Monday, October 1, 2012

[LOABKW] October and the winter coming

Despite a beautiful and long summer of cycling the like I have never seen before (1,750km and counting!) the arrival of October is a reminder that all good things must come to an end soon. Every previous season of cycling has done so before... sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

Canadian winters are the basis of many criticisms of investing in cycling. Taken to the extreme, they are why our cycling infrastructure is, according to some, "wasted six months of the year". While I doubt that my bike will be hung up for anything close to six months, it is a good bet that I will pedal very few kilometres during December, January, or February.

Let's explore why.


Winter is cold. No question, cycling in winter is less comfortable than other times of the year due to temperature.

Conditions beyond -15C with windchill will weed out many riders. But strangely, the bikes are often out and about with more moderate freezing temperatures... especially as spring approaches and these temperatures feel less frigid by comparison. Skiers know that cold is not an obstacle to outdoor winter travel.

Cold itself is probably the least relevant reason for my lack of winter cycling. Clearly, cold takes its toll, but cities like Minneapolis are much colder than Waterloo and this doesn't stop half of their cycling commuters from carrying on until spring. You can always dress warmer.

Winter biking in Minneapolis. That's -3F. Image source Cascade Bicycle Club

It's usually what accompanies the cold that is more relevant.

Snow and Ice

As an undergrad, I biked through snow now and then. Taxing and difficult, and when ice is involved, quite risky.

But you could say the same thing about driving: difficult and dangerous when ice and snow are around. So why are antiques and convertibles the only cars that hibernate the winter in the garage with the bikes? How is it that most motor vehicles drive on through the winter regardless?

The answer is simple: road maintenance.

The standard of road maintenance for snow and ice clearing that we see exceeds that of anything else, even (regrettably) sidewalks. As for trails, many see infrequent or even no snow clearing. Ice patches form, and are not as easily melted and dispersed as they are by automobile tires on the city streets.

Also, road maintenance tends to be for car lanes only. Bike lanes get short shrift, often becoming dumping ground for snow piles that, once melted, deposit their suspended debris in a thick mat of tire-destroying crap that remains uncleared until April. That formerly complete street is now a narrow car-only strip of pavement, and drivers once acclimatized to watching for bikes seem to have forgotten all about them.

Image Source: Treehugger

Snow and ice are major obstacles to cycling only because we are allowing them to be. Eventually we will learn from our colder but more cycling-savvy cousins, and we will establish a core cycling network with year-round maintenance. But until then few will be able to ride regularly through the winter because they have nowhere to ride.


Winter brings darkness and inclement weather.

When daylight savings is in effect, most people can cycle commute while the sun is up. As the days shorten and the the clock "falls back" in November, the ride home is suddenly a dark one.

And no matter what we do, we can't change Waterloo's latitude. Even in a climate-changed world, our winter days will always be short.

And yet, despite equating ourselves with Nordic countries, our city is at the same latitude as the balmy south coast of France. Long winter nights are a problem that all of the big cycling nations of Europe contend with, and to a greater degree than we have to.

Image source: Copenhagenize
The problem with cycling in the dark is sharing space with car drivers who have a harder time seeing us. This problem is only an issue when we have to share space with those cars. But with our snow-locked trails closed to us and our cycling lanes covered in plow drifts and glass, we have to contend with spending much more of our time negotiating for space with cars in the dark, possibly as a flurry starts to make conditions even more treacherous.

The solution here is the same as before. Establish a cycling network that is maintained year-round, give people the ability to ride their bikes in safe conditions separate from traffic, and visibility becomes less of a problem.

Image course: Copenhagenize

The hundred year storm

The aspects that lead people to criticize the practicality of cycling and the worth of investing in cycling infrastructure come back again and again to the quality of that infrastructure. Build it and maintain it properly, and these criticisms will lose their force.

Massive blizzards will still roll through each winter, and they will still prevent people from cycling. But then, we also urge people to stay off the roads in cars, too-- and see grim reminders of what happens when people inevitably don't.

But in a multi-modal city, people have choice. For those days that are too snowy, or too cold for even the hardiest cyclists, there is always transit, or carshare, or walking, or simply driving. Cycling is just a part of the puzzle. If it were a year-round transportation option, it could help many people reduce or eliminate their car ownership burden. This way lies real reduction in traffic congestion, as well as big savings for families who now maintain one, two or more cars because they must plan for the coldest season-- but end up using them year-round.


There's nothing special about our city that makes it impossible to be a bike-friendly place all twelve (or, perhaps, eleven and a half) months of the year.

To get us there, Kitchener and Waterloo should be filling in our trail network with a goal of establishing not only a contiguous, separated network for cycling (something that we still lack), but also committing to maintaining it through the winter.

As for me, this year I'll be carrying on through November as long as I can. This year I've got my sights on an arbitrary, but achievable, numeric goal: 2000km. For me, round numbers are good motivators. A little extra incentive to put on an extra layer, and keep pulling the bike out of the garage. The morning rides are becoming increasingly beautiful as the leaves turn, and that's an extra reward.

After that, I'll look at fighting another winter cycling obstacle: inertia. Yes, it's dark, yes, it's cold... but it's often neither snowy or icy. I haven't done a good job of taking advantage of these days when they come up because the bike is "put away". But if the trails and the expressway overpass are passable, this year I will try to get a few winter rides in as conditions allow.

Perhaps you can too.

Image source: whatsgoinon


  1. A couple things to add...

    Temperature is not a big deal - often you have to worry about warming up too much. The main thing is having something to block the wind, and maybe a little extra layering for when you are stopped at a light for a while. I usually find the outer layer of my two-piece jacket is more than enough, except for the one or two extremely cold days. You'll want good warm gloves though, and something to block the wind from your face.

    Snow tires for the bike go a long way at preventing falls. These are the kind with metal stubs that buzz on pavement. They slow you down a little, but I've never had a fall with them.

    Winter maintenance on the Iron Horse Trail, especially in Kitchener, is fantastic. The city has a set of trails designated as 'primary' that will see year-round maintenance once they finally get around to paving them...

    I've actually biked 5 km to church before following a big snow dump, only to find a sign on the door saying they were closed due to weather. Apparently it was easier for me to get through the snow on my bike than for 100 others in their cars. Safer too, no doubt, as I'm not hurtling around in a two-ton mass across a frictionless surface.

    1. Thanks for the heads up on the IHT. How is the Laurel these past few winters?

      I know that the trail I use daily has a nice explicit sign saying "NO WINTER MAINTENANCE".

    2. Laurel Trail is interesting. The paved part is largely kept clear of snow, mostly because it runs next to the University, and they are extremely sensitive to the liability of someone slipping. The stretch by the petting zoo is maintained with sand, not salt, so it can be a little slick at times. It's a pain in the spring, when the surface melts, but the ground beneath is still frozen - because the water can't drain, you have a soggy mess for a few weeks. The City plans on paving the part south of the bridge near the Perimeter Institute once the sewer work is complete, so they may maintain that part as well. According to staff the rest of Waterloo Park won't see any surface improvements until LRT is built.

  2. As a vehicular cyclist, I get around by bike during Spring, Summer, and Fall on city streets. Every day I am contending with motor traffic to and from work. With that background, and that comfort level of riding with cars and trucks, winter cycling becomes no real challenge at all.

    Yes, the trails in our city are poorly maintained in winter. But they never went where I needed to go anyway.

    Yes, the bike lanes often get covered in snow, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret - I personally think bike lanes are a _more_ dangerous place for me to ride than in the lane with traffic.

    That leaves the street for me to ride in, but I've been riding in it all year long. As long as it's not actively snowing, car traffic will ensure that there is at least one wheel track that is nice and clear for my bike. I don't even bother with studded winter tires - just knobby tires on my mountain bike.

    This past year was bikeable all 365 days, and the year before I only stayed home one day - the same day when I later got a phone call to tell me that work was cancelled.

    As Mike said, the cold is not an issue. I make do with a pair of heavy tights and a good pair of lobster gloves. If you've got a light toque that can fit under your helmet, you're golden down to at least -20C. Of course, the thing that really makes cold-weather cycling bearable is the warm shower at either end :)

    For me, the biggest issue with winter cycling is the salt. It's everywhere. A quarter inch of snow falls, and the city deposits three tons of salt per square foot of road space. Forget about being able to change gears in the winter. Take extra-special care of your brake cables, or forget about being able to stop. Forget about having a chain that will last more than one season. In fact, go to the police bike auction (Oct 27th, for those of you that didn't know) and spend $10 on a bike that you can throw out once the spring thaws come, because honestly, with the amount of damage that salt will do to your bike, it is just easier to send it to the scrap-heap in the sky come spring.

    1. Thanks for the different perspective, David. And there's some good advice in there too. I'd love to ride my Brodie this winter, but I shudder to think what will happen about it in our salted landscape.

      I've grown less comfortable over the last few years about sharing lanes with cars. I have figured out how to do so effectively (an assertive lane position on Lexington makes a world of difference in driver behaviour) but I don't like it. That's made me identify less with the "enthusiastic" portion of Waterloo cyclists, and understand the worries of the "interested but concerned" crowd.

      (See for a great breakdown of these "types" of cyclists".)

      It's the "interested but concerned" group that is the largest potential source of new cyclists. As I've said before, we already have most of the confident/fearless cyclists on the road already, and for them clearly our infrastructure is sufficient (or for a few, who want to maintain an "elite" status of their hobby, too coddling.)

      So I'm looking at the prospect of winter cycling from the perspective of that group. In other words, how appealing is it to the person I'll be ten years from now, instead of who I was ten years ago?

      And that's where one ugly truth reveals itself. Much of the progress in new cycling infrastructure in the last decade *is* wasted for months of the year, not for lack of use but lack of usability. So it's like biking in Waterloo in 1995 again, plus bad weather and low light.

      My impression is that we don't manage anywhere close to Minneapolis' 50% during the winter (and this can be explained by our network quality and lack of winter maintenance.) Do you have any observations on this?

  3. I agree with those above, and really most of your concerns are only avoided through the use of a car. For those of us without cars, there's no better option.

    Cycling is a lot warmer than walking, and I find it's generally warmer than waiting at a bus stop for 10 minutes too.

    The roads may be snowy/icy, but they're more likely to be clear than sidewalks. I've fallen far more often on icy unshoveled sidewalks than I ever have while biking through the winter.

    The only time I stopped cycling during the past two years was during 2-3 blizzards - but I would have stayed home if I'd had a car anyway.

    In short, cycling is the best combination of cheap & convenient all year round.

  4. Since I do all of my riding on well-travelled roadways, for me, the biggest obstacle to winter riding is road salt. Perhaps I'm overestimating its effects, but I have a feeling my bike would rust up pretty badly in a hurry if I rode it through the winter.

    1. Yep - it's really a good idea to invest in a cheap winter bike, and save anything expensive for spring.

      Another advantage of this strategy is the AMAZING feeling in the spring of riding your good bike around on snow-free roads without a scarf over your face.