The wind is biting at my exposed cheeks, snow blinding my eyes. The road is slick and slippery as I maneuver my way along the pothole filled, ice covered street. My legs circle quickly, pedaling fast, there’s no coasting on this bike. As I round a corner, I feel my back wheel slip out. Before I know what’s happened, my back tire is where my front tire should be and… I’m on the ground. My bike is splayed in the middle of the intersection, blocking a car from passing through. I take a quick mental scan of my body. Okay, nothing’s broken, just a bruise or seven. I was lucky this time. Hopefully I’ll be lucky every time.
Some would say biking in the winter is crazy. Others claim it a necessity. Still others do it purely for the love of cycling, and find winter commuting a rush, as one cyclist says, “aside from the freezing cold, it’s generally fun.” Living in Canada, harsh winters are part of our annual ritual. We expect to be buried in snow every year with plummeting temperatures, high winds and grey skies, factors that make many of us want to stay inside. Winter cycling can be dangerous. The roads are slippery, rubber tires have less grip and control, visibility can be poor during a snowfall, plus it’s just plain freezing cold. But there are some bike enthusiasts who prevail. Some who bundle up, man up and venture into the harsh reality of a typical Canadian winter, usually on their fixed or single speed “beater bikes”. Multi-geared bikes are not usually used for winter cycling as the gears can get jammed up with snow, making things far more difficult than the wind, temperature, snow and ice already have. For the hardy souls, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment in winter commuting.
This winter has been a roller coaster of unpredictability to say the least. It started out slowly, with no snow until late December, many feared of a green Christmas. The snow came…and went, and came again, and went again, as a result of unseasonably warm temperatures and rain that melted it away, rare for mid January in Ottawa. This isn’t a weather report, however, so let’s get back to the issue. Just as cyclists were preparing to put an end to their extreme winter commuting days, Jack Frost came back and hit us with snowstorm after snowstorm in one short span of a week. For some cyclists, this wasn’t a problem; “well it is still February,” they’d say. For others, like me, it was upsetting. I, who loves and enjoys winter for the most part, had been ready to pull out my bike, as I’m not brave enough to commute all winter long (this lack of bravery is also referred to as “fair weather riding”, a title and description I contest, because I will ride in the rain and cold…just not in the middle of a Canadian winter).
The most important aspect of winter commuting is dressing appropriately and being prepared. Staying warm and dry (dry from snow, rain, slush AND sweat) is crucial, so investing in good moisture wicking, heat-providing clothing is definitely recommended, if not absolutely necessary. Fenders are another essential component of winter cycling, as they keep the slush and snow and other wetness from spraying up a rider’s back. You may think the roads are dry, but you would be wrong my friend. Every time. Different people also have different needs. For example, one winter commuter can’t, for the life of him, keep his hands warm (he sometimes wears winter gloves on a brisk summer night) so he invested in $300 gloves. And they’re great. They keep him warm and dry, he says. Worth every penny.
The second most important factor in being prepared for winter commuting is to choose your route wisely, as many bike paths are not plowed or maintained throughout the winter months. According to Kathleen Wilker, one of the most irritating things about winter commuting is route connectivity. There is no consistency when it comes to the city’s bike path maintenance. You could be riding along and suddenly the path ends with three feet of snow. Or an alternate route is directed down a flight of stairs that has been maintained, which is funny, considering we would never expect drivers to get out of their cars and carry their vehicles over an obstacle or up a set of stairs (Wilker, 2012). But cyclists are expected to do this all the time. I will admit there is a sense of fun and adventure when you hop off your bike to climb or descend a set of stairs but nonetheless…the bike paths should be more consistently maintained to increase alternate methods of transportation in the winter.
Now remember: man up, be prepared, dress appropriately, choose your route wisely, & bike safe, and you too can enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment alongside the other hardcore Ottawa winter commuters. I’ll be waiting for your return, by the fire, with a cup of hot cocoa.
Thomas Murdock; winter commuter, bike mechanic, my boyfriend.
Kathleen Wilker; Momentum Magazine contributor, Ottawa cyclist.
Rishi Mayer; Ottawa courier.