Two wheels / One frozen city
Winter commuting in Winnipeg by bike
Story by James Patterson
Photos of James and his bike by Kristen Bromilow
The original decision to start winter biking was a simple, unassuming one; as I was on my way to the gym one morning, I began thinking about how it was situated off of a bus route, and just too far to get to by foot. I have unfettered access to a car, but I’m not a huge fan of driving short distances – and driving to the gym seems somehow wrong. I’m the type of cyclist who finds joy in my daily commute and overall, cycling makes up over 80 per cent of my vehicular transportation. The solution, obviously, was to bike to the gym even in the winter. But as my wheels were turning I thought: Why stop there? And so it was decided: I would commute by bike each and every day this winter.
All my life I had experienced Winnipeg winters, but I really had no idea what to expect from a Winnipeg winter biking other than the facts; I would be cold, I would be considered somewhat crazy, and people close to me would openly and repeatedly ponder my choice and safety as winter loomed. But, as the season changed, it was my excitement that loomed larger.
I would be experiencing around 30 days of minus-20 degree highs, not including that biting wind chill in one of Canada’s coldest cities – aka “Winterpeg.”
To most Canadians it is understood that Winnipeg’s winters are, to be kind, legendary; something written about in novels, poems and songs (like the great song Prairie Town by Neil Young and Randy Bachmann, which features the chorus line: “Portage and Main, 50 below”). Many earmark Winnipeg as a place of great bands and artists, sometimes the rationale for the creative surge is “what else is there to do during winter in Winnipeg.” It’s a place where, on the coldest days, spit can freeze before it hits the ground. So how could someone rationally decide to bike here?
To the surprise of many, people do bike during Winnipeg’s winter and most think nothing of it. Shortly after making my decision, I talked to a few friends who’d done it and they all loved it. It seemed to open up winter for them. It got them out of the house when the thought of warming up the car, waiting at the bus stop or walking in the frigid air kept them inside. This piqued my interest and made the challenge even more exciting.
In the months leading up to my first season of winter cycling I obsessively readied for it, I spent far too much of my downtime reading tips on what tools and gear I needed for winter cycling. I found many articles that encouraged giving winter cycling a try, but still there were many daunting descriptions of the cold that seemed to reinforce the idea that winter cyclists are tough road warriors pedalling into horizontal snowstorms in solitude. Not to mention the challenge of determining the perfect number of layers needed to both avoid hypothermia and overheating (such as waterproof footwear).
So, to get some sort of clarity about what was actually needed to winter cycle, I talked to people in the courier community and in bike shops, which resulted in more conflicting advice. Some swore that you must use a fixed-gear, others said “take off those derailleurs,” use a frame that you don’t care about—the salt will eat it anyways— others advocated slick tires as opposed to knobby, and fenders were a must. On and on the advice went. (Others—and I would later find out these would usually be people who have never winter cycled—advocated for studded tires that will make an incessant clicking noise on the bare road, which is what you’ll be riding on most the time.) Despite the varied perspectives, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey towards winter cycling was gaining a deeper understanding of how my bike actually worked and understanding how I ride in different conditions.
A friend had gifted me a Manitoba-made Sekine 10-speed, produced in the’70s or ’80s, which became my winter bike. What would the bike need to be winterized? I opted for a set of strong rims, a flip-flop hub, pursuit handlebars, and some slightly knobby cyclo-cross tires. With these tweaks the Sekine became my primary commuter and shortly thereafter, my favourite bike. I took some of the advice I had received into consideration—like different types of tire traction on snow and ice—but decided my best course was to be open-minded and versatile in my first season of winter cycling. I’ll probably try other gear, like adding studded tires, for when I ride to work on the frozen Assiniboine river. (Stay tuned for the inaugural winter web issue of dandyhorse this February, which will include James’ Bike Spotting winter cyclist Q&A profile.)
The first snow and the new rules
Around mid-November the first snow hit. Winnipeg’s streets had become nearly absent of cyclists weeks before, levelling out to only about 15 to 20 sightings a day, as opposed to the usual few hundred fair-weather two wheelers. I was actually surprised at the number of people still pedalling to work. The temperature was dipping to minus 15 at night and then we got about five centimetres of the white stuff. Riding home in rush hour traffic, after a fresh snowfall, for the first time, on one of Winnipeg’s main arterial roads, was a harrowing experience. Being seen by other traffic was paramount, as drivers were just getting accustomed to the winter roads, as was I. Traction wasn’t the problem, but the ragged, busy roads packed with snow, limited curb space and antsy drivers made for a good trial-by-fire experience. I took it slow and had to learn to assert myself, to ensure I had enough space on the road, riding out from the snow-packed curb. Having only been a seasonal cyclist until this year, rush hour traffic in the dark was an event that my research hadn’t quite prepared me for. It became clear to me instantly: Lights are the most important winter cycling must-have item for year-round commuters.
Within a day of the first snowfall all the main roads and bus routes were plowed clear of snow and it was back to cycling with somewhat normal traction again, at least on main routes. Bus routes and arterial roads were the way to go, especially if you have dedicated bus/bike lanes. I would keep slow on side streets but scoot along as fast as I wanted on these main streets. Surprisingly, traffic—even buses—treated me with much more respect than I had ever encountered before (if only that were true in the Summer months!?). Also, given that most city sidewalks become icy goat paths (due to sub-standard political priorities about snow removal), winter cyclists probably have an easier time than most pedestrians as Winnipeg.
In a short time it became a joy to do the 20-km-plus bike commute in winter, in Winnipeg.
One of the major adjustments so far has been finding the right clothing and wearing what is appropriate. Too little attire and you’re frozen, too much and you’re virtually in a duck down-encased sauna. If you’re over dressed, shorter trips will leave you sweating like Richard Simmons to the golden oldies and prompt many a furrowed brow from co-workers in the morning. On longer trips your sweat welcomes the cold in and can become dangerous over time.
Again, my research revealed that there is plenty of information out there for what’s needed; from four pairs of socks, neoprene facemasks, sweat-wicking long underwear (I really recommend this), arm warmers to hand pogies (essentially large handlebar mittens that stay on your bike, removing the need for oversized gloves). There’s a litany of choices and it's hard to know what is right for you—until you try it.
From one day to the next, especially in the early parts of winter, Winnipeg temperatures fluctuate between plus 4 and minus 35 degrees with the wind chill. Despite this being one of the mildest winters on record, I’ve already biked through most of these conditions this season. Anything below minus 20 and I’ll bring a pair of ski goggles and an added base layer, especially for my hands. Anything below minus 10 and I’ve got long underwear on along with my everyday staples of a tube scarf, windproof hoodie, cross-country ski gloves, toque and helmet. Inside my commuter bag is a small set of tools, hand pump and a spare tube. In the end I’ve never found myself too hot or too cold, only refreshed by the exercise I’ve got when I arrive at the office or return home.
Aside from the odd looks you get when you show up at a Winnipeg Jets game on your bike, or the increased frequency of cleaning and lubing your bike, so far I've found that there’s little tough about winter cycling.
Next up in our winter cycling series, in the lead up to our first winter web issue in February, we'll have a more tips for first time winter cyclists.