Category: Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This simple idea may be the best way to encourage more winter cyclists

Timo Perälä, the Finnish visionary of the Winter Cycling Congress, has done more to spread the gospel of winter cycling around the world than perhaps any other person. But back in his home city of Oulu, he’s still experimenting with new ways of encouraging people to ride, despite living in what may already be the most bike-friendly winter city in the world.

One of the most efficient ways to do so, he thought, is to convert more summer cyclists into year-round cyclists. It’s the low-hanging fruit theory, and it makes sense. But how to do so? For starters, when he did some research, he found that men and women tend to report different reasons for stopping their riding in winter.

Perälä says most men tend to stop because they perceive winter cycling as too much work. “Most are being basically lazy,” he said recently, with typical Nordic bluntness. “Most of the time they just need some serious ass kicking.”

Women, however, report different feelings. They tend to avoid winter cycling because they are afraid of slipping and falling. Their safety is at stake.

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Knowing the best way to stay upright in snow and ice in cities is a simple studded bike tire, Perälä came up with a deceptively easy idea to get more women to try riding in winter: Just give them a studded tire. For free. For added confidence, he decided to throw in a helmet too.

With some funding, Perälä got a good bulk deal on tires and helmets and started giving them away to women interested in giving winter cycling a shot. The only catch? They had to promise to ride at least three times a week.

Since he started the program a few years ago, he’s developed a few additions to further incentivize participants, such as incorporating fitness tracking, creating a scorecard to keep them motivated, and developing several bike events through the winter to keep things fun. But the basics remain the same: Give tentative riders some equipment to make them feel confident.

He says the results are positive. Many participants become hooked and keep riding long after their commitment has been completed.

There’s a simple genius is this plan. Not only does it remove the fear of riding in winter, it also gets around the obstacle of cost, which can deter many people from investing in winter-bike gear. And knowing that people who choose to ride a bike for transportation in summer already understand the benefits, a little nudge like this can do wonders.

But for Perälä, something else was the most satisfying for him.

“For me, the best thing is that people really feel it was good for their health,” he said.

 

This is how you stage a winter bike party

So you think your city would benefit from more people riding bikes year-round? You want to encourage them to try riding in winter by staging an awesome mass event, full of fun and frivolity that shows people riding in winter can be enjoyable, safe and sane? And you like parties?

Then here’s some lessons for you, courtesy of the Lune D’Hiver, or Winter Moon ride, staged this week in Montreal by Velo Quebec. I was invited to take part in the event, and came away with a few ideas from a city that excels at hosting mass bike parties. Here are a few.

Lesson 1: Prepare.

Montreal Winter Cycling Congress 2017

Those massive fields of ice aren’t going to clear themselves.

Sure, you could just throw a bunch of people onto the streets with their bikes and have a ball. Or you could get serious and close streets, encourage people of all types to take part, advertise weeks in advance and, most importantly, make sure the streets are cleared of snow and ice.

Granted, Montreal has its share of problems when it comes to plowing, but after a week of snow and ice storms, look at the mess city workers had to clear early in the day to prepare for Lune D’Hiver. Your city has no excuse.

Lesson 2. Bling is good.

A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

 

If it’s winter, and it’s night, you need lights. Encourage participants to light up the night, with their bodies and bikes. This sweet number was just the loaner I was given for the event, and even it was blinking like a kid at the optometrist. Other participants had their entire bikes bedecked as rolling beacons of light.
Montreal Winter Cycling Congress 2017

Yeah, that’s a Christmas tree. And it’s February.

A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

Lesson 3: Invite all kinds of people

The last thing you want at a winter-bike event is to have in comprised completely of a bunch of people who fit the stereotype of a winter cyclist: young(ish), athletic(ish) men who define themselves as winter cyclists. In other words: dudes like me. Nobody wants that.

To make your event a success, make sure you get everybody else to take part: Young, old, children, the elderly. All genders and colours. Diversity is the key to a good event, and to a healthy population of winter cyclists.

Lesson 4: Make sure the die-hards are out in force.

OK, now that Lesson 3 is out of the way, don’t forget to appeal to those die-hards who have pioneering winter cycling for years, and who rode without the benefit of things like bike lanes, snow removal and fun mass rides. Guys like my new friend Claude. These guys rule.

Lesson 4: Involve artists.

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Because you can’t have a fun event if its organized by a bunch of urban planners and traffic engineers.

Montreal Winter Cycling Congress 2017

Lesson 5: Make sure the after-party is good.

I know it’s asking a lot to plan your event so that it ends at an outdoor electronic music festival that is beloved by citizens, draws thousands of people, most of whom are young, attractive and dressed as if going to a rave in Reykjavik, offers warm drinks (and drinks to warm you), food trucks, light shows, an ice bar and more. Like Montreal’s Igloofest. But you could try.

Montreal Winter Cycling Congress 2017

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A video posted by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

 

Montreal Winter Cycling Congress 2017

 

15 reasons I like riding a bike in winter

1. I like winter. I like the consciousness of it, how it demands attention. Everything else in our life is always being made more convenient. Not winter. Winter will not bow to your busyness.

2. I like being forced to slow down. In the summer, I always feel like I can never ride fast enough. In winter, whenever I go too fast, a patch of ice reminds me that, no matter where I’m going, arriving 30 seconds earlier will not improve my life meaningfully enough to accept the risk.

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3. I remember being at a house party late one night during a particularly brutal cold snap. As we opened the door and the cold slapped our faces, I remember thinking that, if we had chosen the wrong jacket, or took a wrong turn somewhere, we might die on the way home that night. It somehow made me feel closer to everyone else at the party. But I had been drinking whisky for several hours, and everyone looked at me funny when I told them. We decided to walk home.

4. I like the getting dressed for a winter bike ride. Remember that scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando, where he gears up to invade the island to rescue Alyssa Milano by applying black makeup to his biceps and jamming a knife into a scabbard? That’s how I feel, except with a toque I got for free from a hotel.

5. I like laying fresh tracks in snow. It feels like a base human instinct, something buried in the reptilian part of our brain. Sometimes I go out of my way to lay fresh tracks in snow, but it’s always worth it. Well, except when it makes me late for work.

6. On nights of fresh snowfall, street lights are reflected off the powder in a way that gives the city a warm orange glow. Snow muffles the sound. My pedalling keeps me warm, I can see my breath, and I cut fresh tracks in the powder. I love those moments, even with LED streetlights making the glow feel more blue than orange.

7. In the dark, which comes early in winter, it’s easier to see into the windows of the houses I pass. That sounds creepy, but I don’t mean it that way. Mostly, it’s just people watching TV. I like to see what they are watching. Usually, whatever they are watching makes me feel great because I’m outside enjoying my ride while they are indoors wasting their life. Unless they are watching Wipeout. Then I wish I was home watching it too.

8. The easiest part of winter cycling is staying warm. The hardest part is staying cool enough that you don’t sweat. Here’s where I go wrong: I worry about getting cold, so I dress in extra layers, which makes me too hot after I start pedalling, so I struggle to peel off layers and stuff them into my panniers without stopping because I don’t want to be late for work. Then, I arrive at work in a steaming T-shirt and a vow to stop overdressing. Repeat the next morning. Don’t be like me.

9. There was a time that I teased people who wore ski helmets while riding their bikes in the city. I thought they were being dramatic about the cold, and they looked ridiculous. Then, one morning, I tried it. I don’t tease them any more. 

10. One of the great joys of bicycle commuting is passing lines of cars stopped in traffic. I admit it’s a smug kind of pleasure. This is even more satisfying in winter because the tailpipe exhaust adds dramatic tension to the scene.

11. When I first started riding a bike on city streets, I worried about taking the lane, which is an expression that means riding in the middle of the road instead of near the curb. In winter, the curb lane is often filled with snow, so taking the lane is sometimes required. For a long time, I didn’t like doing this because I felt guilty for slowing the cars behind me. I no longer have that guilt. I don’t know why, but I like it.

12. People think you must be stout and hardy to ride a bike in winter. You don’t. I try to tell them that, but they think I’m being modest and self-deprecating. After this happens several times, I’ll agree with them and sarcastically exaggerate how difficult it is. They usually don’t recognize it as sarcasm, and instead walk away feeling satisfied that their world view has been confirmed.

13. If somebody tells me they hate winter, I often ask why. Frequently, they say they hate winter driving. Some say they feel trapped indoors. Car commuting exacerbates both of these problems. Riding a bike fixes them.

14. Science says being outside is good for your brain and body, even if you don’t particularly enjoy that outdoor time on a windy and cold winter day. Riding a bike makes your life better, even if it’s sometimes hard.

15. I like how riding a bike in winter has changed my perspective on winter. Before I rode regularly, fresh snowfall and cold weather made me shudder. Now, I look forward to those days because it means the city will be prettier and the odds of a passing car throwing salty mud onto my face are reduced.

10 new year’s resolutions for your winter-bike commute

You’re fat off shortbread and turkey. The consumer orgy haze of Dec. 25 still lingers. You can remember nothing on New Year’s Eve after Mariah Carey. Sounds like the perfect time to start a new habit!

So here, future winter cyclist, are some suggestions to get you going in 2017.

Resolve to ride more

When you’re staring out your window at blowing snow and icicles, it’s easy to talk yourself out of riding your bike. “It’s too cold,” or “It’s too slippery,” or “The elaborate series of mental defenses that I rely on to convince myself that winter doesn’t exist have temporarily broken down.”

So your first resolution is to push through those nay-saying thoughts. Remember, there are easy ways to deal with the cold, snow and ice (warm clothes, well-chosen routes, and slowing down, respectively), and riding a bike to work in winter feels great, keeps you in shape, and makes the season a little less intimidating. You’ll almost never regret riding, but if you’re like me, you’ll kick yourself all day when you avoid riding on a day when you could have.

Resolve to avoid becoming a winter-cycling masochist

Sure, it’s great to commit to riding your bike more in winter, but there’s no reason to be a zealot. If the weather drops below where you feel comfortable riding, if the plows haven’t been to your neighbourhood yet, or if an overnight ice storm freezes your studded tires to your lawn, don’t feel pressured to ride. Take transit, car pool or drive your automobile. There’s nothing to be gained by punishing yourself. Even riding a few times a month during the winter is a win, so don’t feel guilty for taking days off. Keep it fun and realistic.

Resolve to stop bragging

I get it. When you beat the elements on your bike and waltz into work with a steaming head and your feel-good pheromones raging, while everybody else is huddled against the cold and complaining, it’s tempting to brag. Your co-workers will encourage it by expressing disbelief that you’d be crazy-brave enough to ride in this weather. Resist the urge. You are not tough for riding a bike in winter. You are not exceptional. People do it all over the world every day. Bragging about it makes winter cycling seem like something reserved for macho athletes, not right-thinking norms who just want to get to work on time. Winter cycling will never get into the mainstream if everyone who does it brags about it. Stop it.Tom_Babin_IMG_2210

Resolve to try a fat bike

It’s a bike with monster-truck tires. It tears through powder. And it’s a blast.

Fat-biking has been one of the great bike-industry success stories of the past decade, and with every major bike maker now pushing multiple models, this is the time to try it. Rent a bike, and go find some snow-covered trails or some fresh powder in your ‘hood. Finish at a coffee shop for some apres-bike warmth. Even if you don’t regularly ride a bike for recreation, give one a try. It may change the way you think about your winter commute, and you’ll have fun.

Resolve to stay bright

Unless you are a cat burgler or Batman, the darkness of winter can be a challenge when riding a bike. The good news is that LED technology has made bike lights much more affordable and efficient than they once were. So buy them, share them, charge them, and use them, for your bike, your body and your wheels. The more the merrier. Here are my basic guidelines: Two white ones of the front, two red ones on the back (two lights, according to some studies, make it easier for motorists to judge your distance). Make sure they are pointing to the ground and not into the eyes of passersby. Refrain from blinking lights unless you feel the added visibility is absolutely necessary. Don’t rely on reflectors.

Resolve to use the right stuff

Choosing the right gear can make your winter commuting life easier. Fenders are great. Studded tires work wonders on ice. A good base layer of merino wool will keep you toasty. Decent gloves and footwear are important. Lights are key (see previous resolution). Making good choices in winter will just make your life easier.
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Resolve to never get carried away with the gear

Everything mentioned in resolution No. 7 stands, but let’s not go overboard. As much fun as it is, you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on gear in order to ride a bike in winter. A junker of a bike may work better for you than a shiny new model because snow, salt and slush can quickly rust your components. Cheap old winter boots will keep your feed just as warm as those $600 fat-bike boots. A good pair of ski mittens may work just as well as those expensive pogies. I’ve used the same bargain-basement balaclava beneath my helmet for years. All kinds of great winter-bike gear is now available, thanks to the popularity of fat bikes, and it is certainly nice to have. But very little of it is essential. Just get out there and ride.

Resolve to bring a friend

Somewhere in your office is a summer cyclist who longingly watches with envy as you ride your bike home through the snow. Alas, an irrational fear of winter is clogging the brain of that poor cyclist. Help that person. Offer a nudge. Explain how much you love riding in winter, provide some gentle advice, and deliver support until they feel comfortable. Don’t shame that person if they don’t do it because, well, nobody likes an asshole. But everybody likes that helpful and encouraging friend who inspires them.

Resolve to make your city more winter-bike friendly

Great bike cities all look the same in the summer — well build, safe and connected bike lanes inhabited by smiling, happy people on bikes. Winters, however, are different everywhere, so cities that are serious about becoming bike-friendly must adapt to local conditions. Encourage your city to help make it easier. The first step is to improve overall bike-friendliness. Advocate for improved policies, laws and funding for bike infrastructure. Once a good network of safe bike lanes is built, make sure the city is maintaining that infrastructure in the winter by plowing it efficiently, de-icing it when necessary, and, generally, taking the job seriously. Remember: If you plow it, they will come.

Resolve to enjoy winter

Winter can be dark. It can be cold. It can be harsh. But winter can also be a time of great beauty, pleasure and renewal. If you spend most of the season hiding from winter, you are unlikely to enjoy it, and even more unlikely to try riding a bike through it. So change your attitude. Find something you enjoy in winter — skiing, skating, a winter festival, walks in the snow, licking telephone poles — and commit to doing it. The more positive experiences you have in winter, the less you’ll feel intimidated by it. That is the first step to having a well-adjusted relationship with winter. You may never love it, but if you move beyond hatred and dread, your life will be much better. And someday, you may find yourself riding a bike through it.

 

 

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