Ever see someone biking through the snow and think, “that person’s crazy“? Let five of them convince you otherwise.
After Nemo dumped last week’s 15th or 20th centimetre, the cycling obstacles posed by 2013′s first blast of snow became plainly, literally apparent.
Along Runnymede, in the west end, the northbound bike lane appeared to shrink. Displaced overnight by a sudden ridge of plowed, packed snow, many drivers’ default parking position had shifted to the left, halfway into the lane. After hoods and windshields were cleared, that space diminished even further. In some places, the Runnymede bike lane seemed to vanish altogether.
Over a pair of handlebars, Toronto’s already precarious roads feel tighter during the winter months, snow or no snow. But even as winter snarls traffic and kills power from Leslieville to the Junction, bike bells ring out. Cycling, for the city’s hardiest riders, isn’t just a fairweather pursuit.
Arguably, the trial-by-fire of Toronto cycling comes in winter. Slush can hide treacherous ribbons of black ice. Streetcar tracks are twice the hazard they normally are. Headwinds bring the added joy of flash-frozen skin, sub-arctically vaccuum-cleansing the lungs in the process. At their worst, the streets and laneways of Hogtown can be slippery shooting galleries—that is, when they’re not completely innavigable glaciers.
For seasoned riders and first-timers alike, five kilometres can feel like 50 against the stubborn onslaught of February. And, in almost every case, that’s the sick, twisted, addictive appeal.
The Grid caught up with some of the city’s viking riders for a look at why they choose to to spend their winters on two wheels.
Name: Steve Fisher (@gracingthestage)
Occupation: Freelance arts writer
Winter cycling since: 2003
Why do you cycle in the winter?: Year round, cycling is the best way to make multiple stop trips around metro Toronto. (The exercise is a plus, of course.) I think it’s the only practical way to do what I do, seeing several shows a night across town—the TTC is too slow, taxis are too expensive, and finding and paying for parking is both.
Essential pieces of winter-cycling gear: Since my ears are the first things to get cold, No. 1 are my 180s Exolite earwarmers; they fit under my helmet, and fold up and slide in a pocket. A waterproof, breathable shell jacket is key—a lightweight, loose-fitting shell, so you pick and choose different insulating layers for under it. For sub-zero temperatures, wear base layers that will wick sweat away from your skin, like merino wool or synthetic alternatives. You don’t need to dress head-to-toe in technical gear, though; I usually wear jeans and Blundstone boots. Oh, and full fenders to keep slush and salt spray off your clothes; fenders are essential for year-round foul-weather cycling.
Scariest winter-cycling experience: Inattentive and aggressive drivers, usually the scariest aspect of cycling, actually behave more carefully around winter cyclists than in other seasons. I’d say the scariest part of winter cycling is black ice. I’ve slid out just a couple of times over the past decade; the worst was late one night down the slope south of Montrose Public School, on Crawford Street.
The key to dealing with slippery conditions is keeping your weight centered above the bike, without leaning to the side too much for turns; if you do, be prepared to put a foot down if your tires slide out from under you. A heavier frame helps. In bad conditions, I sometimes leave my hybrid bike at home and ride a Bixi bike instead. Those things are tanks, perfectly suited for bad weather.
Worst intersection in the city in winter: Any intersection with a lot of streetcar tracks when the road conditions are slippery is hazardous, especially if you’re making a left turn. It’s easiest and safest just to hop off and walk your ride on the crosswalks to the corner you want to resume riding from. Remember, you can transition between pedestrian and cyclist just by swinging a leg over your bike frame.
Advice to other would-be winter cyclists: Toronto streets are clear 95 per cent of our winter, so the only thing you need to do is dress for the temperatures. Like any cold-weather exercise, it’s all about effective layering, and “moisture management”: If you get wet and stay wet, you’ll get chilled.
Name: Mike Layton (@m_layton)
Occupation: City Councillor, community activist.
Winter cycling since: On and off since I can remember. I’ve been a daily winter commuter since 2008.
Essential pieces of winter cycling gear: Gloves, gloves, gloves.
Scariest winter-cycling experience: Anytime I hit a patch of slush or ice and cars are coming up behind me, I get a little scared. I have never really been in a bad accident—knock on wood.
Advice to other would-be winter cyclists: Dress warm and follow traffic laws, even if others don’t. Keep your distance from cars, other bikes, snow, and inanimate objects, and share the road.
Name: Kevin Montgomery (@kemosite)
Occupation: Web designer and developer
Winter cycling since: First time in about 13 years.
Why do you cycle in the winter?: As I got back into cycling in early 2012, I found that many people regarded cycling as something that can only be done in above-zero weather conditions, and/or for recreation. I disagree. As the GTA finds ways to cope with traffic congestion, it’s important to be able to demonstrate year-round solutions. Cycling can be done year-round; winter just makes it colder.
Essential pieces of winter-cycling gear: The usual winter-wear—gloves, hat, boots, long underwear, a scarf or something to cover your face. For temperatures below -15: a winter coat. Snow-appropriate tires. Studded might be overkill for most days, but off-road tires are a good idea, until the city has consistent, reliable snow removal. They go for about $20-30 each, and the bike shop you buy them from can usually install them for you.
Scariest winter-cycling experience: The scariest winter cycling experience I might have is really a consistent year-round problem: A driver displaying unnecessary hubris on the road, creating an unsafe situation. Believe it or not, winter snow storms are less scary. Everyone has to slow down, so it creates a level playing field. It makes a great argument for reducing speed limits, as the Ontario coroner has recently suggested.
Worst intersection in the city in winter: In general, the seasonal effects on intersections along my cycling route are negligible. Under exceptional circumstances, such as after a fresh snow storm, every intersection north of Wellington along York Street requires extra attention. Those metal streetcar rails get slick!
Advice to other would-be winter cyclists: Cycling through the winter isn’t all that different to cycling in summer. It’s just colder, and you might need a little more time to get to where you’re going. It doesn’t require super-expensive gear to do it, but it does require layers on most days to keep wind out. You will likely sweat and, if so, it becomes uncomfortable when you stop riding for long enough to start cooling off. If you can spend a little more to get items that will keep you dry, it’s worth it. Be proactive about charging your batteries. You’ll use your lights more, and batteries are less efficient when it’s cold.
Name: Laurie Featherstone (@2wheelsdelivery)
Age: Solidly and happily in my fourth decade.
Occupation: Bike delivery, specializing in food delivery with a cargo trailer.
Winter cycling since: 1987
Why do you cycle in the winter?: I need to keep the deliveries going for my customers! I also enjoy a crisp -4°C winter’s day, especially a sunny day, much more than a hot and sticky day in the mid-30s.
Essential pieces of winter-cycling gear: Balaclava, merino-wool base layers, fleece, waterproof breathable jacket and pants.
Scariest winter-cycling experience: While riding down a steep, icy hill with a sharp bend at the bottom, I stretched one leg out and tried to use my boot in a snow-plow turn. It worked!
Worst intersection in the city in winter: I think Bloor and Jarvis is super windy. Any intersection along that stretch—lots of people, wind, snow piles, and congestion from cars—makes for a hard ride.
Advice to other would-be winter cyclists: Don’t go out in a snowstorm! Pick a nice, clear, sunny day and get used to wearing all the clothes. Gradually try light snow on flat, quiet streets. Don’t rush it—get experience in feeling how your bike reacts before heading into heavy traffic.
Name: Adam Clare
Occupation: Game design
Winter cycling since: 2007
Why do you cycle in the winter?: It’s fun! Besides, this past week excluded, most days in Toronto there is barely any snow.
Essential pieces of winter-cycling gear: Tons of reflectors and lights! Gloves and a toque that fits under the helmet. And splash pants are great for keeping dry and keeping the salt off your pants.
Scariest winter-cycling experience: One time, a brake line filled with ice and froze. Riding a fixed-gear mountain bike with brakes has been my safest ride.
Worst intersection in the city in winter: Anywhere with a lot of slippery metal like streetcar tracks.
Advice to other would-be winter cyclists: Confidence is key. Confidence to take the lane and confidence in one’s balance is essential.
Profile photos by Todd Aalgaard, except for Kevin Montgomery photo (provided by Montgomery)
Do you have any winter-cycling tips? Share them in the comments section below.