Tag: Winter Bikes

My perfect winter bike really exists, and I just bought it

Priority Continuum

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike for my commute?

For years, I’ve ridden the same winter commuting bike, which I affectionately, but sometimes derisively, refer to as my p.o.s.: a crappy 20-year-old mountain bike whose best days were in the last century.

Finally got my new (to me) ride on the road for the season. #yycbike

I converted this 20-year-old Specialized to a single-speed in an attempt to avoid rust.

While I do have a soft spot in my heart for this bike, that spot often grows hard. The machine is an entirely practical choice: after the salty slush of my commute destroyed an older, beloved bike, I turned to this one begrudgingly. With minimal components and a frequently replaced chain, it does the job. It also, however, clicks when I pedal, has untrustworthy brakes, can’t take a bike rack, lacks the components for proper fenders, and often rides like it has a deflated soul.

Which leaves me wondering why I have never seen a bike specially made for winter commutes. I know what I would like: aluminum frame to resist rust, good fenders, a strong rack for waterproof panniers, disk brakes that work in the cold, internal gear hubs that keep out moisture, studded tires, and either a belt drive or some kind of chain guard to keep the drivetrain clean and dry. All at a price reasonable enough to remain practical. In other words: a practical, low-maintenance, affordable, rust-resistant bike. That bike may exist somewhere in the world, but it always felt as accessible as a mermaid.

I’ve long felt like this was a failure of the bike industry. Obsessed with selling high-end performance bikes, the fact that a winter commuter wasn’t readily available seemed like another miss by an industry that is only starting to catch on to the idea of bikes as a form of urban transportation.

But then, my own busty fish-damsel emerged from the sea in the form of a smiling dude named David standing in the lobby of a bike-industry event beside a rather plain looking bike. Something about that machine caught my eye, and I went in for a closer look. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened. Was this my dream winter bike?

Priority Continuum

My mermaid was David Weiner, founder of Priority Bicycles, a New York-based online retailer that specializes in practical, low-stress urban bikes. And he was hawking the Continuum under the idea that it was a four-season commuter bike. While I was skeptical at first, I quickly found the machine was like the Millennium Falcon in that she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts:

Priority Continuum

Aluminum frame (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Belt drive and internally geared hub (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Decent fenders (to keep my ass dry)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Hydraulic disc brakes (for cold-weather stopping power)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Twist shifter (for use with warm mittens)? Check.

In fact, Weiner told me the Continuum was built specifically with year-round commuters in mind.

“Simply, I wanted to build bikes that my friends could ride year round without worrying about maintenance, and at an affordable price,” Weiner told me via email. “When we launched the EIGHT last year we were surprised with how well it sold in the winter season and how many customers were coming to us telling us that it was their winter commuter of choice. This of course made sense due to the rust/grease-free drivetrain.

“However, one complaint we had was that the hub could freeze in extreme temperatures.  We started to think that there must be a better solution… Hence we worked on upgrading the EIGHT with a NuVinci hub (ideal for sub-freezing weather and the ultimate in no maintenance) and some incredibly durable fenders.”

I was convinced. I pulled out my credit card and my order was placed within the week. A few days later, a big box arrived containing the first new bike I’ve ever purchased exclusively for use in winter. Just in time for a cold snap.

As far as cyclists go, I’m not much of a gear-head. While I perform basic bike maintenance myself, one of my ultimate goals in a winter commuter is to reduce maintenance. My big enemy in this fight has always been rust. In my icy, slushy city, salt is my Moriarty. And simply hosing off a bike after a commute is not an option in a city where hoses quickly freeze and stay frozen.

So riding my Continuum through the tail end of a Canadian winter has been a test. We’ve had a few bitingly cold days, a bit of late-season snow, and a whole lot of slush, ice and salt as we lurch into spring and the snow melts.

As you can see, rust can be relentless. It’s already hit some components.

Priority Continuum

Rust is already gathering on some parts of the bike, after only a few weeks of use.

But on the important parts, the Continuum is riding smooth and rust-free. The best part? I have spent almost no time thinking about the bike. I’m not worried about the chain, or the brakes or anything else. It just works.

Priority Continuum

The drive-train, thanks to the belt-drive and internal gears, is free of rust.

Is this the ultimate winter bike? I’m not quite ready to declare that (ask me in the middle of next February), but it’s been holding up very well for me. The NuVinci hub has withstood the cold, the belt drive has stayed smooth in the ice and snow, and the fenders have been keeping my ass dry.

I’m not yet ready to give up my old mantra that the ultimate winter bike is the one that works for you. But perhaps what’s more important is that the bike industry is finally coming around to the idea that people are riding bikes all year round in cities. Thanks Priority. It’s about time.

 

Here’s why people are riding bikes in one of the world’s coldest cities

“Postholing” is a new cycling verb I learned this week, defined to me as I lay prone in three feet of light powder at -26 C in the sub-Arctic taiga of northern Canada.

For the record, the word describes what happens when your foot sinks deep into snow, as any showshoer (sans snowshoe) knows. When it comes to fatbiking, however, it tends to occur along a packed trail when you slow to a stop and place a foot down into the adjacent powder that looks only a few centimeters deep, but is, in actuality, up to your crotch. Your foot sinks deep into what now looks like a hole dug for a fence post, and the rest of your body follows, sprawling into the powder. Laughter, usually, ensues.

That was only one of the things I learned on a recent trip to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, a city of 20,000 that hugs the shores of the massive, frozen (at least it was when I was there) Great Slave Lake. I was invited by David Stephens or Boralis Bike Tours Unlimited (go book a guided fat-bike trip with him right now, especially if you want to take the last-ever trip down the ice road to Arctic coast) to speak about winter cycling, but it’s entirely possible I learned more from Yellowknifers than I could ever hope to teach them.

Yellowknife is an idiosyncratic, oft-overlooked, and completely charming, aberration. Outsiders may think this place shouldn’t exist, with its harsh weather, unforgiving environment, and isolation, but that shows what outsiders know. Yellowknife is a vibrant, diverse, endlessly surprising place. Lured by the promise of adventure, people from all over the world make their homes here, giving life to heritage shacks built into ancient bedrock and houseboats socked in by ice for half the year.

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And even in mid-March, when a temperature of -15 C was greeted as a heat wave, there are people everywhere outdoors enjoying the season, even on bicycles.

Yes, even here, perhaps the least likely place in the world to think about riding a bike, people have found that two wheels can be a key to a better life. In fact, Yellowknife has some qualities that make it a great place for bikes. Here’s a list I’ve been keeping:

  • The city is small, meaning distances are short and easy to ride. As Stephens told me before I arrived: It’s possible to ride your bike to your destination in the same time it takes to simply warm up your car. Speed limits are slow, and car traffic is light.
  • The snow is uniquely favourable to bikes. With the cold temperatures, there’s little of the freeze-melt ice cycle that bedevils other cities. The snow that gets packed offers good traction in most places.
  • It’s too cold here for salt to be effective as an ice-melter, so it’s rarely used. That means you’re not risking rust every time you take your bike into the streets. It also helps keep the city nice and white for most of the winter, rather than the snirty brown of other places.
  • This place is awesome for fatbiking. Stephens guided me through some glorious trails that spread in and around the city. Ample snowfall in evergreen forests is quickly packed down by snowmobiles, which creates ideal tracks for fatbikes that are ringed with delightful powder (as evidenced by the aforementioned post-holing).
  • Once the lake freezes, roads are plowed on the ice, which create nice shortcuts for bikes, especially after a stabilizing layer of packed snow lays down (and imagine riding a fat bike beneath the northern lights on an ice highway. Go ahead, imagine it.)

But what I found most inspiring here was the way Yellowknifers deal with winter. Unlike farther south, I rarely heard people complain about the winter. Some have simply accepted it as a reality of life in the north, but most people I encountered told me they actually enjoy it. They were quick to offer tips about staying warm, they showed off clothing and tricks that I had never encountered before, and the city is full of fun events to get people enjoying winter. 

Stephens even organized my speaking engagement in the great hall of the Snowking’s snow castle, an amazing structure built of packed snow (don’t you dare call it an “ice” castle) that is the locus of a month-long winter festival. So, in other words, I delivered my speech in a snow castle on a frozen lake, which I feel confident saying would not happen anywhere else.

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This is the kind of attitude that primes a community to year-round cycling. There’s a core group of people in town who have already seen the benefits, but I’m willing to bet a little nudge would encourage a whole raft of other people to give it a try. Some safe bike infrastructure, a commitment to maintaining bike routes all year, some reliable bike parking locations and even some support of the local fatbiking community would go a long way.

After all, people who have verb to describe a specific way of falling into the snow are probably well on their way to a more bike-friendly life already.

The epic winter bike rides of this musician make your commute look paltry

It’s not easy being an independent musician in Canada. The pay is low. Tours are difficult because of the long distances. The wolves sometimes stalk you.

OK, that last one may only apply to one musician in Canada: Felipe Gomez, a Chilean-born bass player living in Saskatchewan who has, for the past several years, been riding a bicycle to gigs all across Canada. I mean that literally: He has crossed Canada with his instrument on his back, across tens of thousands of kilometres, stopping for tiny gigs all along the way, once even being paced by wolves.

Filipe Gomez riding his bike through the Richardson Mountains in Canada's far north.

Felipe Gomez riding his bike through the Richardson Mountains in Canada’s far north.

I met Gomez last year while participating in a snowy group winter ride on a cold Saskatoon afternoon. I wasn’t sure what to make of him when he first pulled up beside me and started chatting, recounting some unbelievable road stories behind a big smile in his accented English. When he told me he had recently returned from a bike-and-bass tour, as he calls them, of the far north, I was skeptical. When he said that included riding his bike up the Dempster highway, and the associated ice bridges, to the Arctic coast in the middle of winter, I was tempted to just pull away from this deranged liar.

But his stories kept coming, and he won me over with his infectious positivity and photographic evidence.

Now, at a time when most Canadian musicians are parking the touring van for the winter, Gomez is finishing up a snowy 4,000 kilometre journey through northern Saskatchewan, where he performed gigs and spoke at high schools that rarely see travelling musicians, and never on bicycles. It’s safe to say that Gomez may be the world’s most accomplished winter-bicycle travelling bass player.

Gomez on the ice road toward tuktoyaktuk, on Canada's Arctic coast, in 2015.

Gomez on the ice road toward tuktoyaktuk, on Canada’s Arctic coast, in 2015.

“I have done about 14,000 kilometres in Canada so far. Nunavut is the only place I haven’t cycled yet,” Gomez recently wrote to me in a Facebook message from who-knows-where in northern Saskatchewan. “I’ve learned that, in geography, Canadians all live in really different terrains, but at heart they are quite similar: They are all proud of their land, and often really generous with food and offers of places where I can stay.”

Epic bike rides in Canada are hardly rare, but Gomez seems to approach the entire experience differently. He’s not out to prove anything. Rather, he strikes me as a true explorer, with a desire to see as much of his adopted country as he can, and meet people along the way through his music.

Throughout his journeys, he’s adopted an inspiring mantra, which he recounts in speeches in school auditoriums between music gigs. He encourages kids to be unafraid of failure as a way of taking the kinds of risks that make life richer.

“I’ve learned that it is OK to fail at something, but fear can’t be the one thing that makes decisions for me,” he says.

He’s also become an advocate for winter cycling, in a different way than the extreme athletes who tend to undertake such epic trips.

He says his long, cold journeys started innocently, when he asked a friend in the bike industry if it was possible to travel on a northern ice road by bicycle. “I guess I was hoping for him to tell me that I was crazy and don’t do it,” he said. Instead, the friend gifted him with a bike and said he should try it. “Next thing I know, I am cycling the Dempster highway in -20 C with my bass.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to complain about a cold weekday commute when Gomez posts a smiling photo of himself in a stark winter landscape that is 200 cold kilometres from the nearest town, followed by smiling photos from such isolated places as Stoney Rapids and Uranium City, Sask. In the hands of someone else, such posts might come off as humblebrags. From Gomez, it feels like he’s actually reveling in the experience.

“I’ve learned that you don’t have to be ‘hardcore’ or ‘extreme’ to do this. All you need if you are on the city is to jump on the bike,” he says. “I’ve been in communities in northern parts of Canada where people bicycle ice roads to go to work, with no special gear or even fat-tire bikes, just normal bikes.

“After a 10 minutes ride to work in a cold refreshing day, I promise you that you will have a way better day.”

Gomez says the more he rides, and the more he sees of Canada, the more he wants to share his story. He has an event planned in his adopted home town of Saskatoon on Dec. 14, and more journeys lie ahead of him.

“I want to share the beauty of this country, and invite kids and youth to explore the outdoors and live and active life,” he says.

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