Is it winter cycling, or just winter? A review of Frostbike by Tom Babin
Story by Jeff Carson
For Tom Babin, writer, journalist and bike blogger, the central question at the heart of his book, Frostbike, seems simple enough: Is winter biking viable? But as he becomes more dependent on his bike for commuting, the more problems he seems to find. From the icy Calgary streets he navigates to work, to the quest for the perfect winter bike, Babin explores the challenges of the season for us lovers of two-wheeled travel.
Babin approaches cycling as a relative novice; he's more concerned with escaping his daily commute in his minivan, as opposed to training for the Tour de France. His lack of focus on gear and his practical approach to cycling make for an un-intimidating intro to the book. Want to go out of your way to stay on paths and off main roads? Cool. Only have a junker bike in the garage? No problem. The willingness of to find solutions that work for him organically gives the book a strong push from the outset.
In addition to Babin’s own quest for winter cycling perfection, the book is framed by the tales from other winter cyclists. He looks at the conditions winter presents through the point-of-view of a hopeful prospector heading to Nome, Alaska, via bike during the gold rush. He recounts the creation of the fat bike, the snow-conquering monster now surging in popularity, and also the stories of extreme sports enthusiasts try to translate their love of mountain biking to snow-covered trails. Lastly, Babin tells the story of a professional cyclist who pushes his will to keep riding to the limit during a brutal stage of the Giro d’Italia.
These stories do a wonderful job of highlighting what Babin sees as the three main barriers winter cyclists face - the weather, the bike and the will to ride - and how people have overcome them. They also reveal the tendency of the book to equate winter cycling with toughness, or machismo. The women Babin meets throughout the book are generally secondary to his goal of finding winter cycling bliss, relegated to giving him sandwiches for his rides, or looking stylish while effortlessly navigating well-groomed bike paths in Scandinavia. Babin addresses the aggressiveness and male-centric tendencies of winter cycling towards the end of the book, but the overall lack of female insight into the central issue, for much of the book, makes it come across as a bit of an afterthought. Which is unfortunate, since the author started out with the premise that you don't need special gear to bike during the winter.
Babin spends a large portion of Frostbike trying to define the role cities themselves play in promoting (or discouraging) winter cycling. His hometown of Calgary, while clearly a city with many cyclists, isn’t exactly known for its heavy investment in cycling infrastructure. To find what a difference those investments can make, Babin heads to a small city in Finland, Oulu, which one resident called, “the best cycling city in the world,” and Copenhagen, which has become famous in cycling and municipal policy circles for its investment in bike infrastructure. Both cities come across as veritable biking utopias, where bikes are built into everyday life.
The experience Babin has in these cities doesn’t serve as a scold of North American municipalities, rather it shifts the focus to the attitudes surrounding cycling. Even though many northern European cities experience severe winters, it’s difficult to compare them to North American cities on a structural level. It’s the commonplace nature of winter biking that Babin finds most striking and serves as a major shift in his approach to cycling back home.
Changing attitudes about winter is difficult, as Babin acknowledges, but it’s what he sees as the biggest struggle in getting more people to see winter biking as a viable way of commuting. And so he softens, somewhat, on his views around the toughness required for successful winter cycling and starts to embrace the season as an essential part of the Canadian experience, not an enemy to be overcome.
It’s this transition in attitude that makes Frostbike’s approach feel fresh and relevant. It’s not about the bike, it’s not about the lanes, it’s not about being tougher than everyone else; winter biking starts from changing our relationship with the season itself.
(Although, we do appreciate it when the city clears our bike lanes. It really is helpful for us who chose to commute by bike in winter.)
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