Yes it’s cold. Yes it’s often dark. Yes there’s snow, ice sometimes, and if there’s wind it gets really cold. Does it stop thousands of Canadians from jumping on their bikes all winter long? No! So why do they do it?
“I think the question is actually why you don’t bike in the winter. I think we should ask people why, all of a sudden, do you change what you do because there’s some snow and ice around?”
That’s Glenn Kubish. He’s one of three local, devoted winter cyclists we talked with, about the why’s and how’s of conquering Edmonton’s winter on two wheels, and what you need to know to get started. Here’s what Glenn, Molly MacDougall and Karen Parker had to say.
The big question first. Why bike in the winter in Edmonton?
Molly: It’s a great way to get the day going. It gives your brain a bit of down time. You’re out in the air, enjoying the sounds, smells and sun on your skin – when there is sun. I’m pretty lucky I don’t have a lot of roads, I have mostly multi-use pass lanes. So for me it’s really peaceful.
Karen: When I moved to Edmonton, from Vancouver, I didn`t know how to drive. Biking was my main mode of transportation. I knew there was going to be snow and ice and cold for a good portion of the year and I didn`t want that to stop me from being able to ride my bike. I prefer more active modes of transportation and cycling is a great way to model that for my kids. It’s a fun way to get around. They enjoy it. They see more than if they were in the car. It’s also economical.
Glenn: For a lot of reasons. My mental and physical health. I cycle because it’s beautiful out in the winter. I save money, I meet great people who are also winter cyclists, I lose weight, and food and wine taste better at the end of the trip. Plus it’s not cold.
So you don`t get cold?
Glenn: People who are cold are the ones who are out in their dress shoes, dress socks and house coats scraping off their windshields on their cars because they’re not dressed for the weather. When you’re outside in the weather, you can’t take shortcuts. You have to dress for the weather.
Molly: For my top layer, depending on how cold it is, I have a base layer t-shirt and then a synthetic down light jacket. If it’s past -10 I throw on an additional long-sleeved base layer. On my head, I just wear a running ear band. I like to wear a thin mitt inside of a thicker mitt because I can find sometimes my hands can get hot. You can pull off one layer of mitten. On really cold days, I know some people wear a balaclava or a tube scarf almost but it has to be like -40 for me to put that on.
For my bottom layer I can wear my regular work clothes with an extra layer under. But when it gets slushy you can get splashed so I wear merino wool long johns and yoga pants.
Karen: I just bike in usually whatever I am going to wear to work. I might put like an extra layer of pants on over top to keep my legs warm. If it’s really cold, I’ll put on some ski goggles.
Glenn: I dress in layers. The first number I look for in the morning is the temperature and what it is going to be at the end of the day. I have been doing it so long now that I know how that translates into which of my clothes I wear. Do I wear two layers of leggings or one? Do I wear my thick socks or two thinner socks? I have noticed the parts of me that I have to take special care of are my toes and my fingers. I make sure that I’ve got merino wool next to my skin and then I have wool or blends of layers. On colder days, like if it is minus ten or colder, I wear another layer of gloves inside my gloves. You become an expert pretty quickly.
Do you need a special bike or special bike gear?
Karen: I have winter tires on my bike. They’re a nice thing to have in Edmonton especially where the roads can be icy.
Glenn: Studded winter tires. A light on the front handle bars, a rear light and LED lights on my wheels. I string Christmas colored LED lights around my frame. Lights send three messages: they tell others you`re there, they light your way, and if you use lights that show you`re happy they send the message that it’s not just `grin and bear it`. You`re feeling happy and that`s reflected in the multi-colored lights I loop around my frame.
Molly: I just commute on my regular bike with studded tires. I have a fat bike but I find commuting on it can be slower when the conditions aren`t right for it. It’s good for those days when you have a foot of snow.
Any advice for people who might feel a bit afraid to start winter cycling?
Molly: Just try it. Just get on your bike and go for a ride around your neighborhood. Don’t try it on a day when you’re pressured to get somewhere at a certain time.
Karen: Start small. Start with shorter trips, or commit to just once a week for one particular event.
Glenn: Good question. Do you have to go all in? Do you have to retro-fit your bike? Do you have to have specialized clothes? Do you have to look like you’re kind of a road warrior? The answer is no if you just want to try it. It’s easy to overcome any obstacles about cold. The real obstacle has to do with people’s perceptions about safety. Talk to others about how they got through that. What they do to make their rides safer. Find someone in the winter cycling community who you can ride with or trade notes with.
That’s a perfect segue into the next question: what could the City do to make winter biking safer?
Karen: Make sure any road that is a bike route is kept clear of snow and ice. Driver education about the rules of the road. Bikes are allowed to be there! Also, providing appropriate, secure places to park our bikes when we get to work.
Glenn: People who get behind a car steering wheel demand safety and they get it. If you’re behind a handle bar you should demand safety as well. Separated bike lanes, intersections that are innovative in how they move cyclists through. Those are the most dangerous parts of any commute; where the stakes are the highest.
We have to look at simple things that affect safety and demand that laws are enforced. For example when cars aren’t allowed to park at certain times, like on the north or south side of 102nd Ave. in the morning or evening commute, if they’re parked there they should be towed. The City has to take that seriously.
Molly: Plough the bike lanes. That’s huge. There’s one road on my summer commute that’s a marked bike lane, so it’s not shared with cars. In the summer, you can just breeze down there no problem. Cars pass you. Everyone is happy. In the winter, I don’t take it because it’s not plowed fully. Having it plowed would make a big difference. I wouldn’t have to detour all around. And more public education would be good. Most cyclists and drivers just don’t know the rules of the road.
What are the best ways to connect with other winter cyclists?
Glenn: There’s a #yegbike hashtag on Twitter and on Facebook as well. People will throw out questions about can I do this/should I do this/anyone does this and the community responds no matter what the question is. The same thing happens on Twitter where we share pictures. We share accounts of what the road conditions are like. On a given day, we trade stories about good and bad incidents that we’ve experienced that day. You get to know each other. It’s cool. It’s just a great way to become friends and the more that you get to know people that way through social channels the more you realize that the City belongs to us all season.
Molly: Edmonton Bicycle Commuters is good for any type of cycling information with the commuter crowd.
Karen: I was riding during winter ride to work week and – drivers are going to hate this – it was an awesome feeling moving faster on the High Level Bridge than all the cars sitting in traffic. I like that it has a dual purpose: I’m out getting fresh air and exercise, and also doing my commute or getting somewhere.
Molly: We need to get past the idea that it’s an adventurous sport and just try it. It’s not going to be for everyone. No activity is a one size fits all activity. But definitely if people are interested in doing it, they should just get out and try it.
Glenn: Winter is just the background. It’s just the season that we ride our bikes through. Just like summer is. It’s just as fun, it’s just as warm, and it’s just as exciting. But the weather isn’t the main act. It shouldn’t be in Edmonton. It’s not what should be the conversation. It should be the background of what we’re doing to get to the places we want to get to in Edmonton because there’s a lot to do here all year round. We just happen to be doing it in this or that particular season.