Author: Tom Babin (Page 1 of 6)

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.

IMG_0693

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 mainsplaining: “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.

Convenience

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.

Cost

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. 

This is the one thing you should be frightened of while riding your bike in winter

Riding a bike is only the best thing ever, so of course you want to do it all winter long. But you’re frightened. All that cold, snow and ice is intimidating.

But after more than a decade of riding through northern winters, I’ve learned a secret: Those are not the things you should be afraid of.

Cold, for example, is the easiest problem for a winter cyclist to tackle. Pedalling legs are like bellows of your internal furnace: Once they get moving, your body will warm. In fact, the real risk in winter is dressing too warmly.

Snow? Pshaw. Snow may have been a problem at some point, but there are plenty of ways to deal with snow these days. Fat bikes will get you through pretty much anything shallower than your shin. A taxpayer-funded snow plow clearing a bike lane in a timely way is even better.

And don’t worry about ice. If you live in an ice-prone area, studded tires are like the magical traction fairies of winter. Even putting a single studded tire on the front of wheel of your bike will work wonders. Two studded tires will make you feel like you’re riding a Zamboni.

Nope, those are easy problems to deal with. What you really need to worry about is this:

Snirt. Example of snow on the roads mixed with dirt

That mashed-potato mixture of snow and dirt is snirt, the most worrying part of a winter bike commute. Photo by Tom Babin.

This is snirt. It’s a deadly mixture of snow and dirt (hence, snirt), mashed together by passing vehicles into a loose, soft concoction that seems sent from a wintry hell to make your blissful winter ride worrisome.

Snirt. Example of snow on the roads mixed with dirt

Snow and ice is no problem for my winter commute. This stuff, however, is worrying. Photo by Tom Babin.

Snirt is an unfortunate side effect of urban winter, and it’s worrying because it tends to lift up bikes and float them around in unpredictable ways. Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with all kinds of snow, ice and cold, but snirt is the one element that still gives me willies in the night.

There are ways to minimize the impact of snirt. I’ve found that two extremes make a difference. A skinny road bike tire can sometimes cut through small batches of snirt to the more stable stuff below, and a fat-bike tire can sometimes power through it (studs in both cases certainly help). But I’ve yet to find a fool-proof tactic for staying stable in all cases.

So here’s my advice: Learn to live with snirt. You can’t beat it, so give it respect. Avoid it wherever you can. That may mean choosing a route that avoids unplowed side streets. It may mean choosing a line of shallow snirt through a deeper pile of snirt. It may mean riding for a short stretch on a section of the road (or, ahem, sidewalk) that is cleared, even if you’d normally avoid doing so. It may mean getting off and walking through certain patches. Or it may mean taking transit for a day or two after a snowfall until the plows have come by.

Once you’ve come to terms with the reality of snirt, you’ve officially vanquished all legitimate fears about riding in winter. Which means you can get back to enjoying the ride. And in winter, few things are as fun and rewarding as a good bike ride.

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

The bicycle commute test: Cruiser, road or mountain bike – which one is best?

As a rootless, tribeless and bike-agnostic cyclist, I ride anything with two wheels. My daily rides can range from fast road bikes when I’m looking for a workout, to a city cruiser when I’m on a slow roll to the pub. But I’ve often wondered which method was best for my commute to work.

So I decided to test three methods to compare:

1. A slow bike, ridden safely on bike lanes and separated bike paths.

2. A fast road bike, ridden as quickly as possible on the most direct route, no matter how much traffic I might confront or how much of a asshole I might be while on the road.

3. A mountain bike, ridden in the most direct route possible, whether a road exists or not.

I tracked each ride on the app Strava, and took note of a few more subjective measurements. Here are the results:

Road Bike

My city bike: comfortable, sure and steady.

The slow ride

Distance: 9.1 kilometres (bike lanes aren’t always the most direct route)

Time: 28:09

Average speed: 19.6 km/h.

Description: It was an easy and relaxing ride that felt safe. I arrived at work feeling energized, but not worn out. And best of all: no shower required once I arrived at the office.

Road bike 2

Technically a cyclocross bike, this ride is light, fast and gets around quickly.

The road bike

Distance: 7.4 kilometres (I took the most direct roads possible, no matter the traffic volume)

Time: 17:23

Average speed: 25.6 km/h

Description: It was a fast, aggressive ride, and it felt that way. Being alongside rows of traffic for most of the ride doesn’t make for the most relaxing experience, especially when you need to cut across those lanes of traffic to make a left turn. And since I was channeling the stereotypical asshole cyclist, I took stop signs more like suggestions, which undoubtedly annoyed others on the street. I arrived sweaty, buzzing and a little harried.

Road bike 3

This hard-tail mountain bike is a dream on single-track.

The mountain bike

Distance: 7.9 kilometres (I thought cutting through green spaces would save distance, but it didn’t really, partly because my navigation was bad. Who knew roads were actually direct and efficient?!)

Time: 23:33

Average speed: 20.3 km/h

Description: While it was fun finding single-track through urban parks, this was by far the most work. I arrived sopping and wheezing. This proved what you probably already knew: Getting around in a city works best on roads that were built for exactly that.

The verdict

Sorry for the disappointment, but this didn’t really clear anything up for me. I still see myself using both the slow city bike and the fast road bike at times (the mountain bike, well, I’ll save that for the mountains). My advice: Choose your favourite style and enjoy every minute of it.

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

New data shows just how lopsided the ‘war on cars’ really is — and it’s not the bikes that are winning

Remember the war on cars? The hyperbolic and mostly mythical idea that cyclists, a “special interest group,” were successfully ramming such horrors as bike lanes down the throats of unsupportive legions of car drivers? Since the peak “war on cars” battles of four or five years ago, the hot war has cooled a bit because cyclists made a little progress and the sky did not fall as a result. Most cities now have at last some form of bike infrastructure and some have even have what might be described as a (barely) minimum grid of bike lanes.

These days, further demands of cyclists are greeting less with anger, and more with exasperation. “We gave you a bike lane, but you still want more?” That attitude has wrought sentiments like this one, a general sense that since we threw those “cyclists” a bone, they should be satisfied. Much of this attitude comes about because of a sense that the bikes won the war.

Here’s the thing: if the war on cars is over, it didn’t end the way you might think. If you look at it even a little objectively, it’s not the bikes that won. Cars are absolutely dominating the battle. It’s not even close. It’s Norman Schwarzkopf versus Iraq. It’s Germany versus Brazil in the 2014 Word Cup.

Consider these statistics. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 measure of vehicle distance travelled set a record after a slight dip over the last several years. Americans drove automobiles more miles in 2017 than any other time in history. Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, the number of car-free households dropped to its lowest rate in nearly a decade, and there are now more two-car households than any other kind. Here’s how urban planner and historian Sarah Jo Peterson put it: “The United States lost 200,000 car-free households and 350,000 families with only one car in 2016. These losses are on top of losses of 100,000 car-free households and 125,000 car-one families in 2015.”

Urban Cycling Calgary

Despite strides in cycling in many cities, automobiles still dominate in North America. Photo by Tom Babin.

Remember the idea that millennials were shunning cars? Sure, there may be a bit of that happening, but the latest automobile sales statistics in Canada show that, with the economic recovery in full swing, 186,837 automobiles were sold in September, a record increase of 7.7 per cent, and the eighth monthly record this year. “Cumulative sales of 1,591,684 vehicles through the first three quarters are 5.3% ahead of last year’s record pace and solidly on track for a fifth consecutive record sales year.”

Wait, it gets worse: The U.S. Department of Transportation found the fatality rate on American roads actually grew in 2016, despite decades of trend lines pointed downwards. Advances in safety seem to be reserved only for those inside the car. Cyclist deaths in 2016 increased by 1.3 per cent and the pedestrian fatality rate grew by a whopping nine per cent, meaning more humans simply walking on the street were killed in 2016 than any time since 1990.

Meanwhile, the bike world inches along at a snail’s pace. Los Angeles is just getting started building bike lanes, New York is inexplicably cracking down on e-bikes, and Toronto continues its tiresome debate about whether successful and safe separated bike lanes ought to stay or go.

The point of this isn’t to depress those of you who see bikes as one way of bringing more balance and sanity to our streets. The point is to highlight the absurdity of the “war on cars” argument. Even if there was a war, it’s ridiculous to think that a few bike lanes scattered through our urban centres has made a dent in the dominance of automobiles in North America. We know the reasons most people make the transportation choices they do: convenience. Outside of a few isolated neighbourhoods in a few isolated cities, we’ve built our communities to ensure that driving a car remains the fastest, most convenient way to get around. Until that changes, vehicles will continue to dominate.

The most we can hope for is that these (barely) minimum grids that have been built in some cities will open the eyes of enough people to see the benefits of active transportation so we can leave behind the stupid war metaphors and start building better cities for everyone together.

These new statistics are a sobering reminder of our auto-centric ways, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Building better cities takes time, and we’ve barely taken the first steps. Get back on that bike.

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

Winter is coming: Here are 5 things to think about to keep riding through the cold

Damn that Game of Thrones for making the phrase “winter is coming” sound ominous. Winter doesn’t have to be something to dread, particularly if the root of your aversion to winter is the loss of your bicycle.

Frostbike Winter Cycling trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

These bicycles in Yellowknife in northern Canada aren’t just for show. If they can ride, so can you. Photo by Tom Babin.

Yes, more people are riding a bike through winter all the time. For good reason: You get all those benefits of summer riding, plus you might just rediscover the joy of the season that you knew as a kid. Or, at the very least, maybe you’ll hate winter just a tad less.

But riding in winter can be intimidating for noobs who have lived a life in which they use their automobiles as overcoats. So here are some things to think about as winter looms:

Which bike to ride?

If you live in one of those enviable cities with great bike infrastructure that is well maintained in winter, congratulations! The rest of the winter world envy-hates you, but you probably don’t have to do anything to prepare for winter. Just ride, you dirty, rotten spoiled cyclist.

For the rest of us, some adjustments to the machine between your legs may be in order. There are a couple of things to consider for winter.

If you love your summer bike more than, say, a second cousin or a countertop pet, you may want to think hard about riding it through winter. In some cities, the salt used on roads can corrode your components with dismaying speed. If you wash the bike regularly, it may survive. But if you’re a slothy cleaner or your garden hose is frozen up tight, you might want to consider a second bike for winter. You don’t need anything fancy, just something that moves. The type of bike depends on your type of winter, but keep it simple: I happily rode a 25-year-old mountain bike with one gear through more than a decade of winters. Don’t over think it.

Another option is to winterize your summer bike, if you are OK dealing with a little rust and winter grit. Get a pair of fenders, some decent lights (winter days are short!) and, if you’re nervous about falling, studded tires. And be prepared to clean it regularly

What should I wear?

If you’re reading this, you probably live in a winter city. So you should already own everything you need to ride a bike in winter (unless you are one of those people who sport ankle socks and T-shirts in February and then complains about the cold): thermal underwear, mittens, a warm hat and boots. If your snowfall gets particularly sloppy, a pair of waterproof pants is a good idea too. But don’t go crazy. Keeping warm on a bike is easy once your body starts moving. Think of it like this: dress as you would for a winter walk, and then remove one underlayer so you don’t overheat. A fat-biker once put it to me this way: “Be bold: start off cold.”

IMG_7401

Well-maintained winter bike routes will make your life much easier when the temperature drops. Photo by Tom Babin.

Unless, of course, you like spending money on all kinds of specialized gear. Then head to the fat-bike section of your local bike shop, and bring your wallet. There are plenty of fun options to keep you warm.

Where do I ride?

By now, your city should be providing cyclists with safe, efficient routes in winter. But since most aren’t, you may want to choose a different route in winter. Look for roads that are plowed early, aren’t too busy with cars, and have slow vehicle speeds. And prepare for the fact that your ride will be slower in winter. That’s just life.

One tip I’ve picked up over the years: Depending on your city’s plowing philosophy (or lack thereof) choosing the right route in winter may be a little counter-intuitive. You may be tempted to take side and back roads in winter to avoid the cars. But those roads also tend to the last ones plowed, so it can be difficult to get through on a bike. Conversely, you don’t want roads that are too busy or too fast because riding close to moving vehicles is even less fun in winter. Look for those Goldilocks roads: plowed rather early and regularly, but not too busy. And if you find such a road, don’t keep it a secret. The more bikes on a route, the safer it is for everybody.

I’m frightened. What should I do?

Winter cycling can be intimidating, but what’s really holding you back is probably your own fear more than anything else. It’s an attitude. The first few rides will be tough. You need to find the right route, dress for the right temperature and find your balance in slippery conditions. But once you get the logistics down, you’ll love it. So adopt an attitude of experimentation: try a few things to see what works, and don’t give up too easily. And don’t think you’re a failure if you don’t ride every day. Even a few days a week or a month is better than nothing, and you’ll be a happier, healthier person for it.

I can’t wait to brag to my co-workers. 

Stop right there. The first rule of winter cycling: no bragging. I know it’s tempting, but bragging about riding through a snowstorm just perpetuates the notion that winter cycling is something difficult. And really, it’s not. Ask the thousands of kids and grandparents who ride through the world’s great winter cycling cities. You’re not special for riding a bike in winter, you’re just smart. So rather than brag about your ride, encourage others to try it too. The more of us who ride in winter, the more it will be normalized. That’s good for everyone.

For more advice, read my book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

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Here’s an idea to make cycling seem safer: Ban the crossbar

Here’s a novel new idea for making cycling safer: Ban men’s bikes.

Seriously, this is a real idea, but don’t stop reading yet. Since the recommendation came out of the Netherlands, where they know a thing or two about biking, it’s worth a closer look.

It wasn’t exactly “men’s” bikes that were targetted, rather bikes with a crossbar — that horizontal rod that joins the seatpost to the headtube on a traditional double-triangle bike frame. Classic Dutch bikes ridden by many men feature have a crossbar, like this.

Montreal Biking in summer

Bikes built in the Dutch style often include a crossbar or top tube, like on this bike.

While traditional Dutch-style women’s bikes don’t, like this.

Urban Cycling Calgary

These comfort bikes built lacking at crossbar are sometimes marketed to women.

Us North Americans who are older than six tend to call such bikes “step-throughs” because you don’t have to stretch your leg over that bar. And there is still be some lingering gender baggage around bike frame shape. Step-throughs were once seen as a “women’s” style, while crossbars were found on “men’s” bikes.

The recommendation came out of traffic safety organizations Veilig Verkeer Nederland (VVN) and TeamAlert. When you read the fine print (or, if you are sadly unilingual like me, infer from the fine print from a Google-translated report, after Lloyd Alter of Treehugger spotted the report), the recommendation is logical. Bikes with crossbars tend to force riders to lean forward to reach the handlebars, which means they are more prone to head blows in collisions.

Here in North America, this proposal is a non-starter. We’re just starting to get people on bikes, so I can’t imagine a serious movement to start banning certain styles.

But the dangers of crossbars are worth thinking about for another, more fundamental reason. The North American bike of choice for several generations for both genders have not just been those with crossbars, but those that are explicitly designed for speed and control. Both mountain bikes and road bikes force riders into low aggressive positions because that makes them go faster.

Such bikes have proven so popular that even those people who aren’t looking to ride for speed have defaulted to similar styles. Even bikes that aren’t targetted directly to the athletic crowd, such as “hybrid” bikes and “commuter” bikes, and even fixies, share the same geometry: rider leaning forward, off-kilter centre of balance.

IMG_9835

Bikes like this, sometimes called commuter bikes or hybrid, because they blend elements of road and mountain bikes, often force riders into a more aggressive, athletic body position. That can be good in some cases, but not all.

Compare that to the traditional “womens” Dutch bike (if you’ve ever used a bike share, you’ve probably ridden a step-through frame of this style). Body position on this type bike is completely different. This is what that Dutch study was referring to. It’s easy to see how a collision while sitting upright in this position would be less dangerous to the noggin than one in which your centre of gravity is precariously hovering over the frame, rather than your feet.

Bike pics from Montréal

You can see a difference in body position between the woman on the step-through frame at the left and those riding behind, who are leaning more forward.

Could this have something to do with the perception of cycling as a dangerous activity in North America? That may be a bit of a stretch (forcing people to ride bikes beside legions of car drivers who hate them is probably a tad more relevant), but if you are a casual, sporadic cyclist lacking confidence and all of your experience is on a frame built for athletics, I’m willing to be you’d be less willing to get back on a bike, especially if you were ever involved in a crash.

It’s subtle, but these experiences on a bike do colour our perceptions of cycling. If you’ve never ridden a step-through frame before, you probably have no idea how safe, slow and comfortable riding a bike can be.

The authors of the recommendation were wise enough to point to other studies have shown that one of the most injurious parts of riding a bike as people age is simply mounting and dismounting, a problem the step-though frame goes a long way to solving.

This isn’t a plea to ban crossbars or athletic bikes or anything like that. It’s simply a reminder that there are other ways to ride than how most North Americans do it, and it can be a completely different experience. So maybe swe don’t need to ban the crossbar, but it’s time to start thinking beyond it.

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