Two wheels / one frozen city: a dandy dispatch on Winnipeg winter cycling

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.

The Build-up

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.


The author practised hitting rough patches of snow and ice on quiet side roads without traffic before riding during rush hour.

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.

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Join the dandyhorse team!


Casie Brown sporting Spectacular Rims from Volume 4, Issue 1. Photo by Mike Ford

dandyhorse magazine is an arts and advocacy magazine for cyclists, based in Toronto with a circulation of 5,000 – 7,000. Our mandate is to encourage and celebrate cycling and the city.

We’ve recently improved our dandyhorse magazine website dandyhorsemagazine.com and we’re now preparing our first ever Winter Web issue of dandyhorse. We’ve also begun work on our special Spring Youth issue. We are hoping to partner with existing youth groups in the city to produce a killer issue produced by youth about youth with a theme of jobs.

SO we have two exciting core positions available immediately: Web Editor and Assistant Editor.

The two editors will work closely together and play an integral role in both the winter web issue (launching in February) and the spring issue (launching in May).

These are volunteer, part-time, work-from-home positions, with short, in-person meetings twice a month.

The work will start immediately for the Web Editor and in February for the Assistant Editor and last for a minimum of 4 months. Minimum 10 hours per week, with some evening and weekend work.

Do you like bikes and social media? Are you engaged with the city’s political or arts communities? Do you like to write, edit and take pictures? Would you like to make a positive contribution to the city’s cycling culture, while gaining valuable on-the-job journalism experience?

Then you might like this opportunity to work in either part-time role of Web Editor or Assistant Editor for Canada’s pre-eminent arts and culture magazine for cyclists; dandyhorse.

Web Editor

Reporting to the Web Manager and Editor in Chief, and working with the dandy programmer and design advisor, the Web Editor will assist in the coordination, creation, maintenance of text and image content for our dandy websites and social media channels. (Please note that content creation is as much or as little as the candidate takes initiative for. Many assignments are available. We have no shortage of assignments. Bike Spotting is always needed. We also regularly draw material from back issues.)

The Web Editor will also take a top masthead position on dandyhorse magazine’s first ever Winter Web issue. About 75% of the content is set for this issue but still needs to be gathered (and in some cases written and shot); compiled, uploaded/laid out/illustrated and edited. Ideally, the Web Editor will liaise with at least 5 or 6 writers and photographers in this leadership role for the winter issue.

We would also like our new dandy web editor to spearhead the creation of our new Tumblr page to launch in conjunction with our winter web issue.

Work Elements:

-Maintain the web scheduling
-Work closely with other content contributors + shoot, write and edit as needed/desired/assigned
-Manage a Tumblr page
-Help the EIC strategize and deliver promotional materials/content for the winter web issue
-Copy edit / proof read all web content to ensure it is accurate and appropriate for the dandy mandate
-Help ensure new relevant products, publications, and cyclist-related news are accurately published on our social media pages and when appropriate dandyBLOG in a timely manner in coordination with the web and circulation manager, senior dandy editors and dandy ad sales manager.
-Monitor and report back customer-generated comments in all digital channels (Facebook, dandyBlog, Community Forums, Tumblr, Twitter etc)

Assistant Editor (Feb-May)

- key masthead role for the Spring issue of dandyhorse magazine
- launches in May in time for Bike Month
- helps generate and assign stories and art
- also takes notes at dandy meetings, copy edits all stories, assists on some photo shoots, liaises with some contributors/gathers materials
- writes at least one story
- helps with magazine launch coordination
- works directly with new Web Editor and EIC
- please note; weekly 3 hour evening meetings are required during the last month of production (May)
- the assistant editor will be encouraged (but not required) to continue as a key dandy for the summer/fall ‘best of’ edition

Please visit our website at www.dandyhorsemagazine.com to get the dandy feel.

dandyhorse magazine dot com uses a WordPress CMS.

Please send letter of interest and resume to: tammy @ dandyhorsemagazine.com

Application Deadline:  January 18, 2012.

dandyhorse is a volunteer run magazine. These are unpaid positions.

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Happy New Year! dandyhorse readers’ survey recap

Looking forward
This photo was from our most popular online dandy story in 2011 ~ Christopher Kaiser shoots Kevin Barnhorst for the Food issue.

Looking forward to 2012!

By Tammy Thorne

This year I resolve to bike more.

And according to our dandyhorse magazine readers’ survey results it would seem that many of you are resolving to do the same.

Over 70 per cent of survey respondents will be visiting a bike shop within the next two months and almost as many of you plan to buy a new bike within the next year! That’s GREAT news for Toronto! We’re definitely off to a dandy 2012.

Thank you to the over 500 participants who did our survey and congratulations again to our 12 Days of Christmas gift giveaway winners! Our survey and giveaway were a great success thanks to all of you and our dandy sponsors. (See names and photos below and on our dandyhorse magazine facebook page too.)

Most of our survey respondents said they were willing to pay more for both Canadian-made as well as sustainably produced products.

More good news: each dandyhorse magazine is read by almost three people. We found similar results with our first readers’ survey in 2009 following our second issue of our Canadian-made sustainably-delivered and produced magazine. About thirty per cent of our readers receive dandyhorse from a friend.

On the down side, about the same amount (just 30 per cent) of you have read our latest edition – the Food issue.

What are you waiting for? SUBSCRIBE today to get our Food issue now and our Youth issue this spring.

Adding to our sustainability quotient, our gorgeous, recently enhanced and well-received web product, dandyhorsemagazine.com, will also soon feature our first winter web issue this February.

And, according to our survey, a full 20 per cent of our readers take advantage of our sponsor shop complimentary copies. Good news for our retailer sponsors!

We’ll be replenishing some of our local sponsor shops with limited numbers of both 2011 issues again soon ~ stay tuned.

Our spring Youth issue will arrive in shops in time for Bike Month in Toronto.

If you would like to know more about our editorial calendar please email tammy @ dandyhorsemagazine.com.

One more resolution: this winter I resolve to wear more cashmere.

That's right; our upcoming winter issue will focus on gear… and winter cycle commuters across Canada will tell us what they wear to stay warm and comfortable (and look badass) during their winter commutes.

We'll have a lot more WINTER cycling content - like this story from dandy senior editor Dana Lacey - on our website and, of course, in our winter web issue.

dandyhorse magazine wishes you all the very best biking for 2012!

And BIG CONGRATS AGAIN TO ALL of our dandy prize WINNERS: Dylan Wade, Bruce Freeman, Ben Marans, Kaitlyn Kochany, Sarah Bobas, Nadine Lessio, Petra Joeres, Kate Armstrong, Katie Didyk, Janice Tseung, Brian Hoeniger and Jonah Zalken!

And thank you to all our sponsors and survey participants.

Our prize winners each received a set of dandyhorse back issues and they’ve all said they are enjoying the timeless, informative and fun articles.

Here is a photo of Bruce (winner #1) enjoying our fourth issue with the Spokes cover by Chris Simonen:

Katie Didyk (shown here below with prize pack #9) said she got her very first copy of dandyhorse at a yard sale where a contributor was selling a few back issues of her own! AWESOMENESS! We <3 yard sales. (We also really like that you are passing dandyhorse on to other bike lovers, and potential bike lovers in your life!)

Grand prize winner Jonah Z here below with the famous “pantless” cover issue that features our mayor inside.

Winner of prize pack 6, Nadine Lessio, gives the thumbs up to the dandy Food Issue and the Greg Curnoe cover (aka issue 2) peaking out of her new backpack, below.

Kaitlyn gives the thumbs up to the whole set. (Mike Barry feature cover with cover art by Greg Curnoe shown here below.)

BIG UPS again to the dandy web team who worked on the survey site: Duncan Hurd, Jennifer Rong, Randy Chung and Manny “the cat whisperer” Perez who helped create this beauty grid below.

 

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Slush Puppies

Tanya4-smiley
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.

Slush Puppies

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."

Tanya_1_streetcar
Tanya's wind and waterproof gear keeps the wet out. Photo courtesy of Spacing.

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.

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MUST HAVE

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.

MUST AVOID

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.

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POSTSCRIPTS

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.

The City of Toronto has a winter cycling tips page too.

dandyhorse will launch our first winter web issue this February with cross-Canada winter cyclist profiles that focus on gear.

We'll be posting lots of winter cycling stories and photos on our site from now until then too. Next up on our dandyBLOG: winter cycling tips for first timers.

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