very late night time riding is a comparatively safe and rarely considered option. For my part, when I’m not teaching a night course I tend to sneak in “recreational” rides in the evening as I like night riding so much. Once you try it you won’t want to give it up!

I have grabbed some photos of my night commute, forgive the shaky cam but night pics are tough for the camera phone.



Sentinel Road - Note the visibility of the road, and the surrounding areas. Sentinel is not a particularly well lit road, you can see the lights spaced out ahead of me. 

The corner of Sentinel and Sheppard, note the brightness of the lights at the intersection, and the emptiness of the road.

Looking down on the 401 from above, in this case looking East. 

401 looking East again.

Duval and Lawrence, again, very bright, though Lawrence is a main artery.