I asked some winter-cycling friends from around the world to tell us what they love and, in some cases, hate about winter cycling in their cities. Bike lanes, plowing, bike parking, and reams of people riding in subzero temperatures: Here’s what they had to say in Winnipeg, Montreal, Minneapolis, Tilburg, and Oulu.
In the midst of the polar vortex, where frothing meteorologists competed over cold weather hyperbole, I had my most memorable bike rides of the season.
My home city of Calgary recently hosted the 7th annual Winter Cycling Congress, giving me a week of bike-focused learning and activity. The congress touched on myriad aspects of winter cycling, and I’ll be sharing some of what I learned over the coming weeks, but I wanted to start with what will probably be my lasting memories of the event.
Biking through the cold
It t was cold. Freaking cold. Most days hovered around -25 C, although the sun did bring some moments up to a balmy -15 C. On one of the coldest days, I found myself fat-biking with two friends on a day in which the -30 C weather chased everyone else from the trails (technically, this was outside of the “polar vortex” that engulfed the rest of the continent, but it was our longest and coldest blast of winter in years).
Riding through this kind of cold with a range of other people taught me a few things. First: Cold is relative. Comfort isn’t about absolute cold, it’s about expectations. For some people accustomed to this weather, it was no big deal. They had the right gear, the right methods for staying warm and the right attitude. People from other winter cities where this kind of weather is rare struggled a bit more. There isn’t some mythical cut-off temperature where humans stop riding. It’s all about expectations.
I also learned that it’s amazing how you can enjoy a ride even at extremely cold temperatures. With the right winter gear (on feet and hands, especially), there’s almost no limit to enjoying a ride. I often tell reluctant winter cyclists that cold is not even in the top 10 challenges of winter cycling, and the polar vortex confirmed this. As your body moves, it generates an amazing amount of heat. It can keep your body warm and comfortable even in extreme cold. Dress properly, and enjoy.
What the Europeans bring
There’s an impression out there that Europeans have this whole urban bike thing figured out. Thanks to such cities as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, many North Americans have an image of all European cities as bike havens.
Yet the messages from several of the European delegates at the conference was contrary. Take this interview on the local CBC television station with Lars Stromgren, a vice-president of the European Cycling Federation. Stromgren walks the perfect line here, maintaining positivity and conviviality with an air of wisdom that never veers into condescension.
But pay attention to his message. What’s great about this interview, and with Stromgren’s presence at the Winter Cycling Congress, is the fact that he’s from Stockholm, a city that is far from a model for bike friendlness. In talking with Stromgren at the conference, he was critical of his city, which is only beginning to take cycling seriously.
Stromgren may not know this, but I think hearing the message that Stockholm is in the same boat as Calgary (or pretty much every other North American city) in trying to figure out how to make cities more bike friendly is strangely inspiring. A lifetime of being told things are better in Scandinavia has inoculated many North Americans from listening to any message from Europe. It’s like being told by your parents that you really should try to be more like your brain-surgeon sister. But to hear Stromgren say that good bike cities are a work in progress everywhere — even in the homeland of Ikea — is a relatable, inspiring message.
Check this photo.
It was taken by Pekka Tahkola in his home city of Oulu, and it shows the bikes ridden by students to a suburban elementary school. I’ve written extensively about Oulu, perhaps the most bike-friendly winter city on Earth, but sometimes it takes photos like to really drive home the benefits of building a city around bikes.
Takhola also showed a video from the morning commute at this school that showed streams of kids on bikes rolling toward the school in the snow. The sheer number of kids on bikes drew a gasp from the Congress crowd, who are more accustomed to seeing bleary-eyed children emerging at school from long lines of steaming SUVs. To see so many kids riding — Taklhoa reports that about 1,000 of the school’s 1,200 students ride bikes in this suburban neighbourhood — was shocking and delightful.
Takhola’s photo was so inspiring that it became the viral moment of the congress, retweeted hundreds of times and picked up by news organizations around the world. What I see in this photo is potential. Only a maniac would argue against the benefits of kids riding bikes to school (choose a problem facing kids today — physical health, mental health, obesity, socialization, independence, screen time, community connection), and part of the solution can be seen in this photo.
This is what Oulu gives us: something to aspire to.
Lime launched in my city of Calgary this week, and something unique is happening: Winter. Well, winter isn’t unique, but having a bike-share program run through a cold Canadian winter is unique, and the company is treating the situation as a bit of an experiment in winter bike-share survival.
So I talked to the Lime’s operations manager, Scott Harvey, about this and a bunch of other things related to micro-mobility (including a number of your questions). Here’s a video of our conversation, and the transciption below.
Q: Let me just ask first maybe: Why Calgary and why now?
Well, Calgary obviously being a city that has expended a lot
of resources to build a world-class biking infrastructure, so we recognize
that’s an important part of Calgary’s sort of vision to the future. So we want
to be part of that.
Obviously, second of all, Calgary just was really the first
city in Canada to come to that place where we could enter as a company in a really,
really thoughtful and mindful manner. You know, timing is everything and
really, we as a company said: “Do we want to launch?” We launched October
30th. “Who launches a bike company in the middle of winter?” But we
really felt like Calgary was ready for it. Calgarians embraced it in a way that
we were, like, blown away by how much they embraced it.
So we’ve seen some great numbers come back in terms of
ridership levels and things like that. And the weather has co-operated
amazingly. So, you know, we’ve continued to be able to see those numbers go.
Q: What kind of numbers? Can you can tell me up relative to other cities or anything?
Sure, we you know we don’t talk about actual rider numbers,
but what I can say is that on some of our best days we saw ridership — new
riders, some days were up in like 300, 400 new riders per day.
OK, you mentioned earlier a little trepidation about
launching at the end of October, and there are not a lot of cities that have
bike shares that run all winter, so why launch at that time?
Well, obviously that was when we were, in working with the
city, we were able to launch. There is a huge process. There is, you know,
permitting and, you know, insurance and all of those things that need to go
into us operating within the city. And operating within those constraints and
needs that the city provides to us through that permit, so we wanted to make
sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s were crossed before we went into
service. And so that’s just what that date looked like.
But with that, we also said we’re going to have a great
opportunity to test the product in the market, a winter market. We do operate
in other winter markets in the United States . . . , like Minnesota and Detroit,
places like that. So, we already have an understanding of what winter operation
looks like with the product.
But where we sort of have a question mark is what happens
when the weather is really cool. You know, those northern States markets don’t
necessarily get that cold temperatures that we do. So, you know, obviously,
again we haven’t had that opportunity with Calgary’s weather (yet). I don’t
know if you’ve seen, there’s a bike just on the road that have mitts on the
handlebars now. So, we’re doing some testing and trying to gather our own
information so that, again, we can be cognizant of opening in markets like, you
know, potential markets that are maybe in the future in Canada.
So Calgary is just going to be a really good test market as
we continue to expand to Canada that’s where we’re learning a lot of this
information right now. It’s a bit of an experiment.
Q: I think it’s an impressive thing to see the bar mitts on the bars, just as a commitment to winter. So it really is an experiment?
Yes, we know that the bike operates really well in snowy conditions
and in winter conditions. Where the question mark comes from is performance.
When we’re getting down into – 25 C, -30 C, how’s the battery reacting at that
level? Are we going to see the loss of power? Are they OK? We’re going to want
to test that theory. So fingers crossed, again, as much as I hate to encourage
that, but we are in Canada, so at the end of the day cold weather is part of
our our life and so we really want to make sure that we’re making decisions that
are based on facts.
Q: You launched in Calgary with ebikes. Is that unique for the company? Most companies have both ebikes and old-fashioned pedal bikes, right? What’s behind that decision?
We know from ridership information that our customers, when
given the choice of a pedal bike and an electric bike, they will choose the
electric bike most. So from that point of view, when we decided to come to
Canada, we said “Let’s put the electric bike in because that’s what customers
And yes we do have markets in the United States and the one
here in Canada that are ebike only. We’re ebike only because of it, but also
because scooters aren’t going to be part of that conversation here in Canada
for a little while.
So we’re going to work within what we can, which is the
ebike program. It’s just a really really good product. It’s robust. It can
handle, we had some riders ride in that first winter blast of snow that we
bought in October. We had members of the city and they really said, the
feedback we got, was that, you know, the bikes perform really well in the
winter. So we just really feel like this product is the right product for
And, again, we’re the only location in Canada, so Calgarians
should be proud of that fact is about that we were the first. We beat out
cities like Toronto and Montreal.
Q: Yesterday, I asked on Twitter for questions from people. We got lots of really interesting ones, so I’m going to fire those at you right now. OK, one is it about the zone. We talked a bit about launching in Calgary with ebikes, and right now there’s a zone, much like Car2Go, where the bike needs to be parked inside a zone, which is mostly the downtown area. Why that zone, and are there plans to expand it?
Absolutely. So, the city, between the city and Lime, we
decided what the winter zone would look like. And then we’ll have a summer
zone. So the winter zone was restricted to the downtown core and the Beltline.
And, you know, I think that this is the first year of operations, so I think
next year when we go into winter operations the conversation will be a little
different. Because from a mechanical sort of user and ridership point of view,
we missed out on some communities that we think should have been included in that
winter operation zone.
But, again, that’s a great sort of learning curve for us as
a company and for the city so we can go back and have some really constructive
conversations about what that looks like, but then, come the summer, we will be
full city operation. The whole city will have bikes. And so our fleet will, I
don’t have to final number right now, that’s a continuing conversation with the
city, but we will see for the summer months we will see the increase in size.
And there’s been some
anxiety about people who inadvertently left their bike outside of the zone.
There’s really not any sort of, you know, punishment for leaving
the bike outside of the zone. When you’re riding the bike and do leave the zone,
the app will tell you that you left the approved zone.
But you know ultimately for us we felt that rider experience
was more important than “You have to take that bike back into the
zone.” We have the resources here in the city to make sure that those bikes
that are going leaving the zone for people to enjoy a bike ride that we can get
those products back into the zone in a very, you know, good amount of time.
Q: Speaking of rules let’s have the helmet conversation, which is always a tricky one. So just for some background, Alberta does not have a mandatory helmet law for pedal bikes, but it does for ebikes And Lime bike, unlike some jurisdictions where there is a helmet law like Vancouver for example, where helmets are provided with the bike share, they’re not provided here. So that is also causing some anxiety that’s what I read from the questions I’m getting on Twitter. People are worried about getting taking a ticket, they’re worried about breaking the rules. We’re good Canadians, and nobody wants to break the rules. Now what are you hearing? Are there tickets being delivered?
I haven’t heard of any tickets being issued for riders on the electric bikes. From the perspective of meeting that requirement, that is 110 percent one of Lime’s main goals is to, obviously, work within the constraints of whatever the law or regulations are. And of course rider safety is of paramount importance.
So we’re going to do what we can to encourage riders to wear a helmet when they ride our product. It is mandatory, you know, so that is in the in-app messaging. That’s actually right on the bike itself, and then we’re going to continue as, you know, now that the weather is hopefully going to start to improve or stay the way it has been lately, we’re going to start to get more and more involved in some community help promote what we call Respect Your Ride. That’s a program that was launched company-wide and we’re going to, again, start to get that program here embedded in the city, so that then people can have access to get a helmet from us.
So there are a lot of ways we can do that and also that, again, we can start to have that conversation of why it’s important to wear a helmet. We really looked at that program in British Columbia, and the company that provides helmets with their rides and we just felt from a couple of standpoints that wasn’t the direction that we wanted to go. We really felt that it was a much better and much easier way to engage with the customers by having that conversation and by being able to provide people with helmets should they need one. So again that community engagement piece is really the key.
Q: So the way it stands now if you’re using a Lime ebike in Calgary, you should be bringing a helmet with you.
Correct. I mean we want the consumer to provide their own helmet to meet the current regulation. From that perspective, again, there is the ability as we launch our community programs that we’ll be able to engage the customers that want a helmet and you know we can provide a helmet, so we’re going to continue to slowly evolve that process.
But in the meantime, you know, yes we’re asking Calgarians to be mindful of the fact that that is a law and, you know, we really want to make sure that everyone’s abiding by that. And it’s about safety, right? That’s the number one priority. We want people to be safe when they ride the product.
I know people look at it as a hindrance, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to ride the product, and we know that the majority of our ridership comes from people that work downtown and are either say, great example we’re here at the public library the East Village is right here, we’ve got a lot of riders that live in the East Village and come into downtown to do their work. Those are the kind customers that are going to ride our product. Average ride is about six to 10 minutes, so you know, again, it’s it’s people that are either at work and going for lunch or thing going to a meeting or somewhere else.
So yeah, make sure you remember your helmet. Have it in your office, have it in your home and just, you know, remember it when you ride.
Q: Pedal bikes: are they coming? You’ve got ebikes in place now, in the summer when things change, will it be available?
No, again, we feel that the electric bike is the, sort of,
now the new standard for our locations and in particular in candidates in
Which brings up another question I got asked a lot too, it’s about the cost. The cost for a bike — a lot of people are saying it seems expensive. It’s similar to the what you pay on a Car2Go. And they feel like they’ve ridden them in the States and they feel cheaper and the pedal bikes a little bit cheaper too. So I’ve heard a lot of questions about the cost. So that’s the question: Why is it so expensive?
Obviously when someone comes to me and says well if I take two or three hour bike ride it’s gonna be a lot of money. You know, that’s just not the customer we’re necessarily trying to drive after. Our customers are people that, again, that’s why downtown, in any of our markets, are usually the really big focus because it’s people that are, say, going from one building and going several blocks and don’t want to get into a taxi or a cab and you’ll want to add congestion, so then they’re looking for micro-mobility solutions that can that you know take them where they need to be without it being, you know, adding to that problem.
So we feel that the price is is where it’s at currently, is where it’s at. But we’re open to that conversation and you know the more that we operate, again, this is the first time in Canada, first location in Canada. It’s a lot of firsts happening here in Calgary in that regard. So we want to make sure that we hear what people have to say and that feedback is really crucial. So, you know, we’re going to continue to look at that.
Q: A couple a couple of last questions from Twitter: When are you coming to Edmonton?
Good question. Again, Edmonton is one of those cities that
is on the Lime list, and and certainly from the perspective of working with the
City of Edmonton that conversation is well in hand and definitely happening. So
you know Edmonton is still a question mark in terms of exact dates and you know
I’m gonna remain very tight-lipped in terms of the date. I don’t have a date so
it’s not even that I’m not saying it. But you know from the perspective of
Edmonton it’s definitely on the list that’s definitely going be a city we’re
going to want to operate in.
Q: And I heard you say no scooters in the works in Canada?
No scooters in Canada as it stands right now. So from a
legal standpoint there are rules about electric scooters being ridden on public
property, so currently the law across the land — each province is slightly
different — but across the land is that electrified scooters are treated as a
motor vehicle and so by law they cannot be ridden on public property, unless
there are certain stipulations that they meet. And so you know from that perspective,
Lime is working with municipalities to engage in that conversation of when that
law was, when those laws were put on the books and in terms of what our product
looks like so that’s an ongoing conversation with most municipalities or
Well, that’s it. Thank you very much. Welcome Lime to Calgary. I’ve been out there riding it a lot, so I hope to see lots of you out there as well.
When the temperature drops, riding a bike to work gets a tad more complicated. Especially in North America, where bike commuting is sometimes viewed more as an athletic pursuit than a simple transportation mode.
That’s why, in this video, I look at two ways of dressing for bike commuting. Version 1 we’ll call Dress for your Destination. In this approach, no special clothing is used. We simply ride a bike to work, with a few accommodations for the weather.
In Version 2, called Dress for the Journey, we gear up in winter athletic wear — from shoes to balaclava, this is the method in which we layer up like an athlete and ride hard.
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, so check out the video and decide which method works best for you.
Ski towns have a secret: They also tend to be fantastic bike towns.
They are usually small, so distances are short. They are populated by outdoor-lovers, fit and keen to enjoy the fresh air, which makes the towns partial to cycling. Come summertime, many convert into havens of mountain biking as ski resorts keep their lifts running under the sunshine.
So with that in mind, ski towns also have the potential to be amazing winter-bike towns, too. I mean, why spend 10 minutes warming up your frozen car at the end of a ski day when you can just hop on your bike while your pheremones are already raging, and be enjoying apres-ski cocktails in 5? Especially if you have one of these things.
Yet many mountain towns have been slow to adopt winter cycling. It’s coming, but maybe not as fast as might be expected — building great bike cities takes time and investment, and making great winter-bike cities takes even more investment.
But Banff, Alberta — Canadian Rockies ski-town extraordinaire, and a short drive from my home city — is trying something that may be seen as a shortcut to winter-cycling greatness. And the beauty of it lies in its simplicity: Subsidized studded bike tires.
Here’s how it works: If you buy a studded bike tire for winter and bring your receipt to town hall, the town will cut you a cheque for $50. Studded tires can run close to $100 (and studded fat-bike tires can easily jump past $500) so this is a significant subsidy. A news release from the town says the subsidy is intended to help “normalize” winter cycling.
Banff has fewer than 8,000 permanent residents, and the town earmarked $5,000 from its budget for this program. If the money is all spent, that’s a significant proportion of the town equipped to happily ride all year long.
It’s a great idea (initated as part of the upcoming Winter Cycling Congress here in Calgary), simple to understand and get behind, and it addresses one of the key barriers to winter cycling. If you’re reading this from a city that isn’t Banff, it’s also an easy idea to steal.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.