Tag: Winter

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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