Author: Tom Babin (Page 1 of 7)

We built an ice-bike to ride on frozen ponds. And it’s amazing

It’s been a long, cold winter for many of us, so it felt like the perfect time to add a little bicycle fun to the world.

The challenge: Build a bike that will smoothly roll over ice.

The result: Success! Mostly. Check out the video to see more.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

A practical guide for choosing when to ride a bike

The short answer to the question is easy: When should you ride a bike? Always. Any trip is better on a bike. It’s more fun, healthy and invigorating than driving a car. It’s often faster than public transit and always faster than walking. And it’s more affordable than Uber, a taxi or car-sharing program. In short, it’s, like, the best thing ever.

But using a bike for every trip in the real world only works if you’re a Dutch idealist or some kind of neighbourhood shut-in. Sadly, for the rest of us, particularly us North Americans, choosing a bike for many trips is a conscious choice. And as such, there are factors that go into making that choice. As someone who has spent years manipulating situations to accommodate bike rides, here is some advice on when it’s advisable to choose a bicycle.

Bike pics from Montréal

Short trips in your community are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. Photo by Tom Babin.

In the ’hood

Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.

So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.


Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.

It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.

Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

What date night isn’t made better with a bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Non-traditional places

Automobile transportation is implied in many of our destinations. But it needn’t be. There are many times when a bike makes more sense. Few things are better after gorging yourself at a dinner party than a refreshing ride home. Date night on a bike is like two dates in one – nobody remembers the romance of the car ride home from a Nicholas Sparks movie, but they will if it’s a bike ride. Need to drop your car off for repairs (because, damn, those things require a lot of service)? Put your bike in the trunk and ride home. Home Depot? I’ve done it. New refrigerator need to be picked up? Yep, I met that person and their cargo bike. There are also endless photos on the Internet of couples riding their bikes to their wedding. Because why not?

Cargo Bike

If you have heavy hauling needs or are partial to Costco, consider a cargo bike. Photo by Tom Babin.

Longer rides

The difficult part about living in a city that was built for cars is the long distances between places you need to get to. This can be discouraging if you have multiple places to be and your chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. Unless you’re up for logging hero miles crisscrossing a sprawling city to impress your Strava friends, there is another solution. Go multi-modal. Most city buses and commuter trains these days welcome bikes, so take advantage. Bringing a bike on transit not only gives you more time on the two wheels, it shortens the amount of time for what planners like to call the first and last mile. This method of combining a bike with another method of commuting is also part of the reason bike-sharing programs have taken off in so many cities. You can take public transit most of the way to your destination, and then hop on a short-term rental bike for those last few blocks.

Just do it

You don’t have to be a automobile-hating zealot to recognize that replacing car time in your life for bike time will make your life better. If you aren’t ready to ditch your car completely, there are plenty of opportunities to make your life better with time in the saddle. You just have to find them.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Cold and car-centric Moscow is starting to open up to bikes


One of the participants of the annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade. Photo by Tom Babin.

It was the Russian dude in full furs riding a replica penny-farthing (kopeck-farthing?) that did it for me. When I saw this guy roll by the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square yelling shout-outs to hundreds of fellow cyclists around him, I knew this wasn’t the city I once thought it was.

That moment came midway through the third annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade, a rolling party through the streets surrounding the Kremlin that attracted more than 4,000 people dressed for the weather and a good time. It was one of the most fun group rides I’ve ever been on – so fun it nearly obliterated my image of the city as a haven for gigantic multi-lane ring roads clogged with endless rows of barely moving automobiles.

I chose the word “nearly” deliberately. For as awesome as the bike parade was, one can’t leave Moscow without aggressively piloted cars as one of the city’s defining images. It’s a megalopolis built on the automobile, and when not part of a group ride, using a bicycle to get around the city feels about as safe as being a Cold War-era spy.


The bike parade rolled right past St. Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square. Photo by Tom Babin.

(I will, however, spare a moment to gush about the city’s metro system: wide, efficient, affordable, well-planned and spotted with beautifully built stations, the system moves up to nine-million people a day. If you can’t get your head around that, just imagine standing at a station as packed 12-car trains empty out every 90 seconds).

But I was in Moscow as an invited speaker at the Winter Cycling Congress, and if any place can highlight the green shoots of a more bikeable city, the conference centre was the place. Guided by the team at Let’s bike it!, aMoscow-based group that advocates for more people-oriented street design, I was given a tour of what could be the start of something big.

In the last couple of years, city officials (with nudges from such groups as Let’s bike it!), have started to look more seriously at improving the plight of pedestrians and cyclists as a way of easing its horrific congestion problems. A handful of separated bike lanes have been built recently. A bike-share system now operates through the summer months. Pedestrian streets have been improved. Even the new national traffic laws have been adjusted to make it easier to build pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, according to Nikolai Asaul, the deputy minister of transport. “(Cycling) is not safe enough, and comfort is not a priority,” he told the Congress. “For us, it’s a revolution in the minds of our urban planners.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a North American national politician supporting cycling so strongly. 

I was also impressed with the winter hardiness of Muscovites (although I felt a little perverse pride in being one of the few people who visits Moscow to warm up). Having a positive relationship with winter is a key part of the best winter-bike cities, and Moscow has this in spades. The city was filled with outdoor winter festivals, light displays, and thousands of people on the streets dressed to enjoy the day, no matter the weather.

In the wake of the winter bike parade, I found it easy to get swept up in the optimism of the moment, but the reality is that Moscow faces some big challenges if it is serious about improving the city’s livability through cycling. And those go beyond the usual urban challenges of space, design and street culture.


Vladimir Kumov, a Moscow bike advocate (centre, blue jacket), is helping the city adopt more bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects. Photo by Tom Babin.

Russia’s political culture has not traditionally been built on grassroots involvement, so those passionate young bike advocates from all over Russia who attended the Winter Cycling Congress face an additional challenge of building a culture of engagement between citizens and municipal officials. While nearly every Russian I spoke with expressed optimism that Russian officials are increasingly open to the idea of active transportation, this kind of political/cultural change is never easy.

I was also heartened by the interest in winter cycling by Muscovites. The conference was crawling with media, and drawing 4,000 people out for a bike ride on a -10 C day in the snow is not easy, even in cities with more of a bike culture. This has not gone unnoticed by Let’s Bike It organizers.

“If you go out in Moscow, you’ll see how many problems we have, and we want to show the government and the people in Russia how we can change it,” I was told by Vladimir Kumov, the founder of Let’s Bike It. “Eight years ago when I started Let’s Bike It, Moscow was a car city. Traffic jams, and no space for pedestrians and cyclists. In the last five or six years, it’s started to change.”

And if you ask the dude in fur on the penny-farthing, he’d probably agree.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

The wonderful (and inspiring) bike lovers of the Moscow Winter Bike Parade


Up to 4,000 people were estimated to have taken part in the Moscow Winter Bike Parade. Photos by Tom Babin.

If you ever doubted the global appeal of the bicycle in winter, today’s third annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade ought to disabuse you of the notion.


More than 3,000 Muscovites braved the snow and cold to ride together in the shadow of the Kremlin.

For cyclists in this megapolis that is just beginning to look at ways of improving bike friendliness, this was both a coming out party (the event came on the heels of the sixth Winter Cycling Congress, which brought delegations of cycling advocates, planners and lovers from all over the world), and a rolling street party.


I’ll post more about the fascinating cycling culture of Moscow soon. But for now, just enjoy some of the smiling faces, wacky costumes and downright bizarre bikes that lightened up the streets of Moscow.





How to ride a bike slowly (and why you would want to)

This sounds stupid, I know, but one of the keys to happy urban cycling is learning how to slow down. Riding more slowly in a city is safer, calmer, more relaxing and is conducive to being in the moment and enjoying the surroundings.

So why is that hard? Because much of the bicycle industry is working against it.

In North America, the bicycle industry is still dominated by a mentality of athletics. There’s money to be made by selling bikes as a piece of sporting equipment, so that’s what draws the attention of the industry. Road bikes, mountain bikes, triathlon bikes, cyclocross bikes and even fat bikes are built to go fast. They are built for racing.


The bikes of these professional racers are built for speed. Photo by Tom Babin.

That approach has led to some amazing technological breakthroughs that have benefited all cyclists, but you don’t need any of it to ride happily in a city. In fact, much of that tech impairs your ability to ride slowly and comfortably. Those feather-light, high-performance bikes feel like riding a thoroughbred — they hum beneath your fingers, pulling to go fast whether you want them to or not. It can be exhilarating if that’s your goal, but taking them through an urban setting is like using a racehorse for a children’s pony ride — superhuman restraint is required to keep them under control.

Part of the problem is body position. Bicycles with humans aboard don’t exactly create a shape that slips through the air, so much engineering brainpower has gone into designing bicycles that torque the rider’s position into one that’s more streamlined. The result is that many bikes force the rider to into a low, forward-leaning position. This works wonderfully if you are descending Mount Ventoux with 100 other pros chasing, but if all you are doing is heading to the liquor store for a six pack, this position can be uncomfortable, unforgiving and needlessly fast.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

Slow bikes position your body in a way that changes the riding experience. Photo by Tom Babin.

I’ve found that these factors influence your mentality on the bike. When you ride a bike built for speed, you naturally want to go fast. The ride becomes a race, against others or yourself. I’ve often caught myself on my commute home in self-congratulatory mode after climbing a hill faster than a fellow bike commuter who had no idea a race was underway.

Being fast isn’t inherently bad, but when the ride is a practical route for transportation the sacrifices for speed can be. The price of speed is collected in things like comfort, safety, robustness, frustration and something that might be described as pleasantness. 

Urban rides, with their many stops and proximity to other humans on foot, work better when the speed is reduced. These rides are most enjoyable when you can sit back, watch the surroundings, obey traffic signals and arrive at your destination faster than a car and without smelling like a workout room.

Yes, you can just reduce your pedalling cadence to go slower. But doing so on a fast bike is difficult. Eventually, you’ll find yourself pushing the speedometer up until you catch yourself breaking a sweat and patting yourself on the back for your time.

I’ve found the best way to slow down is to ride a slow bike. The frame of an urban cruiser will put you in a comfortable and slow upright position, and minimal gears will keep your speed below the limit. A basket or carrier will give you plenty of hauling space, with just enough risk of losing your load to keep your ride in check. All of these forces conspire to do one thing: Make your ride pleasant. You’ll notice your surroundings. You might catch sight of an acquaintance and have time to wave or stop for a chat. You’ll see your city in a new way. Yes, it will increase your transportation time, but I’m betting not as much as you think.

It’s a different way of riding a bike, and it has its own unique pleasures. But you might want to keep that racing bike on hand. You never know when a race might break out.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Readers had some fantastic ideas for slowing down. Here are some of them:


How to ride a bike in snow

Winter Cycling in Calgary

Riding through snow can be a little tricky, but also offers one of the great pleasures of cycling. Photo by Tom Babin.

There are plenty of challenges to riding a bike in winter, and sometimes they threaten to overwhelm its enjoyableness. But one thing that will always give the season a unique pleasure: Snow.

Once you get past the fear of slipping and falling (more on this later), snow offers an experience unlike any other you’ll have on a bike. Snow brings a magic to an environment, muffling the sound and brightening the night and creating a sense of timelessness and intimacy. When you cut through all of that on a bike, it can be an unforgettable moment.

But you can’t do that if you’re white-knuckled on your handlebars out of fear. Here are a few tips:

Embrace packed snow

Contrary to the impressions created by a lifetime of television ads for snow tires, packed snow isn’t the enemy of a wheel. In fact, packed snow offers fantastic traction for bicycles, and if you’ve never ridden on it, you might find yourself squealing in delight the first time you round a corner. If your city is advanced enough to have designated bike routes and is even more advanced to have embraced the idea of leaving these routes with a base layer of packed snow, congratulations. You will have a great winter on your bicycle.

If your city has yet to come around, you may have to do some searching. The best packed snow comes from routes that have light foot and bike traffic. Occasionally, you can find these conditions on a road with light car traffic, but even one too many cars can compress the snow down into an slick sandwich. Find the routes most conducive to packed snow and enjoy.

Winter Cycling in Calgary

Safe bike routes that are well maintained in winter are key to happy winter cycling in cities. Photo by Tom Babin.

Find the right tire

Winters differ in every city. Thankfully, there is a bike company out there trying to make a buck off this fact. Choose your winter bike style based on the type of snow city in which you live. If your climate is prone to giant dumps of wet, heavy snow, you might want to invest in a fat bike, with its ultra-wide tires built specifically for winter. If your city gets dustings of light powder, a thin road tire that cuts through to the asphalt below may be the best option. If your city is prone to icing because of freeze-melt cycles all winter long, invest in a studded tire.

No matter which route you choose, there are tire options available these days for just about any condition that will keep you upright and smiling all season.

Adjust your riding style

  • Slow down.
  • Don’t lean into turns.
  • If there is fresh powder, even remnants of it on a road criss-crossed with others’ tracks, steer toward it. It’s less likely to be made up of slippery compressed bits.
  • Avoid the snirt.
  • Pick a winter-friendly route to your destination.

Know when to throw in the towel

No matter what kind of winter hero you’ve become, there may come a time when the snow will get the best of you. A bike has yet to be invented to get through massive accumulations and giant drifts. When it comes to snow, volume is the winter-bike killer — there is just no way to push through snow that is deeper than about two feet. In such cases, it’s OK to leave your bike at home for a day or two, until plows, fellow pathway users or Mother Nature have improved conditions.

The first US National Fat Bike Championship in Ogden, Utah on Feb. 14, 2015.

Fat bikes are super fun, and will give you some confidence for your winter commute. Photo by Tom Babin.

Try a fat bike

Not only have fat bikes opened up a whole new season to cycling, they are a great recreational training ground for your bike commute. Give one a try. You’ll find fat biking as fun and exhilarating as mountain biking, buta little slower and a little less technical as the snow tends to cover up the rocks and roots that littler most mountain bike trails. Added bonus: The snow will dampen your falls. Seriously, it’s a blast.

Enjoy the ride

Now that we got that out of the way, here’s what you can look forward to: In the early darkness of a winter evening, during which most of the city has retreated to their houses, you’ll be outdoors beneath the snowfall enjoying the moment. Your movement will keep you warm, the snow will brighten the night by reflecting the streetlights, and you will be enjoying the reptilian-brain satisfaction that comes from cutting fresh tracks through the snow. Your body’s feel-good exercise pheromones will be pumping, you’ll feel the freedom of avoiding lines of crawling cars, and you’ll make good time. Best of all, you’ll be outdoors enjoying the moments that most everyone else will have missed.

Have fun.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

These civic improvements are taking only baby-steps toward bike friendliness

Shifter Urban Cycling

Cycling in cities is getting easier in some places. Photo by Tom Babin.

Call it baby-steps bike infrastructure: the kind of urban design that takes a step toward bike friendliness, but doesn’t quite take the full leap.

Twice in recent months, new infrastructure has been built near me that falls into that incremental category, and it’s something being seen in many North American cities. It’s a mashup of traditional car-oriented thinking and forward-looking active transportation. For someone who has ridden a bike for transportation for a long time without much bike-friendly infrastructure, this kind of incrementalism is difficult to criticize because it offers some accommodation. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly the kind of stuff of bicycle dreams.

The first was a new overpass that opened near me last year to replace an aging and inadequate version that had been in place for decades. Here’s what we got.

The new overpass certainly moves cars efficiently, through a series of roundabouts (something that us North Americans are still getting accustomed to, as evidenced by the hapless driver spotted recently going the wrong way on a street fed by one of these roundabouts). Pedestrians and cyclists are also accommodated, through a series of wide shared pathways alongside the road. As a cyclist who has grown accustomed to having no thought spared toward my plight, these wide pathways are a nice bone to chew on.

But if I hadn’t grown so comfortable with being given nothing, this new overpass might annoy the hell out of me. Sure, those pathways are wide, but they are simply an add-on to what is clearly an auto-centric design. As you can see in the video above, to simply navigate from one side of the overpass to the other, a person on a bike must cross at least three streets through crosswalks (to dismount or not to dismount, that is the question), while navigating around pedestrians the entire time, further confusing the role of a person on a bike as neither a vehicle on the road nor a human on foot, but as some confused state in between.

This, I submit, is baby-steps bike infrastructure. While at least some accommodation has been made for those choosing active transportation, the overpass was built for cars almost exclusively.

The second piece of infrastructure to fall into this category is a new bridge spanning a river, recently opened after replacing a century-old iron bridge that was falling apart.

Here’s how a person on a bike navigated the old bridge (I shot this a few years ago as part of a video explaining why cyclists sometimes choose to ride on a road rather than on terrible bike paths that run adjacent).

Obviously, not a great cycling experience, particularly with that final indignity of being forced to dismount and walk across the bridge. Shudder.

So, after months of construction and millions of dollars and much hope channelled from within me, here’s what the new bridge looks like from the saddle of a bike:

Nice, right? Wide pathways. A clear, separate space for bikes. Even a nice gateway to the connecting streets. It’s still a shared pedestrian-cyclist route, which isn’t ideal, but a vast improvement.

But wait. Look at what happens when I try to cross the bridge from the other direction on a bike.

See that? Because there is only a bike-pedestrian route on one side of the bridge, I must ride around that odd little underpass to cross the bridge to the other side. It’s a small annoyance while on a bike, but a rather larger one when on foot.

I understand why designers made these choices (there are some space restrictions that beget this design), and it’s a vast improvement. But, like the overpass mentioned above, this is automobile infrastructure with some bike-ped add-ons. It’s built with active transportation as a secondary consideration. It’s middle-grade infrastructure. Baby steps.

I’m sure this posts risks coming off as yet another gripe from an impossible-to-satisfy cyclist, and I should probably be delighted that active modes were accommodated at all. But having experienced cities that give priority to cycling and walking, I can’t bring myself to lavish much praise on these examples. Truly bike-friendly design means being give direct, logical routes that connect smoothly without much thought. These are a step in that direction, but not quite there.

That may be fitting, because that phrase may also describe the state of my city as an entirety. We’ve come a long way in accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, for which I’m grateful. But we have a long way to go.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Do automakers really want to help save our cities from the car?

The recent dust-up between Tesla founder Elon Musk and humans who believe that urban transit isn’t a dystopian nightmare highlighted a broader question: Do automakers really care about our cities?

It’s not just Musk’s comments that have sparked this conversation. In recent years, leaders of the American automobile industry giants have been musing about how to better integrate their products into our cities. Check out Ford’s latest public statements and marketing efforts, such as this video:

See that? Yes, a bicycle. A real human-powered machine portrayed as a viable transportation option. It wasn’t long ago that automakers were actively mocking those who rode bikes with ads like this:

Things go even deeper than a couple of ads. Ford now operates a bike-sharing program in San Francisco. GM is pouring billions into the car-sharing program company Maven.

Driving this change is the new automobile futurism. Young urbanites are buying fewer automobiles and tech-driven companies such as Uber and Car2go are pushing a future in which driverless short-term rental cars get us around cities.

This is, of course, a danger to companies that have generated billions selling automobiles. So rather than pull a Blockbuster Video, they are talking about new ideas.

Which all begs the question: Do you believe them? Do you believe that an automobile company really wants to help build a future in which cycling, walking and transit are viable transportation options?

There are reasons to be skeptical. GM hasn’t been shy about revealing the reason it has been getting into the car-sharing game, and it’s not to improve our cities. “This is a business opportunity for us,” Peter Kosak, executive director of urban mobility for Maven, told NPR. “You’re in that perfect case, and maybe later you will want to own a car.” 

And some of the ideas coming from them are, plainly, bizarre.

Add to this Musk’s recent disparaging comments about transit and his latest idea of unlocking gridlock through a series of tunnels for single passenger vehicles, without any mention of how the vehicles will get to the tunnels, or what happens when they inevitable fill up.

Some automakers like Audi are even trying out things like loading an electric scooter into the trunk of their cars.

What’s bizarre, and what that video only touches on at the end, is that all of these automaker solutions are still being motivated by the thing that caused the problem in the first place: Selling more cars into cities that are already choking on an oversupply of them. Simply put: There are too many cars on our roads.

It’s a concept a toddler can understand — when roads are full, stop adding vehicles — yet automakers are twisting themselves into knots finding solutions to a problem they continue to perpetuate. The number of cars on the road is what’s made our transportation inefficient, expensive and slow. There’s only one way to fix it. Car reduction comes from enabling fast, affordable and efficient transit, cycling and walking, not changing the type of single-passenger vehicle we use, or building tunnels to accommodate more cars or selling more cars with build-in skateboards.

Perhaps what struck me most about that Ford ad above was the use of Nina Simone’s song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The original coup of automakers was successfully selling the idea that owning a car was a type of freedom. Seeing such an achingly beautiful song about personal freedom used in an ad like this was an attempt to flip the script — somehow, this new system being peddled is true freedom: freedom from the burden of car ownership, freedom of choice, freedom of movement. But the reality is our current transportation system lacks all three, and it’s largely because we’ve built it almost exclusively around the single-passenger automobile. For our cities, true freedom includes other aspect: Freedom from the car.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

How to keep your feet warm while cycling in winter

It didn’t strike like lightning. It was more like a subconscious feeling created by its absence until one day I finally noticed. Hey, I thought. My feet aren’t cold.

That was a good day, as have many since then. It seems a small thing, and I didn’t realize it until I realized it, but toasty feet have since become one of the keys to my winter bicycling habit.

Feet are often an overlooked part of winter, and they certainly were for me in the beginning. Too many of us who live in winter climates don’t adjust our footwear for winter. You’ve seen those slaves to fashion: standing at a bus stop in subzero temperatures with ankles bare against a nor’easter, or standing in a drift of snow in basketball shoes that are absorbing meltwater that will be delivered later in a frigid day-long trickle.

(I once heard of a program to donate warm wool socks to poor kids stuck wearing ankle socks in February because that’s all they could afford. It was cleverly called Tall Sock Tuesdays. I bet you could offer the same program at a downtown law firm and find just as many takers. The next time you hear a grownup complain about being cold in winter, check their socks. My money is on cotton thinsies.)

Frostbike Winter Cycling trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Too many cyclists hang on to their cycling shoes through the winter. Ditch them in favour of something warmer. Photo by Tom Babin.

The same foot neglect applies all-too often to those who want to extend their love of bicycles into the colder months. Generally, staying warm on a bike is easy. Pedaling legs will keep your core warm. Most of us understand the importance of keeping our heads covered (thanks, moms). Cold hands are the early-warning system of autumn, so by winter most of us have found a good glove/mitten/pogie combination.

Feet, however, tend to be overlooked. Many people on bikes are reluctant to give up their cycling shoes, having swallowed the professional racing notion that being clipped into your pedals will make you faster, an idea that author Grant Peterson dispels in his great book Just Ride (unless you are a pro, he writes, almost all of your pedalling power comes from the downstroke. At best, being clipped in will slightly reduce the drag of your upstroke, not add any additional power). Sadly, most cycling shoes suck in winter. They don’t keep the heat, they rarely keep out the moisture, and they keep your trapped on the pedal when you need them to stabilize yourself over ice.

The opposite approach can also be problematic. Once I gave up the idea of putting foot warmth ahead of everything else, I started wearing my giant -30 C winter boots on my cold bike rides. The boots are great for shoveling snow, but on a bike they felt big, bulky and sweaty. I still wear them on those truly frigid days, but arriving to my destination while looking like I’m dressed for a narwhal hunt is not a great option either.

For me, the Rosetta Stone of winter urban cycling footwear came in a pair of Australian leather slip-on boots. Purchased originally as a nice autumn option, I just kept wearing them as the season changed. They were warm, resisted water, and could be inconspicuously worn at the office all day. Then, one day in the middle of winter, after weeks of riding through the snow and cold, it dawned on me: I couldn’t remember the last time I complained of cold feet. These boots were awesome.


My well-worm Blundstones are a key for winter cycling, keeping my feet warm during the commute, while wearable at the office all day. Photo by Tom Babin.

For me it was a pair of Blundstones, but this has nothing to do with a brand (the company isn’t paying me to write this, I swear). Innumerable brands and styles will do. What’s important is that they are boots; warm, dry and wearable all day long. When paired with a good pair of tall winter socks (preferably merino-wool), these boots have proven their mettle in all but the worst winter weather.

Even as I write this, I realize it sounds like a no-brainer verging on mansplaining: “Boots keep your feet warm. Thanks for the revelation, loser.” But it took me so long to realize this, and I so often hear people complaining about cold feet while riding, and I’m committed to my theory that cold feet are at the root of many people’s subconscious hatred of winter, that it feels worth sharing.

In short: Ditch the cycling shoes. Buy warm socks. Wear good boots. Enjoy winter.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

What’s all the fuss? In the right city, dockless bike sharing is a simple, genteel experience

In Seattle, it was heralded as an urban paradigm shift. In China, it was cited as evidence of a declining national character. In Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, it felt positively genteel.

Victoria dockless bike share

My Ubicycle in front of the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin

I’m speaking of dockless bike-share systems, and after reading about them being implemented in cities all over the world, I finally got a chance to try one during a recent trip to Victoria.

Dockless bike-share systems are heralded as the next generation of bike sharing. Rather than being built around a network of docking stations, each bike is equipped with a smartphone-enabled lock and GPS device. The systems are as easy to use as car-sharing systems such as Car2go: Use the app to locate a bike, scan the bike’s QR code and it will unlock. Ride it to your heart’s content. When you’re done, lock it up and be on your merry way. The app charges you for the time you rode.

Victoria is the first city in Canada to catch this latest wave. Ubicycle is behind the city’s scheme, one of a handful of Chinese companies that have dropped tens of thousands of bikes into Chinese cities, and spent millions of dollars bringing such systems to North America, in ways that have not always been smooth (and sometimes disastrous).

Victoria dockless bike share

Spinning around lovely Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin.

The first thing you have to know is a bit about Victoria. The capital of B.C. isn’t exactly Hangzhou. A government town of 85,000, the city is known for its British character, temperate climate and status in the retirement dreams of every snow-weary Canadian east of the Rockies. After a few days in the city, I’ll add a few modifiers: The city is as clean as a NASA lab, its rush hour is adorable, and it’s filled with cyclists taking advantage of a bunch of painted lanes, some beautiful pathways and two kilometres of buffered bike lane. With up to 25 per cent of commuters choosing bikes, the city is doing something right for cyclists. As far as cities go, it’s positively genteel.

The lime green Ubicicyle bikes are scattered throughout the downtown, parked on sidewalks and streets, secured by wheel locks. Victoria is filled with bike racks, but Ubicycles don’t need to be secured to a rack, which led me to observe perhaps the most Canadian thing ever: While those in other cities complain about dockless bikes being strewn about the streets in inconvenient locations, most of the Ubicycles I saw were parked beside existing bike racks. Not locked to the rack, mind you, just parked beside it, as if the previous rider didn’t want to offend any passersby by parking the bike in their path. Did I say the city feels genteel?

After exploring the city for a few days from the saddle of a Ubicycle (need I mention that a bike is the best way to explore a city?), I have a few observations to share:

Victoria dockless bike share

Although it is perfectly legal to leave the bike in all kinds of places in downtown Victoria, I felt like a vandal for this waterfront sidewalk drop because most of the bikes I encountered had been neatly placed near bike racks by other, apparently more conscientious, users. Photo by Tom Babin.


One of the great advantages of dockless bike-share systems is their convenience. No more hunting for a docking station. You just park where you stop. Yes, this is an improvement. However, in cities with great bike-share systems, this isn’t really a problem. Montreal, for example, is so strewn with docking stations that finding one nearby is rarely a problem. The key for all systems is to ensure there enough bikes distributed through the city to meet demand at the right times. This often comes down to an old-fashioned idea: trucking bikes around and dropping them in the right spots. From my limited time in Victoria, distribution seemed just fine, but with some caveats. Read on.

The clutter factor

In other cities that have failed to fully commit to a bike-share system, a lack of docking stations can be a death knell for the system. So too can a lack of bikes. So too can a lack of riders. Victoria’s system has only been in operation for a few weeks, so it’s probably too early to judge its success in this area. But I’d hardly say the streets are littered with bikes. In fact, I’d say, based on having to hoof it a few blocks to find a bike more than once, there’s a chance there are not enough bikes, albeit after the problems of too many bikes in other cities, perhaps this is a good starting point. Also, if ridership is a sign of a thriving system, I’d be worried about the health of the system. I have no data to back this up, but I used the same bike multiple times over two days and nobody else picked it up in the meantime.


There’s a big variance in cost across bike-sharing systems around the continent. One thing this new wave of dockless systems has going for it is affordability. The same holds true in Victoria. The price for a ride is absurdly low: $1 per half-hour. I ran an errand over lunch hour and the ride cost me less than 60 cents. I thought it was an error it was so low. Whether this low cost is sustainable over the long run will be interesting to see. But until then, just get out there and enjoy it.

The mood

One thing that can’t be ignored, considering the problems dockless systems have run into in China, is the way the bikes are being used. Bikes can be vandalized, strewn about haphazardly, parked in illegal locations and tossed into waterways. So far, this doesn’t seem to be a major problem in Victoria. There will always be such problems, but perhaps a small city known for its (sorry) genteel character in a country known for its politeness, a dockless system seems to be doing OK.

The verdict

Ubicycle in Victoria seems to be working. As a tourist, it’s a fantastic way of getting around. The locals I spoke with saw it as a convenient and easy option, and wondered what all the fuss was about. It seemed to be working so well that the drama-loving side of me was a bit disappointed—where’s all the hand-wringing and endless debates about cycling? Yawn.

Because of its small size, Victoria may never have the thriving bike-share systems of New York, for example, but perhaps this will be the opportunity to test whether mid-sized cities can successfully operate a system. I, for one, can’t wait to get back and try it again.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

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