Tanya takes on a wintery Queen Street West. Photo courtesy of Spacing.
** In anticipation of our Winter Web Issue we’re looking back at past winter cycling articles by our dandy team.
by Tammy Thorne
Originally published in the National Post on February 16, 2008
Torontonians are reputed to be whiners when it comes to weather. But, as Canadians, we are better known for our innate drive to conquer the elements. It is in our bones, part of our history. A robust people who embrace our northern landscape in all its inclement glory, we refuse to be kept inside by a simple snow squall.
A typical Torontonian is more likely to be injured teetering along in a pair of fashionable boots on an icy sidewalk than riding a bike to work. Yet winter cyclists in the city are met with mixed reactions that range from amusement to disbelief to hostility. Studded tires cost about the same as a pair of cute boots, but you don’t need them for winter city cycling. So then if not studded tires — and besides a kind of rugged and patriotic disposition — what do you need to become a winter cyclist?
Derek Chadbourne, bike mechanic and owner of the reputable shop The Bike Joint, has been a winter cyclist for 21 years. He says the three most common misconceptions about winter cycling are: “It’s too cold, too dangerous and you need big studded tires. Untrue!” All you really need are good gloves, warm layers and fenders, he says, emphasizing the latter. “Do not skimp on coverage, because there is nothing more unattractive than a big brown stripe up your backside.”
Long-time winter cyclists Tanya Quinn and Brandon Zagorski swear by their wind and waterproof gear. Quinn, an IT manager, says her rain pants do the trick to keep slush off “Staying fit, having fun and efficient travel” are the main reasons why she bikes in winter, plus, she says, “It’s easy to find a spot on the bike rack.” But she laments the city’s dismal snow clearing attempts. “Snow accumulates at the sides of the road so you have to take space in the middle. Some drivers don’t respect that. Few bike lanes are usable — that is, cleared — during winter. Instead, they are used as snow repositories by the ploughs.”
Zagorski also cites a shrinking share of the road as the biggest challenge. Side streets narrowed by snow accumulation create situations that are “too close for comfort” when he is towing his child in a bike trailer behind him. On the upside, he notes that motorists drive slowly during winter.
Lack of road space can be even more dismaying for new winter cyclists. Keegan Barker and Deborah Adams say that snow in bike lanes does make an otherwise exhilarating commute more challenging. As to how she got started, Barker points to unreliable public transit as a factor in her decision to switch a few years ago. “Transit took about one hour in the winter. Biking took 20 minutes. The bus was smelly, while the air was crisp. The bus was soggy, while with the right gear, I was dry and warm,” she says.
Adams, a mother of two, started this year because it was the most logical choice. “I changed jobs and am now so close it just makes sense. Even in bad weather, I get to work more quickly than I would on the streetcar or in my car. And, when I ride to work, I inevitably arrive in a much better mood than I would have if I had taken the TTC.”
Besides the obvious timesaving and mood-enhancing effects of biking, winter cyclists can also feel good about doing their part for the environment. This is especially relevant for short trips since a large amount of a car’s pollutants are emitted as it starts up. This big slug of dirty exhaust is inevitable during “cold starts,” therefore cars have a much greater relative emission amount per kilometre for short trips.
If winter cycling conditions are going to improve (weather aside), a change in social attitudes may be what is needed most. Doug Manuel, senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and associate professor in the department of public health at the University of Toronto, is a 12-year winter biking veteran and presents evidence that change is possible.
“Social attitudes, or norms, toward bike transportation can change — no question. Look no further than what recently happened in Paris with smoke-free restaurants — not to mention that huge bike-share program. In our report, we would say they have incredible leadership, but also note the changing attitude of populations.” Manuel refers to a report by the ICES studying how leading jurisdictions encourage healthy behaviour in their populations.
There’s no getting around snow as a physical barrier for cyclists, but other than clearing bike lanes, the feasibility of winter biking may come down to a change in attitudes. Luckily for Toronto, we really only have to adjust our attitude for about three months of the year.
If you’ve been stuck in traffic in recent weeks, you’ve probably noticed the only people getting anywhere fast are cyclists. Keen to give up the four-door for two wheels? Here are some tips for giving winter biking a go.
Lights: Lots of lights, front and back. LEDs are bright and long-lasting.
Fenders: May need to adjust them to make room for snow build up on tires.
Gloves: Most popular are Lobster Mitts (available at Mountain Equipment Co-op.) Anything warm will work!
Windproof outer layers: Jacket should be a windproof and breathable outer layer that preserves heat. The ideal bottoms are wind and waterproof rain pants ($30 to $50 at MEC).
Head and ear coverage: Thin balaclava or earmuffs work well with a helmet, or the classic Canadian toque.
Boots: “Overbooties” slip over shoes like a dream and may even work better than wool socks at keeping your feet warm. (PS Wear wool socks!)
Plastic bags: Good for seat cover, waterproofing panniers or substandard footwear.
Clean or alternate bike: Clean your bike after winter rides or buy a cheap “beater” bike for winter use.
Ice: Do not brake. Pedal and/or steer straight. Be aware that there may be ice under snow or black ice anywhere on uneven pavement. Lower tire pressure helps on bumpy road conditions, such as frozen snow ruts, and also increases traction. Studded tires are useful if you do a lot of ice biking.
Wet pants: Fenders are a must, and in combination with rain pants, you’ll be dry as a whistle.
Frozen lock: Buy lock de-icer or try adding a drop of oil to prevent freezing. (Some pour boiling hot water over frozen lock but if it’s really cold, that water will just freeze again.)
Impatient motorists: Stay calm and confident. Be aware that all traffic must use caution due to winter road conditions. Ride in a straight predictable line. Take the lane. Be visible. Be aware.
Frozen eyelashes: Use goggles or glasses, and perhaps waterproof mascara.
Note from Tammy: I began my “research” for this story by talking with other winter cyclists back when I was a blogger for Spacing and I Bike TO. During the winter of 2007/8 I posted a series of profiles on the wonderful creatures known as winter cyclists… the photos in this blog post are from this Spacing post with my pal Tanya Quinn: aka Crazy Biker Chick. Brandon was also an inspiration for winter cyclists and this National Post story. The original photos of Tanya and Brandon that appeared in the National Post can be seen here.
dandyhorse will launch our first winter web issue this February with cross-Canada winter cyclist profiles that focus on gear.