Winter cycling tips from Copenhagenize

Photos and Words from Copenhagenize

As we have discussed a number of times here at dandyhorse, winter cycling can be a precarious business. What makes a good all-year cycling city? The infrastructure innovators at Copehagenize weighed in on the debate. We previously profiled James Thoem, the firm's Canadian contingent: read about his work here.

Without further adieu we bring you: Winter Cycling Tips from Copenhagenize

#1) Infrastructure

There is no chicken or egg. There is only infrastructure. If you want to increase cycling levels, you modernise your city’s transport infrastructure. Build protected cycle tracks and separate cyclists from motorised traffic and pedestrians. Give everyone their own space. Luckily, Best Practice bicycle infrastructure has existed for more than a century so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Generations of bicycle planners have figured it all out and handed it to us on a platter.

With Best Practice infrastructure molded cleverly into a cohesive bicycle network, the bicycle becomes not only a safe transport choice but also a competitive one. There’s the rub, you see. Make the bicycle the fastest way from A to B in a city - combining it with public transport where necessary - and you’re halfway there.

This basic, century-old concept applies in any city, regardless of topography or climate. In Copenhagen, 56% of the population - all ages and wages - ride a bike daily, 75% of which continue to cycle throughout the dark, Nordic winter. This is thanks to the wide cycle tracks leading everywhere we need to go.

#2) Maintenance

If you design something beautiful, your primary instinct is to take good care of it. Even if you buy something nice, like a designer chair, you do your utmost to make sure it retains it’s beauty. It’s much the same with a bicycle infrastructure network. In Copenhagen, our primary tourist monument is a small, green, naked woman on a rock; The Little Mermaid. That’s it. The cohesive mesh of bicycle infrastructure, however, is probably the greatest monument we have ever constructed. And we take care of it.

Bike lanes are prioritised for snow clearance.

A fleet of small vehicles that fit the wide cycle tracks are equipped with a host of sensors that measure the level of comfort, map holes and irregularities in the asphalt and ensure the ride is smooth for the 350,000 daily cyclists in the city. The cycle tracks enjoy the highest level of service. They are prioritised for maintenance like street sweeping and, in the winter, they are pre-salted when snow is forecast and cleared first when it falls.

A bicycle infrastructure network should be reliable, comfortable and make the bicycle competitive against other transport forms. Maintenance is key. When it snows, the city guarantees to have “black asphalt” by 8 a.m. on the bicycle network. If a snowstorm is dumping, say, 20 cm on the city, the snow sweepers keep muscling up and down the cycle tracks before the roads are dealt with. It’s a necessity. If a couple hundred thousand people walk out of their homes and can’t ride to work, that is a couple hundred thousand new people waiting at bus stops and train stations. In fact, rather than cold weather, it’s the slippery conditions which deter citizens from riding in the winter. So the City react accordingly. In emerging bicycle cities, making the infrastructure network as reliable as a train timetable encourages people to continue to ride.

If a snowstorm gets the better of the snow clearance crews, speeds slow down but people just get on with it. Most bikes have wide, normal tires and you don’t see many studded winter tires around town. Just cycle straight and slow down at corners.

#3) Riding style

Johannes V. Jensen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and one of Denmark’s most famous scribes, basically summed up riding style in the 1930s.

"One sits on it either straight-backed, as though you're at a festive dinner party, or hunched forward, as though you just failed an exam. All according to the situation, your inclination or your inborn characteristics."

Not surprisingly, the upright bike is the most popular bicycle in history. Most bicycles in Copenhagen are of this timeless and anthropologically-correct design. Indeed, the upright bike is the perfect design for cities. It provides better safety, visibility and comfort.

Cycling around Copenhagen you’ll see some racing bikes with drop handlebars - some people fail exams, of course - and many hybrids that we call “city bikes.” Straight handlebars but raised somewhere between drop handlebars and the high ones on upright bikes. This model appeared in the 1980s, unquestionably as a response to our incessant wind and our long, straight stretches of cycle track.

Once all these bikes hit the network, it can get intense for visitors. Morning rush hour is a wild ride, leaving rookies somewhere between giggling and wetting themselves. Wave after wave of bicycles roll off every traffic light. It is a 24/7 ebb and flow but high tide is between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. On the busy arteries you have 100 cyclists at the light on every light cycle. The city has implemented Green Waves for bikes on the main streets leading to the city so that if you ride at 20 km/h (average speed is 16 km/h), you’ll hit green all the way to work and back again in the afternoon.

In the winter months, when cycle tracks are not completely cleared, commuters behave as any homo sapien would, they to slow down and keep a close eye on the road ahead. Other than that, it’s business as usual.

Whereas cyclists in Amsterdam are like swarming bees thanks to their cutesy, medieval urban layout and eclectic, counter intuitive bicycle infrastructure, in Copenhagen they resemble marching ants. Purposefully and industriously rolling down the cycle tracks.

#4) Bike Design

In Denmark, 500,000 bikes are sold each year and that number has been stable for over a decade. Danes will spend €100 more on average on bikes than, say, the Dutch. We like a little more bling and functionality goes hand in hand with personal style. This is a design nation, after all. You’ll see a bit of everything in Copenhagen, from the odd racing bike to an ocean of practical upright bikes. Like everywhere else, vintage bikes have made a comeback. Swedish models with splendid fenders and chainguards are in high demand.

The high use of cargo bikes is unique to the Danish capital. 40,000 of these workhorses ply the cycle tracks everyday. Twenty-six per cent of all families with two or more kids have one, not to mention all the shops and trades people. Most cities in the world featured cargo bikes for decades. In Copenhagen, we continue the tradition. There are over 30 local brands of two or three-wheelers. These are our version of the SUV. It’s great to see how cargo bikes are becoming the next big thing in cities around the world.

#5) Gear

If you live in a city, you need to transport not only yourself, but your stuff. For over a century, the gear you need has remained constant. Your bike can be easily upgraded with a basket if you like, or perhaps a front rack for your computer or your groceries. A back rack, however, is key. Got kids? Get a kids seat up front or at the back of your bike - if you don’t have a cargo bike. The most asocial cyclists in Copenhagen are those without fenders - spraying the rest of us off their back wheel. Even moreso during winter months. Luckily, there aren’t too many of those. In other countries you see people with their trouser leg tucked into their sock. In Copenhagen, we have chainguards. That’s why they were invented over one hundred years ago. Duh. As well as skirtguards on the back wheel - although in Danish they are gender neutral and called frakkeskånere, or coat protectors.

You don’t often see bikes with derailleurs in this city. We think that’s the name for those dangling, gear things on the back wheel. Internal gears do the trick for us. Less maintenance, better weatherproofing. While cycling in the winter in Denmark is relatively painless, having to deal with a skipped chain in the freezing cold is that last thing you want.

There are 600 bike shops in Copenhagen. You’re never more than a couple hundred metres from one. Almost every bike for sale features all of these accessories. Many come with Brooks saddles and that unique Danish invention, permanently fixed magnet lights from Reelights.

Everything you need for urban living.

#6) Clothing

Whatever city a person lives in, you can guarantee that their wardrobe is suited to the climate of the place. In a city with four seasons, there is everything from flip-flops and summer dresses to warm winter clothing. City dwellers are textile equipped by default - for any meteorological eventuality the Nordic gods can throw at us. The same goes for the hundreds of thousands thousands that choose to get travel by bike year round.

“How do you cycle in the winter?” is a question that baffles us as much as it amuses us. The answer is simple: we put on our winter clothes. No scary GI Joe outfits, no high-vis vests, nothing too complicated. Just sensible winter clothing. There’s no need to go out and buy all the most technical, specialised weatherproof gear.

Captain Spandex and his merry band of Avid Cyclists might like to get their gear on to ride a bike. Dressing in layers? Sure. But guess what. People who live in winter climates already know how to do so. The 99% know that whatever you can walk in, you can bike in. And, after one day of doing so, if they discover they got cold, they’ll put a couple extra layers on the next day.

In Copenhagen, we dress for our destination, not our commute. The cycle tracks, even in the winter, are a rolling catwalk of Nordic design.  In the winter we gear up with scarves, gloves and hats. Sleek boots, pea coats, and wool beenies. And never underestimate a scarf, perfect for layering up, wiping your glasses dry, and drying off your wet saddle.

It’s nothing special. It’s what urban cyclists have been doing for 130 odd years.

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One response to “Winter cycling tips from Copenhagenize”

  1. Stanton says:

    I wish all cities would take care of their cycling infrastructure like Copenhagen does. The winter riding tips you’ve mentioned in your article are spot on. Riding in the bitter cold can be a tough ask which can be bettered by putting to practice some of the tips you’ve mentioned in your article. Love the work.

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