Winter is no deterrent. The sub zero temps and compact snow and ice just change the game a little.
I’m a bikophile (not a real word afaik but I love bikes and biking). I regularly bike for recreation, to commute to and from work and, when I am able, as a way to tour a new place. It has to be outside (none of that indoor spinning stuff for me). It’s important that I’m peddling under my own power out in the elements, with fresh air and nature and the city bustle as well.
In my everyday life, I’m happiest when I can put in at least 30 minutes on the way to work to start my day, get the blood pumping. I feel the positive effects for hours afterward and the time in the office just seems less dreary. It also gives me a chance to clear my mind and de-stress at the end of the workday. Especially given a desk job and a full schedule of family activities, the bike commute is a vital part of my life balance. I go to some lengths to preserve it, making choices to live and work in places where commuting by bike is safe and practical. Though I live in an urban area in Oslo, I can ride most of the way on paths and trails unmolested by car traffic. Honestly, the biking environment is on my top 10 list of reasons I love living here.
Oslo’s Unique Bike Culture
5th most bicycles per capita
Thefts: 60,000 bicycles a year
You may be familiar with cycling in Denmark or Amsterdam – stylish people on relaxed city bikes with baskets filled with bread and wine on flat, well marked bike lanes. Or perhaps you’re thinking of packs of thin and sporty Italians racing around on sleek road bikes.
Cycling in Copenhagen
Biking in Olso, generally speaking, is not of the same genteel variety. It’s a bit raw and rugged, more off-road than racing or city bike. More intense.
Cycling in Oslo. Winter.
There are a few reasons.
1 Hills. Oslo’s city center is surrounded by hills (great for quick access to ski and mountain bike trails!). Even if you take it easy, you will break a sweat.
2 Roads, Paths and trails. Greater Oslo has some dedicated bike paths (and the city is making big investments to build more) but today it’s a mix. Connecting to these asphalt bike lanes and threaded here and there throughout the city and the surrounding hills are trails. Even close to the city center you find dirt trails along a creek and surrounded by woods. The roads downtown have embedded rail lines which aren’t that great for narrow road bike tires.
3 Climate. It rains and snows and blows and for 5 months of the year there’s compact snow and ice.
For all these reasons, you need a bike that can handle those variable conditions.
4 Culture. Many Norwegians (at least in Oslo) approach biking as they do cross-country skiing or long distance running: intensely. Conditioning and training have become almost a religious thing for people. It’s not uncommon for some folks to jog 10K into work with a pack on their back.
It helps that Oslo has excellent public transportation with buses, trams, trains, and ferries. Most of them allow you to bring your bike onboard.
Now this works because Oslo has infrastructure and amenities that make it practical. Most office buildings in Oslo have two important things: locker rooms with showers and indoor bike storage. And it helps that Oslo (and Norway in general) has excellent public transportation with buses, trams, trains, and ferries. Most of them allow you to bring your bike onboard. It’s admirable that the city is able to pull off a broad vision for a urban design supporting car alternatives. Oslo has also made driving less attractive with tolls and limited parking. In a few years, Oslo has committed that the city center will be car free, the first capital city to do so.
While in the summer you can observe a steady throng of cyclists going to and fro on the major paths, there’s still a lot of dedicated folks commuting by bike throughout the winter (which can last November through April). I am one of them.
Winter biking in Oslo is not a speed game
Cycling in the winter here requires a different approach. First, I outfit my bike for slippery conditions. That means switching out regular tires for tires with studs called “piggdekk.” These studded tires provide the stick I need to stay on my bike on compact snow and ice. It works incredibly well but even with these tires I take it easy, take corners slowly and carefully.
And, importantly, I have learned to be mindful of dry patches of asphalt where the metal studs have no traction. I’ve gone down hard on a few occasions because I failed to adjust accordingly. Turns out ice is great at making spectacular bruises.
Second, I dress as though I am going cross country skiing, perhaps in blizzardy conditions. I need my legs warm but also as unrestricted as possible (I’m peddling after all) so I wear two relatively thin layers. The first is off-road bike shorts that have padding around the hips, thighs and tailbone area. This is to protect me when and if I go down. On top of that I put on the equivalent of full-length, thicker spandex.
On top I wear a sweat absorbing shirt and then a water proof shell. I have a wool cap under my helmet and a balaclava around my neck and face that I can adjust for more or less coverage. I sometimes also wear clear sport glasses to keep the cold directly out of my eyes (it’s hard to see where I’m going when my eyes are watering from the cold).
I have winter bike shoes which are insulated. And if it’s wet or particularly cold, I put shoe covers on top of those.
The gloves need to be thick enough to keep my fingers warm without creating too much stiffness. And I prefer the gloves to have a softer texture on the outside, next to the thumbs. It’s a bit gross but it helps with snot control.
When it gets colder, I opt for heftier versions of the gloves and hat and add layers as needed.
It’s of course critical, in mid winter, to ensure that you can see and be seen. We’re at latitude 59 in Oslo so it’s dark when I go to work and when I come home. I have reflector versions of my shoe covers, jacket, helmet, etc. And on top of that I sometimes put on a reflector arm or leg band. I put rear and front lights that blink and a powerful, 1600 lumen light I mount on either the handlebars or my helmet. I look like a tacky Christmas tree on wheels but I am hard to miss.
The season has just started here but already we have snow and ice. Monday is my first winter ride with the studs on and I’m excited to get out there.