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Here’s how my ‘perfect’ winter bike held up through its first (brutal) winter

At the tail end of last season, I did what I once thought I would never do: I bought a winter bike.

For nearly a decade, I rode a crappy, 20-year-old single-speed mountain bike because, mostly, I feared riding a good bike. Winter in my city rust: salt, slush, muck and grime that eat components unimaginably fast. I learned my lesson the hard way, and after I buried that old beloved bike, I vowed never to destroy a good machine again.

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The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Still. In the back of my mind, I always thought that some day, I would find a bike that had what I considered the perfect specs for a rust-repellent winter machine: Aluminum frame, belt drive, internal gears, disc brakes and an overall winter hardiness. Then, unimaginably, I came across a bike with all those components in the Priority Continuum. I snapped the bike up at the tail end of last season, but didn’t really get a chance to test it through a real winter.



That wasn’t a problem this year. Though one of the coldest and snowiest winters I can remember, I rode the Continuum through it all. With the season coming to an end, a few people have asked me about it. So I made the video above to give an update on how the bike has held up.

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

Why there’s value in posting all of your little daily bike rides to Strava

The icefields parkway.

I will not forget the feeling of pedaling up Sunwapta Pass. Feeling was all there was. Pain feeling. And the feeling of being alone and in a test of will against that switchbacked ramp of asphalt and stone between Banff and Jasper, Aklberta. Out of gears now. And now just trying to keep a semblance of cadence. Passing automobiles heaved. I could hear them working from behind and then watched as they moved alongside and out of sight. Don’t look up! Look down. The vicious slope is not as obvious looking straight down. Look down, look down. So, I looked at cracks in the pavement and at wooden guardrail posts and shards of shiny glass. I watched tiny pieces of highway gravel inch backward as I pedaled ahead, knees straining, lungs stretching. Wheels turned like second hands. Eternal alpine grandeur surrounded me—and I watched gravel and glass go by. I measured my progress in bits of glass and gravel. My heart pounded. Legs turned. I breathed staccato: in-in-in-out. My Miyata 1000 kept going. The sun stared. For the climb, I had written an inspirational quote from Dylan on a recipe card and tucked it in the plastic coverlet on the handlebar pannier. But literature didn’t help. Magic did. I imagined there was a piece of rope knotted to my ribcage. The other end of the rope was at the top of the pass and someone up there was cranking a spool, slowly, gently collecting me up. I invented this mechanism out of thin air. And it worked. Because I eventually made it to beautifully level ground at the top—2,035 metres—and I felt the rope slacken. Euphoria. I had climbed a pass in the Rocky Mountains on my beloved bicycle. What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big!

Me and my Miyata on that trip.

That was years ago when bicycle riding still meant high adventure. Those knees are over and they’re not coming back. I still ride my bike, but my trips are more humdrum. Recently, for instance, I pedaled from our house in west Edmonton to pick up chicken and fixings at a favourite restaurant on 124 St. I put those goodnesses in a cardboard box and secured the load to my mountain bike’s back rack  before popping back home down back lanes crevassed by spring thaw. No tow rope trick. No negotiation with existence.  The round trip took 46 minutes. I covered 12.4 km. And the ride included 58 metres in elevation gain.

Legging it for chicken.

The humdrumstick ride data is from Strava. Full disclosure: I have a minor addiction to the app, even though I don’t use it in the mainstream manner. Strava, or sträva in Swedish, means strive. The app is aimed, by its own blurb account, at the full spectrum of athletes “from Olympians to weekend warriors.” Testimonials from runners and triathletes and bicycle racers get podium places on its website. The Strava app lets you get competitive any time you want, says one fan. My friends on the app are routinely laying down 100 km rides in the Calgary foothills or 60 km cross-country ski tours in the Gatineaus. Before work. These are strivers. They make great efforts, they fight, they battle, and they share their stats and personal bests and calories burned with the rest of us.


Little Pharma.

Here’s a modest proposal for the rest of us: let’s share our banal rides right back! The 1.3-km pedal to the drugstore. Put it on Strava. Call it Little Pharma. The 1.1-m trip to the grocery store for milk for coffee in the morning. Put it on Strava. Ride for Beans. The short trips to the bakery, the pub, the bookstore, the florist, the neighbourhood restaurant, the bike shop, pretzel shop, the chicken restaurant, wherever, let’s put them all on Strava, or on whatever other app records our little revolutions—those destinations between 1 km and 6 km away that are reasonable to get to on a bike, especially on the weekend.

Lana, on the importance of those little rides outside your commute.

My friend Lana from Ottawa helped me see this route to stitching our bikes into our everyday lives. Riding a bicycle to work may be the bigger win, eventually bringing protected infrastructure with it, but riding a bicycle to work can be a lot of work, especially for the first-time, two-wheeled commuter. There are obstacles. Safety in traffic, changes of clothes, storage of machine, sweating of body, matting of hair, thefting of bicycle, mild ridicule, changes in weather, and so on. Bicycle commuters who have overcome these challenges risk appearing beguiling to others who see in clear sight where the obstacles lie. It’s also valuable, Lana reminded me, to encourage folks to pedal to locations that, if they’re fortunate, still sit within a few kilometres of home.

And to remember that advice myself. It’s healthy, reasonable, sensible advice. And it takes work.

It’s work because going from zero to something is just as difficult, if not more difficult, than going from something to something-plus-one. I accept that was not the language of proper physics. 🙂 Trying again: It can be work out of proportion to the distance travelled to ride a bike the few kilometres to get a prescription or a loaf of bread or 10 pieces of chicken. Once more: it is easier to pedal the few blocks for chicken if I am already the person who pedals to work. Or, again: what looks small from a distance (riding for errands) close up is actually quite big. Or, in conclusion: driving a car is pretty easy!  The real work of riding a bicycle for the mundane stuff of life is on the pre-pedaling side of pedaling. That’s where the little lazinesses lurk. That’s where the transportation status quo calcifies into place like a Latin cliche. Naming these challenges and surmounting them is the task at hand, and foot.

The mail/wine run.

My friend Tim is a great bicycle rider. He commutes, he races. Last year he rode along gravel roads from Coleman in southern Alberta to Hinton, which was approximately 687.6 km farther than my ride to Northern Chicken. I Facebooked him this Big Pedal question:

“Compared to all your striving, what is the value of someone deciding not to take the car to the grocery store for a loaf of bread and eggs, but to ride a bike there instead?”

He replied with some poetry:

“The value comes from the same things on a short ride as long. The value is created by seeing what was not previously seen, hearing what could not otherwise be heard. Those moments may not come as often on a short ride over the same familiar roads, but they are there.”

Life being life, we all have more short rides than long ones. More groceries to get than Sunwapta Passes to climb. Choosing to make the many short trips on bicycle, or even one of them, is uphill work. It’s work worth doing–and worth telling Strava about.

This post originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. You can find him on Twitter here. 

More tips for keeping your feet warm while riding a bike

My blog earlier this winter offering tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike prompted some questions, so I thought I would expand a bit in video format. So here it is: Five tips for keeping your feet warm on a bike: the expanded edition.

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

We need to choose what kind of city we want before we let the robots do it for us

Parked bikes in Quebec City

Will bicycles be a part of the future of our cities? Photo by Tom Babin.

There’s a scene in the 1942 Orson Welles film The Magnificent Ambersons that has some eerie parallels to today. The scene, set around the early part of the 20th century, is a confrontation between the maker of new-fangled “horseless carriages” (automobiles) and the old guard.

In the film, the automobile is a metaphor for the conflict between the old and the new, but watch the scene and think about the state of our cities today.

This monologue has particular resonance at this moment, because it feels like we’re in another of those periods of transformational transportation change. This time, it’s not the automobile replacing the horse, but the robots replacing the humans.

Autonomous cars are imminent, which seems to have created two competing visions for the future. The first, which has been gaining steam for the past 20 years, is defined by urbanism. It’s the future that most readers of this blog probably envision: less automobile-dependent streets where we focus on accommodating humans before cars. That means a grand rethinking of our streets and how we get around. More public transit, more cycling, more walking, and fewer cars. This is the vision that is driving change in many cities, from Paris to Copenhagen to Vancouver and Bogota.



But a competing vision has emerged in more recent years. This is a future that is built on technology, and its seductiveness is undeniable. Self-driving cars that arrive at your door to transport you to your smartphone-chosen destination. The end of car ownership in favour of transportation service. Fleets of robot cars roaming the streets to pick up and deliver people and packages.

These two visions don’t have to be at odds, but the closer we get to the realization of these visions, the more it seems they are. The promise of the first vision is a realignment of the transportation priorities of our cities, away from automobiles in favour of a more equitable balance between other modes.

The other, however, despite its promise, risks simply being a replacement of the status quo: swapping human-piloted vehicles for those driven by computers. Even the debate around this month’s tragic killing of a pedestrian by a self-driving Uber car comes down, fundamentally, to a debate over this vision. I’m in the camp that sees potential benefits to the technology, particularly the reduction of automobile collisions, but this isn’t a question of whether we use the technology or not. It’s about the fundamental problems of living in a society too reliant on automobiles—congestion, collisions, hostile streets and, despite our best intentions, deaths—may actually be exacerbated by this vision.

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Bicycles are a big part of one vision of the future of our cities. Photo by Tom Babin.

Think about congestion. In New York, for example, it has gotten worse in the last decade, not better, attributable mostly to the proliferation of ride-sharing services like Uber, which will no doubt grow as autonomous vehicles emerge. Filling the streets with empty vehicles on their way to pick up a fare is unlikely to reduce those fundamental problems. In London, the story is the same, as seen in this tweet:

Both visions seem to have momentum these days, but even as the benefits of urbanism are increasingly accepted by the broader public, its a vision that’s expensive, sometimes contentious, inherently political and requires long-term thinking heavy on public input and taxpayer investment. It’s not easy.

The robot future, by contrast, seems to be arriving almost by the force of its own will. Enthusiasm for the technology has brought it to our doorstep with a sense of inevitability. In the same way we dove headlong into a world defined by Facebook before we started thinking about its impacts on our lives, our brains, our politics, our news and our children, our zeal for technology has brought robot cars to our door before we’ve really considered the implications of opening it.

The good news is that these visions needn’t be at odds. A better balance between automobiles and humans in our urban settings can no doubt be improved by driverless technology. In fact, the most prominent proponent of this driverless future, Tesla’s Elon Musk, who has seemed dismissive of transit and active transportation in the past, may be coming around. There is much skepticism around his vision for the future, but optimists may see this recent tweet as a sign that he is starting to see these two visions coming together.

But this coming together can only happen if we recognize that the future isn’t driven by inevitabilities and momentum. It’s created by the decisions we make. And now is the time to make those decisions for the future.

Thanks to Dave Cohen of VBike for opening my eyes to The Magnificent Ambersons.

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

Sometimes, the person making your city better needs to be you

Photos by Glenn Kubish.

This afternoon there is again a Yield To Bicycles sign standing in its rightful place on the Oliverbahn, the stretch of mostly protected bicycle lane that runs along 102 Ave in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood. The sign is now dog-eared, as if to mark a page that contains a lesson worth re-reading and thinking about. The sign is again doing what it was designed for, which is to remind motorists not to turn left into the path of bicycle riders like me. This is all very remarkable.

It is remarkable that Edmonton has a mostly protected bicycle path in the neighbourhood. Last year, there was no bike lane here. Riding east on 102 Ave toward downtown was a take-your-chances proposition for bike commuters who became skilled at threading the needle between parked cars on the curb and moving cars in the lane. It’s something, too, that the asphalt is clear in winter. This is because the City sends out pickups with calcium chloride sprayers onto the bike lanes before the morning commute. The brine makes it harder for ice to stick to the road. But what is most remarkable is the very fact of the sign’s re-appearance, and the work required to get it back in place.

The Oliverbahn is my straight shot to work and back. It’s familiar.  I have gotten to know the giant elm trees along the route. I don’t live in the neighbourhood, but I recognize some of the people, the regulars, the dog walkers, especially. I say hello to the crossing guards. I watch the moms linger to watch their children in the school playground after they have said goodbye. I know where the air starts to smell like pot. Not like pot. Of pot. I know the stained glass windows of the United and Anglican churches, and I anticipate the slight rise and fall of the lane, the way it bends around the bus shelter at 122 St, and the bricks at the intersection on 121 St, I know them, too. Bicycle riders will recognize this kind of inventory taking. Riding at slow speeds without a windshield means we are allowed to experience more vividly than automobile drivers the material of the city.

For those two weeks, I didn’t stop, even though I heard a new voice every time I went by. The City should fix this, I said. The people who live here should get it fixed, I said. It should be fixed, I said. It’s a safety issue! Someone should report it to 311. I said to myself indignantly, Now why wouldn’t the automobile driver who clipped it take a minute to call it in? I even swore silently at the unknown offender. It was probably one of those giant garbage trucks, I thought. Yeah, that’s it. Those big trucks that look like armoured triceratopses. That musing triggered the song by Mark Knopfler with the line about the echoes, roars and dinosaurs. And then the sound of saxophone played my inner dialogue off the public stage as I whistled my way back to thoughts of meetings today and the need to try to get to sleep earlier tonight.



Bicycle riders know, too, when stuff is out of place. I first spotted the downed Yield To Bicycles sign two weeks ago as I pedalled by. There it was, lying on its back on the boulevard snow bed, looking a bit tired and beaten, staring straight up. It stayed like that for days. I would glance at it going by in the morning, and then again going by in the evening. Other bicycle riders must have done the same. One morning it lay there under the fresh linen of overnight snow, its frame still recognizable, but barely.

As the days passed and the sign settled in, I even got a bit creative with my rationalizations for not stopping. My selfishness could be recast as a law: A downed sign will stay at rest and a bicycle commuter in motion stays in motion at the same speed and in the same direction, to work in the morning and home in the evening, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Cute.

One snowy, foggy morning, I finally stopped, briefly. The sign was being slowly buried. I leaned over my bike and dug a gloved hand into the snow and found the sign pole. I lifted it up and shook it to get the snow off. I laid it back on top of the snowbank. Someone will see it.

I started pedalling again to work.

A few blocks later, I watched as a bicycle rider ahead on the Oliverbahn approached from the opposite direction. As bike riders do, we waved hello as we passed. It looked like Wendell, I thought. No, maybe not. I looked back, but his bike was already getting smaller in the mist. Wendell was an acquaintance for awhile, maybe, what, 30 years ago? He taught me to stand up for myself. Time flies, I thought. I resolved to Facebook him. I kept riding, but felt different, unsettled.

The next morning I did stop. Why did it feel like work to stop? I took a picture of the downed sign uploaded it to the City’s 311 app.

The next day, a traffic pylon appeared where the base of the sign had been sheared off.

The following day, the sign was back in place, newly secured in the concrete median with fresh bolts and plate.

I had been introduced to Wendell in university. We seemed to be attracted to the same small protests. The power of multinational corporations, the security of food supply, those kinds of issues. He would say intriguing things like you don’t always protest because you expect to win the day. Sometimes you put a sign in the air when you realize you would be damaged by the act of waiting for others to do so first.

This piece originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Follow him on Twitter

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

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

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

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



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

Face it, riding a bike takes work. That’s one of its joys

Here’s one thing about riding a bicycle that’s worth being honest about: it takes work.

Yes, riding a bicycle is all those other oft-celebrated things, too. It’s relaxing, fun, healthy, it’s sustainable and eco-friendly, nostalgic, convenient and social. Riding a bicycle is economical and efficient and therapeutic. Pedalling a bicycle makes a connection between city and rider not possible in an automobile. Riding a bicycle is exhilarating. Riding a bicycle is freedom.

It’s also work.

The work of riding a bicycle can be hidden under the poetry of riding a bicycle. I will always remember the day a friend at work texted me, after having renewed a lagged friendship with her bike, a message that was music to my ears:

I knew immediately what Laurie meant. I felt it in my old bones. A green Mustang two-speed was my first declaration of independence growing up on the streets and alleys of northeast Edmonton. That precious bike took me out of the orbit of domestic surveillance, such as it was in the 1970s, the golden age of parental benign neglect. Still, I got to the landmarks of my childhood—Bing’s corner store near Delwood Road, the St. Francis football field, the newspaper shack on Fort Road, the hills on the far side of Yellowhead Trail—by myself, or, what was better, rolling there with a gang of my friends.

Bing’s, back in the day.

These days, my red Rockhopper is my ticket to freedom. I redeem that ticket at the end of every abstract, unsatisfying and stressful work day. By the time I have pedalled my daily commute’s 10 kilometres home, under trees and sky, across real asphalt, I invariably feel better, lighter, happier. Friends who understand neuroscience explain this is because physical activity stimulates the drip-release of brain chemicals that regulate my emotions. I am not aware of these processes as they lift my mood a notch or two, but I trust there is something like this at work.

My bike at IGA these days.

The work of bicycle riding is easier to see when I contemplate what I can see and feel from the saddle. Feet press, calves fire, quad muscles lift and fall, lungs expand—and all this just to achieve a comfortable cruising clip. Confront a rise in the road or a shard of headwind and there is more work to be done. There is still more work if any level of negotiation with lactic acid is required to keep going. There is also the work of the nerves. Less so, admittedly, now that protected bicycle lanes have materialized in cities, including Calgary and Edmonton, but, still, this work of vigilance is required in what remains an automobile landscape. And, then, the work to ignore the little aches and pains that come from using our own muscles to power the bicycles that makes us feel so…well, so…freakin’ …free.

Machine, man.

When you stop to think about it, this feeling of freedom known to bicycle riders is the result of a very curious, very human kind of work: the work with—or in—a machine. Bicycle riders may sing paeans to their automobile-free mode of transport, but they benefit from a technological partnership just the same. It is just as true to say I feel so frickin’ free on this as it is to say I feel so frickin’ free when I apply to myself a prosthetic device of tubes, gears, chain, teeth, cranks, cassette, saddle, stays, cables, rubber, rims and spokes. Granted, not in the iambic pentameter of the text message, but the list of the bicycle’s artifice, all the infrastructure it needs to help produce the freedom, is also the truth.

Beautiful out there today.

These thoughts rolled around in my head today as I pedalled my fatbike along the side streets of Edmonton, the host city of a dump of glittering snow a day ago that has now turned to slurry. It is beautiful to move by bicycle in this enchanted setting. It also takes work.


Actually, these thoughts about work and bicycle riding have been rolling around in my head since Russia. Earlier this month, I joined a small band of Canadian bicycling advocates in Moscow for Winter Bike Congress 2018. It was too much fun. The closed-streets ride along the river to Red Square with my wife and thousands of others was revolutionary joy. But all of that is another story.

Shelagh in Moscow.

The last day of the conference featured awards handed out by the Winter Bike To Work Day organizers. Winter Bike To Work Day is an annual event to get people—especially in places where bicycling is still thought to simply be a summer recreational activity—to commit to ride their bicycle to work, in winter, one day a year. There is a friendly competition on the side, as participants register on behalf of their cities and cities go head to head for bragging rights. Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, won the day with 1,393 registered riders. With 1,165 participants, Denver placed second. For the record, Edmonton finished 10th, and, with 218 winter riders who worked their way to work, was the top Canadian city.

With Torrin (left) and Anders (right) of Winter Bike To Work Day.

Today, as I navigated my way on 20-psi tires back from the grocery store, I lost some of my grip on Winter Bike To Work. I mean: what work was that little word To doing? Was it a preposition indicating location; that is, the workplace? Or was it part of an infinitive verb, to work? Are we celebrating riding a bicycle, instead of an automobile, to one’s place of employment, or is the emphasis on the labour necessary to move a machine in order to be then moved by it?
I suggest we accept both readings. The first because it’s obviously true, and the second because it keeps open a path to another reason, whether in summer or winter, to ride a bicycle. We ride to where we are going. And we also ride to how we are going. Riding a bicycle imprints on us from a young age an egalitarian truth. The I doing the work is the I enjoying the freedom. Frick.

This piece originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Follow Glenn on Twitter.

A practical guide for choosing when to ride a bike

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

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

Bike pics from Montréal

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

In the ’hood

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

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



Commuting

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

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

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

Urban cycling in Vancouver

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

Non-traditional places

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

Cargo Bike

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

Longer rides

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

Just do it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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