Tag: Winter

How to keep your feet warm while cycling in winter

It didn’t strike like lightning. It was more like a subconscious feeling created by its absence until one day I finally noticed. Hey, I thought. My feet aren’t cold.

That was a good day, as have many since then. It seems a small thing, and I didn’t realize it until I realized it, but toasty feet have since become one of the keys to my winter bicycling habit.

Feet are often an overlooked part of winter, and they certainly were for me in the beginning. Too many of us who live in winter climates don’t adjust our footwear for winter. You’ve seen those slaves to fashion: standing at a bus stop in subzero temperatures with ankles bare against a nor’easter, or standing in a drift of snow in basketball shoes that are absorbing meltwater that will be delivered later in a frigid day-long trickle.

(I once heard of a program to donate warm wool socks to poor kids stuck wearing ankle socks in February because that’s all they could afford. It was cleverly called Tall Sock Tuesdays. I bet you could offer the same program at a downtown law firm and find just as many takers. The next time you hear a grownup complain about being cold in winter, check their socks. My money is on cotton thinsies.)

Frostbike Winter Cycling trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Too many cyclists hang on to their cycling shoes through the winter. Ditch them in favour of something warmer. Photo by Tom Babin.

The same foot neglect applies all-too often to those who want to extend their love of bicycles into the colder months. Generally, staying warm on a bike is easy. Pedaling legs will keep your core warm. Most of us understand the importance of keeping our heads covered (thanks, moms). Cold hands are the early-warning system of autumn, so by winter most of us have found a good glove/mitten/pogie combination.

Feet, however, tend to be overlooked. Many people on bikes are reluctant to give up their cycling shoes, having swallowed the professional racing notion that being clipped into your pedals will make you faster, an idea that author Grant Peterson dispels in his great book Just Ride (unless you are a pro, he writes, almost all of your pedalling power comes from the downstroke. At best, being clipped in will slightly reduce the drag of your upstroke, not add any additional power). Sadly, most cycling shoes suck in winter. They don’t keep the heat, they rarely keep out the moisture, and they keep your trapped on the pedal when you need them to stabilize yourself over ice.

The opposite approach can also be problematic. Once I gave up the idea of putting foot warmth ahead of everything else, I started wearing my giant -30 C winter boots on my cold bike rides. The boots are great for shoveling snow, but on a bike they felt big, bulky and sweaty. I still wear them on those truly frigid days, but arriving to my destination while looking like I’m dressed for a narwhal hunt is not a great option either.

For me, the Rosetta Stone of winter urban cycling footwear came in a pair of Australian leather slip-on boots. Purchased originally as a nice autumn option, I just kept wearing them as the season changed. They were warm, resisted water, and could be inconspicuously worn at the office all day. Then, one day in the middle of winter, after weeks of riding through the snow and cold, it dawned on me: I couldn’t remember the last time I complained of cold feet. These boots were awesome.

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My well-worm Blundstones are a key for winter cycling, keeping my feet warm during the commute, while wearable at the office all day. Photo by Tom Babin.

For me it was a pair of Blundstones, but this has nothing to do with a brand (the company isn’t paying me to write this, I swear). Innumerable brands and styles will do. What’s important is that they are boots; warm, dry and wearable all day long. When paired with a good pair of tall winter socks (preferably merino-wool), these boots have proven their mettle in all but the worst winter weather.

Even as I write this, I realize it sounds like a no-brainer verging on mainsplaining: “Boots keep your feet warm. Thanks for the revelation, loser.” But it took me so long to realize this, and I so often hear people complaining about cold feet while riding, and I’m committed to my theory that cold feet are at the root of many people’s subconscious hatred of winter, that it feels worth sharing.

In short: Ditch the cycling shoes. Buy warm socks. Wear good boots. Enjoy winter.

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

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.

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.

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