This temporary car-free haven shows how people on bikes flock to safe routes

It was while screaming downhill, past hundreds of other cyclists who were slowly climbing in the opposite direction, that the thought crossed my mind. “Huh,” I thought. “This is a thing.”

That was on the weekend as I happily rode the Highwood Pass for the first time, a local highway that, for a few weekends a year, becomes a haven for, as I discovered, scores of fellow cyclists. But seeing so many people on this route made me realize something else: It’s rather amazing what people will do to find a good car-free route to ride their bikes.

This gives you an idea how many people rode the Highwood Pass last weekend.

A post shared by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

First, some background. The Highwood Pass is just another highway, but it has some special qualities. It’s called the highest paved route in Canada, and it cuts through some achingly beautiful alpine scenery in the eastern slopes of southern Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. It happens to be near where I live.

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The Highwood Pass in Alberta offers some stunning alpine views.

For years, I’ve heard about a special moment on the pass. The road is closed to motor-vehicle traffic during winter to offer a respite to wildlife during times of year when food is more scarce (the route passes through a provincial park). It also receives a shit-ton (for you Canadians, the metric version of that would be “shit-tonne”) of snow, so I’m sure there’s a snow-clearing budget officer somewhere who breathes a sigh of relief every autumn when the gate is lowered to close the road.

That makes for a unique situation. For a short time each spring, usually just a weekend or two, there’s a window of opportunity for cyclists between the time the gates remain closed to cars and enough snow has melted to make the road passable on a bike.

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The gates to the highway are closed every winter to offer some respite to wildlife.

The result: Hundreds of people on bikes flock to the area for a chance to ride the pass without any cars.

It’s a wonderful experience for cyclists. Arriving early gives a rare chance to enjoy a quiet highway, with stunning mountain vistas and wildlife sightings. Arriving a little later gives an opportunity to take part in a communal bike-friendly atmosphere as all kinds of people unload their bikes at the gate and start climbing.

While the early riders tend towards the MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lyrcra, God bless them), by midday, while descending the pass, there were innumerable women, families and kids heading upwards, including at least one hearty grandmother pedalling her way up the mountain on a shiny new e-bike.

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For a few weekends each spring, before the highway opens for the season, the snow melts enough to create a car-free route for cyclists.

What made it all possible was one thing: A lack of cars. If the road was open to vehicle traffic, the number of people enjoying the ride that day would dwindle to a handful of those brave and hearty souls who feel confident in their ability to stick to the shoulder of the highway while innumerable vehicles blow by at freeway speeds. 

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Snow on the highway still lingered near the summit of the Highwood Pass during this year’s ride.

While I was delighted with the opportunity to undertake this ride, it also struck me as a little sad that such opportunities weren’t more common. I’m not naive enough to think that a highway, built with millions of taxpayer dollars, would ever be turned over exclusively to cyclists, but the fact that so many took advantage of a tiny window of opportunity to enjoy a safe ride free of cars is telling.

Many jurisdictions enable road closures for specific bike events, for everything from ciclovias to gran fondos, that draw innumerable people on bikes. It’s proof there’s a hunger out there for safe bike routes, whether they are recreational of functional. This little highway during this one weekend was just another manifestation of that desire. 

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The summit, where hundreds of cyclists stop to take in the view each spring.

For me, on a more visceral level, it took me about half the ride before I realized I could stop my subconscious habit of glancing over my shoulder to see if a car was coming up from behind, which prompted a simple thought that, I’m willing to bet, was shared with many others that day. “This,” I thought, “is pretty nice.”

Five ways to haul more stuff on your bike

Montreal Biking in summer

Anyone who rides a bike on a regular basis knows that good storage is essential. From your keys and a pump to a puncture repair kit, there are numerous different bits and pieces you need out on the road.

On top of that, there may be times when you have shopping to carry, need a change of clothes, and more. Rather than hanging bags from your handlebars or overloading your pockets, there are more practical, convenient options out there on the market.

Let’s look at five of the best.


Montreal Biking in summer

Backpacks

While the prospect of carrying a large, standard backpack just for your tire pump, wallet, and keys might seem like an unnecessary burden, there are more streamlined ones designed exclusively for cyclists. Small- to medium-sized packs are ideal for lightweight storage, and ensure you don’t need to put anything on the bike itself.

The best cycling backpacks usually feature a bladder for hands-free drinking, zip pockets for your valuables, and padded straps. Be sure to go for a design that suits your individual needs: if you commute to work and change clothes when you arrive, you’ll need a larger backpack. On the other hand, if you carry just a few things while mountain biking, go for the smallest size you can find.

Another benefit of backpacks is that you can keep them with you when you dismount easily.


Handlebar Bags

A handlebar bag can be your best pal while riding. A model with a quick-release function makes for a no-fuss solution, with no need to dismount for access.

These are perfect for carrying snacks, drinks, your wallet / purse, keys, repair kit, or a camera; if you’re planning to stop for a break, you should have room for a book or tablet, too. The best handlebar bags can also be carried over your shoulder, for when you leave your bike.

Handlebar bags work brilliantly for endurance cyclists, mountain bikers, and commuters alike.


Montreal Biking in summer

Baskets

The basket may not be for everybody, nor does it suit bikes for every application; if you have drop handlebars, you might even be unable to attach one in the first place. If you’re a dedicated mountain biker, of course, you’ll probably be unable to fit a basket onto your handlebars, not will it actually withstand the rigors of such vigorous riding.

If, however, you’re a commuter or just love to take leisurely rides, a basket is a fantastic storage solution.

Wicker baskets are common, with a rustic charm suited to quirky or colorful frames; metallic and wire mesh models are also extremely popular. These offer a high level of protection to the goods being carried, and while canvas baskets are foldable for easy storage, they offer little in the way of resilience.

Bicycle baskets may be attached to the handlebars, the frame’s front, or the rear, and carry numerous items without affecting your balance (provided you don’t overload it).


Urban Cycling in Calgary

Saddle Bags

Saddle bags are a neat, simple storage option. These are available in a massive selection of styles, sizes, and colors, to suit different needs.

For just the essentials – phone, keys, cash, repair kit – a smaller saddle bag will fit under your seat beautifully, out of the way. Larger bags are available though, and keep clothes, food, and drinks safe from the elements.

Some saddle bags also feature built-in LED lights, to help you stay visible and safe on nocturnal rides. You may prefer to buy a saddle bag with a Velcro strap, for easy attachment and detachment.


Panniers

Panniers are bags made to strap or clip to your bike’s front or back. These tend to carry more than baskets and saddle bags, and keep your body unrestricted; they’re also available in different sizes.

You should look for panniers featuring quick-release clips which are also secure, so you have no worries about them coming off while you’re pedaling away nor having to struggle to remove them.

Invest in panniers that are weatherproof, and that leave plenty of room for your heels (if attaching to the rear).

Each of these solutions helps you to bring everything you need with you while biking, be that spare clothes, bottled water, work docs, laptops, repair kits, food, or anything else. Have you thought about how these could make your biking life easier?

This post is sponsored by ofo, the bike-sharing company.

The future of transportation is already here, but everybody is missing it

Maybe it was the news that Tesla is now the largest U.S. carmaker by market cap, or maybe it has been the uncertainty around the price of oil, but there has been a flurry of futurism lately centred around looming changes to our transportation systems, specifically around autonomous electric cars.

Autonomous, electric vehicles are about to take over our lives, say prognosticators of the future, a change that has some dragging out Y2K-level hyperbole. Many of these predictions are being built on the idea of cities filled with blissfully shared roving robot-vehicles safely and orderly awaiting our smartphone hails.

Only recently, however, have those futurists started to put some thought into the impact of autonomous vehicles on our streets. A few consensuses have emerged – that driverless cars will reduce collisions, for example – but there is surprising diversity in opinion on the long-term impact on our cities.

There are plenty of Pollyanna predictions that streets will become safer, less congested places because of autonomous vehicles. But there are just as many hypothesizing that our streets are about to become a whole lot worse, particularly considering the recent troubles of the company that was once seen as the future of the city: Uber (if you missed the big New York magazine story, here’s the short version: Beyond the company being allegedly riddled with assholes, Uber has made congestion worse, not better, is still heavily subsidizing nearly every ride by as much as 60 per cent, making it barely profitable in big cities and horrifically unprofitable in small ones, thereby bringing into question the very idea that ride-sharing is the future).

No matter which side you come down on, however, one obvious thing seems to have escaped the notice of most of these predictions, even though it should be clear to anybody with a working set of eyes.

If you were to teleport to today a citizen of a decade ago into a city of today, and asked them to identify the differences in transportation, I’m willing to bet they would not mention technology, or autonomous vehicles, or smartphone apps, or even car sharing. It would be bikes.

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This New Yorker said as much. The most profound change to the streets of many cities over the past decade is the prevalence of people on bikes as a practical form of transportation.

So why is this so rarely mentioned in discussions about the future of transportation? Of all the nascent transportation disruptions we’re in the midst of, question marks still litter many of them. But use of the bicycle is a proven improvement, and seems destined to keep up its breakneck growth, especially as a generation grows up with new appreciation for its practicality. Urban cycling is the most profound change to city transportation in generations, yet the allure of technology is overshadowing it.

It’s a strange omission. Yes, autonomous vehicles represent a sea change in the way we think about transportation, but swapping one type of vehicle for another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of congestion. Nor is there any track record behind many new vanity ideas (sorry, Mr. Musk) such as boring tunnels beneath cities to facilitate even more cars. Progress is moving more people more efficiently, and there are precious few ways to do so. None of them involve adding more cars.

Bike paths fall

This isn’t a zero-sum game. There are certainly ways that autonomous vehicles can help improve the efficiency of our transportation system, but not if such thinking is done is isolation.

If you want a look at how an efficient city of the future moves people around, forget robot cars, or tunnels, or 1950’s-style car-centric road systems simply updated with new vehicles. Instead, look at Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Seville or New York or Montreal or Vancouver and the masses of people riding bikes because it’s faster, easier, healthier, more effecient, and more enjoyable than being trapped in a box, no matter how high-tech that box might be.

A gallery of bad bike racks making your cycling life worse (and some good ones too!)

We live in a world of bad bike racks. Poorly designed or haphazardly placed, bad bike racks do more than bring a tear to the soul of urban riders: They are a thief’s best friend, a repair shop’s dream, and are a blatant reminder to cyclists that society doesn’t care enough about them to simply provide a decent place to park.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A simple, functional, secure bike rack may be the easiest construct of our cities. Yet here, thanks to Shifter readers sharing their bike-rack horror stories, are the many ways we’ve screwed it up. Read it and weep (until the end, where some positive signs emerge).

(And this page may load slowly, thanks to all the awesome photos shared by readers. Please be patient).

Bad design

The classic wheel-manglers: These offer the illusion of offering ample spaces for bikes, but they excel only at mangling front wheels. Also, because many bikes don’t even fit into those little slots, usually the first person to use the rack plants their bike sideways and takes up three-quarters of the rack. Sorry, second-comers, you’ll have to use that lamppost over yonder.

 

 

In fact, @itsakev offered an entire gallery of ways in which this type of rack sucks hard. Here are a few choice samples

The modern wheel-mangler: A new twist on the classic wheel-destroyer, this one gets points for the efficiency of pre-fab concrete, but big deductions for being designed by someone who has never realized the importance of an unbent wheel.

 

Too fat for locks: These have a nice steam-punk meets-Bauhaus look about them, but if the business side of the bike rack is nearly too wide to accommodate a U-lock, it’s a problem.

 

DIY disaster: I’m all for DIY, but usable racks are used for both parking and security. With nothing to lock to, this one fails at the second.

 

Half-and-half: These popular swirling racks, which you could call the endless W (but probably shouldn’t), are only half terrible. That’s the half where the little loop is too small to accommodate a wider wheel. The other half, where the loop opens up to any bike and even keeps them upright, is A-OK.

 

Older and worser: Sometimes, a bad rack ages and gets worse. Think of it like the opposite of fine wine. More like aged milk, perhaps.

Bad placement

The second part of terrible bike racks is poor placement. Sometimes a good rack put in a bad spot is worse than no rack at all.

Lonely racks: I suspect whomever paid for and placed this rack is quite pleased with themselves for accommodating cyclists, yet the placement of this wheel-mangler somehow elicits strange feelings of sadness and loneliness.

 

Proximity problem: We’ve already established that this style of rack is actually half-good, but when placed so close to a wall the bike doesn’t fit properly through it, the rack devolves to mostly terrible.

Onwards and upwards: These racks are pretty good, but not when placed on a step where the poor cyclist needs to heave the bike upwards and hope it doesn’t roll down while the lock is being afixed.

It is apparently usable.

A post shared by Neal Jennings (@nealjennings) on

 

Wallflowers: More good racks placed too close to a wall to make them fully usable, this one with the added indignity of being located in the middle of a bank ATM drive-through.

 

Bike-rack afterthoughts: It’s nice for businesses to think about their customers who arrive by bicycle, but finding a little hovel far from the front door, up a few steps, and too close to a wall to be usable is just plain annoying. As one commenter on this thread said: “There seems to be plenty of parking spots for vehicles but lacking in spots for bikes or trikes! . . . I’m getting sick of locking up to a tree or street sign post.”

 

Mixed messages: A good rack, placed beneath a sign that isn’t so much.

Bad bike racks.

 

Nonexistent: If you ever see bikes locked to trees, parking meters, lampposts or, in this case, railings, it’s the ultimate bike-rack fail: not installing a rack at all.

 

Bad bike racks.

 

The good ones

 

Lest anyone read this post and think that cyclists are a bunch of entitled crybabies who feel they are owed such things as reasonable parking spots, let’s give a shout-out to all those business owners and municipal planners who are doing bike-parking right. Kudos to you, thoughtful people: may the cyclists of the world shower upon you their hard-earned spending money and civic voting patterns.

 

Making space: This parking garage proves that removing just a few spaces for cars and installing a decent bike rack can be a boon for dozens of cyclists.

 

Simplicity works: See, this doesn’t have to be complicated! These simple racks can accommodate bikes on both sides, can fit many bikes into a small location, and are perfectly functional.

 

Beauty and functionality: Many cities have taken bike racks beyond function and are looking at them as pieces of public art. One of the first was musician David Byrne’s artistic racks in New York City, but many cities are following suit, and improving. Here are a few examples.

 

Thanks to everyone for sharing these photos. The purpose of this post is not to shame the guilty paraties. Bad bike racks can happen to good people. But if your business hasn’t put much thought into accommodating your customers on bike, perhaps it’s time to do so.

If you have a particularly great, or discouragingly terrible, rack, drop me a line on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or via email.

 

 

 

Here’s why people ride their bike to work

On Bike to Work Day, I asked people a couple of straightforward questions about their chosen commuting mode. Here’s what they said. Take note of how many who said they ride for environmental reasons, for ideology, or because they hate cars (hint: none). 

 

Increasing number of dead pedestrians are a reminder that bike lanes matter

A reader recently asked a question recently that got me thinking: If conditions are ripe for cycling, why bother adding bike infrastructure?

The question came out of my recent post from Yellowknife in which I mused about the city’s potential as a great bike town thanks to its wide streets, slow traffic and hearty residents. If all those qualities already exist, she asked, why the hell would it need bike lanes?

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I was pondering that question when a few pieces of news dropped recently related to pedestrians.

First was a new report that found the number of pedestrians being killed by cars has grown in recent years. The counter-intuitive nature of this assured it a place in the news: As technology makes motor vehicles safer – especially with the promise of self-driving cars on the horizon – we are somehow managing to kill increasing numbers of people simply walking down the street (and don’t go blaming “distracted pedestrians,” the report made a point of sharing blame with excessive motor vehicle speed and distracted drivers).

I was ready to lump this statistic into my repository of horrific-yet-underappreciated news about car culture when I came across another stat that was new (to me): a report that laid even more bare the shocking nature of those pedestrian-fatality statistics. The number of people who are walking on city streets in North America has been on a 30-year decline (the study found the much heralded 70 per cent decrease in child pedestrian fatalities since 1969 also corresponded with a 67 per cent decrease in the number of kids walking to school). Which means we’re killing pedestrians at increasing rates, even as the number of pedestrians is small and falling.

This is yet another example of the mind-boggling apathy we have toward the carnage of motor vehicles, but what does it have to do with bikes? One word: Perceptions.

Despite the seemingly dire situation we are putting pedestrians in, most people, I’m willing to bet, would classify walking down the street as something safe. Sure, everybody acknowledges that getting hit by a bus can happen at any time (hell, we even have an expression about the rarity of “getting hit by a bus”), but rare is the person who would choose to avoid sidewalks out of fear of their safety.

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Similarly, the risks of driving a car are also accepted as part of life by most urban dwellers, even though driving comes with risk. Rare too are those who refuse to drive because of the danger.

Yet when it comes to cycling, masses of people still refuse to ride in urban settings because they fear for their safety, even though statistics prove that riding a bike is about equal in risk to walking down the street.

I’ll leave it to the psychologists to unpack the reasons behind our fear of riding a bike, but this fear helps explain, at least a little bit, both the success, and need, for safe and protected bike infrastructure.

Bike lanes, when well built, usually reduce the number of collisions between bikes and cars (they also, as a side benefit, tend to decrease collisions between drivers and pedestrians, and drivers and other drivers too). But that only goes so far in explaining why they also tend to draw out more people on bikes. The other reason is that protected bike lanes simply feel safer. In this case, the perception of safety may be just as important as safety itself.

So, sure, you could argue there’s little added safety benefit to spending tax dollars on bike infrastructure in a small city like Yellowknife that is already pretty bike friendly. But I’m willing to bet that a minimum grid of well-built bike infrastructure would encourage more tentative cyclists to ride regularly simply because it makes them feel good.

With all the added benefits that come with cycling – healthier people, more efficient transportation system, better street life – that feeling alone may be worth the price of the investment.

 

Do bike lanes marginalize people in the suburbs?

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“Big grocery.”

That is a slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion about how to make cities more bike friendly by Ontarian Lana Stewart, who speaks and writes thoughtfully about the fixation of urban cycling advocates on commuters, despite statistics showing that a huge percentage of car trips are elsewhere, such as running errands, shuffling kids to activities and, yes, getting groceries.

In the shadow of “big commute,” she suggests more attention be given to “big grocery.”

Stewart’s is a rather colourful way of drawing attention to the fact that suburbs often get overlooked in discussions about urban cycling. This has deeper ramifications than just inconvenience. In the changing nature of cities, suburbanites are often home to people who can’t afford inner-city living, which means those who could most benefit from improvements to cycling (one of the more affordable transportation modes available), are often left out of the conversation.

IMG_3504Darnel Harris, another Ontario advocate, takes the argument even farther, saying those who live in the suburbs can be marginalized by bike infrastructure in a couple of ways. Conversations about urban cycling often denigrate the ‘burbs, making people feel shame in their communities. And bike lanes often are precursors (or symptoms of) gentrification, which can push low-income residents out of their own neighbourhoods. There have even been protestations against bike lanes in some communities, based not on the usual anti-bike ignorance, but from those afraid that bike lanes will drive out the poor.

This is a horrific situation considering affordability should be one of the key benefits of using a bike. In fact, one of the great success stories of urban cycling is the way bike lanes help better integrate poor residents into cities. Urban cycling hero Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, once said that bike lanes show that “a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.”

There’s no easy to solution to all of this. Retrofitting suburbs to be more friendly to active transportation in a way that doesn’t lead to gentrification would be the ultimate answer, but it’s expensive, slow and difficult. But there are some other good ideas circulating. Harris, for one, is pushing a project to bring cargo bikes to the ‘burbs, based on the idea that people will be better able to capitalize on their utilitarian nature without having to wait for expensive infrastructure improvements that could change their neighbourhood. 

It’s an intriguing idea, and at least gets the conversation started on ways of becoming more inclusive while those long-term retrofits finally make their way outside of expensive urban areas. 

My perfect winter bike really exists, and I just bought it

Priority Continuum

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike for my commute?

For years, I’ve ridden the same winter commuting bike, which I affectionately, but sometimes derisively, refer to as my p.o.s.: a crappy 20-year-old mountain bike whose best days were in the last century.

Finally got my new (to me) ride on the road for the season. #yycbike

I converted this 20-year-old Specialized to a single-speed in an attempt to avoid rust.

While I do have a soft spot in my heart for this bike, that spot often grows hard. The machine is an entirely practical choice: after the salty slush of my commute destroyed an older, beloved bike, I turned to this one begrudgingly. With minimal components and a frequently replaced chain, it does the job. It also, however, clicks when I pedal, has untrustworthy brakes, can’t take a bike rack, lacks the components for proper fenders, and often rides like it has a deflated soul.

Which leaves me wondering why I have never seen a bike specially made for winter commutes. I know what I would like: aluminum frame to resist rust, good fenders, a strong rack for waterproof panniers, disk brakes that work in the cold, internal gear hubs that keep out moisture, studded tires, and either a belt drive or some kind of chain guard to keep the drivetrain clean and dry. All at a price reasonable enough to remain practical. In other words: a practical, low-maintenance, affordable, rust-resistant bike. That bike may exist somewhere in the world, but it always felt as accessible as a mermaid.

I’ve long felt like this was a failure of the bike industry. Obsessed with selling high-end performance bikes, the fact that a winter commuter wasn’t readily available seemed like another miss by an industry that is only starting to catch on to the idea of bikes as a form of urban transportation.

But then, my own busty fish-damsel emerged from the sea in the form of a smiling dude named David standing in the lobby of a bike-industry event beside a rather plain looking bike. Something about that machine caught my eye, and I went in for a closer look. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened. Was this my dream winter bike?

Priority Continuum

My mermaid was David Weiner, founder of Priority Bicycles, a New York-based online retailer that specializes in practical, low-stress urban bikes. And he was hawking the Continuum under the idea that it was a four-season commuter bike. While I was skeptical at first, I quickly found the machine was like the Millennium Falcon in that she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts:

Priority Continuum

Aluminum frame (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Belt drive and internally geared hub (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Decent fenders (to keep my ass dry)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Hydraulic disc brakes (for cold-weather stopping power)? Check.

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Twist shifter (for use with warm mittens)? Check.

In fact, Weiner told me the Continuum was built specifically with year-round commuters in mind.

“Simply, I wanted to build bikes that my friends could ride year round without worrying about maintenance, and at an affordable price,” Weiner told me via email. “When we launched the EIGHT last year we were surprised with how well it sold in the winter season and how many customers were coming to us telling us that it was their winter commuter of choice. This of course made sense due to the rust/grease-free drivetrain.

“However, one complaint we had was that the hub could freeze in extreme temperatures.  We started to think that there must be a better solution… Hence we worked on upgrading the EIGHT with a NuVinci hub (ideal for sub-freezing weather and the ultimate in no maintenance) and some incredibly durable fenders.”

I was convinced. I pulled out my credit card and my order was placed within the week. A few days later, a big box arrived containing the first new bike I’ve ever purchased exclusively for use in winter. Just in time for a cold snap.

As far as cyclists go, I’m not much of a gear-head. While I perform basic bike maintenance myself, one of my ultimate goals in a winter commuter is to reduce maintenance. My big enemy in this fight has always been rust. In my icy, slushy city, salt is my Moriarty. And simply hosing off a bike after a commute is not an option in a city where hoses quickly freeze and stay frozen.

So riding my Continuum through the tail end of a Canadian winter has been a test. We’ve had a few bitingly cold days, a bit of late-season snow, and a whole lot of slush, ice and salt as we lurch into spring and the snow melts.

As you can see, rust can be relentless. It’s already hit some components.

Priority Continuum

Rust is already gathering on some parts of the bike, after only a few weeks of use.

But on the important parts, the Continuum is riding smooth and rust-free. The best part? I have spent almost no time thinking about the bike. I’m not worried about the chain, or the brakes or anything else. It just works.

Priority Continuum

The drive-train, thanks to the belt-drive and internal gears, is free of rust.

Is this the ultimate winter bike? I’m not quite ready to declare that (ask me in the middle of next February), but it’s been holding up very well for me. The NuVinci hub has withstood the cold, the belt drive has stayed smooth in the ice and snow, and the fenders have been keeping my ass dry.

I’m not yet ready to give up my old mantra that the ultimate winter bike is the one that works for you. But perhaps what’s more important is that the bike industry is finally coming around to the idea that people are riding bikes all year round in cities. Thanks Priority. It’s about time.

 

Here’s why people are riding bikes in one of the world’s coldest cities

“Postholing” is a new cycling verb I learned this week, defined to me as I lay prone in three feet of light powder at -26 C in the sub-Arctic taiga of northern Canada.

For the record, the word describes what happens when your foot sinks deep into snow, as any showshoer (sans snowshoe) knows. When it comes to fatbiking, however, it tends to occur along a packed trail when you slow to a stop and place a foot down into the adjacent powder that looks only a few centimeters deep, but is, in actuality, up to your crotch. Your foot sinks deep into what now looks like a hole dug for a fence post, and the rest of your body follows, sprawling into the powder. Laughter, usually, ensues.

That was only one of the things I learned on a recent trip to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, a city of 20,000 that hugs the shores of the massive, frozen (at least it was when I was there) Great Slave Lake. I was invited by David Stephens or Boralis Bike Tours Unlimited (go book a guided fat-bike trip with him right now, especially if you want to take the last-ever trip down the ice road to Arctic coast) to speak about winter cycling, but it’s entirely possible I learned more from Yellowknifers than I could ever hope to teach them.

Yellowknife is an idiosyncratic, oft-overlooked, and completely charming, aberration. Outsiders may think this place shouldn’t exist, with its harsh weather, unforgiving environment, and isolation, but that shows what outsiders know. Yellowknife is a vibrant, diverse, endlessly surprising place. Lured by the promise of adventure, people from all over the world make their homes here, giving life to heritage shacks built into ancient bedrock and houseboats socked in by ice for half the year.

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And even in mid-March, when a temperature of -15 C was greeted as a heat wave, there are people everywhere outdoors enjoying the season, even on bicycles.

Yes, even here, perhaps the least likely place in the world to think about riding a bike, people have found that two wheels can be a key to a better life. In fact, Yellowknife has some qualities that make it a great place for bikes. Here’s a list I’ve been keeping:

  • The city is small, meaning distances are short and easy to ride. As Stephens told me before I arrived: It’s possible to ride your bike to your destination in the same time it takes to simply warm up your car. Speed limits are slow, and car traffic is light.
  • The snow is uniquely favourable to bikes. With the cold temperatures, there’s little of the freeze-melt ice cycle that bedevils other cities. The snow that gets packed offers good traction in most places.
  • It’s too cold here for salt to be effective as an ice-melter, so it’s rarely used. That means you’re not risking rust every time you take your bike into the streets. It also helps keep the city nice and white for most of the winter, rather than the snirty brown of other places.
  • This place is awesome for fatbiking. Stephens guided me through some glorious trails that spread in and around the city. Ample snowfall in evergreen forests is quickly packed down by snowmobiles, which creates ideal tracks for fatbikes that are ringed with delightful powder (as evidenced by the aforementioned post-holing).
  • Once the lake freezes, roads are plowed on the ice, which create nice shortcuts for bikes, especially after a stabilizing layer of packed snow lays down (and imagine riding a fat bike beneath the northern lights on an ice highway. Go ahead, imagine it.)

But what I found most inspiring here was the way Yellowknifers deal with winter. Unlike farther south, I rarely heard people complain about the winter. Some have simply accepted it as a reality of life in the north, but most people I encountered told me they actually enjoy it. They were quick to offer tips about staying warm, they showed off clothing and tricks that I had never encountered before, and the city is full of fun events to get people enjoying winter. 

Stephens even organized my speaking engagement in the great hall of the Snowking’s snow castle, an amazing structure built of packed snow (don’t you dare call it an “ice” castle) that is the locus of a month-long winter festival. So, in other words, I delivered my speech in a snow castle on a frozen lake, which I feel confident saying would not happen anywhere else.

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This is the kind of attitude that primes a community to year-round cycling. There’s a core group of people in town who have already seen the benefits, but I’m willing to bet a little nudge would encourage a whole raft of other people to give it a try. Some safe bike infrastructure, a commitment to maintaining bike routes all year, some reliable bike parking locations and even some support of the local fatbiking community would go a long way.

After all, people who have verb to describe a specific way of falling into the snow are probably well on their way to a more bike-friendly life already.

Why boring old unsexy plows are the key to urban cycling in winter

Back in 2013, after seeing the Finnish city of Oulu for the first time, I wrote a post called Never Mind the Plows. The idea was to focus on things that can improve winter cycling beyond the basics. Any by basics, I meant plowing.

Well, five years later, as much of the winter world has seen the benefits of encouraging people to ride in winter, like they do in Oulu, it’s even more clear now that perhaps nothing is as important to the adoption of winter cycling than plain, boring, overlooked, unsexy, plows. (Or brushes. Or shovels. Or whatever gets rid of the snow efficiently).

In Calgary, where I live, the snow clearing of downtown bicycle lanes has been (much to the consternation of professional complainers) pretty great over the last few years. With an ever-expanding network of bike paths being cleared, the city’s efforts in winter have resulted in a growth in the number of people riding in winter that has kept pace with the growth of those riding in summer.

At the city’s Peace Bridge, one of the busiest bike spots in the city, for example, the growth in cyclists from 2014 to 2016 in the summer was about 27.2%, according to publicly available bike counts. In winter over the same period, that growth was 25.4%. The number of people riding in winter is obviously smaller (about 35% of summer numbers), but fact that that growth is consistent across seasons is some evidence, I’d argue, that clearing bike lanes works. It means there is growth potential in winter.

Just ask Montreal. This city, the most bike-friendly on the continent, in my humble opinion, has, for years, taken literally that old headline of mine. Rather than bike lanes free of snow, many of those routes were actually closed for winter. The traffic poles that separated bike lanes from car lanes were removed, and the space was given back to cars. For people who rely on bikes for transportation, this was a gigantic, demoralizing sigh, and it was reflected in a smaller proportion of people riding year-round.

But even in Montreal, where snow removal may be an even bigger political headache than it is elsewhere (and, make no mistake, it is everywhere), that idea is finally being rethought. More and more bike routes are being kept opened in winter, and the city has officially committed to making all bike routes accessible in winter eventually. City officials have even agreed to look at ways of keeping a crucial bike route across the St. Lawrence River open year-round, including exploring the possibility of in-ground heating to keep the route ice-free.

Talking about it, however, is the easy part. Doing it is hard. During a recent trip to Montreal, the city was digging out from a series of snowfalls compounded by an ice storm that left many streets and sidewalks slick as a skating pond. As news spread that city officials were vowing to keep more routes open in winter, cyclists took to Twitter to, ahem, politely advise them to figure out how to keep their current commitments before adding new ones. Indeed, news about opening the bridge in winter only came after years of pleas from cyclists and a protest campaign.

Those tweeters aren’t wrong. This city, so lovely to pedal through in summer, has some work ahead of it before it becomes just as good in the winter. It will be interesting to watch in the coming years how this new approach impacts the number of people riding.

But let’s face it: Keeping bike routes free of snow is tough. It takes commitment, ingenuity and, most importantly, money. It will never be easy, and it may always be a political hot button (hell, even after 80 years of plowing roads for cars, it’s still a hot button). But the upside is worth the investment and risk. Just ask the growing number of people who ride year round.

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