February 09, 2015

Nothing Wrong With Winter Cycling!

Upon seeing this title, some of you may be wondering “are you nuts?” Even for someone whose favourite activity since childhood has been cycling, I didn’t start biking regularly in winter until a couple of years ago. Looking back, I see it as a way of not letting our Canadian winters stop us from doing what we enjoy the rest of the year. After all, we still need to get to work or school, and we don’t make a big deal about people doing other activities in the snow such as jogging. To prove my point, I will discuss a recent bike ride, a book I recently finished, and some winter cycling tips.

“Coldest Day of the Year” Ride
Coldest Day Ride on Adelaide Street
On Saturday, January 31, Cycle Toronto hosted their annual “Coldest Day of the Year” Ride. While not exactly the coldest day, given that day’s high was -3’C, the aim is still to promote winter cycling in Toronto. This year, about 200 cyclists rallied at Trinity Bellwoods Park, with guest speeches from Ward 20 Councillor Joe Cressy and Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, the City’s new Manager of Cycling Infrastructure and Programs. The theme of the speeches centered on last year’s progress and the work that lies ahead.
Metro Hall - Photo Credit: Craig Major
The ride was short (about three kilometres), which went south on Strachan, east on Adelaide to honour the work of Cycle Toronto advocates in making the cycle track pilot project a reality, and south on Simcoe before reaching Metro Hall. Along the ride, some bystanders asked about the ride and some cyclists were decked out with fat bikes, flags, and even a man with a white fur coat. After the ride, participants were invited for a social at the nearby Elephant and Castle pub. There was also some media attention leading up to the ride.

If I have to give a cycling analogy to Tom Babin’s “Frostbike”, it’s the reading equivalent of riding a road bike! By that, I was referring to how fast I finished reading it compared to other books of similar page count. The book clearly identified three areas of focus, which were the bike, the city, and the attitude; all of which were backed up with rich historical references. Heck, the idea of winter cycling is almost as old as the bicycle itself with winter bike journeys dating back to the Klondike gold rush at the start of the 20th century. There are various adaptations such as bicycles with skate blades and fat bikes with extra wide tires designed to handle snowy trails, as well as how winter cycling is viewed as simply “something to deal with” in European cities such as Oulu, Finland and Copenhagen. Cyclists will bike year round as long as the infrastructure is cleared. It’s a matter of changing our attitudes, in which the media portrayed winter as negative and some technological advances sheltered us from winter.

Last night, Babin gave a winter cycling lecture in Toronto, followed by a lively discussion with local cyclists. He mentioned Toronto has the potential for winter cycling with density, people on bikes, and culture. The only thing missing is infrastructure, though he mentioned snow clearing on Adelaide is a good start.
With Author Tom Babin - Photo Credit: Janet Joy Wilson

Helpful Tips

If you are considering winter cycling, here are some Toronto specific tips.

1. Each city has unique winter challenges – While Babin referred to Calgary’s chinook winds and associated freeze-melt cycles as that city’s main hazard, the main non-infrastructure concern for Toronto cyclists is streetcar tracks. Personally, I had a couple of close calls on those tracks and find it’s better to avoid them when possible. If you cannot, just remember the 90 degree angle when crossing the intersection or walk your bike if needed.
2. Studded tires may not be needed – While certain sports such as ice bike racing require studded tires and rougher trails require fat bikes, winter-specific gear depends on your city’s winter and some trial and error. In Toronto, where winters are not as cold and snowy, standard tires may be fine (they work for my hybrid), though you may prefer studded for improved traction. My only rule is not to use road bikes in winter. Their narrow tires cannot handle the slush and streetcar tracks.
3. Take the lane – While Toronto’s new cycle tracks have been reasonably plowed this winter, painted bike lanes are not and at times, the contraflow bike lanes are impassible. While Toronto’s bike lane snow removal program should be expanded next winter, I recommend taking the full car lane when the bike lane is blocked with snow.
4. Be extra vigilant – Since winter days get dark early, lights and reflective gear are required. You will also need to oil and clean your bike more often to prevent salt corrosion (every 2 – 3 rides at least, if you can’t every ride). Last, but not least, slow down when approaching slush and streetcar tracks.
5. Just try it! – After all, you may decide not to go back to transit or driving!

Happy frost-biking!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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