The sharp sound of scraping ice from windshields, the spine twisting toss of heavy snow to free your trapped vehicle, the smear of salt and sanded snow spray as your wipers drag and push, these joys of winter are unknown to the winter cyclist.
With frosty plumes of warm breath punctuating their progress, these most hardy of souls pedal year round, thumbing their cold noses at arctic temperatures and fluctuating gas prices.
A psychology professor at McMaster University, Reuven Dukas skirts his 2005 Corolla in the driveway as he settles onto his mountain bike for the 5 kilometer ride to work from his Dundas home. Matters not if the winds howl and the snow swirls.
“If it's not ski-able, it's bike-able,” is his motto. He puts on fresh “aggressive, off-road” tires in December to traction his way through the cold.
“Cycling enables me to be outside everyday, which I like, and I get my daily exercise”, says Dukas. So important is his daily ride, that he researched bike routes to his work when looking for a home.
Sure, it's not for everyone, pedaling through snow drifts and over black ice. Yet despite the perception of snow-bound Canadian winters, there are many days when roads are dry and clear, which leaves riding in winter largely a matter of bracing for the cold.
Daunting double digit drops below zero may strike fear, but novice riders may find themselves overdressing for the cold. Advances in gear technology mean keeping warm and dry on a bike is easier, and sleeker, than ever if you are willing to invest. And why not? A good waterproof, breathable, reflective cycling jacket and pants can keep the elements out, all for a little more than a year's worth of oil changes for your car. Throw in some extra protection with a thin fleece cycling balaclava to fit under your helmet, special “lobster claw cycling mitts, and maybe even some waterproof shoe covers to keep your toes dry, and you are practically climate controlled.
Dukas suggests it's not so much the clothing (“just choose clothing to suit the weather” is his advice) but all about attitude. “I have no problem going out there in minus 20 degrees,” he says. It's the difference between complaining about the weather, or embracing winter as an equal and valued partner in the cycle of seasons.
But when whiteouts reign, cyclists may want to hybridize: within the last few years all Hamilton, Burlington, and more recently, GO buses have added front-mounted bike racks available year round at no extra cost. Keeping a few bus tickets on hand can get you, and your bike, a lift out of a tight spot.
While not short on enthusiasm, winter cyclists can't escape the fact they are short on daylight. To see and be seen is where bright and inexpensive LED bike lights come to the rescue. Combine these long lasting lights with reflective clothing and your commute will look like Christmas all season long.
Casting a long, cold shadow are cities that don't consider cyclists' winter needs. Having a snow-clear path is not something cyclists can count on the way car drivers routinely do. In Hamilton, bicycle lanes on arterial roadways get a higher level of attention than lanes on secondary roads, and the lowest level of care is given to the scenic multi-use paths not adjacent to roadways, for instance, the Waterfront Trails. And while Burlington ploughs roads with bike lanes, no special attention is given to ensure the cycling lanes are kept clear; multi-use off road pathways are not cleared at all, according to city staffer Charlotte O'Hara-Griffin, Supervisor of Parks Planning & Development.
For Dukas, cities must have a can-do attitude to match the winter cyclist's moxy. Moving the snow will allow more cyclists mobility, and bring us closer to great cycling cities like Copenhagen, where 37 percent of the population rides a bike for their daily needs, compared to 6 percent in Hamilton.
Yet even if you put your bike in the basement in December, and bring it out again in March, that's almost ten months of cycling, without much fuss.
Tips to get you there: fenders keep the spray off your boots and back; knobby tires get you needed traction; lights back and front, and reflective waterproof breathable jacket and pants keep you high visibility and dry. Mountain Equipment Co-Op has an excellent winter cycling resource at www.mec.ca