We often think of winter cycling as a personal thing, but there’s a lot a city can do to encourage more people to ride a bike year-round. Here are three things that a city can do to make bike commuting and transportation cycling easier in winter.
Perhaps the most common question I get from winter cyclists these days is simple: Why don’t you ride a fat bike for your winter commute?
It’s true, I don’t. I ride a built-for-winter commuter bike that has non-rusting parts and skinny tires. But fat bikes are pretty amazing winter machines, and I’ve ridden plenty of fun miles on one. So here I lay out my case for why a fat bike isn’t my commuter choice, but maybe for you.
My winters changed forever with a smiling dude with curly hair standing behind a bike in the lobby of a conference centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It was an early edition of the Winter Cycling Congress, an annual event that brings winter bike lovers from all over the world together to discuss their favourite misunderstood transportation mode. I was on hand as a journalist-turned-speaker and the smiling dude was David Weiner of Priority Bicycles. Normally, bike conferences are filled with all kinds of bike-industry types flogging their wares, but something about Weiner’s bike stopped me.
I took a closer look and realized it was all there – all the ingredients in my perfect-fantasy winter bike, a wish-list honed over a decade of joy and heartbreak as a year-round bike commuter that included components imagined to withstand the bane of my winters: rust. It had an aluminium frame, a carbon belt drive instead of a chain, internal gears, disc brakes and great fenders. Hurry up and take my money, Mr. Weiner, please.
My original Priority Continuum. Photo by Tom Babin.
And for three winters I rode that Priority Continuum happily, until Weiner emerged again in the form of an email late last year letting me know that he had been hard at work improving the Continuum. The result was a new, improved bike. And did I want to try it? Hurry up and take my money, Mr. Weiner, please.
That improved bike is the Priority Continuum Onyx, and I’ve been riding it for the past few weeks through a Canadian winter. Basically, this is an upgrade to what I hoped, and what grew into, my perfect winter bike. Could it possibly be improved?
First, the upgrades. The Onyx has some differences from the early edition Continuum, and I’ve found most of them to be decided improvements, including the advanced badassness of the paint job (flat black gets two thumbs up from me).
First up is visibility, an important factor when you spend much of the winter riding in darkness. There are two significant improvements in the Onyx. First, is the esthetic design of the bike, which includes significant swaths of reflective paint, which is invisible unless light is directed at it (thereby keeping the rider illuminated without ruining the badassery of the colour scheme). Secondly is that the Onyx comes installed with both front and back lights powered by hub dynamos. In other words, the bike has lights that are powered by your pedalling, which means you never have to worry about external lighting. Hub dynamos are the norm in many bike-friendly countries, and it while the lights aren’t the brightest in the world – I’ll continue to use secondary external lights during the depths of winter – not having to remember to bring your light, charge it and turn it on is something you don’t know you love until you have it. It’s great.
There are a few design tweaks to the bike as well. The seat post is carbon fibre, a material that, when used in commuter bikes, normally prompts eye-rolls in me (do you really need to save a few ounces in weight on a bike that is saddled with your computer and lunch?). However, the back end of the Continuum is heavier than most bikes because of its drivetrain (more on that later), so I’ll take this as a welcome addition. The design also tweaks the dropouts in ways that simplify the addition of fenders and carrying racks, all of which are nice refinements.
Riding the new Priority Continuum Onyx. Photo by Tom Babin.
My favourite part of the original Continuum was always the drivetrain because it felt built for my winter. Instead of a rust-prone chain, it’s powered by a rust-free carbon belt drive, which has performed admirably (mostly) for the three years I’ve ridden it. The new Onyx is also built with an internal hub that uses Nuvinci technology – rather than a derailleur and stepped gears, the hub loosens and tightens based on tension, so the rider has almost an infinite number of gears. One improvement to the Onyx is that the range of that drivetrain has improved, meaning the rider can now shift to higher and lower “gears” than was possible in the past. The limited range on the old Continuum was a pet peeve of mine, and the new range is an improvement. It’s not perfect yet, but this is a winter bike, so rides are slower than summer rides anyway, so I can certainly live with this.
A note of caution: While I am a big fan of this drivetrain, it did pose a couple of problems in deep cold. During a particularly brutal sub -30 C (-22 F) cold snap one winter, the hub froze up on me a couple of times until the friction of my riding warmed things up. And I did snap the carbon belt in the extreme cold as well. Both problems are preventable – a little maintenance can keep the hub running and the manufacturer of the belt drives, Gates, does offer a cold-weather model. So be aware of this if you’re thinking about buying this bike.
There’s something a bit more intangible that I like about the Onyx as well. I find the Onyx to be a bit more efficient in the way it rides. It just feels like a cleaner, most productive bike to pedal, which is especially important in winter. I’m not sure how to account for this but the bike just feels like a more complete and refined package.
One final note on the new bike: Priority is an online bike seller, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. The key advantage is the price – at just over $1,000 US, this is a good price for a decent-quality commuter bike, especially one that seems to eat winters. The key disadvantage, other than having to assemble the bike yourself (which I quite enjoyed, in a DIY hunter-gatherer sort of way) is that it cuts out the local bike shop. Bike shops are essential to bike culture in a city, and it pains me to ride a bike that doesn’t involve a local connection. I try to support bike shops wherever I can, so this is something you should think about before buying a bike.
So did my perfect winter commuter bike improve? It certainly did, and I’m enjoying riding it through all that winter has thrown at me over the past few weeks. I wouldn’t say this is a universal winter bike because winter is so different everywhere. But if you ride through winters like mine, filled with sporadic snowfall, plentiful ice, and mountains of bike-destroying gravel, sand and salt, the new Priority Continuum Onyx should be on your shortlist.
Decorating your bike for Christmas is fun, but can also help make you more visible.
I’ve always wanted to do this, but never quite got deep enough into Clark Griswold mode to get it done. But this is the year I decorate my bike with Christmas lights. This is mostly for fun, but being more visible on the roads during the dark winter months isn’t a bad thing!
Check out my video below to see how I did it (spoiler alert: It’s super easy!).
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.
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.