To assume that a Toronto bike shop becomes a fairly desolate place in the winter seems a fairly safe bet and, to a degree, that hunch is correct. But, year-by-year, this is beginning to change, especially for the shops that focus on the average commuter.
“Business slows down for sure,” says Sean Killen, owner of Bikes on Wheels (309 Augusta, #KNM; 779 Queen St. W., #QNW). ”But we’re a city shop, so both of our shops are always really busy, still doing maintenance on bikes and tune-ups and everyday stuff.” And this is a trend showing significant gains every year, as more and more Torontonians take to cycling in general. “The number of people who ride bikes is crazy, it just blew up,” adds Dan Lambert, a mechanic and partner at the shop.
Dan Lambert and Sean Killen of Bikes on Wheels
This phenomenon isn’t unique to Bikes on Wheels. “When I first started here 12 years ago, it was dead winters,” says Eric Kamphof, general manager of Curbside Cycle (412 Bloor St. W., #ANX). ”We’ve had good months, actually, throughout the last couple of winters. There may be less people cycling compared to the summer, but every summer there’s way more people cycling and every winter there’s way more people cycling, so we’re actually seeing gains across the board no matter what.”
For many, the transition from seasonal to year-round cyclist often isn’t so much a conscious decision as it is a natural progression. Such was the case for Gillian Goerz, Curbside Cycle’s sales manager. “I never really planned on being an all-season biker, but I just kept riding and riding and riding… there was no reason to stop biking, so I just put on more and more clothes and kept going.”
Gillian Goerz of Curbside Cycle
Obviously, our peculiar weather conditions this year have had a lot to do with the sustained business. “This winter has been unique,” says Goerz. “Because it’s been so unseasonably warm, the fact that it stays dry keeps people on the road.” According to Killen, “We’re still selling bikes and a lot of accessories, but I’d say that a lot of people have their mind set that it is winter time, so they’re not going bike-crazy. But it is better than most years, for sure.”
While the average winter cyclist is traditionally the type who would stock up on the latest in thermal-base layer technology and the like, that’s no longer the case. “They used to be the only people in the store five or six years ago,” says Lambert, ”but now it’s more people who don’t change before they go into the office, they just wear regular clothes.” Goerz adds that “the person who goes and buys all this fancy sporting equipment is not your average city cyclist.”
So if one were going to try and keep cycling for the rest of the winter, even when the dreadful conditions do finally arrive (as they did today), what should they keep in mind? “As long as you have fenders, lights and your bell, you’re safe and you’ll keep a little cleaner,” says Killen. From a mechanical perspective, Lambert adds that “people’s brake cables tend to freeze up, so there’s things we can do to mitigate that. You can get winterized cables. Even this little part called a ferrule, which costs like five cents, has a winter version with a rubber seal and it can keep your cables from freezing up. It’s a quick little job and it solves a lot of problems.”
As for how to dress, Kamphof says: “I’m dressed the same way as I would be dressed if I was at a streetcar stop shivering my butt off.” Plus, your body is going to be generating a fair amount of heat as you pedal along, so you’ll actually be a heck of a lot warmer than you would be waiting for transit. As Goerz says, “the first block is going to be cold, but after that you build up heat and start to unzip things.”
It should also be noted that the winter is actually a good time to think about buying a bike, and not just because everything is on sale. “I’d say this is an optimal time to buy a bike because the staff has more time to give you personal attention,” Goerz explains. “In the winter we can actually sit down and really get into it.”
Killen agrees: “We’re so busy in the spring; you can buy a bike and you won’t get it for a few days because we’ve still got to build it and service it. You buy a bike today and you can leave the shop in an hour.”
If you do decide to take advantage of sale season and the availability of the staff, you may find yourself becoming a winter cyclist yet—if only for a very pragmatic reason. As Lambert says: “I don’t want to drop three bucks on the TTC when I’ve spent this money on a bike—that’s the way I look at it.”